Archive for March, 2009

Dealing with Derision

Sunday, March 29th, 2009

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Matthew 6: 34

Rough Life

Our students, some of them, went farming for their spring break. Others studied Greco-Roman ruins in Ephesus. Still others traveled to Italy, saw the Pope and many architectural wonders. Yet others drove through night to build houses for Habitat in West Virginia. Some others made beautiful music in Oklahoma and Michigan. But these students went to experience farm life, at Gould farm in Western Massachusetts.

I loved hearing about their experience!

For someone who grew up in a small town with many farms, who knew growing up both the scent and sight of the barn, who later worked as a minister in yet smaller farm communities, and who wrongly assumes that others know first hand the rigors of rural life, it was a ‘melissma’, it was a wonder to hear their stories of new, foreign, unknown delights…

Chopping wood: a new experience. Milking a cow: a new experience. Cleaning out the barn: a new experience. Pulling sap from the tree: a new experience. Boiling the sap, forty gallons for every one of syrup, in the steamy sugar house. Going to bed early, going to bed tired, going to bed early and tired, after the hard work, the rigors of the day, the troubles of the day.

In rigor, you learn to ‘let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day’. Let the day’s own trouble, own derision, own evil be sufficient for that day.

Day’s Derision

The long weeks of wilderness which form our yearly Lenten pilgrimage prepare us. We deal with division, decision, and derision, with Jesus, in the wilderness.

Ours is a winter of discontents already familiar with wilderness. The desert of global terror. The forest of economic collapse. The badlands of political conflict. The sands of personal, existential worry. Ours is a winter of discontents already familiar with wilderness.

Now my mind settles on a farm, resting on the Canadian border, and my mind settles on the voice of a woman, the matriarch of that farm, who also taught elementary school, and her diamond brilliant mind of 28 years ago. A mind tough like that of Susan B. Anthony, keen like that of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. We walk toward the barn, and notice the day’s troubles: veterinarian coming, tractor broken, hired help AWOL, and other derisive difficulties not yet visible, far more difficult to mend. She hands me a cool drink, an ice tea. She has listed the day’s hurts. She brightens and recites: ‘Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof’. Let the day’s own trouble, derision, evil, be sufficient for the day. Mazzie Hesseltine, as smart a person as I can recall having known, and as strong a woman, will forever wear that verse as her clothing in memory, not just because she knew it, or could recite it, but because she lived it. She faced the world, free from the world. You can too.

Exegesis Matthew 6:34

Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day….

How do you deal with derision? How do you deal with the derisive parts of the day? How do you face the day’s own trouble, and keep it tied to the day, rather than letting it spill out and over into every day?

With regard to trouble, this verse says: expect it, accept it, address it, and forget it. At the end of the day, put out the mental trash on an imaginary front curb, wrapped in a bundle with the careful marking, ‘the day’s own trouble’.

One trouble a preacher faces, with regularity, is how to understand, and so interpret, a passage for 2,000 years ago. Every passage like this one is like a hymn, or an anthem. There is soprano line (the lead, the voice of Jesus of Nazareth). There is an alto line (the most important voice, that just below the surface of the text, the voice of the early church, in its preaching of the gospel, its remembering, hearing and speaking. For the early church Jesus meant freedom, and his cross and resurrection meant one thing—the preaching of good news, that we may face the world free from the world). There is the tenor line (what we read from the lectern, the gospel writer, in this case Matthew). And there is the baritone, basso profundo (the way the line reverberates throughout the rest of scripture, and down through nineteen hundred years of experience to us today).

I had hoped this was pure soprano, but it probably is not. Writes Bultmann, ‘Mt 6:34 adds a bit of worldly wisdom which in itself does not seem to be typical of Jesus’ (TDNT 4, 593).

I had hoped this was the gospel preached by the early church, but, other than the thoughts about anxiety, it probably is not. Merimna (gk: anxiety) is a word that makes significant appearances at some of the very highest points in the New Testament. Have no anxiety about anything, says Paul in Phil. 4:6. We saw this last fall. Be anxious about nothing. In fact, we are often anxious about nothing. Does your spouse every say: ‘What’s wrong’. And you say, ‘Nothing’. Exactly. Care, fret, anxious expectation: Matthew addresses this in the sermon on the Mount, Paul in 1 Cor. 7: 32, the second century author of 1 Peter in 1 Pet. 5:7, and again Paul in 2 Cor. 11:28. We associate these passages with climactic sayings. Consider the lilies of the field… Let those who have wives live as if they had none, for the form of this world is passing away…. Be sober, be watchful, your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour… Five times I have received from the Jews forty lashes less one. So Paul both admonishes all to have no anxiety and readily admits his anxiety (merimna, the same word in all cases) for the churches. “Angst is a breaking away from inauthentic group existence, by a shattering of the illusion of its satisfactory nature” (VM, 29).

I should have expected the tenor tone. Remember Mazzie? A teacher. Remember Matthew? A teacher. A teacher likes a summary at the end of a long chapter. To reiterate, Bultmann, ‘Mt 6:34 adds a bit of worldly wisdom which in itself does not seem to be typical of Jesus’ (TDNT 4, 593).

Your Day’s Own Trouble

How do we deal with derision?

How do we deal with the anxiety, ‘fear in search of a cause’, that colors every day and mediates our every experience, our trouble, our derision, our evil?

How do we handle the derisible?

The Day’s own trouble….

Not the major traumas of life, not the major crises, but the stubborn fact that EVERY DAY YOU WILL ENCOUNTER ONE TROUBLE, ONE UNEXPECTED AND UNPLEASANT ISSUE.

With every, this worn verse suggests, there comes the strong possibility of trouble, a trouble congruent with that day, a trouble fluent with the language of a single day, a trouble rightly embedded in that very day.

When the day greets you with derision (which rhymes with decision and division), how do you respond?

Here are four suggestions: expect it, accept it, address it, forget it.
Deal.

Deal with it.

Expect it. Be ready for it. Do not take it personally. Accept it. Be prepared. Address it. Work it through. Do what you can—that day, TODAY. Recall Ephesians: “Be angry. But let not the sun go down on your anger”. Then let it go. Forget it. Do not let it sit o
n your desk, or on your mind. Say: shoo! Respond, don’t react. But respond soon. Otherwise you will have collisions and calamities. Put it out with the trash, on the curb, under the street lamp, in a bundle. Expect it. Accept it. Address it. Forget it.

I emphasize the last. Forget it. One morning the green line (local subway) was backed up, packed up, jacked up, because of a stuck, down train in the tunnel. The day’s own trouble will become tomorrow’s backed up, packed up, jacked up mayhem if you do not clear the tracks. Other days are coming and they each have their own troubles. Suffice it to deal with this one today.

Every day carries such portent. And when life speaks, from the wilderness, in derision, you will say: ‘Well, it’s about high time. Here you are. At last. What took you? I have been expecting your arrival.’

For example…

You are misquoted in the paper. (Any more, to be quoted is to be misquoted). Stew for a while. Compose yourself. Compose your response. Respond, in person, on the phone, with civility. Or, decide it does not merit response, offer a prayer, and move on.org. As Basil of Caesarea once said, “You cannot bring a refutation to bear upon a palpable absurdity.” (Thanks to my friend Jim Kay for the reminder of the proverb).

You yourself, uncharacteristically, fly off the handle, justly but gracelessly criticizing a colleague. Moan for a while. Flog yourself. Then straighten up. Go to your colleague and apologize.

You take the wrong way on a one way street. Those riding with you are terrified. Turn around. Get settled back into traffic. Adjust your seatbelt and rear view mirror. Say a prayer of thanks. Then, turn to your terrified riders and say—‘wasn’t that great!’ Wow! Remind them of the story of the old women pulled over for speeding on route 96. The officer berated them and then asked why they were speeding. They replied that the speed limit said 96. No, he said, that was the route number not the speed limit. ‘Are you frightened?’ Oh no, they said. This road was fine. It was route 222 that was really scary.

You get up in your daughter’s business. You didn’t mean to, but you did. You just couldn’t bite your tongue or bide your time. OK. Call her back. Say: ‘forgive me. I was out of line.’ Then stuff it in the paper bag that has this marking: let the day’s own troubles be sufficient for the day. Move on.org. There are other subway trains coming down the track, tomorrow.

A colleague wrongly criticizes you. Steam about it. Go for a jog. Then write out a full, fair and frisky response. Carefully put the letter in an envelope. Open your desk drawer and put the envelope in the desk drawer. Simmer for three days, seasoning with bile. Take it out and read it, on a trouble-lite day. Carefully the letter back in the envelope. Repeat procedure every 72 hours.

You leave a meeting fit to be tied. Pause. Stop. Take ten deep breaths. Then think. Yes, think. What one irenic word can I speak today, before I go home from work, that will somehow slightly improve the situation? What one thoughtful gesture can I make, before I go home from work, that will somehow slightly improve the situation? Do so. Say so. Then move on.org.

Somebody else let’s their fear get the better of them. They lambaste you. Respond, in the moment, with honesty. Then shake the dust from your feet. Brush the lint from your shoulder. Peel the nametag off your lapel. Move on. There are other lambastations coming, tomorrow.

Not every fight is your fight. Not every issue needs to be addressed, at least not by you, at least not right now. Not every troublesome moment is fixable, curable, healable.

Your roommate comes in at 4am, drunk, and gets sick. Once, only once, you help him clean up, and get to bed. The next day you tell him. You are on probation. If this ever happens again, you sleep in the hallway. Permanently. Then, get on with your day. Do some homework. Go to a concert. Walk by the river. See a film. Call a friend. I told you it would be this way. Every day carries its own trouble. Sufficient learning for that one day. There will more learning tomorrow. Believe me. The trains come through the station every 24 hours.

You find yourself, at age 54, having to explain, describe, defend, promote issues in ministry that, after 30 plus years of experience, you consider need no defense. But every generation has to learn the same lessons, in different ways.

You may face the world, free from the world. This is faith. Faith is a gift, not something you build in your own garage on weekends. It is a gift, like all the great things of being. Life is a gift. Forgiveness is a gift. Friendship is a gift. Love is a gift. Eternal life is a gift. And so is faith. All the miracles, teachings, parables, healings, controversies, passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ mean just one thing for the New Testament writers, like Matthew, and a for communities of faith, like you (pl.): Hear the gospel: You may face the world, free from the world.

Help from History

The verses have resounded through history. Remember Kierkegaard? Remember Bonhoeffer?

Kierkegaard also faced anxiety. He called it the ‘dizziness of freedom’. Anxiety “reveals us to ourselves as incomplete beings, troubled by our own incompleteness, aware of responsibility for being less complete than we could be, anxious about recovering lost possibility, and face to face, as it were, with vague and eerie-felt future possibility” (V McCarthy). “Anxiety is fear in search of a cause” (P Pearson). Anxiety is not sinfulness, but is the state out of which sinfulness arises. The human being is the place where being is. Is anxiety a longing for one’s own most self, own most possibility? “Heidegger thinks that everyday superficial social living is a construct to avoid the uncomfortable encounter with the nothing” (V McCarthy). “The original anxiety in existence is usually repressed. Anxiety is there. It is only sleeping. Its breath quivers perpetually through Dasein, only slightly in those who are jittery, imperceptibly in the ‘oh, yes’ and the ‘oh, no’ of men of affairs; but most readily in the reserved, and most assuredly in those who are basically daring” (Par. 41)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer certainly faced trouble, derision, evil. In some ways his is the iconic response to evil in our time. Bonhoeffer lived and taught a non-religious Christian worldliness. The Gospel: We face the world free from the world. He knew that fundamentalism feeds on deep anxiety. To face the world in a free way, we need to face down our anxieties and face up to our challenges. Hence, Bonhoeffer faced trouble, derision, evil by facing the world freely, facing down anxieties, and facing up to responsibilities. “Only those who are obedient believe, and only those who believe are obedient” (Discipleship, 63). We recognize Christian truth “solely through the free experiment in living, in just basing ones’ life for once completely on the word of Christ; just to live totally with it, to live by it, to obey it” (DBW 11, 415). For him there is no reality that is not Christ. Authenticity, Life, Freedom, Mercy. Work. Family. Government. Church. “Christ is the center and power of the Bible, of the church, of theology, but also of humanity, reason, justice, and culture” (Ethics, 341). My friend reminded me that while Luther began with Romans, Bonhoeffer began with Matthew. While Luther began with Paul, Bonhoeffer began with Jesus. While Luther began with the obedience of faith, Bonhoeffer began with the faith of obedience. While Luther began with the f
aith of Abraham, Bonhoeffer began with the lilies of the field: ‘do not be anxious about tomorrow, tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.’

Have you read Bonhoeffer recently? His ‘Cost of Discipleship’? My seminary roommate and I discovered midway through our first year that we were living in the room Bonhoeffer inhabited at Union Theological Seminary in 1931. If you travel light, you can meet life, and meet it square. You can face the world, free from the world. Months before the hanging, he was able to write (found in your hymnal, 517):

By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered
And confidently waiting come what may
We know that God is with us night and morning
And never fails to greet us each new day

Yet is this heart by its old foe tormented
Still evil days bring burdens hard to bear
O give our frightened souls the sure salvation
For which, O Lord, you taught us to prepare

I am not Kierkegaard and you are not Bonhoeffer, but we are alive today, to meet the day’s own trouble.

I hear Howard Thurman!
“The ocean and the night together surrounded my little life with a reassurance that could not be affronted by the behavior of human beings,” wrote Thurman. “The ocean at night gave me a sense of timelessness, of existing beyond the reach of the ebb and flow of circumstances. Death would be a minor thing, I felt, in the sweep of that natural embrace.”
Sursum Corda! Face the world. Free from the world.

And brush away the day’s own trouble…

Coda

Our new president seems to take life as it comes. He travels light. Do not be anxious about tomorrow. Tomorrow will be anxious for itself.

Last fall, there was some trouble, a day’s trouble. He was roundly criticized. Most criticism, by the way, has some truth in it. I think it was around the time of the great ‘lipstick on a pig’ incident, but my memory fades and fails.

The next day he stood before the cameras. He spoke and smiled. Sometimes a smile is better than a word. Then he took his right hand, as I am doing now, and he brushed it, knuckles down, across his left shoulder. Try it…when you get home. I mean, this is New England, we aren’t going to get all slobbery with you, we wouldn’t presume to enter your personal space and suggest you try it right here (though you can if you want). Brush it away, the day’s own trouble. Sweep it away, the day’s own trouble. Flick it away, the day’s own trouble.

Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean

A Journey of Complaints

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009
Numbers 21:4-9
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

You all surely have been in a car with small children on a long journey that seemed to them never to end. Perhaps you were among the children. Perhaps the parents. “Are we there yet?” “How much farther?” “Why can’t I have more candy?” “Jimmy’s been by the window five whole minutes—now it’s my turn!” Boredom plus a sugar high makes squablers of the most amicable siblings. Parents in those circumstances can get testy, and maybe even yell at the kids to keep still. But I’ve never heard of a parent throwing poisonous snakes into the back seat to silence the children with slow and painful deaths.

That’s just what God did to the children of Israel, according to our text from Numbers. The Israelites were complaining about the march and the food and God just got fed up. He sent the snakes and the Israelites were dying. They begged Moses to get God to stop and God gave instructions for Moses to make a magical bronze serpent which, when looked at by those bitten by the snakes, would heal them. You see the image of the snake on a pole on ambulances and hospital doors, symbolizing healing.

Now the first lesson to draw from this text is that you shouldn’t believe everything the Bible says about God. I know that might be hard for some people to take, but we just have to learn to read the Bible with theological discretion. In this story, and many others concerning the Exodus, God is portrayed as a petty, adolescent divinity who causes untold suffering to people just so that they will glorify him. Remember that God had hardened Pharaoh’s heart against letting the Israelites go, for the explicit purpose of showing off God’s power, as in killing off all the first-born Egyptians. If you read those stories again as you would read a novel, looking to interpret the individual characters, God will seem a far cry from the almighty creator who loves each and every creature and who insists on justice. Even when you read those stories with the eyes of faith, not those of a literary critic, take the narrations that make God a player in a drama with a grain of symbolic salt. Remember that God is not really in the narrative but rather creates it. Nevertheless, the narrative do have a point about God.

In our Numbers story of the snakes, the Israelites had been a complaining lot; there was a similar instance in the previous chapter. Of course, we might have some sympathy for the Israelites. They had not asked to be brought out of Egypt, where they had been living on welfare since the time of Joseph two centuries earlier. The welfare had been transformed to workfare, but there is no evidence that their lives were worse than the lives of most of the Egyptians. It was Moses’, or rather God’s, idea to take the Israelites out of Egypt, promising them a land flowing with milk and honey. Moreover, God kept the Israelites tromping around the desert for forty years for the explicit purpose of letting the adults who had come from Egypt die off before reaching the Promised Land. No wonder the Israelites were a grumbling bunch! The Israelites deserve some sympathy.

The matter of complaints on life’s journey, however, is more serious than the snake story suggests. Let that story be a symbol for the more serious matter. Life’s journey aims at the Promised Land of peace and justice in society, of grateful care for the place we have in the cosmos, and of maturity, creativity, and responsibility in our personal lives. The Promised Land is not so important for being there, nice as that would be, but for getting there. God creates us to be on a journey through which our own creation is completed. Through our journeys we live into ourselves.
We are in the wilderness, are we not? Our society is not at peace, whatever we profess. In fact, the gratuitous war in Iraq, which has killed many tens of thousands of our neighbors, has shown us to be a bellicose nation to the shame of our heritage; the journey to peace begins with a journey to becoming peacemakers, and we still have far to go. Our society is not just, however much progress we have made in some areas. Psychologists have shown that, even after decades of working on racism, many people both white and black unconsciously see white people as more competent and trustworthy than black people. After decades of working to improve the status of women, many women and men unconsciously perceive men to be more competent in leadership than women, as Secretary of State Clinton complained in the last primary campaign. The work to achieve justice for sexual minorities has made some outstanding gains, especially here in Massachusetts. But bigotry against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people is still fierce, still publicly acceptable, and still most vicious in churches, synagogues, and mosques. We are still in the wilderness. The image of God as transcendently just and merciful is a mirror that reflects back to us just how far we have to go, and how much help we need. Because the transcendent Creator’s fecund love is as intimate to every creature as it is to us, it shines as our standard of justice and mercy in the Promised Land. The immensity of the Creator’s love shames us when we dare to see and acknowledge where we are. We are in a wilderness of shame.
We are also in a wilderness of blindness when it comes to caring for our place in the cosmos. Modern science has shown us to be in a universe vastly older and larger than anything imagined in biblical times. We are not its center but off on the edge of one small galaxy amidst millions. The cosmos is not mainly about us. We first have to image and know God to be the creator of that vast cosmic extensiveness of reality before we can form an image of God as related to the particular affairs of human life. This God is awesome beyond measure, revealed more in the nuclear forces of the universe than in human story, the source of every blast of cosmic gas and dissipation of balanced order. To know our true humble place in creation, we need symbols of God of cosmic extension.

Moreover, human life with its personal developments and narratives floats atop a density of nature almost immeasurably intensive. Our personal lives are embodied in the muscles, bones and nerves of our bodies, which are sustained by our environment, which is made up of billions of ecologies of creatures, which are organisms of living and inorganic parts, microbes of cell life, balancing biochemical processes, fermenting in oceans of chemicals, in extremes of heat and cold, pressures and fissions, with nuclear forces binding and breaking, all springing forth from an astonishingly dense divine Creative Act. Until we can worship the God who creates us through this intensiveness of nature, system within system, we cannot put in perspective how to imagine our problems of living relative to God. The struggles, stories, and wars of human beings are like a tiny spot of oil floating on a unmeasured ocean when we lift them to the divine perspective.

The vast cosmic extension and the immeasurably intensive natural systems of our existence are the controlling symbols of the divine Immensity! These symbols need to be the orientation points to which we refer when we play with symbols of God as an actor in our dramas, hardening the heart of Pharaoh, killing the Egyptian first-born, choosing Israel as a nation of priests, sending snakes to punish complainers, defeating the Communists, making America the greatest power on Earth, or calling for a crusade against Muslims terrorists. Stories like these are indeed human problems. We human beings do need to worry about the issues of war and peace, of survival and flourishing, and we need to understand how these issues relate
to God. But before we imagine God squeezed into our dramas like a partisan actor, we need to bow in awe and gratitude before a divine Creator as immense as the cosmos and intensively present in us as the depths of nature. Whereas our problems are all-important to us, their scale in the divine creative act is tiny. Care for the environment is far more religiously important than national and cultural struggles. Our ridiculous pride in thinking God literally to be a partisan in our narratives leaves us in a wilderness of blindness.

The journey by means of which we are created is personal for each one of us. Each of us must grow up, become mature, and take responsibility for the myriad issues of family, friends, career, and community that come up on our watch. We all are at different places on our personal journeys, and many of our journeys intertwine like marriages and long friendships. This sense of personal journey is more familiar to us than the issues of a social journey, and those of our journey to find a humble place in God’s cosmos. Sometimes the wilderness of our personal journey seems like a land of snakes; other times it is rather like a bracing hike. No one’s journey is smooth all the way through.

But things get really bad when we begin to complain about the journey: bad food, exhausting walks, poor economy, insufficient help, faithless friends, crippling indecision, and all the rest. When we complain, we seem to think that our personal journeys are all about us, when they really are about who we can be for God and the world. Then we fall into a wilderness of insecurity, and you know what insecurity can lead to: fear, aggression, willful ignorance, irresponsibility, immaturity, addictive compulsions, and regression to uncivilized impulses.
A wilderness journey in which we are shamed, blind, and insecure is something about which a complaint might indeed be lodged. And do we not complain?

John the Evangelist used the story of Moses’ snake lifted up in the wilderness as an image of healing that he likened to Jesus Christ being lifted up on the cross. As the magical snake cured snake-bite, so the crucified Jesus cures the poison in our souls. Now, that passage in John has been interpreted with some mischief. Feminists have pointed out the danger in the line, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that anyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Taking the line literally and associating Jesus with the crucifixion makes God look like a child-abuser. So, don’t take that image of God as Father too literally as a guide to parenting. That passage also has been used to justify a kind of Christian exclusivism, namely, that only Christians, who believe in Jesus, can be saved. But the passage does not say that Jesus was sent to start the Christian Church. It says he was sent as the light of the world. Seeing the light is what gives eternal life. It’s as if Jesus were a great flood-lamp lifted up for all to see.

The problem, according to John, is not whether the light is there—John says Jesus is the incarnation of the eternal Logos that is always present through the whole of creation. The problem rather is that we reject the light because we don’t want our bad deeds to be known. If, however, we are true, and accept the truths about our lives, we live in the light and that is eternal life, says John. The truths about our lives are about our journeys through the wilderness seeking peace and justice, a true and humble comprehension of our place in creation and how to care for it, and the excellences of a personal life lived well with love for God and neighbor. This wilderness journey is difficult, and that’s the truth. We can be shamed, blind, and insecure, and that’s the truth. Shame, blindness, and insecurity can prompt endless complaining, and we do complain: that’s the truth.

As the cross with Jesus hanging on it is the ultimate wilderness journey, the gospel invites us to accept our wilderness journeys, even when undertaken with mind-numbing complaining, as our truth, seen in the divine light. We don’t have to be perfect in peace and justice, only struggling on toward greater peace and justice. We don’t have to be able to comprehend the cosmic immensity of God, only to struggle to find our place within it. We don’t have to be excellent, mature, responsible human beings, only working on it. We don’t have to replace complaining with Stoic indifference, only to be honest with our complaints and stay on the journey. What we should not do is to seek for darkness when the light is all around us. The light shows us the truth about our lives, and this truth, however worthy of complaint sometimes, has the power of eternal life.

Eternal life means many things. One of the most important is that our true being is what we are in and before God. Knowing this, and knowing that God is the creator of our lives in the wilderness, gives us all the confidence joy we need to embrace our lives as works of God’s love. Living in the light of this truth gives us the energy and joy to turn all the struggles of our journeys into ways of manifesting that love and loving God in return. What a paradox, that the horrible, sight of Jesus lifted up on the cross, more gruesome than a snake on a pole, is so beautiful and healing! Our complaints can never be so disconsolate that the light cannot bring us through them into God’s eternity. Amen.

Robert Cummings Neville

Dealing with Decision

Sunday, March 15th, 2009

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John 2: 13-22
Preface

The passages of the New Testament we have were not written, in the main, with an eye to posterity. Their authors had no conception that they would form a part of Holy Scripture. They were written in the moment, for the moment, out of the moment. They are occasional in every sense of the word. ‘Military directives sent along to the outposts on the battle front’—this is how we may describe them. They are meant to encourage, to shore up, change, to augment and foment conversion.

At virtually every point they invite a new response in faith to life. They are a fight song of faith, played in various keys and with various verses, with accompaniment by various instrumentalities. To our hearts and minds they propose a question.

How do you deal with decision?

Temple

The long weeks of wilderness which form our yearly Lenten pilgrimage prepare us. We deal with division, decision, and derision, with Jesus, in the wilderness.

Notice that John has rearranged the furniture of the gospel. He has placed the temple cleansing at the outset of the story.

We become who we are by daring to decide. We discover the power of imagination by daring to find the courage to decide.

Some years ago, following a dark re-enactment of the events of Holy Thursday and Good Friday, a ten year old, guided by his mother, asked, of the Jesus so depicted, ‘What did he do that was so wrong?’ What was the linchpin for the move to the cross?

Well, I mumbled something about blasphemy and treason.

But Matthew, Mark and Luke, the gospels other than John, mark Jesus’ downfall at the temple. As he attacks inherited religion, as he cleanses the temple, his doom is sealed. In John, it is the resurrection of Lazarus, long chapters later, which seals his fate. But John too sees the power of decision in Jesus’ appearance in the temple. In fact, in the second chapter, John opens with Cana, and the promise of incarnation enshrined in that wedding, and closes with the temple, and the forecast of the cross, the hour, the word, which is his abiding interest. Jesus is himself the temple which others will destroy. Here, he gives his new view of the future, not to be awaited somewhere in the clouds. It is taking place now in the life and destiny of Jesus. All throughout, throughout his life, and throughout your own, there is the struggle for truth and grace. This too is Jesus’ struggle. He becomes himself, his own most self not his almost self, in dealing with decision, in this today’s decision to affront and confront inherited religion.

Faith is finding the courage to choose. Faith is dealing with decision.
Memory is our aid here. Remember Proust comparing the low and shameful gate of experience, and the other… the golden gate of imagination’ (RTP, 401). Memory feeds imagination. Faith is finding the power, receiving the power to choose, to reflect on choosing, to take responsibility for the choice, to learn with choosing, and to address the consequences of choice. Dealing with decision means dealing too with regret and failure. This too is faith in action. Listen again to the regret in Yeats’ poem…

No single story would they find
Of an unbroken happy mind,
A finish worthy of the start.
Young men know nothing of this sort,
Observant old men know it well

Some Advice

It is the heart of living to deal with decision.

The long wilderness days, biblical and personal, may prepare us to deal with decision. John opens his gospel with the temple decision, the others close their gospels with the temple decision and its portent. You will want, now Sunday, to consider the manner of decision. Here are six practical suggestions. When you decide:

Think and pray with some care as you deal with decision.

Go ahead and use the time honored tactic of making a simple list of pros and cons.

Solicit the insights and thoughts of five or six close friends.

Consider whether or in what ways the choice is reversible, and what that means.

Consider whether, or in what ways the choice is universalizable—could all be advised in this situation to do this?—and what that means.

Test your prospective decision against the real dream of your ownmost, utmost self.

And here are three spiritual warnings…

Bill

Real decisions are real hard.

They are hard enough without a whole lot of self-denial thrown in. Sloth. There is a kind of self-abnegation that is a form of sloth. It is an unwillingness to do the hard work to say what you need. It is a kind of laziness, though sloth is so much more than laziness. The hardest, worst things are the things that everyone knows and no one says.

Some years ago I remember a young woman who came to talk in tears. That December her life had changed.

For two and a half years she had been in relationship, in love, with a young man. I elect to name him Bill. She and Bill were very happy, they loved each other and they were in love, and she simply adored him. She gave to him and gave to him. Yet there was no decision about the future. When the matter of commitment came up, the subject was unwelcome, and was dropped. Bill loved her, he said, but he just could not think about getting married.

That winter, she finally went to him in a serious mode. She confessed her love. She extolled his virtues. She reveled in their affection. She kisse
d and hugged him in tears. Then she said something that was very, very hard to say. She said that she needed something from him, some commitment, or she would need to depart. She would always love him. But she knew in her heart that she wanted the fullness of life that commitment, in their case, a commitment to marriage, alone, could provide. If he could not step up to that choice, then, for all the pain it would lastingly involve, she would have to move on. And she could directly say that this was as much for his sake as for hers. It would not do him any good, she said, to leave him listlessly in the doldrums of an endless adolescence. For his own sake, he needed to decide how he was going to live. She made and need have made no apology for this. Life is short. Season gives way to season. There comes a time to choose. “I need you to make a decision, to choose”. That is what she said. They parted, and she departed. This caused her immeasurable pain.

She spent four long, lonely years before finally finding, and being found by, a lasting love, which could be adorned by a commitment.

Please do not hear this as one size fits all counsel. It is not. It is intended to convey a much bigger reality. It may be that some part of your life has yet to open up, because you have avoided a choice. You have good reasons to stall. There is pain in choice, and no one likes pain. And sometimes the faithful choice is not to choose at all, for a time. But recognize that for what it is: a choice, still.

When Jesus guides us through the wilderness, he announces, among many other things, a time to choose. You have one life to live. Your life will be fashioned, to great measure, Sunday by Sunday, in the decisions you make. You need to make some decisions, come Sunday, come Lent. I do not say so to bring pain, though pain there is in any choice. I say it for your soul. For your health. Will you make some bad decisions? Probably. But when the time is right, and the season is ripe, you need to make a choice. Plan for the worst, hope for the best, then do your most, and leave all the rest. To do so, you will have to have a little faith. And faith isn’t faith, finally, until it is all you have to go on. Which is the bitter truth, when it comes to choices. You will have to have a little faith.

Fenway

Real decisions are real hard.

They are hard enough without a lot of bad religion mixed in. Falsehood.

Last spring, as sometimes I do, I went late to Fenway, buying a reduced price ticket for the game, from the second inning on. I sat with a young family, with two young children. They, the kids, transported me back to a gone epoch of our own children, wild with life, full of joy, for whom hot dogs and the crack of the bat and crowd roars bring ecstacy.

My phone rang and it was a dear young friend. I found a deserted stair well where I could barely hear her. With the undulation of fan adulation roaring and pounding above, she asked what I thought. They had struggled, she and her husband, for two months to decide. Should they stay in the midwest? Should they move to the east? Stay? Go? They had one more day. I could only barely hear. Red Sox nation was part of that muffled reception. More of it was that no one else really knows what you are going through when you decide. Even those who know you best and love you most. We have this saying in English. ‘It’s up to you’.

Which? Comfort or adventure? Security or novelty? The new or the tried and true? Which?

They had already used up the six point advice proferred earlier.

In tears she asked, ‘which is the will of God’? I tune in when religion rears its head. Huddled in the stair well of New England’s religious capital, Fenway, I tuned my ears. ‘How do we know which is the will of God?’

‘You mean, which is right’? Which is the good, the right, and the true?

Yes.

Ah.

I said this. ‘You know, honey, while this might not always be the case, in this and in many, most cases, you are free. You are truly free. What you choose—east or west—whichever you choose, that will be, will become the ‘will of God’, the right and the true and the good. In part, because you will work to make it so. What you choose is what is right.’

So choose. Jump. Like Redford and Newman, in that iconic moment for one generation, with some humor and some daring, jump. Choose.

In your choice the future opens.

Judd Gregg

Real decisions are real hard.

They are hard enough without a covering of pride mixed in. Pride.

Our neighbor New Hampshire Senator has caught my eye this winter. He accepted then rejected a cabinet position.

There are other reasons to admire Judd Gregg. His openness, for one. His frugality, for another. His industry, for a third. I don’t know him from Adam’s house cat. Never met the gentleman. But it takes a kind of courage to re-decide, to think twice. Second thoughts are important, especially when you realize, in hindsight, that they should have been first thoughts.

In the wedding business, we call this the ‘flowers are already bought’ syndrome. ‘I have a feeling this is not right, come to think of it, but I already have my dress and the flowers are already bought, and the invitations went out last month.’

Once you are convinced of the primacy of the second thought, you have to face your pride. You have to face the difficulty of admitting you were wrong. As in, ‘I was wro…’ Hard to say. But the judgment and insight of the primary second thought is worthless without the courage to banish pride and change course.

Judd Gregg had that courage, and faced down that pride. On a big screen, on a high wire, which makes it all the harder. ‘It just didn’t feel right. It just isn’t who I am.’ He made a decision about what was his almost self—the cabinet—and what was his ownmost self—the Senate.

Life will give you ample practice in choosing between your almost self and your own most self, and you will not always get it right. Sometimes, you will need to think twice, to find the courage to face down pride, and to pay the florist and donate the flowers to the nursing home.

It is never too late to change your mind. It may be very costly, but your mind is your mind. What? You don’t want to change your mind because you might offend someone? You don’t want to chang
e your mind because you have to make a hard phone call? Really.

I remember a friend telling me that at age 20 he had to drive from Northern New York state down into Canada and retrieve an engagement ring he had given a young woman six months before. It just wasn’t right.

How was it? I asked him.

Not pleasant. He replied. But it was the rest of my life on the line.

Now you don’t want to remake every decision mid stream. Some apprehension and uncertainty goes with every choice. That is what faith is fully all about. If you were certain you would not need any confidence. You are not certain, so you need a little faith.

You see. Real decisions are real hard. Be sober, be watchful.

Avoid pride, sloth and falsehood.

Remember the greatest blunder of our nation in this yet young century, as a warning, and take heed. Our decision to go to war in 2003 epitomize pride, sloth and falsehood. It was fed by the falsehood of an arrogant nationalism, sold on the basis of sloth, unfinished work and faulty information, and carried forward on the strength of an overweening pride that dared not, lacked the courage to think twice, take a second look. Such a cultural cloud makes all lesser, personal decisions, all the harder, unless, collectively, we may learn, express contrition, grow up, and move on.

Invitation

The Scriptures are written, as the good news itself is preached, ‘from faith to faith’.

In the teeth of their detailed intricacies, it is possible to forget or mistake the conversion invited by our lessons. Where are you headed? You are asked, today, to deal with decision.

A. N. Whitehead, of all people, at Harvard, of all places, wrote:

“The essence of Christianity is the appeal to the life of Christ as a revelation of the nature of God and of his agency in the world…There can be no doubt as to what elements in the record have evoked a response from all that is best in human nature. The mother, the child, the bare manger; the lowly man, homeless and self-forgetful, with his message of peace, love, and sympathy; the suffering, the agony, the tender words as life ebbed, the final despair; and the whole with the authority of supreme victory” (Adventures of Ideas, 170

To this manger, I invite you.

To this man, and his friendship, I invite you.

To this message, and its persuasive power, I invite you.

To this long-suffering, and its redemptive healing, I invite you.

To these tender words, and their encouragement, I invite you.

To the authority of this victory, I invite you.

One opens such an invitation by dealing with decision.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Dealing with Division

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

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Philippians 1: 12-18

Preface: Wilderness

Hope has two beautiful daughters: anger and courage. (thrice repeated). So, at least, thought Augustine of Hippo.

But you already knew that. I mean in your own experience, you already have learned that. In the thickets, brambles, dark paths, wanderings, mistaken trails, and accidents of your life, you already have met the hope family daughters. In the wilderness.

Jesus meets us today in the wilderness. In Lent, Jesus walks with us in the wilderness. I remember during my Junior year abroad in Segovia, learning as Lent began that one of our least religious Spanish friends was reading weekly Ignatius of Loyola’s Ejercicios Espirituales. Surprised, I asked why. ‘Siempre se saca algo bueno de este libro’. One always takes something good from such a book. One learns, guided in the wilderness.

Ours is a winter of discontents already familiar with wilderness. The desert of global terror. The forest of economic collapse. The badlands of political conflict. The sands of personal, existential worry. Ours is a winter of discontents already familiar with wilderness.

One standard, central casting feature of wilderness is division. Discord, dissent, disagreement, difference. In the wilderness, in real human life really lived by those really alive, we are always dealing with division.

How do you deal with division?

This morning, reading Paul, I hope you will deal with division holding hands with both daughters, anger to left and courage to the right. Hope has two beautiful daughters.

But you already know this.

One playwright said of his own work that he was simply holding a mirror up in front of his audience.

The ministry of the word, of preaching, is like that. We are holding up a mirror in which we can see ourselves, perhaps our best selves, maybe our forgotten selves, usually our selves in the manner of feeling the need of redemption.

In other words, this Sunday, come Sunday, any Sunday, the preacher is not primarily here to tell you something you do not know. That may happen. That may be a part of it. In fact, in a pulpit like this one, it should be part of it. So when they ask you at Shaw’s, over the melons and bananas, if you learned anything over at BU, you might say, ‘well, yes’. But that is not the marrow of the ministry of the word.

Here, you hear about something else. Here, you hear, not about something you do not know, but you hear about something you do know. You may have mislaid it, this something. You may have neglected it, this something. You may have forgotten it, this something. You may have avoided it, perjured it, rejected it, dismissed it, this something. But you know it, you know about it.

I am not here to tell you about something you do not know. I am here to tell you about something you do know. I am not here to give you something that you lack and I have. We are here together to receive something we have together, know together, share together, especially at Eucharist.

That is what makes Sunday so joyful. Sunday is like a reunion with your best friends in the world. Sunday is like finding a book you have been missing for a decade. Sunday is like coming upon a town you had forgotten about forever, in which you fell in love. Sunday is like reaching down into a drawer, and feeling the smooth circle of a diamond ring you thought had disappeared forever. Sunday is liking having the chance to talk to a dead parent, a dead lover, a dead friend, when you never thought, ever thought, that chance would come again. That is what makes Sunday, Sunday.

When we offer a prayer, we do not do so as if you could not do so. We offer a prayer with the hope that it will say out, shout out, in a far sharper way than you might have imagined, what is on your own heart, already.

When we sing an anthem, or in this case, a full mass, we do so not because we know something you do not, or understand something you do not, or appreciate something you do not. This is not music appreciation 101. We sing because in our bones we feel and hope that the beauty you know, you recollect down deep, will be truer to your ear than it has ever been, precisely because you have known the feeling before.

When we preach a sermon, we do so not as if you could not say something similar. No, the word is faith speaking to faith, one beggar secreting to another the path to bread. Oft thought, ne’er so well expressed…

Our friends give us back ourselves. Here is the way our old friend F Schleiermacher put it:

Others of us, however, see the task of ministry as that of giving a clear and enlivening description of a common inner experience, and what emerges as doctrinal teaching is really only a preparation and means to this end. We do not fancy that we are introducing into our church communities something completely new…Rather, what is possessed is shared in common, and we serve our brothers only by explaining more clearly to them what it is and so awaken in them the joy in it as well as concern for it. (First Letter, 41)

What is our shared, common inner experience? What is our best past, when we face division?

I give you the witness of a man who knew a bit about conflict, Paul of Tarsus.

Philippians

Paul offers two divergent means of addressing conflict in his intimate, personal, pastoral letter to the Philippians. On the one hand, Paul displays a magnanimous courage in division, a courageous magnanimity toward his enemies. Hope’s first daughter, courage, takes his hand.

As the letter opens, Paul displays a robust magnanimity with regard to opponents. He is in prison, presumably as a consequence of something he said. His confinement he understands to ‘advance of the gospel’. Guards have been impressed. They have told others of this remarkable apostle. Many know of his willingness to suffer bondage for his Lord. ‘All the rest’ appear to know the story. Their gossip he understands to advance the Gospel, and also to make others the more bold to bear witness, for their own part. Those who know that his imprisonment is for the defense of the gospel preach out of love, and acclaim Christ. Others denigrate his service and suffering. We cannot know for sure, but Paul implies that these others use his bondage to evidence his unworthiness, or untrustworthiness, and find perhaps a kind of rough justice in his confinement, which, in their preaching, also, though contrarily, acclaims Christ. Paul surveys the waterfront. He acknowledges both the sweet and the bitter. Then he serves up his forbearance, his moderation, his equanimity. ‘What then? Either way, Christ is preached, and I rejoice in that.’ Note the difference, find the common ground, celebrate the good, move on. Paul exhibits magnanimity.

Paul offers two divergent means of addressing conflict in his intimate, personal, pastoral letter to the Philippians. On the one hand, courage. On the one hand, Paul displays a heartfelt anger, an angry heart toward his enemies. Hope’s second daughter, anger, takes his hand.

As the letter begins to close, Paul displays a ribald anger with regard to his opponents. It is unclear whether this group is the same group who receive kind treatment earlier. The tone and approach of the two passages are so entirely different that, though no textu
al evidence exists for this, readers and scholars have wondered whether two different letters have here been combined. Beware three groups, says Paul, and then he names the three groups. The dogs. The workers of evil. The mutilators. He has no tolerance for those who encourage gentiles to be circumcised, no tolerance for those who depend on works to achieve salvation, no tolerance for those whose pessimistic, nationalistic, narrow interests keep them sniffing, like dogs, in spiritual refuse. Elsewhere (Gal.) Paul suggests, like Lincoln encouraging slavery supporters to try slavery for and on themselves sometime, that those who want to mutilate others might start by castrating themselves. Paul has barked like this before. His thrice repeated warning, ‘beware’, marks out a brightly colored line of distance from and disdain for his opponents. Note the difference, forget the common ground, attack the evil, move on. Paul exhibits anger.

How shall we understand which of these approaches to employ, ourselves, when confronted with opposition? How shall know to select either courageous magnanimity or heartfelt anger? By what authority shall we choose?

We could, somehow, refer to Scripture, and let the weight of biblical interpretation rightly divide this word of truth. Of course, Paul would not have done so. He makes almost no authoritative reference to his (Hebrew) scripture in the course of his letters, with the exceptions of reliance on Abraham and remembrance of the Psalms.

We could, instead, refer to the words of Jesus, and let the collection of dominical sayings, enshrined in dominical deeds, make us wise like serpents and innocent like doves. Of course, Paul would not have done so. He knows nothing of Jesus, or chooses to know nothing—no teachings, no wisdom sayings, no proverbs, no stories, no histories, no birth or death narratives, not parables, no mount or plain sermons, no beatitudes, no woe oracles, none. If he knew these, they hold no power for him, and if he did not, he did not seem driven by curiosity to acquire them.

We could, then, plunder the Egyptians, or at least the Greeks, and draw on philosophers and other wise teachers. Of course, Paul would not have done so. He makes no appeal to Plato or any of his descendants, to Aristotle, or any of his, nor to any of the lesser figures and schools, although echoes of Stoicism to resound, here and there, in the letters.

No to Scripture, to Jesus, to Socrates. No. How then shall we know? Paul with aplomb and otherworldly courage says: ‘In your own spirited experience you will find the way’.

Let your conscience be your guide.

As you deal with division, in your own experience, you will learn and you will know. Every community, if it is real, knows division. Four roommates in a college dormitory know about division. Six humans throw together in a nuclear family know about division. Five hundred baptized Christians in a church know about division. So do colleges, universities, cities, states, regions, and countries. Even in congress, they deal with division.

How will you know whether the one daughter or the other is your best ally? I have no clue. You will find your way. You know better than any other.

Silver and gold have I none. Two slight suggestions, though. Dealing with division only through anger or only through courage may not work. Any real anger (so easily misdirected by the way), you will want to temper with the courage of magnanimity. Any real courage (so difficult to muster), you will want to temper with heartfelt honesty, even anger. Likewise, take the long view. Is your opponent working toward your own self-same goal, telos, end? Then your sister is courage. Is your opponent dividing you from your own self-same goal, telos, end? Then your sister is anger.

In print this week, in tears, I read the angry response of Elie Wiesel to his fraudulent investor, who had stolen Wiesel’s life savings and ruined his Foundation. He spoke in heartfelt anger, and rightly so. Yet even the punishment he suggested, to fit the crime, I noticed, he judged should have a time limit–last only five years. Anger, tempered with courage.

In print this week, in joy, I read the magnanimous response of Barack Obama to those who voted against him. Yet even the warm embrace of those who opposed was tempered with a little salt, ‘I knew we could find some bilateralism in this chamber’, he chided.

Jesus meets us this week in the wilderness, today the wilderness of division. He brings hope, in courage and anger. He brings hope, in anger and courage. In courage and anger, he brings hope. He is our hope.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill