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83 Milliseconds

Here and Now

Anxiety

I wrote this a while back.  Not sure why I left it in the “drafts” folder, though I have a number of suspicions.  It doesn’t reflect my current state of mind, but I thought it was worth posting.  Thanks for reading.

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The last couple of days have reminded me that no matter how hard you work, “control” is not really an option when it comes to how we perceive our world.  In fact, attempting to control it just makes things worse.

I have a generalized anxiety disorder subsequent to post-traumatic stress disorder.  No need for details this morning, just  a statement.  A “diagnosis” arrived at through competent mental health professionals.  I don’t always “buy” it.  The trauma and it’s reinforcing experiences over time don’t fit neatly into what the world presents as typical.  It wasn’t an exploding IED or a brutal battlefield and so I, like most others, have to struggle at times against an effort to minimize or dismiss the psychological realities.

And the reality, given that our perceptions are our reality, is that when my anxiety asserts itself it simply is.  If I spin my tires trying to understand why, all I do is dig myself deeper into anxiety.

So today I will practice.  My anxiety is high.  There is no rational explanation.  While my life isn’t perfect, I can’t draw a logical line from that life to the way I’m feeling.  Objectively, I shouldn’t be feeling this way.  But I am.  So the challenge is to allow myself to feel anxious and have a good life anyway.  To have fun even though I feel like something awful is lurking around the corner.  To not let this distortion lead me out of life and into hiding as it has in the past in so many different ways.

And that’s the challenge for anyone struggling with any kind of mental illness.  And it is a mental illness.  As sure as having the flu is a physical illness.  Diagnosable and treatable and no reason for stigma or shame.

So a gentle reminder:  mental illness is real.  And it is all around us.  And a smile and a laugh doesn’t mean depression isn’t present.  And a calm demeanor doesn’t mean there is no anxiety.  I (we) need to remember that the thing which we identify as ourselves is not the thing that we are feeling.

I am not my anxiety.

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On History and Moving Forward

To take my thoughts on taking control of my reality a step further, I have to deal with history.  Not to dwell on it, but to take ownership and control in order to re-tool my story in a way that’s consistent with what I know and believe….no.  That’s wrong.  To re-tool my story into something I want it to be.  That simple.  Not a story conditioned by other people’s interpretation of events.  Not a story conditioned by my own distortions.  Distortions generated by emotional trauma.  By other people’s’ lessons.  By other people’s’ values.

My world.  My reality.  Until I take that control, my story is not my own and it will only benefit others.

Before I go there, my own natural reaction to all of that is to hear some – as they’ve done in the past – scream “that’s selfish” or “that’s self-absorbed”.  To a degree, ok.  I agree.  But to guard against that selfishness, that self-absorption, I submit my reality to the judgment of others.  I build it in community, I listen to other voices.  And I attempt to use that input as a self-correcting mechanism against creating a worldview that gives me permission to be a selfish prick who only looks out for himself.

One of the biggest changes in my worldview that I’ve come to embrace – and am coming to embrace – has two parts.  The first is an open-eyed acknowledgment that I have, in fact, experienced real trauma in my life that created a “data set”, emotionally speaking, that lead to distorted ways of thinking and resultant self-destructive behavior. No simple religious formula, no amount of prayer or wishful thinking or denial worked or was ever going to work.  The injuries were real.  The scars are real.  And the metaphorical limp is a part of my existence.  Always will be.

The only thing I’ve ever experienced that’s given me actual relief from the effects of these trauma are evidenced based tools.  No mythical cosmological nonsense.  No twelve steps.  No ritual incantations.  No magic bread and wine.  No numbing external tools of avoidance. Scientifically studied, double-blind tested tools that you can touch and see and feel.  Verifiable through actual scientific experimentation.

Funny that it took so long for a “smart” guy to come to that conclusion.  So I abandon unprovable solutions to any equation, whether that’s my internal state of mind or large questions of existence.  Serotonin re-uptake inhibitors.  Cognitive therapy.

And Buddhism.  This may seem like an odd thing to lump in with antidepressants and psychotherapy, but it isn’t really.  Many have described Buddhism as the science of religion.  Buddhism requires no “belief” system.  Believe in “god”, don’t believe in “god”.  Buddhism says that such beliefs are a matter of personal choice and completely irrelevant in the pursuit of enlightenment.  Quieting your mind.  Becoming aware, truly aware, absent distortions.  Being at peace even in the midst of chaos.  Whatever the cosmological implications are don’t matter.  It’s all we can actually put our fingers on.  The only bread and wine that has any hope of uniting us all in something beyond ourselves.

This brings me to the second part of this equation.  Some have jumped to the conclusion that the events towards the end of my ordained ministry have led me to bitterness and a rejection of my faith.  That I have lost my faith.

On the contrary.  While those events were brutal and, regardless of my religious evolution, they would have led to my abandonment of the institutional church.  I was already calling for that institutions end even as a pastor.  I was already telling my colleagues and congregants that the “decline” of the church was probably the best thing to happen to Christianity in 2 millennia.

My religious evolution – from Christian pastor to non-theist Buddhist – is a straight line.  Its an evolution, not an abandonment.  While I was in exile these last two years, I contemplated all those prayers I said.  All those sacraments I performed.  Weddings.  Funerals.  Baptisms.   Pet blessings.  Healings.  Exorcisms (yes, exorcisms).  Most radically, “holy” eucharist.

While I see the values of these events in the contexts within which I performed them, I have realized that it is the context itself that was flawed.  Were people joined in marriage?  Yes.  Were they blessed?  Yes.  Healed?  Well…depending on how you view that word, yes.

Was the bread and wine transformed into the body and blood of “Christ”? No.

All of the transformational power of those events took place purely because of the people in the room.  And those transformations were real.  But when I lifted my hands and said those words, that double epiclesis, lead that Great Amen, there was no “communion” because the people weren’t transformed.  They kept right on being the squabbling, rancorous and self-flagellating people they had always been.

Those prayers weren’t answered because no one was listening.  And since the community gathered wasn’t really committed to the kind of community we were talking about, the words were empty and the communion didn’t happen.  And no divine presence to work miracles and make it happen.

The falsehood of communion finally and completely convinced me of the non-existence of “god” .  Or at least the irrelevance of the question.  By contrasting the true community of shared meals with non-believers with the staged non-community of believers, what other conclusion could I come to? That I wasn’t doing it right?  The Church decided very early on that the “worthiness” of the minister had no bearing on the validity of sacraments.  So…

Adopting a worldview where the only thing that matters is what can be verified, where peace of mind is the surest sign of a righteous path, and the only reality is that which we experience allows me to take the next step.  And that next step is to mold my conscious awareness in such a way that all that hell I went through, all that trauma, all those injuries and the resultant scars become a different story.

Still important.  Still real.  But no longer plot points in a horror story, merely stark moments in a sometimes very dark comedy.

83 Milliseconds

Between any event and our conscious awareness of that event, there is a gap.  Not a very big one.  One that we don’t notice.  But that gap is huge in its implications.

Science tells us that gap is around 83 milliseconds.  Ok.  Hey.  I may have a bit of “hurry sickness”, but even I don’t stress out over 83 milliseconds.  The time clock doesn’t record my arrival with that much detail.

But that gap exists.  And what captures my imagination is what it means.

The illustration given to demonstrate this is easy to recreate.  So I want you to do something for me before we go on.  I want you to touch your forehead and your toes at the same time.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

Now.  We all felt that, right?  When we touched our forehead and our toes.  At the same time.  Right?  But how can that be when we know it takes more time for a nerve impulse to get from our toes to our brain than from our forehead to our brain.  Imperceptible…well, but perception is what this is about, so perception becomes suspect.

Except it isn’t.  It’s quantifiable.  And what science has proven is that our brains take objective external stimulus (in this illustration, touching our foreheads and our toes) and re-arranges those events, assembles them, correlates them before throwing them up on the screen of our consciousness.  It takes 83 milliseconds for that to happen.

Not long.  But enough for this to be true:  everything we know, everything we experience and are aware of, is past tense. And that past is entirely a product of our brains taking objective stimuli and re-arranging them into something that looks coherent to us.

And what looks coherent to me may be distorted to you.  And vice versa.

Pretty basic, really. Philosophers and physicists have been building this argument for a century. “Reality” is entirely a construction that results from observation.  We can quibble over whether there is an objective reality or not (I think there is), but whatever our conclusions are about that, what we experience is never that.  Our experience of reality is entirely subjective.

We have no access to any Truths that aren’t conditioned.  None.  Whether we want to believe in an objective framework or not, our reality is a construction.

The Matrix has you. Whatever objective reality may exist, we as individual specks of consciousness (more on that later) exist entirely within the construct.

And, like Neo, our problem isn’t that we can’t bend the spoon with our minds.  The problem is that we don’t seem able to understand that there is no spoon.  To bend “the spoon”, it is us that must bend.  Our construct must yield to a higher truth and that higher truth is simply that the construct is a construct.  It isn’t “real”.

When we do that, we take control of the construct and can create a world consistent with our values.  OUR choice whether it’s a dark and scary place or a place of frightening beauty.  Of disempowering imprisonment or liberating obligation.  Fearful retreat or joyful terror.

In no way does this minimize our experience of the construct in all its power.  On the contrary, the construct is all we have, really.  And if our construct includes horror, we have to acknowledge the horror and help rebuild a construct without it.

My reality, my construct, my commitment:  a world that is free, a life that is whole, health and vitality.

What else can there be?  Every hell I’ve ever experienced happened 83 milliseconds before I even knew it existed. And how I experienced it was a conditioned interpretation.  Time to change the conditioning.  Time to declare my independence.  Like Neo, I place my fist on the ground and launch myself into the air, free.

Sermon from Exile for Epiphany6A/Valentine’s Day, February 16, 2014

Let us pray.

May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

Good morning.

In 2009, on Valentine’s Day, I adopted an eight week old stray.  He was some mix of shepherd, terrier, chihuahua, boxer and perhaps greyhound or dachshund.  Brown with a double coat, the lower coat being gray.  Long snout, dark, and brown eyes ringed with what can only be described as makeup worthy of an ancient Egyptian prince.  Dark floppy ears and paws and tip of his tail and a snow-white patch on his breast.  Naked belly.  Tail that curves over his back like a scorpion’s stinger.

I suppose I could spend the hundreds for genetic testing to find out what he “really” is, but the only thing that really matters is that he loves me and I love him.  And he barks to keep the monsters away.

Since I adopted him on Valentine’s Day and I name my dogs after saints…well.  When I have cats, I name them after famous riots, the last, a Maine Coon, being named Stonewall (peace be upon him).  But I was scratching my head trying hard to figure out a Saint’s name for my new puppy as I nibbled on the heart-shaped box of chocolates the pound gave me.  What can I name him?  What can I name him?

Well, I can sometimes be a little thick. Pretty smart, usually, but some pretty silly things slip my mind or evade my grasp occasionally.  Then, like the V8 commercial – pop on the forehead – I named him Valentine.  Duh.

Well, calling him down to eat – “Valentine!” – scolding him for pestering my mom at the dinner table – “Valentine!” – pawing his way on to my lap while driving – “Valentine!” – wanting attention when I’m trying to concentrate on my sermon – “Valentine!”  Now.  What am I  going to talk about on Sunday.  Scratch, scratch.

I’ve spent a lot of time this week thinking about Valentine’s Day and love.  And Saint Valentine himself.  Of course, thinking about Saint Valentine is complicated because no one is exactly sure which historical, martyred Valentinus is actually remembered on Valentine’s Day.  If we remember the Saint at all, in our frenzy of orgiastic consumption.  But the prevailing myth is that the Valentine we remember was martyred for his faith and that his followers slipped him notes of love and loyalty along with morsels to eat while he was imprisoned.  Thus, “Valentines”.

And of course, with all the great victories or steps towards victory we achieved this week moving towards marriage equality…well, how can we not have love on the brain?

So it might seem that Paul’s words about love to his former congregants at Corinth might have been a better choice of scripture for today’s reflection about love. You know, the one we’ve heard so often at weddings?  Unfortunately, as lovely as that text is, it has nothing to do with romantic love or marriage.  But there are other passages – something from the near pornographic Song of Solomon, perhaps?  Or a lovely sonnet…I mean psalm?

But surely a lecture in Deuteronomy about obeying God or else, loving God and nothing else…that can’t be a good choice for a reflection on love, can it?

Well…

Remember Jesus response to the guy trying to trick him?  The one who asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was?  The lawyer wanted to trick Jesus into teaching something overtly heretical.  Something that he could be charged with and thrown in prison for.

Do you remember how Jesus responded?

Here’s the text:

“Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

—Matthew 22:35-40 (KJV)

And everyone was astounded because Jesus gave a very orthodox answer.  As a good rabbi would.  And what’s important to note here is that Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy with his answer.  The same book our focus text comes from.  About obeying commandments and loving God and not idols.

So lets talk about love and then what it means to obey God’s commandments and ordinances and what happens when we don’t.  And I think this is a good follow on to our discussion last week.

When Jesus and the author of Deuteronomy summarize the law into love of God, neighbor and self, they consider themselves to be summarizing all 613 laws of Moses, the ones that start with what we refer to as the “Ten Commandments”.  While many of those 613 are bizarre to us – like breaking the neck of a calf by the river in the case of an unsolved murder – or  something we no longer feel applies to us – like prohibitions against eating shellfish or wearing poly cotton blends or throwing footballs made with pigskin – to the ancient Hebrews/Jews they made sense.  Those 613 laws and the society that flowed from them, while oppressive and unjust by contemporary standards in many cases – or just silly – that society was much more just than those around Israel.

Those laws attempted to care for the poor.  The widow.  The orphan.

That is why Jesus and the Deutoronomistic author could look at those 613 and summarize them as being about love.  Of God.  Of Neighbor.  Of Self.  Love.

But it’s not the love of those candy hearts, chocolates and roses.  It’s the hard love that requires self-emptying.  Sacrifice.  The pain of constantly reforming ourselves so that we love God and neighbor more, our selves less, so that they conform to the Great Commandment.

Now.  I hear the feminist critique hear.  Self-emptying, for women, may be something they already too far too much in a male dominated society.  I agree.  And in some cases, loving your husband or wife less may be what a woman needs to do to bring her love for her partner and her self into more balance.  This is also true of the poor who probably need to show less deference to their keepers in order to love themselves more.

But obeying that greatest commandment requires that balance.  God first, self and neighbor equally.

So when we read Deuteronomy’s admonition to OBEY and follow the rules, there’s only one rule you need to worry about.  One rule that colors all the rest.  One rule, one lens through which we have to read all the rest – and that rule is love.  Of God.  Of Neighbor.  Of Self.

And if a “rule” – promulgated in scripture, by the church, by our families, by the government, by tradition – if a “rule” fails that test, fails to increase our love of God or balance our love of neighbor and self, then that “rule” is void.

So Deuteronomy is not a call to be blindly obedient to those rules.  Traditions.  Church proclamations.  The Book of Worship or Discipline or Church Canons.  Those rules are null and void when they don’t meet the litmus test of the Great Commandment.

And I think our treatment of Valentine’s Day works against our ability to do that.  It doesn’t increase love.  It distracts us from it.

At least what love really is.  Love is how God acts.  Love is what God is.  Sometimes that comes in the guise of an answered prayer or wish-fulfillment.  Sometimes that looks like a boot in the ass.  And it happens every day, not just on a day set aside by Hallmark.

And we are called to be and do the same.  Actually not called.  Commanded.

My friends on the left get uncomfortable with that language when it comes from the  bible or a preacher.  And for good reason.  Command has been the method of control preferred by the church and preachers for about 1600 years.  Without a gap.  So those of us who have been burned by the church – metaphorically, as most, or literally, as St. Valentine was – are naturally wary when the church or a preacher uses a word like obey.

But that can only be if we misunderstand what we are called to obey.  And I don’t find it hard to put on a pair of glasses that requires me to see the world in light of loving God, neighbor and self.

And you shouldn’t either.  Even if your understanding of reality doesn’t include “God”, per se.  There are many ways to understand that concept and if you prefer “nature” or “science” or “beauty” (which is how Jonathan Edwards, the original, chose to define God), the same rule applies.

And the Deuteronomistic author – and Jesus later – make it clear what happens when you don’t.  And it ain’t good.

When you trade in a love of God for the love of idols, watch out.  (See above about what God might mean for those who don’t believe in God.).  An idol is something not worthy of our dedication.  Define that as you will.  But when you put your energy into the worship of something unworthy (as I have, in my worship of the institutional church)(in the past!), you might as well eat nothing but sugar.  See what happens.

When  you fail to love yourself and your neighbor equally, watch out.  Not loving yourself means neglecting your health, perhaps.  Harboring negative self talk.  Doing things that harm yourself, like drug or alcohol abuse (abuse, not necessarily use), engaging in work that harms creation or those around you.

Not loving your neighbor means…well, we talked about that last week.  Corporately, it means supporting a government that cuts aid to the  poor while giving billions in tax subsidies to the wealthy.  But it can also mean something very, very local,  as a commenter noted on our sermon last week.  It can mean seeing poverty right next door and not working to address it with bags of groceries or help with heating bills or new school clothes as we are able.  Or organizing the willing in your neighborhood to help if you yourself are poor.

But make no mistake.  I agree with the author of Deuteronomy and with Jesus.  If we want to walk in the light and to be a light then we have no choice.  We are required to obey and  if we don’t, it can only lead us into darkness.  One path brings more light into the world.  One path more darkness.

Which will it be?

Amen.

The Rev. Jonathon Edwards
Preacher in Exile

Sermon from Exile, Epiphany 5A, February 9, 2014

Let us pray.

May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

Good morning. 

Preaching “into the ether” is a strange experience.  Preaching in general is a strange experience – if you haven’t done it, talk to your pastor and get them to let you give it a whirl if you don’t believe me.  It isn’t quite a speech – though it shares a lot in common with public speaking.  It isn’t quite a lecture, though any preacher worth their salt has a point they are trying to get across, even if it might be wrong.  And it isn’t quite a “sermon” as popularly conceived – or as seen on television!  It is a weird hybrid in which, we hope, the preacher, the “people in the pews” and the Holy Spirit are somehow having a conversation even if only one person’s voice is being raised out loud.

But preaching “into the ether” – on “paper” to folks flung far and wide on the internet is even weirder.  A good preacher knows their audience.  While I know some of you, many of you I don’t.  And, if you find my words interested, who knows into whose hands the words written here might land.  How can I know my “congregation” under those circumstances and “preach for relevance”.

I usually wouldn’t start a sermon talking about sermons or the process of writing them, but I think a couple of minutes about this at the start of this experiment might be worth it.  A couple of points:

First, when  I preach, I hope for it to be “dialogical”.  And not just metaphorically.  Every sermon includes the   
preachers voice, the thoughts of those hearing that voice, and the whisperings of the Holy Spirit.  But in my sermons, I want to take the idea that sermons are collaborative in the metaphorical sense and make it real.  In the sanctuary, I would ask questions and over time my congregation started answering.  Sometimes it would be a good 2 or 3 minutes before I could get a word in edgewise.  I wrote my sermons specifically with this in mind.  I can’t do that in this format, but I hope to capture a bit of that in the comments section.  So please, if you hear something in your head in response to something I’m saying – agreement, disagreement, or just a hearty “Amen”, please put it in the comments section.  And if you have a similar response to something you read in the comments section, do the same.

Second, there are rules to this open forum style of preaching.  First, I’m the preacher.  I will have a point that I am making and if the comments start to stray too far, I will step in and bring it back.  Second, if this virtual sanctuary is going to work then the  comments section needs to be “worshipful” in the sense that ad hominem attacks, crazy talk, or outright opposition to the “tradition” from which I am preaching are out of place.  When you go to a baptist church, you expect a baptist church.  When you come to this church, you should expect what you find here.  If you have any questions about where this “church” may be coming from, read back over my posts before the reboot.

Lastly (ok, three points), I am committed to posting a sermon every Sunday morning at 10am central time.  For a couple hours after that, I will be around the house and monitoring the comments and jumping in to add a thought here or there – of clarification, to answer biblical or theological or historical or pastoral questions, etc.  After that, I will look occasionally, but as on typical Sundays for me as a pastor – after I cleaned up from fellowship and locked the doors I was on to thinking about next Sunday.

So.  That’s the game plan.  Let’s get started.

The season of Epiphany is winding down and now we’re getting to the heart of the matter, really.  A season of dawning realization – about the nature of Jesus, the nature of God, our nature and the relationship between all these things – has brought us, today, to Isaiah’s powerful words. (I have posted the week’s focus text, and will each week, under a separate post for your reference prior to posting the sermon.)  And those words should be deeply troubling for us folk living in the US today.

First some historical background.  The time line, for me, always gets a little muddy – especially since scholars can’t agree on it and I’ve read at least a half-dozen different versions of it! – but given the words and the politics, I think it likely that the 58th chapter of Isaiah was written by someone writing in Isaiah’s name from exile in Babylon.  Or shortly after returning to Jerusalem after generations of exile there.

In either case, this informs how we must read this section of Isaiah.  Not as some “fortune teller” predicting our future, but as a prophet in the truest sense of the word looking around him/herself and “spinning” what they see in light of the Torah.  How do you explain the exile if we are the Chosen?  And how will it end (or why has it ended)?

Without talking about Tiglath-Pileser II or Senacherib or Ahaz or Mannaseh or remembering Xerxes or any of the rest of the eye-glazing details, the Exile, after the Exodus and before the Diaspora and the Holocaust, is the biggest event in the formation of Israel and Jewish identity.  The “Land” had been promised and won. Jerusalem was God’s city given to the Chosen to safeguard.  To be a “light on a hill” to the nations surrounding it, living in darkness.  How can a pagan king take it away from us?

And this wasn’t mere geographic relocation.  You’ve heard of Aramaic, no doubt.  Well another name for Babylon was “Aram” – don’t quote me on that…the names of the “pagan” kingdoms around Israel are a bit squishy.  But Aramaic is a bastardized form of Hebrew that evolved during the exile.  They lost their language.  They lost the Torah.  They lost their culture.  They almost…almost….got absorbed into Babylon entirely!

In the midst of that crisis of identity – either while it was happening or immediately after returning home – Isaiah attempts to explain it all.  And what does he say?  Go back to the last post and re-read it.

Go  ahead. I’ll wait.

What does he say? 

Let me paraphrase it the way I read it:

It starts with God sending Isaiah forth to announce to “Jacob” (Israel) their sin.  They act, God says, as if they are a righteous nation that didn’t forsake the covenant I made with them.  They love to get close to me and ask me for righteous judgments and yet.  Yet, they say, you don’t notice how we fast and how righteous we are?

And God says the reason is that all your fasts are in your own self interests and while you dress up all pretty when you come to the Temple, in the meantime you oppress your own workers.  You fast on the Sabbath only to turn around an fight with each other and strike with a “wicked fist”.

Fasting like that will never get you heard in heaven. (In other prophets, God is explicit – when  you fast like that I will rain down fire on your head! You would be better off not fasting at all.)

Do you really think this is what I had in mind? God asks.  To wear sackcloth and ashes on the sabbath and then turn  around and be a dick to your employees and the poor and make war with each other?

No.

Instead, this is the fast that I choose for you…the only one I care about….

” to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke…”

Then and only then will your light dawn.   Then and only then will your cries reach my ears.  Then and only then will you be restored.

Offer your food to the hungry.  Satisfy the needs of the afflicted.

Then and only then will I satisfy YOUR needs and make YOUR bones strong.  If you do this, you will raise up many generations and you will be those who restored the streets to a place where life flourishes.

Then and only then.

To paraphrase.   🙂

If you live in the United States this ought to scare the crap out of you.  It does me.  Or at least it gives me a context to understand our current state and its correlation to things like resistance to universal healthcare (meeting the needs of the afflicted), cutting food stamps and refusing to extend unemployment benefits (refusing to feed the hungry or care for the poor), cutting veterans benefits (sending people off to fight those quarrels for which we abuse our fast and then throwing them to the streets).  All the while, those taking these actions and those who support them drape themselves in the flag and call themselves followers of a Torah teaching orthodox Jewish Rabbi who would have understood and taught Isaiah just like you read it above.  Jesus.

Here’s the hard truth as I believe Isaiah puts it:  look, don’t bother going to church if you come home to bitch about how lazy people on unemployment are.  Or, in the more benign version of that, don’t claim you are against these kinds of social safety nets because its “for their own good”.  “Unemployment and food stamps encourage dependence on the government.”  “Work is dignity.” 

Yeah.  And War = Peace.  Hate = Love.  That’s doubleplusgood!

Nowhere in Isaiah (or elsewhere in either the Greek or Hebrew texts) does God address the responsibilities of the poor.  Always.  Always, it is those with privilege that are tasked with caring for them.  Without reserve or question.  God will take care of the more complicated issue of their souls and their greater well being.  That is none of our concern.

If they are hungry, you feed them.  You don’t question whether they are hungry because they blew it all on whiskey the night before.  All we are to be concerned with is that there is a hungry person standing in front of us. 

That applies to the homeless vet standing on the corner in front of McDonalds as well as the more macro attempts to solve these problems like food stamps, unemployment and healthcare.  And job retraining programs.  And cheap or free education.  And housing.

If you take care of these, then and only then will your light shine.  Then and only then will  you find yourself thriving.  Then and only then will you be known as “restorers of streets to live in”.

And if you don’t?  Don’t bother going to church because under those circumstances your prayers smell like a sewer.  Your churches are nothing more than sewage treatment plants.

And if we really are a “Christian” nation (we aren’t, but for the sake of argument…), and we look at our current circumstances…ongoing recession (depression in some places), an economy converting well-playing careers into burger flipping at McDonald’s, a political establishment that insists on its own righteousness while neglecting the poor here and dropping bombs on the heads of the poor across the world….then perhaps, from Isaiah’s perspective, we can understand what’s happening to our country.

We have been exiled from our own best selves.  The same people who gave so generously to rebuild Europe after World War II now can’t be bothered to help its own poor.  A nation founded on the idea that the government shouldn’t be able to intrude without a reason is now a nation that digs through our digital garbage looking for something without cause.  A commentator in a nation of immigrants objects when a Supreme Court Justice refuses to call undocumented workers “illegal” as if people can be illegal.

We have been exiled from our own best selves.  The Church that grew from the movement led by that wandering Galilean is more concerned with its own self-preservation than with generations of its members that have suffered abuse at its hands.  Sex abuse.  Spiritual abuse.  Theological abuse.  Financial abuse.  Paternalism.  Snobishness.  Refusal to welcome the stranger in any meaningful way.  A rejection of reformation even when its clear that is what God is calling for.

Not to mention in its quest for self-preservation, the Church…with notable exceptions….has lost the ability to have any meaningful impact on the world around it.

All because…as Isaiah puts it….we dress up all pretty on Sunday and mouth pretty words and then get to our desks on Monday morning and continue business as usual.  Is it any wonder God isn’t paying attention?  Isaiah tells us in plain Hebrew why that is.  It should be obvious.

But.  But.  If we change.  If we focus more on taking care of the poor, the afflicted, the wronged…if we as a nation take seriously these words:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me…:

Then  it might be different.

Until that is real.  Until we heed Isaiah’s warnings, we will not enjoy Isaiah’s promises.  In fact, those warnings are God’s and those promises are God’s and you can trust that both will be true.  Which of them we experience is our choice.  God will honor God’s commitments. 

So which will it be?  Continue down this path or heed the warnings?  For myself, I choose to work really hard to heed these warnings and try to structure my life taking them seriously and I  will work so that the rest of the world does, too.

How about you?

Amen.

Technical Difficulties

Ah, Internet.  I am having technical difficulties uploading my sermon.  Sorry.  It should be up momentarily.

 

In the meantime…..ruminate on this…why, in a country that conceives itself as a light on the hill, a bastion of freedom and justice that sets an example for the nations, do we rank behind every other developed country on the planet (and some undeveloped ones!) on crucial measures that lead to happiness and health and development?  Behind in everything except defense spending, that is.

Hmm?

Sermon will be up in a minute (knock wood).

On Ministry

For those who’ve followed this blog and those who just popped in in the last day or two, let me begin by saying thank you.  And then let you know that this will be my last post on this blog.  The content will be preserved on my new blog for posterity’s sake – and to prove to certain parties that I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve written here.  But I’ve never quite gotten to a point of understanding the purpose of this blog so I am reinventing it after I have figured that question out.  So you can expect this blog to come down by the end of the month.  To find my next blog endeavor, follow me on twitter @jedwards06.

But in the meantime…..

It should be obvious to most that I don’t consider myself someone called to nurse a dying institution in my ministry.  Like many church growth leaders, when they were being honest with me (usually meaning “drunk”), the truth is that the institution is already dead and that thriving (in 21st Century terms) local churches get punished for that.  By wider church bodies and by other local churches who are convinced that the borders of the Empire are intact and that this is all just a momentary glitch before returning to the glory days when they controlled everything.

And that attitude comes from some very surprising places, sometimes (feminist pastors, gay pastors, African American pastors).  I think these folk really just think this way because if that attitude isn’t true, then their well paying (at least in comparison to most of us) positions are about to come to an end.  I think they are trying to ride it out until retirement, frankly.  “Let the change come after I’m comfortably settled at Pilgrim Place.  Keep your rebellious attitude to yourself until then, thank you.”

That attitude is a complete and utter betrayal of our call as ordained ministers, frankly, and it makes me sick.

But today I received the highest compliment I could possible receive.  I’ll get to that in a minute.

For the last several months, I have been under an ecclesiastical cloud.  Those who do the work that I do (minister in marginal spaces that need real help) have fans and haters.  Not much in between.  And the haters want you gone.  They want you dead, metaphorically (sometimes literally) speaking.  When I say, after Bishop Spong, that the church must change or die, there are some who get totally and completely freaked out.  Mostly those are the ones I was describing above.  People with a personal, vested interest in keeping the things the way they are.  Whether that’s mere sentimentality or a desire to preserve the power structures that keep them in positions of authority, doesn’t matter.  The results are the same.  They want change agents out of the picture.

I have absolutely no interest in playing that game.  I won’t now, I promised God I would never do that as a minister, and I won’t in the future even if it means I lose my “collar” in the process.  Because I don’t work for the institution (not the local church, not the Association, not the Conference, not General Synod or the General Minister).  I work for God and God alone.  I have healthy support and accountability structures in place that help prevent “God” and “me” from being the same thing and I recognize the inherent dangers, but I think I and my friends are as qualified to police my actions as is any committee of strangers elected by a disinterested bunch of folk just in a hurry to get to lunch.

So.  Since my ministry is not to the institution, then what is it to, precisely?  Well, can it be to anyone other than the ones that Jesus was called to serve and called us to serve?  Of course not. 

I’m not here for those who have everything, Jesus implied in his remark about sick/well folks.  I’m here for those who don’t.

As am I.  My ministry is entirely focused on those who aren’t part of this grand experiment called the church and those who stuck with it and are still working to rebuild after God’s chastisement of the last 50 years.  My hope is that my local church will be a non-church church, a place where people from all walks of life can come and explore the great questions without having to drink the Kool-Aid.  Without having to sign on the dotted line and recite the Nicene Creed on the sword-point of eternal damnation.  And without having to slavishly support the actions of a wider institution that frequently fails to be what Jesus called it to be.

So my ministry takes me to many strange places (not the least of which is the sanctuary on Sunday morning).  Those places include bars and taverns.  They include the checkout stand at the local drug store.  They include a medical marijuana “vendor” who brings probably 50 pounds of marijuana into Southern California every month.  They include the homeless, they include drunks and druggies.  An occasional prostitute.  And they include a diverse bunch of folk who gather around a thing called “Bethel” (the house of God, in Hebrew) to serve the world.

Because of that, I arrive at institutional church gatherings “smelling” funny.  There’s something a bit “off” to those who think of church as a nice potluck supper.  I don’t “talk” right.  My speech is a bit too “gutter” for them.  I don’t hold back or white wash what I have to say to spare people’s feelings.

And frankly that pisses some people off.  Some because that’s not how they think I should act.  Others because they wish they had the guts to act that way themselves.

And then of course, there are those who distance themselves from me (how’s that for covenant?) because they don’t want to get my “stink” on them lest it ruin their “careers.”

Which means that my patron saint has now become Paul.  Yeah.  That Paul.  Because he and I are alike in many, many ways.  He was constantly in trouble with the hierarchs in Jerusalem.  And  he hung out with people those guys didn’t approve of.  Just like Jesus.  And his letters (epistles) were written in gutter Greek.  Not the Greek of the academy or of those pharisees he was trained by.  No.  The Greek of the prostitutes and drunks, the gutter rats.  When Paul said “I am but refuse” in describing his worth, the Greek word he used was “shit”.  Paul had a potty mouth.  Or, more likely, he employed gutter language strategically because of his mission field.

And that strategy paid off for Paul.  In spite of the best efforts of the hierarchs, Paul stuck with it and as a result the Church exploded across the Mediterranean.  And “those kind of people” flocked to churches in droves.

And today, my efforts were confirmed.  I didn’t get a “convert” (what the hell does that even mean), but I got something even better.  A non-religious friend of mine posted an article about an “ex-gay” leader in the midwest, who, in the name of Jesus, enslaved his “wife” and used her as a proof tool of his and his buddies “heterosexuality”.  They used her as a sex slave.  For months.  And then, when she was about to spill the beans to the police he had her murdered.  In the name of Jesus.

I posted a comment that these kind of freaks make my job much more difficult.  His response:

“When I hear people bash Christianity (or am tempted to myself), I think of you and remind myself that all Christians aren’t idiots.”

That’s all I needed to hear.  Do you think, with that kind of affirmation from someone inclined to bash Christianity, that I am going to let the shenanigans of petty hierarchs bother me?  At least bother me anymore?  Not a chance.  I feel like Paul in Athens, exhorting the gentiles and then having one of them come up and say “I don’t agree with you, but I know not all who follow Christ are snake handling, holy rolling, wife murdering ex-gay freaks.”  If, in my ministry, I can get just one person (yes, one) to think that the Christian journey, though not there own, isn’t always the journey of bigots and the mentally ill, then I am a successful pastor.

I have done my job.  I’m taking a vacation.  I’ll file my appeal and we will file our complaint against the hierarchs in Jerusalem but the results of their previous efforts and the outcome of that appeal/complaint are simply irrelevant to me going forward.

Ecclesial Scumbags

This is what I know.  When you shake someone’s hand and make a promise, you follow through.  When you don’t, you’re a scumbag.  And it simply doesn’t matter if you dress it up in a clerical collar and perfume the excrement with incense.  The leadership of Iglesia de Cristo Camino de Santidad are cowards and men without honor.  St. Paul will be having words with them.

Pride

June is gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender pride month.  And I put it in that order deliberately because “glbt” or “lgbt” isn’t an acronym.  It’s representative of an evolution.  In the 70’s we were just the “gay community”.  But our lesbian sisters pointed out that the masculine inclusive was very 1954 and the more enlightened of us agreed and so we became the “gay and lesbian community”.  Then our sisters pointed out that putting gay first was still rather patriarchal, so we switched it.  Then the largest contingent in our community – and in fact the largest part of our species – noted that there were some bi folk among us so we tacked that on.  Then our dear drag queens – and then we discovered other profound categories – pointed out that they were the first ones to throw bricks at the police outside the Stonewall Inn back in the day.  So we tacked on a “t”.

I still use glbt simply for historical reasons.  And I’m not adding a q or an i or an a because not a single soul outside of this movement knows what the hell that means.  We need a name, people, we need a name.

But that’s not what this post is about.  Today is the beginning of pride month and it leads me to reflect about our communities.  And it is communities.  Not a single community.  I believe we are a coalition of communities.  In seminary, in reflecting on the structure of the tribes of ancient Israel we learned a funny word:  amphyctiony.  A federation of tribes.  

That’s what we are.  We are an amphyctiony.  A federation of tribes united around a common purpose.  Gay men and lesbian women have different issues in life.  We have different struggles.  As a cisgendered male, my only connection with my former transwoman moderator was one of solidarity, not identification.  And I can’t fathom what it means to be equally attracted to men and women and my brothers who are have a different struggle and a different journey.

This federation was formed not because the g, l, b, and t are the same.  It was formed because the wider world dumped us all into the same hidden dive bars and cast us all to the outer darkness.  THEY didn’t recognize our differences and just called us all freaks.  

That is our federation.  But WE need to recognize our differences and today what I want to ask of my g,l and b brothers and sisters is that we use this month to recognize the transphobia in our community.  

Remember: it was transwomen – in whatever way you want to conceptualize that – that started our revolution.  And they and their trans brothers have a double burden.  Not only do they have to climb huge mountains of self discovery that must be more difficult than just discovering as a boy that you like boys.  But they also then, after making that discovery have to deal with the genetic lot they have been delivered.  

We must eliminate transphobia from within our federation of communities.  Until we do, “pride” will be a dusty idea on a shelf somewhere.

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