Connections

“There is another way to conceive of our life in God, but it requires a different worldview— not a clockwork universe in which individuals function as discrete springs and gears, but one that looks more like a luminous web, in which the whole is far more than the parts. In this universe, there is no such thing as an individual apart from his or her relationships. Every interaction— between people and people, between people and things, between things and things— changes the face of history. Life on earth cannot be reduced to four sure-fire rules. It is an ever-unfolding mystery that defies precise prediction. Meanwhile, in this universe, there is no such thing as ‘parts.’ The whole is the fundamental unity of reality.”1.

Our connections, each with the Other, each with all things here and there, past and present, are easily ignored or overlooked. The connections are too big to see, too small, too normal to examine objectively  or too extraordinary to regard as having anything at all to do with us. That we (me and you: our bodies, our hair and tongues and the rest of our physical beings) are somehow in the same ballpark as the planet Pluto, and both we and Pluto are players in the expansion of the universe and the gravitational warps of time, was not much more for most of us than a paragraph in a 12th grade science textbook.

Now, since last July, we’ve got photographs from Pluto. Not OF Pluto, but FROM Pluto.

Look closely enough through a microscope at the neurological connections in our brains and beyond to our toes and the patterns of ebb and flow look like nothing so much as satellite views of the Euphrates River Valley or the Mississippi Delta. And now we know those similarities of appearance are the antithesis of coincidence but a direct result of gravity’s dance with oceans and planetary orbits.

That we are all composed of starstuff was awesome news to most of us forty years ago, but now (thank you, Carl Sagan) it is the kind of truth that we must intentionally stifle lest we begin to destroy carefully crafted and “valuable” political/economic/cultural barriers between ourselves and ________ (fill in the name of another group of humans of your choice here).

We chew sunshine when we eat lettuce (or any green leaf), drink of the Arctic Ocean when eat at Whataburgers (or the Neiman-Marcus Tea Room), and breathe in (at an alarmingly high rate) the SAME atoms of oxygen breathed by pteradactyls, Alexander the Great, Jack the Ripper, and that jerk down the street with the always-barking dog. We humans and toadstools share 42% of a DNA template!

And on and on and on, ad infinitum..(literally).

The Connections are real. Between you and me and everything and everyone else pastpresentfuture, world without end, amen.

The gospel writer John described Jesus as the Word made Flesh. We know stuff that John didn’t know, though, and therefore couldn’t describe. It expands, widens, and deepens my , understanding and fascination with the Christ to know him as the Word made Flesh but also as the Word made starstuff in ALL of its forms: mountains, meteorites, quasars, synaptic receptors, lava, ice flows, bacteria, soil and..

Everything else: and it is all luminous. It is all filled with Light..

(amen, again)

1.Barbara Brown Taylor, “Physics and Faith: The Luminous Web,” Christian Century, June 2 1999, 612.

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A New Year: Do This Now

Nobody has asked for it today; nonetheless, I offer this advice. It is spiritual advice, because that is the place from which it rises within me. You may receive it as a practical recommendation, but it is more. However, I am willing to say we are both correct. And you are free to disregard it. But I hope you won’t.

Thirty thousand years ago, in what is today France and Spain, people squeezed through openings in the earth, descended into dark (beyond dark) passageways with fire, paint, fuel, and the carcesses of small animals, in order to paint pictures on cavern limestone walls.

We don’t know precisely why they went to such dangerous, certainly uncomfortable lengths to do this, but they did.  There are caves throughout Europe filled with these paintings, drawings, and stencils of human hands.

The human urge to make a mark on something is (thus) at least thirty thousand years old. It is as new as the itching you and I feel to do the same. We feel that itch right now- for some it is a prodding, perhaps a scraping or worse. It is a feeling that ping-pongs between the hypocampus and our frontal lobes, back and forth between our ears and the sensory extensions of our consciousness into our surroundings.

We all want to leave a mark. We must pick up a brush, even when it is not the right brush. We must speak words, or write them to another though we know they are inadequate. We must plant a stone, a tree, a flag despite there being no exactly-right place to do so. We must crawl through the dark passageway, with fire.

Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo on October 2, 1884, this:

“If one wants to be active, one mustn’t be afraid to do something wrong sometimes, not afraid to lapse into some mistakes. To be good — many people think that they’ll achieve it by doing no harm— and that’s a lie… That leads to stagnation, to mediocrity. Just slap something on it when you see a blank canvas staring at you with a sort of imbecility.

“You don’t know how paralyzing it is, that stare from a blank canvas that says to the painter you can’t do anything. The canvas has an idiotic stare, and mesmerizes some painters so that they turn into idiots themselves.

“Many painters are afraid of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas IS AFRAID of the truly passionate painter who dares — and who has once broken the spell of ‘you can’t.’”

Don’t be afraid. There is a musical chord, a shade of magenta, a combination of words, a caress, a lathed piece of walnut, a stiched tapestry, a blown goblet, a braid of rope, an office-barn, a carved stick, a paving of stones, a cake of never-before imagined splendor and savor, waiting..

for your imagination, touch, and intent

no matter how unready you are or how untrained you may be. You can learn what more you need to know- and it may take years. But it will not happen years from now unless you begin right now.

Crawl now. Be Active, Alive, and make the blank canvas Afraid.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What I believe (in case you’ve been worrying about it!)

An oldie, from October of 2008. And still a valid (for me) Statement of Faith

The First Morning

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you. 1Peter 3:15

About my faith:

1.God is. I can’t even begin to describe God, let alone define God. Anything I say about God must fit inside my mind, and the one thing I can say with authority and absolute assurance: God is bigger than my mind. (Psalm 139: 7-18)

2.I can’t see God. I can only see where God is passing through. (Exodus 33:23) Thus, I see God’s methodologies and systems much more often than I see God’s direct interventions. Those methodologies include breath-taking scenes like Mt.Ranier, an ocean storm, and a baby’s cooing and laughing. But they also include the chaotic explosions of stars, the ripping apart of a live songbirds by hawks, the chomping down on innocent baby turtles by sharks, and tsunamis. And…

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The Womb of God

The First Morning

The Womb of God

One of my favorite biblical authors is Abraham Heschel who, in 1962, wrote the definitive book on the prophets, called The Prophets. He described the time period around 400-500 B.C. when some of the great Old Testament prophets had begun to write and speak in alarming, revolutionary, and largely unlistened-to ways (I’m going to paraphrase just a little, because his words can be difficult at times):

Heschel wrote of that time- “Religion had declined not because it had been successfully argued against, but because it had become irrelevant, dull, oppressive, uninteresting. When faith is replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crises of today are ignored because of the remembered splendor of the past; when faith becomes an inherited heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority and rules rather than the voice…

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Merry Xmas

a-xmas

John 13:34-35   “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
This command was made by Jesus on the night before his arrest, the day before his trial and crucifixion. His disciples were gathered with him in the Upper Room. A bit earlier he had demonstrated to them the radical notion that Love was not only a noun, but a verb. He did that by washing their feet- the lowest task that could be imagined by anyone at the time.
Now, he had begun to tell them specifically about what would be happening in the coming hours. He knew the game was on. He knew there was a conspirator in their midst. He knew the end was soon coming.

These are last hour instructions, the summation of everything the disciples have heard Jesus say during the last 2-3 years. “Remember me” he has said over and over as he served them their Last Supper together. Remember what you have seen and what you have heard; go and do likewise.

“Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

“If you love one another..everyone will know you are my disciples.”

The Way behind Jesus, the path upon which he invited, and invites, his disciples to follow him, is simple: Love God, and love your neighbor.

It is so simple, but it is also dangerous. It takes a great deal of self-denial and humility. It takes a willingness to give time, give resources, and give that which seems most elusive at times- hope. It takes courage.

That “substance” of being disciple has been redefined by those who, and I will say it straight out: The substance of being a disciple has been replaced, redefined, and reworked by those who want to be disciples but do not have the courage.

They do not have the courage to wash feet- to do the dirty, humiliating, hands-on work that Jesus demonstrated was necessary again and again.

They do not have the courage to see the person in need, pick him up from the ditch, pay for his care, then offer the caretaker more when he returns nor are they willing to stand between a woman in trouble and hypocritical bullies ready to throw rocks.

We are about to see what has become a yearly onslaught by those tip-toeing, fearful wannabe disciples, as the Xmas season begins. We are about to see the difficult substance of being a follower of Jesus denigrated,  as the easily spoken words about being a Christian- are lifted up as

The. Most. Important. Thing.

Form over Substance.

An easy, outward and very visible example: The use of the X in the word “mas.”  I remember my aunts fussing about this one Xmas decades ago, and it was something which I then took on as a personal crusade, even as a kid. It seemed dishonoring of Christ, to replace him with an X.

But then, years later, I learned that following Christ was not about words, or form, it was about doing, and being, and following. Here’s what else I learned:

X is the Greek letter Chi. It is the first letter of the word “Christ.” It began to be used early on by those hundreds of stenographers who laboriously copied the manuscripts of Matthew, Mark, Luke John, Paul, and many others of the early church fathers.

X was also rumored to mark the meeting places in the Roman catacombs where believers and followers of The Way would gather. These were largely illiterate folks, remember. With every X they scratched on the wall of a catacomb they were honoring their Savior, as they were when they would trace Xs in the dirt with their feet when meeting others along Roman roads. Oddly, every time I write the Chi– the X– I feel like I am in a tiny way honoring those many, many illiterate peasants and others, who moved Christ through those first centuries with their stories, their presence, their deeds, and their gatherings together in times which demanded real and raw courage.

X was such a commonly used name for Christ that Constantine, in the year 325, the year he proclaimed the Roman Empire to be the Holy Roman Empire, took the Chi, added a Rho- C,R- and made it into a symbol on his soldier’s shields and flags. An unfortunate day in Christian history, perhaps, but not one which meant to dishonor the Christ at all! Later, in the 1500s, X enjoyed something of a revival when movable type began to be used- the Gutenberg and other presses, you know? Since every single letter of a document or page had to be carved out of wood or fashioned from rock or metal, it became desirable for printers, whenever possible, to shorten words, a kind of printed shorthand. There are many instances, for instance of the The Lord’s prayer and other familiar texts being printed without vowels to save tremendous labor.

How is X-M-A-S pronounced? It has always been pronounced “Christmas.” “Christmas” itself is a slightly shortened version of “Christ’s Mass”- Mass, a worship service.

X is NOT dishonoring. It is traditional. It does not make Christ any less holy than do the letters C H R I S T, which are also merely symbols that are used to communicate the person and office of Jesus the Christ.

But this is only one tiny however obvious element of faith that those who celebrate form over substance will quibble with. Words- the proper use of words seems to reign supreme in the religion of many. It is, after all, so much easier to talk about words, than it is to allow oneself to be transformed by the Word made flesh, and lying in a feed trough in a stable. It is so much easier to talk about how much you love Jesus than it is to do something, anything, sacrificially to help a neighbor in need.

 “The War on Christmas” is another headline and argument that is evidence of the superficiality of the religion of many. “Merry Christmas” versus “Happy Holidays” becomes the significant theological and spiritual benchmark as people seek to measure the “Christianity” of others.

Several years ago, a major Dallas Church established the Grinchalert. com website where people could tattle on various businesses that weren’t using the right words, the right holy-sounding words in the conduct of their business. Consumers could write into the site and express their outrage or pleasure over how they had been spoken to or how they felt while doing business. They could label their experiences as “Naughty” or “nice.”

 I quote from the Dallas Morning News: “The comments come from not only Texas but nationwide. A resident in Tulsa commented that the city voted to change the name of its Christmas parade to Holiday Parade of Lights. So Tulsa’s on the naughty list.

So are Sears and K-Mart in Grand Junction, Colo., because employees say “Happy Holidays” and not “Merry Christmas” when selling Christmas trees.
Target made both the naughty and nice lists. One shopper disliked the lack of items with religious references to Christmas. [Naughty] But another shopper from Appleton, Wis., commented that Target displayed large “Merry Christmas” signs above the checkout lines.” [Nice]
Unquote. Oh my.

“Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

One might ask, “Where’s the love?” in such a website, such an outward, silly, potentially unfair, and distracting endeavor? And it’s a good question. My answer is that there is no love at all to be found, except for the veneer thin love of right-sounding words.

OK, so what  is the substance of Xmas, then? If substance is far far far more important than form, what is the meaning, the substance, of Xmas?
The substance of Xmas is the same substance that should fill every day- Thanksgiving, The fourth of July, Labor Day, the first, second, and 83rd days of summer, Election Day, and our birthdays- all of them. The substance is the human manifestation of the divine, a manifestation which Jesus revealed, then went on to further reveal could be manifested in each person who followed him. 

He was born a baby, not an angel. He grew up as a child, a child who had some inkling of his Father’s business, as he said, but as a child who played, laughed, depended on his parents, became an adult, and learned. Just like the rest of us. He had a job, observed all the outward forms of his Jewish faith- Bar Mitzvah, Sabbath prayers, Passover- and then, one day, after hearing the preaching of his cousin John the Baptist, woke up.

He awakened to his Christ-ness, his role, his full humanity and his full divinity. He fought that role in the wilderness, but overcame the very real opportunity he had to retreat into the easy and popular choices available to him. Instead, he moved into the world, for the world.

As the Apostle Paul would later write, day by day he took on the form of a servant, eventually becoming that highest form of a servant- one who washes feet- one who puts all others ahead of himself, one who would go so far as to serve a meal to his betrayers. And then beyond.

Beyond.

He called others to follow him, and frustrating as it must have been, he allowed them- his disciples- to keep following him even as they continually fell back into their own cultural biases of pride seeking, judgment, discrimination, and jealousy.

He reached through his own barriers of prejudice toward those who were unwanted, unlovable, and unknown to all but his father. He said, “Love God” and then showed those disciples how to do that by loving your neighbor in the same breath.

He scorned those who were obsessed with form: “You whitewashed tombs,”  he called them, “so beautiful on the outside, but full of dead men’s bones on the inside.” But he loved them anyway, even the ones who would try him, condemn him, nail him, stab him, taunt him, and be glad when he was finally dead so they could go home.

He died in perfect and ultimate servanthood.

That’s the substance.

X marks the spot. X is the mark on each of his disciples, imperfect though they and we are. X is our call to celebrate, not denigrate. X is our call to include, not separate. X is our reason for being, all the time. Not just for this season or any season.

So, Happy Holidays! And..

Merry Xmas.

David Weber, November 26, 2012

Sermon Series- The Twelve Steps. Step Three

David B. Weber, June 23, 2013

Step 3: “We Made a Decision to Turn Our Will and Our Lives Over to The Care of God, As We Understood God”

To briefly review where have been and where we are:

Step One: We admitted we were powerless over our dependencies – that our lives had become unmanageable.

That’s the most difficult step. That’s the step where we have to lay aside our pride which has gotten us nowhere, our self-lies which have blown up in our face, and our illusions of being able fix ourselves by trying harder. This is the time, the moment of surrender.

Step Two: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

One of my favorite biblical scenes is in John 4, where Jesus meets the outcast, lonely woman at the well. He talks to her, with respect, with insight, and, maybe for the first time in her life, love. Inside of an hour, she is running back to town to tell her fellow villagers about who she has met- “Could he be the Messiah?” she proclaims to everyone who will listen. All she knows about the stranger at the well is that he listened, he told about herself, and about himself. He called himself the Living Water. But what she heard was enough. She had come to believe there was someone, someone with a Power greater than hers who could restore her to sanity- could give her life meaning.

She was ready to follow a Messiah, even without know where he might be going. She was ready, in effect, for what we call Step 3:

We made a decision to turn our will and our lives
over to the care of God as we understood God.

 

These are important words as they were developed and refined by Bill W. and Dr. Bob. They are words which bother many people in evangelical churches who know the power of the Twelve Step program but who also believe a person in need must understand God exactly as they understand God. So they define God as, in their various 12 Step programs, as Jesus Christ.

It may surprise and disappoint, but I don’t go along with this. The woman at the well had met a man, who claimed to be the Messiah. More importantly, though, she had met a man who listened, in love, without hitting on her, judging her, or comparing her. She had met a man who accepted her as she was.

I’ve told you before about our friend many years ago in South Dakota. Etta was 64-65 at the time we first knew her. Her leathery brown face was deeply etched in the lines of a difficult life, a life lived at a time in the 20th century when Indian children were taken from their parents, and sent to boarding school where various church organizations would try to turn them into white children. A process which never worked, by the way, but did succeed in turning tens of thousands of young Native Americans into sad, lonely, frustrated adults who found their solace in alcohol. That was Etta’s story, too, and she lived for years in Chicago, drinking heavily, having children, until she returned to the reservation and met an older Indian man.

John was an older man much like the man at the well, who listened and loved and gave her the hope of a greater power. A greater power who Etta would come to know as Jesus, yes. But John’s Jesus was a very different  Jesus than the one she had learned about as a child who wanted her to have short hair, speak only in English, separated her from her brothers, and made her wear hard shoes.

A quick editorial: The Church as an institution often seems to be preoccupied with self-promoting itself and defending its own particular sets of centuries- old doctrinal statements. Contrast them with Jesus’ preoccupation: in almost everything he did, or said, and modeled Jesus was about “healing the sick.” He went to those who were physically sick, spiritually sick, emotionally sick, or culturally sick, and said, in so many ways, “Get up, pick up your mat, and follow me.”

As the writer and thinker Richard Rohr says, religion too often seems more concerned about the container than the contents! It was that way then and is too often that way now. Jesus’ metaphor for his approach to religion, perhaps ironically, was an alcoholic one, Mark 2:22: “New wine needs a new wineskin.”

Twelve Step programs are about God’s healing of the sick, not with old wineskins, but with new wine of true transformation. The new wine of Jesus has nothing, nothing, nothing to do with hard shoes, short hair, judgment, threats of hell, English only, or religion that separates. It is about renewal, respect, acceptance, and love. It is about transformation. And that transformation can begin to happen even before you know the agent of transformation’s name.

Etta didn’t preach, she never preached.  She acted. Constantly, daily, wherever she was. One incident came to symbolize for me everything I loved about Etta, and- coincidentally- much of what I know now about Jesus. Again, I repeat myself, but it’s a worthwhile image and it’s kind of gross but if you take this sstory home and remember it, it’s a true gospel of Jesus story and I’ll consider this message to have been successful.

I was at her house and her daughter, also alcoholic daughter was there. Annie answered the phoned and said words I can’t say here and handed the phone to her mother. Etta listened, and said “I’ll be there,” then said to me, “Let’s go.”

We got in the car and she told me that her nephew had been found unconscious, drunk in a ditch, but nobody’s car was running to take him to the Indian hospital, so could she come get him. When we got to him, about five snow-covered miles away, we found him lying along a long, snow-covered driveway, and with some women who were there wrestled him into her car. Ten minutes later, halfway to town, he began throwing up in the back seat. “Make sure he’s on his side,”  Etta told me, then also told me to light a cigarette so it wouldn’t stink in the car so badly.

We got him to the hospital, unloaded him, and went back to her house where my car was, and I helped her clean up the mess. How did I come to love Etta in all of this and learn something about Jesus before I even knew I was learning about Jesus? Etta never said a single cross word about Tommy, her nephew, and she had done this for him before, a number of times. She never griped, cursed, fussed, or complained. She hadn’t looked for excuses, and she didn’t speak a syllable of  judgment. She respected, loved, and concerned herself only with acts of “healing the sick.”

We made a decision to turn our will and our lives
over to the care of God as we understood God.

 

That’s why those words are so important. In a time in history when Jesus has been so terribly misrepresented by politicians who claim to have him on their consulting staff, and when TV preachers give their private jets biblical names, it is not hard, not hard at all to understand why so many people hesitate to call upon the name above all names.

How many little boys have heard the words of a preacher,  “Bad, bad, bad!” so often and grow up deciding they really have been tattooed in their soul with the words they now proudly display on their knuckles, “Born to raise hell.”

How many little girls have had their learned trust in God violated by a “man of God” and later learn to dull the ever-present nightmare with chemicals, or live half-lives of incessantly remembered but unexpressed pain and shame.

Nobody makes a decision to turn their will or their life over to the care of a God who they know is getting ready to tar and feather them and ride them out of town on a rail. That’s impossible. That would, in fact, be stupid.

Twelve Step programs are not about the moral worthiness game or mere heroic willpower. They are about hope. Hope reached for, hope grabbed after, hope sought in places where there is only a glimmer of it present.

None of us are ready when we have hit the bottom of whatever bottom we hit. But there does come a time when the God within, the Kingdom of God already in us, as Jesus called it, enables us to reach out, however tentatively, because we are out of anything else to do.

Isaiah 55:1

55 Ho, everyone who thirsts,
    come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without price.

The prophets, like Isaiah, had begun to proclaim the reality of God in a way that Jesus then was able to bring into full clarity. God was not a God that had to be bartered with; this was not a quid pro quo God- you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. Come to this God, Isaiah was saying, and you can have all God has to give without any money!  All you have to is accept it!

Jesus said it was this basic (Matthew 7:7) : “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”

You might be the nephew in the back seat of your Aunt’s car. It’s free!

You might be sitting on the hard bed at the County Jail for the first time in your life. It’s free! Just ask!

You might be at your wit’s end with a job search and at the bottom of your checking account. It’s free! Search..you’ll find it. It was never hidden.

You might be lost, confused, ready to give up.  Knock! Knock until your hand hurts and then come to realize the door was never locked in the first place.

You might be overwhelmed with shame, afraid to say anything to anyone. Or doing an inventory of bottles hidden there and there and there. You might have those hurtful, foul old words echoing inside of you that tell how bad you are, how fallen you are, how unworthy, behind, low, or incapable you are.

Or you may know somebody like that..we all do. I’m going to tell you something- something else- that might sound blasphemous. Don’t feel compelled to tell them about Jesus. Not yet. Tell them about the kindness of your aunt, or your friend, or a teacher you had in high school. Tell them the hope you discovered when you read a particular novel- Grapes of Wrath is a good one, or To Kill a Mockingbird. (Classics are called classics for a reason.)

Or tell them about Etta. Etta doesn’t belong to me, or Robbie.. she belongs, as do all people like her, to the world, to the kingdom of God. The story of Etta is still alive even though she no longer is. The gospel of Jesus is also the gospel of Etta!

The point is to make a decision ourselves, or help others to make a decision, to turn our lives over to the God of hope, however we might know the God of hope at the moment we ask, seek, or knock.

I believe that Way, that path leads to Jesus, no matter how we begin.  But I also want Jesus to be personal to you. I want you and others to know Jesus, and not merely to know about Jesus as I know Jesus.

When we finally throw in the towel of our pride and self-delusion- hope, real hope formed in the foundational love of God and the shared love of others- that hope can be glimpsed, then reached for, when we discover this hope that has been waiting for us all along.

 

God, Father, Abba..

There may be somebody here today, this day now, who has glimpsed and begun to reach. Help that person to feel us celebrate with her or him. Or some of us may have others in our hearts and minds who we care for, even as it seems they no longer care for themselves. We celebrate with those persons, too, the love that is waiting for them- your love. May they say ‘Yes’ to you God, as they know you. May we, in our actions toward them, be affirming of that love which awaits them.

Amen

 

 

 

Sermon Series, The Twelve Steps. Step Two

“Step Two: Came to Believe that a power Greater than Ourselves could restore us to sanity”

Too often, the gospel of Jesus Christ is presented in the colors and textures of pure emotion. We are moved by a story told by a professional story-teller and by the music- “Just as I am”- wrapping itself around our hearts like a golden rope and pulling us toward an altar. Or we are skillfully, predictably made afraid by those who understand the terrific motivator that Fear can be. Eternal Fires and roaring lions seeking whom they may destroy are shouted about and we are made afraid to do anything but obey the preacher shaming us to walk the aisle, and trust Jesus. Trust Jesus or burn in hell.

One of the many lessons I’ve learned from prisoners is how temporary those kinds of emotional and fear-based reactions often are. Some guys have walked the aisle 5 times, 10 times, 20 times hoping that salvation will somehow stick this time. But then the emotions of the words get tramped under the realities of daily life, and the burden of being afraid of Jesus, rather than in love with him, become too overwhelming.

Some have called the Twelve Steps America’s greatest contribution to the gospel message. It is described that way because the Steps are indeed pragmatic, like so much of American culture. You know- build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door. Americans have traditionally seen a need, and endeavored to find a solution to satisfy that need. A good thing. What the Twelve Step program does for many people is make the Gospel believable, relevant, practical, and workable.

When Bill W. and Dr. Bob began talking together about their shared drinking problems in the early 1930s, in Akron, they discovered they were able to do together what they had not been able to do by themselves: make it through one more day without drinking, make it through another day without succumbing to their dependencies, their sin.  So they kept talking, and others began to join in the conversation. Some of those who were part of those early meetings could not overcome their dependency and dropped out. But some stayed, became clean and sober, and took the message beyond Akron and into the world.

Dr. Bob and Bill W., and millions of persons since, discovered the freedom of saying those important first words out loud, “I am powerless over alcohol.” They admitted it to each other, “We are powerless over those things we have come to be sinfully dependent upon, and our lives have become unmanageable.”

That was Step One.

Step One: We admitted we were powerless over our dependencies – that our lives had become unmanageable.

Saying those words is so countercultural, so difficult in a culture that says we must pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, or simply “think positive” and everything will magically be better.

Saying those words- “I am powerless”- leads automatically to a second set of words almost as difficult to say: “I need help.” It’s as if a door- a door in heaven?- opens when we finally step out of the way.

It’s also like the prodigal son in Luke 15. The young, arrogant, know-it-all, temporarily wealthy, full-of-himself son, ran out of himself. Standing in pig slop, hungry, willing to eat even what the pigs were eating, he..

17 …came to himself [and] he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 So he set off and went to his father.”

The insanity of his self-perceptions had led him to a life that was completely out of control- unmanageable! He’d come to step one.

And now: Step Two: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

The son knew that of himself, he’d blown it, badly. But a shimmering, vague but real next step had just become possible for him. “So he went off to his father..” When he came to himself, when he realized his insanity, a door opened- a door of hope.

He had no intentions of going to his father with the same false attitude with which he had left his father. He wanted to return as a hired hand, a sinner who had amends to make, forgiveness to beg.

It can be, especially in retrospect, the most exciting, enlightening, but terribly difficult times of one’s life.

C.S. Lewis said that we were all born with a God-shaped vacuum in our souls. He said that we are all prone to try to fill that emptiness with all kinds of..stuff, in an effort to calm the empty echos rising from it. In order to try to calm the rumblings of living outside of God’s love, God’s community with God and others, we are prone, almost helpless in our arrogance to avoid, or to stop cramming all kinds of self-medications into that raw and bleeding hole.

Some choose the gauze of drugs or alcohol. My own objects of choice were Jim and Budweiser 16 ouncers. Others choose to eat themselves into love, or even then void themselves when that false love becomes guilt, or be promiscuous in the also false love of eroticism, or to buy a sick semblance of love with power and money, or enter into some apartness from God that affirms “I can do it myself!” or “I don’t need you!” or “I didn’t ask to be born!” or “Life’s not fair!” ..

Yadda, yadda, yadda..

The self-affirmations and self lies are as old as the Garden of Eden when everybody tried to blame everybody else for their own failure.

The terrible problem is that those things that we once chose to partake in, indulge in, soon stop being choices. They become compulsions, ways of life, addictions. In our retreat from God, we are overwhelmed by new gods. And we become slaves to them.

But then, one day we find ourselves standing in the mud of a pigpen- whatever our personal pigpen might be. And it is there, at the bottom, at the place where there is no place lower to go- there in the stink, the wasted money, the broken promises, the put-aside vows, the severed relationships, the hurt and the heartache..there, in the middle of all that.. something wonderful and mysterious can begin to happen.  Something causes us, for a moment, to “come back to ourselves”- in the language of the prodigal son.

In the words of a favorite rabbi of mine, Rabbi Steinsaltz: “At a certain point we make decisions not only about what we are going to do but about what we are going to desire.”[i]

We make a new decision, a decision born of hanging on to the end of a frazzled rope, yes, a decision that that initially might involve only the tiniest seed- a mustard seed- of understanding and belief: We come to believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.”

We begin to move- a single tiny and tentative step, onto a path of yearning. In the pigpen, the prodigal son knew there was something better, and he yearned for it.

Yearning is the song of that god-shaped vacuum inside of us all. We long for the love that will complete us, the forgiveness that will restore us. Yearning, longing for, crying out for something greater than ourselves- that yearning is not merely an invitation to God; that yearning is God.

That longing for God, that longing which comes even before we are able toname God as that for which we long, is so difficult to capture in words. But perhaps, we can hear it in a story..

It is near dusk as the Sabbath ebbed away in the small Russian village of Berdichev. The disciples were gathered. The rabbi Levi Isaac  – holiest teacher – rises to speak. He wants to explain to his disciples not the wonder of creation, or the mystery of the Creation, but merely that God is the inside of the inside, the  life force of the universe, and that therefore each one of our lives matters.
He begins his talk with an elegant teaching from the Talmud demonstrating the reality of God.
“Do you understand?” he asks.
“No,” they answer…heads hanging, looking embarrassingly at the floor.


He then takes them on a dance of light, intricately weaving the mysteries of theTorah , which illuminate God’s presence in the world.
“Do you understand?” he asks again.
“No,” they answer…heads low.


In desperation he begins to tell stories, tales revealing great mysteries.
“Now do you understand?” he asks once more?
“No,” they answer, heads still hanging.


So he becomes very quiet and begins to sing a melody of yearning, of longing, of pining. For a few moments he sings alone, then one, then another joins in, till they become one voice.


Yearning.
Pining.
Longing.


Levi Isaac did not need to ask. Their heads rose. They understood.

The yearning,  the longing in all of us for community- community with others, with God. It’s a longing, a desire that may lay neglected and dormant for years, covered over by our pride, or buckets of beer, or mountains of food, or syringes full of holy hell. But that yearning, that cry against the horrors of loneliness, the calling out from the vacuum in our lives, that is God. That is God with us as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, even before we know it.

It is not about an emotional plea from the pulpit that brings us to a true recognition of the power greater than ourselves; it is not about being shamed or frightened into a relationship with the God who can restore us to sanity. It is about God’s presence right now, God’s desire for community with us no matter who/where/or what we are. It is about the yearning.

The yearning you may feel right now- that there has to be something more. The longing you might have for that which you cannot yet name but which you know is there. The emptiness that even here, right here in church, can felt as raw and empty..that yearning, that longing, that emptiness..your perception of it, that’s God.

Psalm 42

1 As a deer longs for flowing streams,
    so my soul longs for you, O God.
2 My soul thirsts for God,
    for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
    the face of God?
3 My tears have been my food
    day and night,
while people say to me continually,
    “Where is your God?”

We finish today with a song, I call it the step 2 hymn. It is born of the Psalm I just read. As you hear the words, as we sing the words, feel the God near, beside, within. The God of love and grace, yes, but also the God of sanity..

Page 2025 in The Faith We Sing hymnal, turn there and sing with me..

As the deer pants for the water,
So my soul longs after Thee.
You alone are my heart’s desire,
And I long to worship Thee.

You alone are my strength,
My shield;
To You alone may my spirit yield.
You alone are my heart’s desire,
And I long to worship Thee.

You’re my friend
And You are my brother
Even though You are a King.
I love You more than any other,
So much more than anything.

You alone are my strength,
My shield;
To You alone may my spirit yeild.
You alone are my heart’s desire,
And I long to worship Thee.

 

Let us pray together:

Father, God, Abba.. In our yearning, you are there. In our thirst, you are the Living Waters. In our insanities, you are the Clarifying Light, the holy of holies, the true source of our healing and wholeness.

Give us courage when the steps we take toward you are tiny and tentative. You alone are our strength, our shield, our heart’s desire..

And we long to worship you.

Amen


[i] Adin Steinsaltz, Parabola magazine, Summer 2006 issue, p. 61