Monday, December 29, 2003

Spirit as Everything 

Walter Wink, a noted Christian theologian, presents a scientistic reformulation of God, theology and prayer in his article "The Next Worldview: Spirit at the Core of Everything" (Fellowship, May/June '03). He argues for a more rational, even scientific(-ish) employment of "God" and understanding of Creation, Prayer, Mysticism and even Eternal Life. Starting with an overview of past worldviews, Wink posits that the next worldview will be this, incorporating the scientific, political and sociological inventions of the past century and-a-half and viewing even our religious devotions through that lens.

An article worth reading, and some tremendous sermon material. -CS



Friday, December 26, 2003

Advent Sunday 2003 

(How Can We, As Brights, Speak With Christians About Christmas?)


Merry Christmas! Is everyone ready for Christmas? (To kids) Do you know what Christmas is? What is Christmas? What do we remember on Christmas? (Jesus’ birthday.)

Birthdays are pretty special, aren’t they? Do you have a birthday? When is it? Why do we celebrate birthdays? (Give them presents for answers—those $.25 eggs with silly-putty and what-not.)

Today is Advent Sunday. “Advent” means “arrival”—because we remember Jesus’ birth, and his arrival in the world. It is a very special day, because Jesus was a special man. Your birthdays are special because you are special people. Who celebrates your birthday? (People who care about you, and people you care about.) Birthday parties are special because of the people who participate in them, as well as because of the people they are for, right?

Was Jesus really born on December 25th? Yes? No? Maybe? Truth is, we don’t know. Nobody knows. But early Christians lived in a world where there weren’t so many other Christians yet. There were a lot of other religions, and those other religions had a holiday in the middle of the winter. Now Christians, being fun-loving people, wanted to celebrate too, so they started celebrating Jesus’ birth and joining in on the party.

Now these other people—let’s call them pagans—they had a holiday in the middle of winter. Now, winter is the worst time of the year to have a party! Remember, this is way back, before television and heaters and grocery stores and Christmas lights. Winter was dark, cold, wet, and food was scarce. Winter was dangerous, and a lot of people didn’t survive. But these pagans celebrated the middle of winter because they knew that no matter how cold it was, or how long and dark the night was, or how little food they had left over from the harvest back in October, that as of December 25th or so they were getting closer to Spring. That was the darkest and coldest, and that although there may still be dark and cold ahead, things were going to get better. No matter how bad things looked, they had reason to hope, because they knew that the days would get longer, the weather warmer, trees would start bearing fruit and fields would grow grain. They could look forward to better days to come. And that’s worth celebrating, sometimes even especially when things seem their darkest and coldest.

And the early Christians, they thought that that was a pretty good analogy to their feelings about Jesus. Jesus taught them that even when things seem their worst, there is reason to hope, things can get better. So celebrating the coming of Jesus into the world at this time seemed perfect.

Far from Passion

But here we are—you and I—some 2,000 years later, and most of us have heating in our homes and food in the cupboards and electric lights we can turn on or off anytime. Christmas for us isn’t about hoping that we’ll survive winter. Winter isn’t so dark and cold and foodless as it was for our ancestors. (Of course, for some people, precious little has changed since those times, and we should remember them, too.)

But for most of us in this room, celebrating Christmas isn’t about us surviving winter—we’ll probably survive, and even comfortably for the most part.

So, why do we like to celebrate Christmas so much?

I wonder if it isn’t because out of the whole Jesus story, this part is the easiest to read. That starry night in Jerusalem is far away from the betrayal, the trial, the execution. Little baby Jesus isn’t giving us the uncomfortable advice to give up all our possessions to the poor, to leave home and family to wander with him from town to town, to publicly and creatively resist corrupt politicians and their systems of government—and they’re all corrupt, and their systems oppressive. Little, sweet, innocent baby Jesus can’t even talk, and so like the shepherds and wise-men and lucky passers-by, we can approach and worship and praise without Jesus saying anything back to us. Jesus just has to take our praise, and we don’t have to do anything more than that.

In fact, as the story goes, Jesus isn’t even a regular baby—he doesn’t cry, doesn’t poop his diapers, isn’t bothered by the cold and damp of winter’s night in an animal stable. The Bible doesn’t mention anything about the actual birth, and so the picture we’re always given is one of a calm and pleasant Mary holding a clean, noble and silent Messiah. The whole holy family—Jesus, Joseph and Mary—are all perfectly loving, they don’t even mind all the strangers coming to see, no one’s hungry or cold or even uncomfortable.

We can forget, at least for a moment, about hunger or cold or discomfort. In the nativity scene, we can just be happy about Jesus. Jesus is born! Isn’t that great?! Things are going to get better.

Sometimes I wonder if the “nativity scene” wasn’t supposed to be called the “naivete scene”, because those of you who have had children can imagine quite a different scene. Births are pretty messy. And pretty-much everyone is uncomfortable to some degree or another. Sure, you’re happy—the word “joyful” probably doesn’t even begin to describe it, right? But you probably don’t stop worrying about bills and heat and food just because you have a baby. And who wouldn’t mind a bunch of strangers dropping by just after you gave birth to congratulate you and look at your baby? That’s a little weird, isn’t it?

But in the story of Jesus’ birth, there’s none of that. For a moment, there’s no worry, no care, no troublesome demands, no impropriety. The nativity scene tells us another truth: when a baby is born, we all want to see it, we all want to crowd in around it and love it, unconditionally, and our hearts are filled to overflowing with hope for the future of the world.

Our Own Nativity Story

As all of you know, our family had it’s own advent experience not too long ago. Four months ago, baby Grace was born.

Now, Jonathan and Marie, just like Joseph and Mary, had to leave their home to deliver their child. Jon and Marie didn’t go as far as Jerusalem, but they came across the ferry to our house, to wait for a while before going to the hospital. After a little bit, when they thought they were ready, Jonathan and Marie left for the hospital, and told Christie and me that they would call if anything was going to happen.

One hour passes. Two hours pass. Three hours pass. Finally we call Jonathan, and just like the voice of God to the wise men from afar, Jon said “you better get over here, something’s happening!” So we left. Now, remember, this is when Mars was the closest to the earth it had ever been in some 170,000 years or something, and apart from the moon it was supposed to be the brightest thing in the sky. Christie and I had been looking for it for the last couple days, and when we were on our way to the hospital there it was, not quite directly above little Gracie’s manger, but pretty close. We were following the star (or, planet, in this case) to the birth.

Sometime during all this, Jon managed to call his mother, who lives down in Olympia. And like the shepherds in the field on Christmas eve, she heard a voice in the night telling her that a child was going to be born, a very special child that she would want to see. So she left her sheep in the fields and ran to greet the newborn babe.

Christie and I had been sitting in the hallway for a couple hours when we decided to go to the waiting room to sleep on the chairs there—it was past 2am by this time. And at that instant, Jon’s mom arrives, goes racing by and is the first one of us all to see the brand-new baby Grace. Pretty soon, though, we were all gathered round the new family—the shepherd from afar, the wise guys who followed the star, Joseph, Mary and the little baby, the hope of the world.

At that moment, there was nothing else as important in the whole world as that baby, and being there to see her little arms raised in protest at being weighed and cleaned and cold.

A few weeks earlier, several of us had given the Shipley’s a bunch of onesies—those little baby jumper suits—that we decorated ourselves. Some of them tye-died, some embroidered. Some drawn on with magic markers. We took a lot of care and craft in making them, because we were preparing for the coming of little Grace, and so that as she grows her parents could literally clothe her with love—let little Grace be surrounded by our care and craft, let her be clothed with love.

Hope of the World

Christmas is a celebration at the birth of a baby, a chance to clothe ourselves and each other in love all over again.

As special as the story of Gracie’s birth is, I don’t think it’s all that unique. Every birth has a story of how special it is, about the awe and the wonder and the love.

The story of Jesus’ birth is another one of these—a celebration of the arrival of a baby, and what it means to all of us. Remember, that in the presence of a newborn baby, nothing matters so much as that child. That little human being is one tremendous bundle of helpless possibility, and deserves all the love we as a world can muster.

It defies logic—there’s no reason to love that baby—it hasn’t done anything yet except exist, and even that’s been mostly crying and pooping. Especially when the baby’s not even ours! Yet we are willing to love it, compelled to love it. And perhaps in that way, they show us how the world could be better, they show us how much we are endowed with the capacity to care.

There it is, a brand new person, entirely helpless and probably really upset, and surrounding it are all these people, all this love and hope and goodwill. How can we not be inspired by that story?

Perhaps it is a silly story. But if it is, then that is all the more reason to tell it again and again. It’s silly, but let’s face it, sometimes we need to be reminded how special our birthday was—how special your birthday was, and your birthday, and your birthday.

There’s no telling what that little child will be or do, and we love it anyway. We know that bad things could happen, but we say to hell with it, we’re going to love the kid anyway. If we can love through it, things will get better. It is one of the most powerful testaments to an inexplicable confidence in the future of humanity.

Christmas story is celebration of human possibility, a story of confidence; a story of unrestrained, undeserved and yet unflinching joy in the best of people.

As with Grace, or Reeve [another newborn baby in the congregation], or baby Jesus—we love them for no other reason than that they are; and in this way—as in many others—each of them embodies the hope of the world.


By What Power? 

Jonah and the Whale of a Good Time
Highland Park Congregation
May 11, 2003
[Flannel Christian], Speaking

So Jonah is walking down Fauntleroy one day, minding his own business, and God comes walking up to him. Now this wasn’t as surprising to Jonah as it might seem to us, because God was a lot more personable back then, talking and bantering with the people in the Temple and in the country-side. But Jonah wasn’t too thrilled, either. You see, Israel wasn’t doing so well. The Assyrians were a neighboring country to the north—about where Iraq is today—and they were almost constantly beating up on Israel: killing people, taking livestock, burning villages, making war. The Assyrians were bad news for the people of Israel, and there wasn’t much Israel could do about it. They tried—Israel tried fighting back, tried running away, tried bribing and arguing and pleading, but all for naught. Israel was getting its butt kicked by Assyria, and it was getting worse by the day. And God was the god that said God would protect Israel. As far as Jonah could tell, God wasn’t doing so hot a job. Jonah would often just walk around thinking that things just couldn’t get any worse.

So along comes God and Jonah has to bite his tongue in order not to give God a piece of his mind. And God is acting all chummy and casual, like there was nothing at all to worry about. In fact, God even says to Jonah, “Hey, Jonah, I need your help. I got a great idea, and you’re just the man to do it.”

“Uh-oh,” Jonah thinks. So far none of the plans that anyone has come up with has done any good against the Assyrians, and God has something in mind just for him? No way.

God says, “I want you to go to Nineveh, and tell the people there that they aren’t acting very nicely and should change their ways.”

Jonah says, “WHAT?!” Now Nineveh was the capitol of Assyria. This was the LAST place Jonah wanted to be. It would be like one of us walking into Baghdad and wanting to tell everyone there that they need to shape up! Or even better, it would be like Saddam Hussein wanting to go to Washington, D.C., to talk to everyone on the street and get them to agree with him that the US ought to stop beating up on Iraq. How do you think that’d turn out? If anyone saw Saddam Hussein on the street? He’d be crazy to try that. Just like Jonah thought God must be crazy to ask him to go to Nineveh!

So Jonah says “oh yeah, Lord, I’ll get right on that” and starts heading the opposite way, thinking to himself, “Man, this just can’t get any worse.”

“Where you going?” God asks.

“Oh, just going to pack my things.”

“Well, ok, but don’t take too long, we don’t have all day.”

And so Jonah starts running. But instead of running toward Nineveh, Jonah heads down to the seashore and takes the first boat headed for Spain. Now, let me tell you, Jonah hated the water—it made him sick and scared, he couldn’t even swim! But traveling by land would have been too slow, he thought, and God would have been able to find him. So he climbed aboard. And there he is, at the bottom of the ship, trying to go to sleep so he won’t be thinking about how sick he is or how scared he is. And he’s thinking, “Oh man, this just can’t get any worse.”

And just when he thinks that a storm starts on the ocean, and this little boat starts getting tossed all over the place, and it looks like it is going to sink! Now all five men on the crew of that little ship were religious men. They each had their own god and each were praying to their god to help them, but nothing happened. So they ran down to get Jonah and told him to get praying to his god, too, or else they’re going to drown! So Jonah starts praying, and praying, and praying, and nothing is changing. So somebody thinks of the idea of finding out whose fault the storm is, whose god is angry at them, and they roll a die, and whoever’s number comes up that’s the guilty person. And you gotta know Jonah is thinking this is the worst idea ever, right? But the sailors roll the die and guess who’s number comes up. That’s right, Jonah’s.

They’re all looking at him like he killed somebody—“What’re you doing here? Why don’t you apologize to your god? Stop the storm!” And so Jonah starts praying again, this time very loud, but nothing changes. And the sailors get another bright idea—throw Jonah overboard. As soon as Jonah sees that look in their eyes, he’s thinking, “Man, this just cannot get any worse.”


So now he’s in the water, and remember he can’t swim, and there’s a storm, too. So, sure enough, he starts sinking and sinking, and he’s holding his breath, and now he’s thinking “Really, this is as bad as it gets.” When all of a sudden, he’s swallowed whole by a giant fish!

And there he sits for three whole days. Now, imagine the smell! You all have smelled old fish before, right. And that’s what they smell like on the outside! I’m pretty sure Jonah was somewhat thankful for not drowning, at least at first. But on about the second and third day, I’m betting he was thinking, “it just can’t get any worse than this. Really, it just can’t.” And there he sits and stews in the fish-juice wondering what’s going to happen to him.

Then, on the third day, this fish must’ve gotten tired of the constant indigestion that Jonah was causing, and spit him out on to the shore. Pthoowie!

And there Jonah is, finally back on dry land, not having eaten anything in three days, soaking wet and wreaking of fish, and right back where he started. All this, and he isn’t one step closer to Spain. And guess who comes walking along just at that moment. That’s right—God. Just when Jonah thought things were looking up (he was out of the fish, after all), things started looking like they couldn’t get any worse. The one person in the whole world Jonah did not want to see was God, and up comes God with that goofy grin.

But before God could even say anything, Jonah jumps up and yells, “Fine! I’ll go. I’ll go! Just leave me alone.” And he takes off for Nineveh, thinking there’s no way the Assyrians could be worse than starving on the inside of a fish. And, you know? For once, Jonah was right.

I don’t know what Jonah said to those Assyrians, those Ninevites, but whatever it was, they listened. We do know that he told them about the consequences of their actions, and what the future might be like if they kept acting the way they did: being violent and making war against smaller and weaker nations. And that was enough to scare them out of their old ways. And you know what they did? Listen to this: they proclaimed a fast and then they all traded their fancy clothes for burlap sacks—every one of them! That’s right, from the richest to the poorest, they all started wearing and eating the same things—they started seeing each other as equal and everyone else just as worthy as themselves! Isn’t that incredible? A whole city—a city so large that the Bible says it took three days to walk across—and they all started treating each other fairly… no rich, no poor, even the king took off his robe and put on this burlap sack, and sat in a pile of ashes to signify his repentance. That’s not all! The king decreed that everyone should do this and turn from the evil ways of violence. I’m not making this up! It’s right there in the Bible! The Assyrians were so moved by God that they decided right then and there to put an end to violence, and probably to economic inequity, too. Wow!

And wouldn’t you know it, God was happy with that. It was even enough to change God’s mind: Nineveh wasn’t so bad a city after all. God was happy with how things turned out. Who wouldn’t be?

Well, Jonah wasn’t happy with that. Jonah was even more mad at God now. Can you believe it? Jonah even went up on the hillside and made himself a little hut so he could pout.

God couldn’t understand why Jonah was acting so funny, so God—being a direct kind of guy—went up to Jonah and asked him, “Hey, guy, are you mad or something?”

And Jonah was just about bursting here: “Are you crazy? Of course I’m mad! How could I not be mad? … Look at them—they’re all so happy and free! … Well, that isn’t right! They killed hundreds of our people. They’ve destroyed so much of our land. They’ve threatened and terrorized us for so long, and you said you would defend us. And now they’re all happy and dancing and joyful and guilt-free? Where’s the justice in that? You ought to have killed them all!

“Look, I knew you were going to do this, God. That’s why I left. That’s why I didn’t want to come. I knew if you sent me here there’d be a chance that they’d listen, a chance that they’d stop being such evil people. And then we couldn’t hurt them, because they wouldn’t be bad anymore. And God, I want to hurt them. I want them to hurt so badly—I want them to hurt the way we’ve been hurting. I want them to suffer the way they made us suffer. I want them to regret ever having been violent and aggressive and vengeful. And then, God, I want them to die. That’s what’s fair, God. They should die.”

And really, who can blame Jonah for feeling that way. The Assyrians had killed a lot of Jonah’s people, perhaps even people he knew and loved. He was right—the Assyrians had hurt them.

What was “justice” there? What ought to have happened? Ought God to have destroyed Nineveh? We feel God ought to promise justice—our kind of justice, where good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.

But that’s the thing about God—God is the source of forgiveness, and the inspiration for us to forgive the unforgivable; the source of love, and the inspiration to love what we might otherwise feel unlovable; a source of a justice that we do not often have the courage to imagine by ourselves. God isn’t anything if God isn’t the power for us to be more and better than we are.

Inasmuch as Jonah had pity for any of his own people, God was trying to draw that circle of Jonah’s compassion to include more than just the Israelites—to be able to use the term “my people” more widely, even so widely as to include the Assyrians he hated and whom he helped save.

Now I say Jonah helped save them. I ask you, by what power were the Assyrians saved?

Partly their own power—that they were willing to question their own actions and beliefs. Partly the power of Jonah, who was willing to wander in their midst and offer to them the questions they would start to ask. But these both are rooted in a deeper power, the power of creative transformation, the power of possibility, the power and the lure of becoming something that was unimaginable. It is the power that comes with a change in thinking, in viewpoint, in direction, in strategy. Power isn’t just in making things happen out there in the world, but power is in making things happen inside oneself—the openness to possibility, to caring, to love, to risk. That’s the power that transformed the Assyrians into people who all of-a-sudden cared about stopping violence and ending poverty and doing away with rank and privilege. Jonah didn’t force them to choose that—he didn’t even want them to choose that. God didn’t force them to choose that, God doesn’t work like that.

A belief in God is at best a confession that we don’t know everything; that we may yet find better ways of being; that we are willing to go where we once thought—or may even now feel—un-go-able. When the Assyrians listened to that spirit, they saw a possibility to radically change the way their world worked.

What are the Jonahs in our midst today? And by what power are they calling us to the same vision as Nineveh? There are many powers that surround and penetrate us, and toward what ends do they move us? Where are our burlap sacks and thrones of ashes, and how daring is our conception of justice?


Easter Sunday, 2003 

A Sermon About Sacrifice
Easter Sunday, 2003
Rainier Congregation, Seattle
[Flannel Christian], Speaking

Sacrifice. It is what brings us here today. It is what brought Jesus to Jerusalem, the Jews to the Passover table, and Job to his knees. The whole Bible is chock-full of sacrifice—God seems to be constantly asking for sacrifices, people are always offering sacrifices, and if there is some sort of problem it’s surely related somehow to insufficient sacrifice on somebody’s part or is solved by more sacrifice by somebody. Heck, the defining event in our religion is one big sacrifice, meant—we’re told—to end all sacrifices.

Someone looking at our religion from the outside might think this is either the most fickle of gods or the most self-deprecating people—either way, not an attractive community. It’s just so depressing, so demanding, so… heavy. Where did this all start? Let’s go back to the first, or if not the first then certainly one of the most outstanding instances of sacrifice: Abraham.

Now, we all know the story: God tells Abraham he will be the father of many nations, but Abraham and his wife can’t seem to get pregnant. Finally, surely when they’ve nearly given up hope, they conceive and give birth to a little boy, and here’s God’s chance to make good on the promise. They name him Isaac, and little Isaac grows quickly and strong, and makes his father and mother very proud. Then one day God and Abe are chatting, and while nobody really knows exactly what was said, Abe definitely comes away from it shaken, and tells his wife Sarah that God asked him to make Isaac a sacrifice. Both Abraham and Sarah know what this means.

Animal sacrifice was pretty common in those days, and in the worship of everybody’s gods a lot of innocent animals were slain. Surely the idea of human sacrifice wasn’t a new one—but the idea of sacrificing your own child must have seemed absolutely batty! Now, the Bible doesn’t say it, but I can’t imagine Sarah being too hip to this idea, and I’m pretty sure that she made Abraham go back and ask God if he heard God right.

Isaac? You want my son, Isaac?

And God answers nonchalantly, Yep. As if God’s ordering fries with that. Then God goes back to dealing with all the other stuff on God’s plate—there’s a lot to do, after all, when you’re God. You can’t spend all day yapping with some guy who doesn’t listen well, right?

So Abraham goes back in disbelief. He can’t understand. What is this about?

Now right about now you’re used to hearing people say what a great guy Abraham was, and what faith and courage he showed by choosing to sacrifice his son. You’re not going to hear that from me. I think that at the point that Abraham chose to kill his son because he felt directed to by God, Abraham made mistake, a big one. As soon as Abraham resigned himself to just following orders, there’s no claim to courage or faith. Now, I’ll give him the benefit of a doubt, when I say that he must’ve gone back and asked God a second time. But any faith or courage he might have had ought to have compelled him to challenge even God if that god is asking him to do something not just unloving, but so obviously evil.

Now, this was back in the beginning, and I suppose Abraham didn’t have any role models to go by, and the story of Job hadn’t even happened yet, to show that first of all not everything that happens is God’s doing AND that not everything that happens is fair. So Abraham didn’t have a lot to go on. I can give him that much. But surely he knew better than to walk his son out into the desert with the intention of killing him to satisfy some voice in his head.

And I don’t think any God worth believing in would disagree with me on that.

So, Abraham does the best that he feels he can, and makes arrangements to go out with his son and a servant. They set out, at some point Abe asks the servant to stay behind, and he and Isaac climb the hillside. Isaac gets suspicious, there being nothing to sacrifice, and surely must have gotten more than a little suspicious when his father ties him up and lays him on the altar. Imagine the scene—this innocent son, who just the day before had made his father proud by wrestling the billy-goat out of a thorny shrub without either getting a scratch—being laid down by his own father, on a sacrificial altar. He’s gotta be pretty scared, right? And Abraham is looking around for God, thinking that there’s no way God would be late for this kind of thing, right?

So Abraham raises his knife, looks around, speaks frighteningly loud and says something like, “God, here I am, about to give my own son,” and saying under his breath, “I hope you see this and know how loyal I am to you.”

Now imagine God walking in on the scene—thinking that’s funny, seeing Abraham out here this time of year. He should be in the valley planting crops. And what is that he’s doing? What is that in his hand? … there… wait… what? And God runs as fast as God can…

There’s Abraham, raising his arm for the blow and out of nowhere comes God leaping from behind the bush and grabbing his arm, practically tackling him, God’s eyes fixated on that ornamented knife. And Abraham, besides having the wind knocked out of him, is scared to all get-out. I mean, how often is it that you’re downed like a wide-receiver on Super-bowl Sunday by God?

And there’s Isaac wriggling on the altar trying to get free and more than a little freaked out by his dad, and there’s Abraham near tears himself so confused and hurting, and God who is probably a mixture of confused and downright livid!

“What are you doing?” God asks.

“I’m doing what you told me to do!” Abraham says.

“What are you talking about?”

“You told me to make Isaac’s life a sacrifice to you!”

“What?! I didn’t want you to sacrifice his life, I wanted Isaac’s life to be a sacrifice.”


Ah-ha. You can almost see the light growing brighter above Abraham’s head. “Wha-… you… but… I… you… what?”

“I wanted Isaac’s life to be a sacrifice to me. I wanted you two to dedicate your thoughts, your actions, your love and your courage to me, and to doing my work in this world! I don’t care about sacrifices, I care about lives.”

Can you feel that? Isn’t that exciting?

You see, God was using that misunderstanding to change Abraham’s view of what sacrifice was, and what it meant to offer something to God. It wasn’t just to kill or to futter something away in God’s name. What good does that do anybody, the least of all God? God’s idea of sacrifice was to take that thing—a life, someone’s trust, the earth under your stewardship—and to work with it to make it grow and nourish and make beauty and encourage others to do the same. God was taking Abraham from where he was, and where his culture was, and where his worldview was, and offering him a new perspective, a worldview thereto unimaginable by Abraham or Isaac or even Sarah. God was right there giving a new law: a law I find it helpful to call Love.

Now, the Bible for a long time is the story of people continuing to misunderstand that. The Hebrews see lands they like and think its God’s will that they kill the people who are currently living there. Or to wage war on neighboring nations in either defense or aggression. Or to accumulate and concentrate wealth and nurture the assumption that those who have wealth and resources and opportunity do so because they are more beloved of God, are more faithful or just or right.

If one reads the Bible at all closely, you’ll see a whole different story woven throughout even the First Testament. Like I mentioned earlier, Job’s story lays it out pretty clearly that the righteous don’t always prosper, and the wicked aren’t always punished, and that no one can dare to say that they know the mind of God based on earthly rewards. And each and every Biblical prophet said over and over again that the true worship of God was not sacrifice at the temple, but charity toward the poor and forgotten, the widow and the orphan, the beggar and the criminal. And this is the amazing thing—there are so many prophets saying this same thing over and over and over throughout the centuries, there’s only one reason they need to be saying this so much: because no one was listening. People continued to misunderstand the idea of sacrifice.

Now, Jesus, I think, is right in line with these prophets. What’s important to Jesus? Temple worship? Sacrifices? Public prayers and libations to the priests? No! What was important to Jesus was the behavior toward the lost, the forgotten, the despised, the hated, the reviled, the revolting. Not just the widow and orphan, but the leper and the convicted murderer, too, with whom he hung on the cross.

But just like those other prophets, Jesus was speaking to a people that thought they already knew what God wanted, and were comfortable doing their clearly identified duties and obligations to the temple and the priests, and considering themselves pious. Jesus was speaking to the Jews. But the Romans could have listened, too. And once again this son of God was put out as sacrifice. Only this time, God couldn’t come rushing in at the last moment. These people’s idea of the will of God put Jesus on the cross. And years later, when Paul would be retelling the story to the scattered Christians abroad, he would call it a sacrifice, the sacrifice to end all sacrifices.

I’m not sure Jesus would have agreed with Paul there. You see, Paul never met Jesus, and he very often even disagreed with the followers that had actually spent time with Jesus. So I’m not inclined to take Paul’s word unless it’s with a grain of salt. Unfortunately, except for Acts, we don’t really know much about the early Christian communities of people that might have actually met and listened to Jesus, or have been led by people who did. But what we do know is significant.

We know that for them the death of Jesus was not nearly as important as his life. They seemed to have grasped this idea of sacrifice as a dedication of one’s life, taken hold of this idea of faith as dedication to a principle, not as something you “have”, as Paul thought of it. Now, don’t get me wrong, Paul was an amazing guy and did a lot for both Christianity and the world, but he had just as much to do with the theology he taught people as Jesus did.

For the early Christian communities the notion of sacrifice was transformed in the same way it was for Abraham, and that was exciting. They felt God taking them and turning them one-hundred-eighty degrees, so that the way they looked at the world was totally different. It was so exciting that they couldn’t help singing and dancing and telling other people about it. The world wasn’t a place of scarcity—of competition for resources or hierarchies of power or worthiness—but a place of abundance: the more love one felt, the more there was to feel. The more people participated in joy, the more joy there was. The more people at the table, the more food there was for everyone. The more empowerment they showered on disempowered people, the more powerful they seemed to become. And even the notion of power was different—instead of the ability to affect other people, “powerful” began to mean the ability of other things to affect you! The whole world was alive with loaves-and-fishes stories, of healings and of people rising from their own deaths. It wasn’t magical or mysterious—it was the power of the message of Jesus, the wonder of Love and the transforming power of Faith.

You can imagine how incongruous the images of the cross and crucifixion might have seemed to them. Good Friday wasn’t the big day. What they had to celebrate was the three years prior to Jesus’ death AND the third day afterwards. What we have to celebrate is that, too.

Today is the day we celebrate Life—one life in particular, but if Jesus were here right now I bet he’d point out that each and every life in this room, and in this city, is a worthy sacrifice to God. That Easter isn’t just the morning when he rose to meet the world anew, but the morning in which we can, too. That he worked to remind us what God had in mind with the idea of sacrifice—way back even to the very first time God asked for one. Forget the high-church hullabaloo, and remember what your own hands can—or can choose not to—do.

Today is the Christian New Year: time for reflection, resolutions and rededications. And whether our goals be to tithe more faithfully, or each one reach one, or stop more often to lighten the days of the homeless or forgotten—on our own streets and abroad—don’t sacrifice lives, but make your life a sacrifice.


Fearfully and Wonderfully Made 

Creation and Agency
(As a note, Sundays are typically themed by the World Church, and although it is not required that a speaker stick to it, the theme does provide some organizational unity to the ones preparing the service, and so I try to acknowledge that as much as possible. This would not have been my choice for a theme, but it does make for a challenge.)

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made
Highland Park Congregation
[Flannel Christian], Speaking
January 19, 2003

Before I begin, I want to point something out. When we talk about knowledge the prevailing analogy is one of sight: “I see” means “I understand” or “Open your eyes” means “Can’t you tell?” And even most of the early puzzles of philosophy work only if you’re looking at them—like, for instance, why does the stick bend in the water but come out straight? This dates back to early Greek philosophy and how they imagined the mind to work: it observes the world without being affected by it. It doesn’t have to touch it, or smell it, or even be near it. And the world doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with us. Knowledge goes unilaterally, and we affect the world unilaterally: without it really knowing or affecting us. This is too bad, because we miss a whole lot of the world this way.

I want to submit to you fine folk the possibility of another analogy for knowledge or for interaction with the world: that of touch. You see, when the toucher touches something, she is necessarily touched back—knowledge, or at least affectation, goes both ways. That’s why hugs are so great, because whenever you hug someone you’re getting a hug back. And touching is a much more intimate thing than seeing—it connects two people more closely than simple sight. If we start applying some of these images to knowledge, we get a different “picture”—or better yet: “sculpture”—of reality.

Just keep that in mind as we go through this today. And now to the story…

God, being infinite and timeless and the cause of all things throughout the vast emptiness of space, is alone; and as one might get spending infinity alone, God becomes infinitely lonely. Perhaps God gets to see a Big Bang or two, vacations by a supernova or black hole, but has absolutely no one to share all these things—or anything—with. So God, being a pretty smart fellow, gets the bright idea of creating someone to hang out with, and sets about to escorting one little corner of the universe through a long series of peculiar developments: cooling of the earth’s crust, evaporation and condensation of water, the importation of amino acids and the painstakingly monotonous (and surely disappointing) development of simple life-forms, the transformation of the carbon-monoxide-rich atmosphere to our beloved oxygen-dominated one, the progress from single- to multiple-celled life-forms, plant-like and animal-like things, to the strange appearance of “woody fibers” making things like stems and trees possible, to the surprising benefits of “flowering reproduction” and other similar gene-scrambling methods (for those of you who are not picking up on the idea I’m talking about, think about the big difference between how amoebas procreate and how animals like us do it).

What you kids are looking at are plants and animals that lived just like you and me—only more than 300 million years ago. They were born, grew, lived and died just like we do—and were lucky enough to be covered with a lot of dirt and set in stone for us to look at. Perhaps 300 million years from now some other animal will be looking at one of us or one of our toys, and wonder what it must have been like to live so long ago, and what the world must have been like.

But God isn’t done with the story—not when those plants were alive—and whether you sympathize with the Biblical or Darwinian stories (or some other account between to two) it was a surely tedious, labor-intensive, excruciatingly slow walk to the appearance of creative conversational partners. So, for brevity’s sake, let’s skip all that and pick up the story again in that primordial wonder of wonders, the curious Garden of Eden.

In the beginning, Adam and Eve didn’t do much—they just sort of sat around and waited for God to give them something to do: name the animals, walk around the garden with god, that sort of thing. They actually really closely resembled dolls that you might play with—utterly at peace, but not very creative in their own right.

Now, as any young lady or young man will be able to tell you, dolls after a while aren’t much fun. They’re fun at the beginning because you can make them do whatever you want—they go with you when you want them to, and lie quietly in the trunk of the car when you don’t; they listen to you and may even talk back, saying exactly what you want; you make them move, feel, speak, and be. In fact, you have to make them do that—without you they really don’t do much at all. You can hug them, but they don’t hug back, and after a while the pool of potential conversations grows pretty dry.

Thank goodness we all have friends with minds and opinions of their own—but notice that we don’t “make” friends, at least not in that sense, we “become” friends, which affects us as much as it affects the other person.

Now think about God, this poor friendless chap who makes up these people—the people are polite enough, after all, they’re just his imagination—but these people really don’t do anything but walk around and react to God. They’re like little babies who are too young yet to have really developed a personality of their own, and simply blink or wobble in response to what other people are doing to them. God has to somehow make them independent thinkers, make them somebody with their own thoughts in their own heads, perhaps even someone to disagree with.

So God, again being a pretty smart person, creates this tree—you’ve heard it was an apple, Christie next week will tell you it was more likely a fig tree, but it could’ve just as well been a persimmon tree or even just a nondescript shrubbery for all it mattered to God—and God sets up a puzzle too good to ignore. God endows this plant with a peculiar kind of knowledge: good and evil. Now, the plant doesn’t tell us which to choose, or give us any other kind of knowledge like how to build a Harley Davidson or homogenize milk; this shrubbery of the knowledge of Good and Evil is just that—and since up to this time the only thing in the universe with any idea of good or bad or kind-of-questionable is God, this shrubbery offers to those who eat it’s fruit the opportunity to become like God. Pretty tempting, huh? But remember, Adam and Eve wouldn’t do anything God didn’t make them do, because they didn’t know any better. They were like the play-things of God, and God wanted them to be more than that.

So let me ask you this: what does a parent say to a child when she wants the child to do something? What happens if she says “do this”? Almost sure as heck-fire the kid is going to run straight in the other direction, right? But if the mom gets a little tricky and says “don’t do this,” or “you can’t have this”—don’t watch this channel on the television, don’t look at these books, don’t take cookies from the cookie-jar—what is that child going to do?

So God plants this tree or shrub or whatever, tells Adam and Eve strictly and in the most unequivocal terms to absolutely not eat of this tree, and then runs behind a bush giggling to godself and waits to see how long it takes. And woop!, not 16 verses later Eve and Adam are munching happily away. You can almost hear God hopping up and down out of excitement. “Finally, somebody to talk to!”

Now, there are some that will tell you that this was the beginning of the end; that this was bad news for humankind; that humanity could never recover from this “fall.” But not us. In our religious tradition we have a slightly different take on the story. We believe in what some people call “felix culpa”—which is a fancy Latin way of saying “fortunate fall.” We believe that the knowledge of good and evil is a gift, a blessing, and that our ability to choose freely is essential to becoming all that we can be. Let me read from First Nephi 1:111-15:

And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed, he would not have fallen; [and] he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created, must have remained in the same state which they were, after they were created; and they must have remained for ever, and had no end. And they would have had no children; … they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin. … Adam [and Eve] fell that men [and women] might be; and men [and women] are that they might have joy.

Without that fortunate fall we would all be puppets, boring both to ourselves and to anyone wishing to engage us in conversation.

Now some will tell us that this is all bad—that we ought to have stayed in that Garden of Eden, blissfully ignorant. Or that knowledge is bad unless it is only knowledge of good. Or that it would be better to be without choice and with God than the necessity of being distinguishable from God to have real choice. And it is these people who also tell us that everything in the world is of God and meaningful and “meant to be.”

I hope I don’t offend anyone by putting forth the following line of reasoning, but if we have genuine freedom (and not some seeming-freedom where it just feels like we’re choosing of our own free will but really acting out the will of God)—God cannot force us to choose anything, and all God can do is present us with options, opportunities for choice, and the more choices the better. Choices that close us off to more choices, more freedom, are bad; while those that open us up to more and more opportunities for creative choices are the greatest good—and offering to us constant creative transformation—the becoming what we thereto couldn’t even imagine. But the greater the scope of our decisions, the greater the potential for bad decisions. And if we are making at least some of our decisions on our own, then things happen that were not intended by God, things can even happen by chance—these may be good things or bad, or even non-descript. But if we believe that our own minds matter and that God’s matters, then there are at least three forces in the universe: God’s will, my will, and chance. And if there is genuine chance in the world, then nothing is guaranteed.

Now, some religious traditions see this conclusion as somehow having misunderstood the nature of the universe, and even though it doesn’t make sense they claim that whatever seems like uncertainty in the universe is mere illusion, and that there is really sense and certainty in all things—and some trace that confidence back to a man we all know as Jesus, and how much he revealed about the nature of God. They see the end of my line of reasoning and back away from it, sure that somewhere along the line my thoughts took a wrong turn, because uncertainty is scary, the idea of no guarantees is a fearful one, and surely, they think, God would not want us to be fearful.

I think this is a shame, because I see Jesus really revealing the nature of God only in a world where faith is a genuine risk that we genuinely choose to take.

For some people the idea that we have real choice and that those choices have real effects (and not just peripheral ones against the backdrop of God’s plan) is a fearful one—and wanting not to fall victim to fear run away from the world and hide in the idea of a God who will take care of the world for them. Ironically, it is they who, not wanting to fall victim to fear, in the end do. For them the world is fearfully made.

For other people, people like Jesus and us, the really scary thing about reality is that it might not work out as anyone planned or hoped, but that doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to work toward the world we really wish to see—because if it is going to happen, it is going to happen because we helped bring it about. If Jesus had known what was going to happen in Jerusalem, or if he knew at least that everything would definitely work out, then it doesn’t make a very good story. Perhaps Jesus might not lose his temper in the Temple, or perhaps the Pharisees wouldn’t be so resistant, or Pilot so unforgiving, or the public more receptive, or that he might not be crucified at all—only if he genuinely didn’t know does his story mean anything for us, because that is what we must do every day: make decisions based on our convictions, not knowing if or how they’ll turn out. As Christians we don’t work with guarantees. It may not turn out, but we work. That’s it. We work, and come hell or high water we don’t give up.

I want to tell you a story that takes place at the same time these leaves were falling over to be pressed into stone, 300 million years ago. God, hard at work for some three and-a-half billion years already, finally sees the greatest creation ever—the most beautiful, the smartest, the most-loving creature ever to be seen anywhere—and just as it is born a hungry dinosaur walks by and eats it. When you think about discouragement, think about that. And this may have happened more than once—it might happen every day (except, obviously, not with dinosaurs). But God does not give up. Our god is an adventurous god, willing to take risks, hoping for the best. God every day calls each and every one of us, and every molecule in the universe, in a way, to be more loving, more creative, to stick together and become new and better things, and to enjoy existence all the more.

There is a question put to young philosophy students reading Plato: would you rather be a happy pig or an unhappy Socrates? The rub of course being that we would nearly always choose to be Socrates and feel the depth and richness of his experience, even were it unhappy, than the simple joy of the pig. The Bible says the same thing in the oft-quoted Ecclesiastes: He that increaseth knowledge increaseth suffering. But no one really expects someone—even though they know this to be true, oftentimes—to stop learning.

We could all be relatively happy puppets of God in the Garden of Eden, or have the whole world of joy and pain open to us as agents with choice. Being human means having that freedom, and with that freedom the responsibility that comes with being able to act in the world, and the knowledge that the world will act in return upon you and others—and not always nicely. Still, that’s our job, for Adam and Eve fell that we might be, and we are (we hope) that we might have joy.

This is the wonder of creation: that we can deliberately act in the world and be acted upon by it—we have the possibility of change on a scale unimaginable to flowers or hippopotami or volcanoes, and from our potential for change and growth we can, as individuals and as a gathering of people, change the world in profound and meaningful ways. We can make war, or pursue peace. We can feed the hungry and clothe the naked, or we can not. We can work in industries that promote the sustainable consumption of resources, or simply consume without any thought to the effect of our actions. And we can be killed in war or nurtured by peace, fed or kept hungry, clothed or made to be naked. We hug and are hugged at the same time. We can take big steps and small ones—like buying fair-trade coffee or sending an email protesting our nation’s dedication to war in Iraq. And the world may answer: it may change, or it may not—but as any physicist (or chaos-theorist) will tell you: it all matters, to some degree everything matters. In space, you may feel weightless, but you never fully escape the tug of gravities from even the most distant stars. And you tug on them, too, remember. We are inescapably and constantly embraced and embracing.

I think that is perhaps the most wondrous thing of all: the part of our nature that makes us vulnerable to what is around us, makes us malleable, changeable, influenced, as well as changing and influencing. There are lots of things out there to affect us and be affected by us—cars, pencils, ideas, other people, and chance. As the Book of Mormon pointed out: if we didn’t have knowledge, choice, or brains that learned things about the world around them, then we would never change, and as much as I like all of you right now, I still think that would be a real shame—I can’t speak for any of you, but I know I could still use some work. And I look forward to how I might change the world and how it might change me—what happens in our hug, so to speak.

So, in all our actions let us ask the question: what will increase our options of what to become? What will widen the breadth and deepen the richness of our experience? What will make us, or those around us, more creative? What will make us feel more in the world, rather than less. What would, in short, Jesus do? He wouldn’t ignore; he wouldn’t forget; he wouldn’t run away. He wouldn’t just pray. He would, even being aware of the possibility of complete failure and even death, have confidence in the possibility of growth and new life.

Let us make ourselves worthy conversation-partners for God. Let us grow beyond seeing the world as fearfully made, and realize our role in the wonderful part of creation. God isn’t done with this place or with us any more than God was done 300 million years ago. Let’s make our embrace of this world of growth and wonder something to remember—let’s be more than just shapes set in stone.


Why This? Why Now? 

I'm starting this blog, simply said, because I haven't found anything like it as a resource on the web yet. This is a place I want to encourage the discussion of how those who find themselves naturalists and willing participants in a religious (in my case Christian) tradition can navigate between dogma and devotion, amid tradition without relinquishing reason; how we can be both religious and naturalist at the same time--to guide our religiosity with the best knowledge and thinking that we can.

I am a participating member of the Community of Christ, a smaller, somewhat left-of-center Christian denomination that is trying to re-envision itself as a peace church and a world-wide federation (of sorts) of affiliated national churches. Theologically we resemble an American mainline Christian denomination, while our traditions reach back to the Restoration movement in the early- to mid-1800's. This site, and my personal philosophy, does not reflect the standing policy or theology of my church, though our tradition does not mandate that any person believe any one thing in order to be a member in good standing. This is how I can be both a naturalist and a participating member. (Of course, there are many in my faith tradition that would not approve of my being a member, nor of this site. Such is the price of diversity. And I would not have them excluded from my community for feeling that way.)

Hence, this is a personal, as well as public, project for me. Please consider submitting any reflections you might have to me at christianneill[at]hotmail[dot]com.

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