anxiety

love, food, and toilet paper

One day while the Israelites were wandering through the wilderness, they were grumbling because they couldn’t find any food.  Many were saying, “Wasn’t it great when we were slaves in Egypt?  We had plenty to eat!  And now—we’re looking at you, Moses—we’re going to die in the desert.”  God told Moses, “Okay, I’m going to give them something to eat.  They’ll call it ‘manna from heaven.’  Tell them that they will have as much as they need.”  That’s what Moses told the people.  In the morning, they found it scattered on the ground.

“Moses said to them, ‘Let no one leave any of it over until [next] morning.’  But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul.  And Moses was angry with them” (Exodus 16:19-20).

They chose the path of hoarding.  Does that sound familiar?

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(Did they have toilet paper?)

At the last session meeting (that’s Presbyterian-speak for board of elders), we had an extended discussion on the uncharted territory our congregation and the whole world find ourselves in.  What to do?  How to worship?  How to care for one other?

We could choose the path of hoarding.  I’ve got mine.  Go fend for yourself.

We decided to go another way.  We’ll be worshipping online.  We will be having prayer times, classes, and other opportunities for sacred space.

The coming weeks and months will not be easy.  (That’s no doubt a colossal understatement.)  We can choose to hoard, or we can choose to share.  Every Sunday we hear the Trinitarian benediction, “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship (or communion) of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”  The Greek word for “fellowship” is κοινωνια (koinonia), which at root means “sharing.”

When we hoard, we wind up losing what we think we had.  The apostle Paul reminds the Corinthian church, “you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

Together, we will find new ways to be “sharing.”  Let us share, not hoard, the physical means of living and thriving.  Let us share, not hoard, the care and companionship that bring support to each other.  Let us share, not hoard, the living Word who frees us from the chains of fear and panic.

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[photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash]

“Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).


building the earth

I want to begin by talking about mammals.  “The story of mammals is one of self-destruction.  They first arose roughly 200 million years ago, and after eons spent scurrying in the shadow of the dinosaurs, they finally cut loose and evolved into a breathtaking variety of shapes and sizes, including the largest creatures to ever exist.  And after all that, it took barely 100,000 years for one relatively young member of the group—us—to bring everything crashing down.”[1]

That’s how Ed Yong’s article in last month’s The Atlantic begins.  From the time of the early proto-humans, we have hunted, invaded habitat, and polluted the environment.  One key point in the article is how we have affected evolutionary history.  Taking into account the mammals we’ve eradicated, and those nearing extinction, it is estimated it would take 3 to 7 million years of evolution for their replacement.  Evolution is very slow; destruction is pretty quick!

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I jokingly made a comment about the article when I posted it on Facebook.  I said, “If human beings vanished from the face of the earth, it would a good thing for our fellow animals!”

Fortunately, there’s one group doing their best to make sure that doesn’t happen.

There are some folks in what’s known as the Quiverfull movement.  In a nutshell, they don’t believe in contraception.  Some are even opposed to the rhythm method.  On the contrary, they believe God wants us to procreate as much as possible.  It’s like the TV show from a few years ago, 19 and Counting.

So why do I mention the Quiverfull movement and their determination to propagate the species?  It just so happens that their inspiration is Psalm 127.  Speaking of children, in particular sons, we read, “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth.  Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them” (vv. 4-5).  Thus the name!  This is taken as, if not exactly a command from God, then at least a very firm recommendation.

Whether or not you agree with the Quiverfull philosophy, I would say their talk of arrows misses the mark.

2 psVerse 1 establishes the context of the psalm; it sets the stage.  “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.  Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.”

Backing up for just a moment, Psalm 127 is part of a group of psalms called “The Songs of Ascents.”  They run from Psalm 120 to 134.  It’s commonly thought these were songs sung by pilgrims making their way up to Jerusalem.  (I’ve never been to Jerusalem, but those who have can probably attest to the higher elevation the city occupies—thus the idea of “ascent.”)

Unless the Lord builds…  Unless the Lord guards…

The dearly-departed Eugene Peterson, author of the paraphrase of the Bible, The Message (and about a thousand other books), in 1980 wrote A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.  It deals with the Songs of Ascents.  Perhaps those who are familiar with Peterson’s work can agree with me that, whatever he wrote, he spoke with the heart and soul of a poet.

Unless the Lord builds…  Unless the Lord guards…

In his chapter on Psalm 127, he begins with his own take on building and guarding.  He says, “The greatest work project of the ancient world is a story of disaster.  The unexcelled organization and enormous energy that were concentrated in building the Tower of Babel resulted in such shattered community and garbled communication that civilization is still trying to recover.  Effort, even if the effort is religious (perhaps especially when the effort is religious), does not in itself justify anything.”[2]

The story in Genesis 11 is one of frantic anxiety.  It’s one of human desperation and despair.  It’s one of human arrogance and hubris.  “The whole world” as the story goes, said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (vv. 1, 4).  They thought their technology would save them.  They wanted to build a city; they wanted to guard their culture from ruin.

That’s not the only time we humans have done that.  Today is the 100th anniversary of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.  In 1918, the armistice was signed, ceasing the fighting of what came to be called World War 1.  It was, as our call to worship puts it, the “day when the guns once fell silent.”

3 psHuman knowledge and technology during the late nineteenth century had reached new heights.  However, as it was sadly discovered, knowledge and wisdom often progress at different rates.  The so-called “civilized” nations were plunged into what Harry Emerson Fosdick called “the most terrific war men ever waged, when faith is sorely tried and deeply needed.”[3]

This was yet another time of human hubris, when we engaged in “the war to end all wars.”  In the midst of it, he quoted Walter Rauschenbusch, “O God, we pray Thee for those who come after us, for our children, and the children of our friends, and for all the young lives that are marching up from the gates of birth…  We remember with a pang that these will live in the world we are making for them…  We are poisoning the air of our land by our lies and our uncleanness, and they will breathe it…

“Grant us grace to leave the earth fairer than we found it; to build upon it cities of God in which the cry of needless pain shall cease; and to put the yoke of Christ upon our business life that it may serve and not destroy.”[4]

He takes note of our building cities, “building the house,” building the earth, so to speak, but it must have the blessing of God.  When we build the earth while ignoring God, it leaves a horrible legacy to our children, those young ones we looked at earlier.  “We are poisoning the air of our land by our lies and our uncleanness, and they will breathe it.”

We can knock ourselves out in doing this building.  Verse 2 says, “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives sleep to his beloved.”  “In vain”: that’s the third time we’ve heard that!  So many are sleep-deprived, working anxiously.  I don’t imagine this is a big surprise, but America is the most sleep-deprived nation in the world—Japan is a close second.  Roughly one-third of us get less than 7 hours of sleep each night.  It takes its toll on our health.

When I was a kid, my parents used to listen to country music.  I was never a fan.  But I remember a song by Hoyt Axton: “Boney Fingers.”  Here’s the chorus: “Work your fingers to the bone, What do you get? / Boney fingers, boney fingers.”  And we lose that sleep I was just talking about.

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Remember the last line of verse 2: “he gives sleep to his beloved.”  There’s an alternate reading which says, “he provides for his beloved during sleep.”

With all this talk of sleep, some might say, “Why bother with work—and certainly working hard?”  God will take care of it.  However, the psalm isn’t advocating being lazy.  St. Paul had an argument with some of the Thessalonians, complaining that “we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work” (3:11).

And so we come to verse 3.  “Sons [children] are indeed a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.”  Children are a gift from God.  They are created without working our fingers to the bone.  Building the house isn’t simply about a physical structure.  Building the house also means family, lineage.  For example, the house of David figures greatly in the Old Testament.

Rickie Dale Moore says, “How deeply the world view of this psalm makes this connection can be seen in the fact that the Hebrew words for ‘build’ (banah), ‘house’ (bayith), ‘daughters’ (banoth), and ‘sons’ (banim), all come from the same Hebrew root (bnh).”[5]

This brings us to the final line of the psalm.  We already saw the first part of verse 5: “Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them” (that is, sons).  Here’s how it ends: “He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.”  “The gate” represents a place where justice is meted out, a tribunal.  If someone has many sons to back him up—well, let’s say there’s a better chance of being treated fairly!

Our psalm begins with the “threat of a cursed life of vanity.”  By the time we get to the end, there’s “the promise of a blessed life.”  Our friend Rickie Dale says, “The blessed life, here, finally consists in nothing other than the plenitude of one’s children, and what’s more, the blessedness is secured and protected by nothing other than the children themselves!”[6]

That might sound like someone without children is cursed.  (If so, then my wife and I are in that category!)  Translating that into the understanding most of us share, it doesn’t have to be our own children.  It’s the children of our society, the children of our world.

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There was a movie starring Clive Owen called Children of Men.  It’s set about twenty years into the future.  For some unknown reason, women all over the planet have become infertile; nobody’s having babies.  The youngest person in the world is 18 years old.  A notable line of one of the characters goes, “As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in.  Very odd, what happens in a world without children’s voices.”  Eventually, a young woman does get pregnant, so all is not lost!

In a very real way, it is the hope of children that saves us.  They are how we build the house; they are how we build the earth.  So, to rephrase as Moore does, “Unless the Lord builds the world; Then for its builders, all is vanity.”[7]

What goes into building the house?  What goes into building our culture, building our lives?

In Mark 12:38-44, the high and mighty are giving donations in a prideful way.  It’s a reaffirmation of the respect they believe they deserve.  They have plenty of money in the bank; their investments have paid off well.  The poor widow isn’t trying to impress anyone.  She can’t impress anyone.  She gives—not for show—but from a heart of love.  She gives her all, and Jesus commends her to his disciples.

We are called to build with love.  We are called to build the earth with love.  Part of that means not wiping out hundreds of thousands and even millions of years of evolution of our companions—whether they stride, soar, or swim.

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Unless the Lord builds…  Unless the Lord guards…

We are called, with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone, to be joined together—to be built—into a holy temple in the Lord (Ep 2:20-21).

 

[1] www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/10/mammals-will-need-millions-years-recover-us/573031

[2] Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, 20th anniversary ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 105.

[3] Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Meaning of Faith (New York:  Association Press, 1917), vii.

[4] Fosdick, 60.

[5] Moore, Rickie Dale, “Futile Labor vs Fertile Labor: Observing the Sabbath in Psalm 127,” The Living Pulpit, (April-June) 1998: 24.

[6] Moore, 25.

[7] Moore, 25.


anarchy to order

“In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Jg 21:25).  That’s how the book of Judges ends.  That book covers a time period of about a century and a half—from the life of Joshua to the life of Samuel.  The judges were regional authorities.  Today we might call them local chieftains.  The book of Judges was written after the monarchy was in place.  So maybe there’s some bias; maybe the judges are pictured a tad unfairly.

“All the people did what was right in their own eyes.”  There was no king.  They were running wild!

Having said that, it is hard to dispute there was some spiritual anarchy.  That was the world in which Samuel was born.  Here’s one minor example.  I won’t go into detail, but the sons of Eli the priest engaged in graphic womanizing and ripping people off when they came to offer sacrifice.  In Eli’s defense, he did plead with them to stop being so wicked.  But that’s just one symptom of the “anarchy.”

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In 1 Samuel we have a story appearing often in the Bible.  There’s a woman advancing in years who still hasn’t borne a child.  It’s always pictured as the woman who can’t conceive.  We never hear about the man who is unable to father a child!  I wonder why that is.  Maybe in ancient times they weren’t aware such a thing is possible.  Then again…  But I’ll leave that for another day!

In any event, here, the woman is Hannah.  Long story short, she prays to the Lord; she becomes pregnant, and she follows up on her promise to dedicate young Samuel to God.  Afterward, she sings of song of praise which serves as the model for the Virgin Mary’s prayer in Luke 1.  That’s how we arrive at Eli’s taking Samuel under his wing.

Look at how chapter 3 begins.  “Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli.  The word of the Lord was rare[1] in those days; visions were not widespread” (v. 1).  There were few, if any, prophets bringing fresh words from the Lord.  Almost no one had any vision.  It was a drought of creativity.

That’s not the same thing as saying God did not want to reveal new things to the people.  When people are resistant—when we are resistant—there’s no place for the seed to germinate within us.  That is, it’s the figurative seed which bursts from the earth and becomes the plant that grows and flourishes.  It’s the new life signaling an end to the drought.

2 1 smSpeaking of loss of vision, here’s verse 2.  “At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room.”

Okay, I know the main point of the sentence is a physical condition.  Eli is now an old man, and he no longer has an eagle eye!  We could say he’s blind as a bat.  Still, coming right after that business of visions being few and far between, I think we can see more than a little bit of humor involved.  There’s probably more than a little bit of sarcastic humor involved, with a loss of vision also meaning a spiritual condition.

That theme continues in verse 3.  “The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.”

Again, the surface language is talking about an actual lamp which has used up almost all of its oil.  But I like that: the lamp of God had not yet gone out.  There’s still a flicker; there is still hope.  There are still those who welcome the word of the Lord; there are still those who yearn for vision.

By the way, we hear about the Ark of God, or the Ark of the Covenant.  It was said to contain holy objects, including the stone tablets with the 10 Commandments.  Oh, and just as importantly, it was the star attraction in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, which highlighted the face-melting of Nazis when they gazed into it.

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I’ll summarize the crazy story starting in verse 4.  It’s the story of a boy who keeps waking up in the night because he keeps hearing a voice.  And each time, he goes into Eli’s bedroom, who keeps telling him, “I didn’t say anything.  Now go back to bed, young man.  Goodness gracious, can’t a guy get some shut-eye?”

Finally, Eli realizes Samuel is hearing the Lord.  He tells him to listen, and what he hears isn’t very pleasant.  It’s all over for Eli and his worthless sons.  Their wickedness has come back to haunt them.  Eli demands the boy lay it out for him.  “So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him.  Then he said, ‘It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him’” (v. 18).  Even in bitter failure Eli shows himself to be a man of deep faith.

We can see this as a baton being passed.  The sun is setting on Eli, but it is rising on Samuel.  This is more than a function of age.  It’s more than Eli being old and Samuel being young.  There are plenty of folks who’ve been on this planet for over 80 or 90 years and are still vibrant inside.  And there are some young ones who are already turning to dust inside.

This is about maturity.  This is about understanding gentleness is strength; wisdom begins with acknowledged ignorance; the first will be last, and the last will be first.  (Okay, I stole that from someone!)

This is a new word from the Lord; it is a new thing.  Young Samuel is infused with vision from God.

There’s an often-misunderstood verse from the book of Proverbs.  It comes from the King James Version, which despite much of its beauty, is after all, written in English from four hundred years ago.  It is said, “Where there is no vision the people perish” (28:19).  That’s been taken to mean many things, such as the vision leaders lay out for those being led.  It’s the vision we ourselves have.

Modern translations show the meaning of the Hebrew.  “Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint” (NRSV).  So it really means “where there is no prophecy, no revelation, no vision from God.”  And what’s the result?  The people cast off restraint.  They are unruly.

[Rev. Steve Plank, former stated clerk of the Presbytery of Cayuga-Syracuse, gave this translation during the August 2017 presbytery meeting: “Where there is no word from the Lord, empty chaos results.”]

As those final words from the book of Judges go, “All the people did what was right in their own eyes.”  What does this spiritual anarchy look like?

Again, it doesn’t mean people are running wild, with blood flowing in the streets.  It’s not the plot of a horror story, like that ridiculous movie The Purge, the premise of which says once a year, all crime is legal for a period of twelve hours.  No, it’s nothing so over-the-top as that!

One way I think we can see what this anarchy looks like is the sense of rootlessness.  It’s the sense of becoming untethered, unmoored.  It’s the sense of drifting, of having no firm grasp—nothing solid to hold on to.  All the people did what was right in their own eyes.

That also happens in the church.  There can be a sense of losing our bearing, not knowing which way to go.  At a lesser level, we can see anarchy in congregational meetings, in which it becomes a matter of crowd control.  That’s why our Book of Order specifically lists the topics to be discussed at such meetings.  It brings anarchy to order!

Back to the original point.  A lack of a genuine word from the Lord, a lack of vision, of revelation, affects our society at large.

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Many consider Martin Luther King, Jr., as having been a prophet.  Whether or not you would use that term, (I trust I’m safe in saying) he did speak a new word, a needed word, rooted in vision and revelation from God.  Like the prophets of old, his message comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.  It was, and remains, a word for both society and the church.

King ministered during a time of great transition in America—tumultuous transition.  I’ve spoken about transition on numerous occasions.  Transition is a big part of the job of interim pastor, if not the defining characteristic.  Transition is always charged with anxiety, in greater or lesser measure.  And it becomes all the more necessary to hear that rare and precious word and to receive the vision.

So how do lack of the word and lack of vision result in a drought of creativity, at least creativity that is worthy of the name?

Could it be we are cut off from the source of creation?  We can’t allow the creative Spirit of God to inspire us?  We are unable to imagine new things?

Perish the thought!  We need not look for the grand and glorious.  It begins with one.  Jesus was one, and the word spread.  With the young boy Samuel, a fresh wind of the Spirit blew into what was decaying.  There was a rejuvenation.  Anarchy was brought to order.

That is our challenge and our privilege—that we bring our own anarchy and present it to the one who takes what is crumbling and orders it into something wondrous and beautiful and yielding life eternal.

 

[1] יׇקׇר (yaqar), also means “precious”


the neutral zone (redux)

Sometimes fans of certain TV shows, musical artists, or sports teams will make lame attempts at interjecting those interests into conversations, or—God forbid—into sermons.  I can assure you that this is not one of those lame attempts!  I have a very good reason for the title, “The Neutral Zone,” aside from the fact that it exists in the universe of Star Trek!

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.comFor those who don’t know, and especially for those who don’t care, I will give a very brief explanation.  Between the United Federation of Planets and the Romulan Empire there exists a region, established by treaty, which is called the Neutral Zone.  Neither of those governments is supposed to send ships of any kind into that area without the consent of the other.

Now, here comes that good reason to speak of the neutral zone!  It’s a concept presented in the book, A Door Set Open, by Peter Steinke.  He’s done a lot of work with congregations, including those who are either in conflicted or transitional situations.

He uses the term in reflecting on work done by William Bridges, another consultant.  His theory is that “change is an event.  Our experience of the change is transition.  He cites three movements—endings, the neutral zone, and beginnings—in the transition experience.”[1]

We might think of “endings” as the chapter or the phase of life that is drawing to a close.  “Beginnings” would be the next step or the new reality that is now appearing.  It’s the middle one, “the neutral zone”—in which things seem chaotic and unsettled—that can really alarm us, even sending us screaming in the other direction!  Or it can really have us confused.

We all know that caterpillars turn into butterflies.  While that critter is still in the cocoon, strange, confusing things are going on.  At some point, it’s neither caterpillar nor butterfly.  It’s in a state of metamorphosis in which it’s neither one.  That little booger is in what we might call a state of transitional goo.  That is its neutral zone.

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.com

We can see the people of Nazareth in our reading from St. Luke’s gospel as being in their own neutral zone; they are transitional goo.  (I should probably explain!)

As we begin with verses 14 and 15, Luke presents Jesus returning from the wilderness, having endured temptation.  He says of Jesus, being “filled with the power of the Spirit, [he] returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.  He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.”  It’s when he comes to his hometown of Nazareth that things really get interesting.

Jesus attends “synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom,” and he reads the beginning of Isaiah 61 (v. 16).

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (vv. 18-19).  Jesus tells the people that “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21).

They are astonished by the way he addresses them.  They’re asking each other, “This is the son of Joseph, isn’t it?”  Dennis Bratcher says, “It seems at first that Jesus had won acceptance at Nazareth.  They marvel at the gracious words spoken by Joseph’s son now become a man.  But the people have not yet truly responded, at least not on the level necessary to engage the future that Jesus is bringing.  Beginning in verse 23…Jesus drives to the heart of the issue, and to the heart of the people.”[2]

It’s not long until Jesus reveals the feelings of ownership and control the people want to use over him.  “Hey, he’s from our town; he’s one of us!  He should do the stuff here he’s done in other places.”

But when they hear how Jesus elaborates, attitudes change pretty quickly.  He speaks of beloved prophets, Elijah and Elisha, doing good deeds for foreigners.  After all, he says, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (v. 24).  And it looks like they want to prove him right!

Luke tells us that “all in the synagogue were filled with rage.”  In The Message, Eugene Peterson says, “That set everyone in the meeting place seething with anger.  They threw him out, banishing him from the village, then took him to a mountain cliff at the edge of the village to throw him to his doom” (vv. 28-29).  But maybe there was enough confusion with people milling around, since we’re told that “he gave them the slip and was on his way” (v. 30).

I said earlier that the people of Nazareth experience their own neutral zone.  Change is going on, but their experience of that change has them emotionally paralyzed.  Families, communities, congregations:  all of them can be seen as emotional systems.  Verses 28 and 29 show us that the people in the synagogue are emotionally stuck—and they want to stick it to Jesus!

I just mentioned that change is going on.  What change could that be?  There are a number of ways to look at it.  I want to mention something we see evolving throughout the entire Bible.  Throughout salvation history, the faith gradually becomes more inclusive.

In the earliest times, each nation, each ethnic group, believes in their own god, and that’s true for the Israelites.  Their God is Yahweh, but they also believe that those other gods exist.  It’s just that they’re not supposed to follow them.  As time goes on, they come to see that the God of Israel is the one true God.  Other gods are simply idols.

With the urging of the prophets, the God of Israel is seen to be God of all the earth.  Foreigners are welcome, and indeed called, to worship this God.  And later, as the church of Jesus Christ expands throughout the Roman Empire, barriers between Jew and Gentile begin to fall.

That evolution of the faith has continued, albeit with many bumps in the road.  Interfaith dialogue continues to explore the similarities, and to clarify the differences, among our understandings of God in the twenty-first century.

The people Jesus is addressing understand all too well what he is saying.  He’s letting them know that their claim on him, and at a deeper level, their understanding of themselves as “the” people of God (that is, the only people of God), can no longer be defended.  This produces anxiety within them, but instead of handling their anxiety, their anxiety handles them!  And as we’ve seen, they want to handle Jesus!

Jesus would like to lead them in the change that is inevitable.  But as our friend Peter Steinke comments, “Leading change brings out both reactive forces and responsive ones.”[3]  That first one, reactive forces, is when we become defensive.  Sometimes people speak of instinct, the “lower brain,” or the “reptile brain.”  We sense danger; anxiety kicks in.  Anxiety is an automatic reaction to a threat, whether that threat is real or imagined.

image from cx.aos.ask.com

What happens when we’re anxious?  Are we relaxed?  Or perhaps, does our chest tighten up?  Actually, “anxiety” and “angina” come from the same family of words.  When we’re anxious, we want instant answers; we see things in terms of yes-no, either-or; we literally become narrow-minded.[4]  When we feel threatened, there’s no time to take a survey!  Everything within us is screaming, “There’s no time to think!  Just do it!”

That second one that leading change brings, being responsive, is when we are reflective.  This is learned behavior.  We are free to exercise reason and creativity and imagination.  We’re free to explore possibilities.  We’re using the “upper brain.”  And it also has a physical response.  Instead of tightness, there tends to be a sense of calm.  We remember to breathe!

Both reaction and response are necessary for human life.  Without the “knee-jerk reaction,” we wouldn’t pull our hands out of the fire.  You know, when any body part is on fire, that’s not the time to assemble a focus group and brainstorm various options!

So for all its benefits, the reptile brain, the lower brain, is not very useful in building community.  We need response that’s more elevated.  In a similar way, we’re reminded that “once anxiety runs a high fever…one can never rely on insight or reasonableness or even love.”[5]

Here’s a note about the reptile brain.  At the conflict mediation training a few months ago at Stony Point, the presenter gave us some advice.  Never tell someone that they’re acting out of the reptile part of their brain.  For some reason, that usually doesn’t go well!

Having said all that, I hope I haven’t given the impression that anxiety is a bad thing.  As I just said, anxiety is a normal part of who we are as humans.  But it’s a part of us that can easily overwhelm us and drive our behavior.

Speaking of being driven by anxiety, maybe you heard about the poll that was recently released by Monmouth University.[6]  It dealt with people’s feelings about the presidential campaign.  The question was asked if this campaign has brought out the best in people or the worst in people.  A large majority, 70%, said it’s brought out the worst in us, 4% said the best, 20% said neither the best nor worst, and 5% said it’s both the best and worst.  That last 1% said they don’t know!

Good and bad spock

When asked if they’ve lost friends because of the campaign, 7% said yes.  Though in fairness, 7% also said that happens in every presidential campaign.

Again, this is one poll, so take it for what it’s worth, and remember, there really aren’t right or wrong answers.  This is just a snapshot of anxiety among us today.  Still, I would be willing to hazard a guess that it’s not every campaign in which 70% say it shows us at our worst.

Okay, I’ve touched on ways in which those in Jesus’ hometown synagogue are spending time in the neutral zone.  A good example would be Jesus’ refusal to allow them to “claim” him, and to call them to a wider vision.  In various ways, the winds of change have swept through their lives and community.

That feeling of being in the neutral zone is not unfamiliar to a congregation in an interim period.  Feelings of anxiety would be expected.  What does the future hold?  What will we do next?  Or better, who are we, and who is God calling us to be?  How is God calling us to emerge from transitional goo?

A moment ago, I spoke of how anxiety can overwhelm us.  In Galatians 5, the apostle Paul warns his sisters and brothers, “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (v. 15).

The neutral zone can be a scary place.  We can learn the wrong lessons there.  We can learn how to bully each other.  We can learn how to belittle each other.  That can be expressed in a thousand different ways.

So it’s true, the neutral zone can be a scary place.  But it’s also necessary, though not in the Star Trek sense of keeping enemies apart.  It’s necessary because that’s the time and place to re-orient ourselves.  We hold on to what is good and true from the past, but not so tightly that we cannot embrace the hopeful and hope filled future into which the Holy Spirit leads us.

 

[1] Peter Steinke, A Door Set Open (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2010), Kindle edition, chapter 7, section 5, paragraph 1.

[2] www.cresourcei.org/lectionary/YearC/Cepiphany4nt.html

[3] Steinke, 2.8.8

[4] Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2006), 8-9.

[5] Steinke, A Door Set Open, 2.8.8

[6] www.monmouth.edu/polling-institute/reports/MonmouthPoll_US_092816

(The image “The Neutral Zone” is by David Akerson.)


transitioning terror to tranquility

Nicknames can be tricky things. Sometimes a nickname can be a compliment, a reference to something positive. On the other hand, nicknames are often unfortunate; they can be demeaning or embarrassing. This has been my own observation: I’ve noticed that if someone answers to an embarrassing nickname, then that thing is locked in place. It might as well be tattooed on their forehead.

An example of a nickname gone wrong was featured on an episode of Seinfeld. George Costanza, played by Jason Alexander, is telling his best friend, Jerry Seinfeld, while eating at their favorite diner, that he wants a nickname. He wants to be known as “T-Bone.”

The next day at the office, as people are ordering lunch, George says that he wants a T-Bone steak, because he’s a T-Bone kind of guy. His co-worker sitting next to him says that he also wants a T-Bone. Their boss, whose name is Kruger, says, “Well then, we should call you ‘T-Bone.’”

George is upset, and the next day, he’s chewing out his co-worker for stealing his nickname. Kruger and a couple of the other employees are watching George through a window. They can’t hear what he’s saying, but they can see him flailing his arms around, and in one hand, he’s holding a banana.

Kruger says that he’s jumping around like a monkey, and he asks the others, “What was the name of that monkey that could read sign language?” (It was actually a gorilla, but we’ll let it slide.) So when George enters the room he says, “I have an announcement to make. From now on, I will be known as…” Kruger cuts him off, “…Koko the monkey.”

Just in case you were wondering, that’s an example of an unfortunate nickname!

In Jeremiah 20:1-13, we have another example of an unfortunate nickname, one that the prophet relays from God to “the priest Pashhur son of Immer…chief officer in the house of the Lord” (v. 1). It’s his job to keep order, to make sure things are running smoothly at the temple.

He is not at all happy with the things that Jeremiah has said. We see this in chapter 19. Jeremiah engages in some performance art. He purchases and then breaks an earthenware jug, proclaiming that the country itself will be broken. But he’s gone much farther than that. He has said that, because of the corruption and idolatry, Jerusalem is ritually unclean. It is as unclean as a burial ground. And he’s saying all of this in the temple precincts!

If you’re the guy in charge of running the place, that might make you upset.

As a result, in chapter 20, Pashhur has Jeremiah beaten; he has him flogged. After that, he has him locked in stocks, a device that holds the hands and feet in an agonizing position. So, following his flogging, the prophet is forced to remain in painful position all night long.

The next morning Pashhur has Jeremiah released, and here’s where we get to the unfortunate nickname! The Hebrew phrase that’s used (magor missabib) has nuances of meaning, but it’s usually translated as “Terror-all-around,” or “Terror on every side.” It appears five times in the book. William Holladay tells us that it not only refers to space, “on every side,” but also to perception, “from every point of view.” (544) So Jeremiah is telling Pashhur that, no matter which way you look at it, he is terror—and terror is what awaits him. According to Jeremiah, terror is what defines Pashhur.

Sadly for the prophet, that nickname takes on a life of its own. In verse 10, he laments how it’s been thrown back in his face. This is in one of the poems known as the Confessions of Jeremiah. In these poems, he complains to God about his fate. He says, “I hear many whispering: ‘Terror is all around! Denounce him! Let us denounce him!’ All my close friends are watching for me to stumble.”

What has happened is that some people have started associating that phrase with Jeremiah. “Hey, here comes old ‘Terror on every side’! Let’s mess with him!” In a sense, it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. His world becomes populated with terrorists. And to his way of thinking, that sometimes includes God!

image from scripturalstudies.files.wordpress.com

This might seem difficult to believe, but sometimes the church becomes populated with terrorists. (Imagine such a thing!) Sometimes, we terrorize ourselves.

The late Edwin Friedman wrote a book entitled, A Failure of Nerve. When I read it, there was something that especially caught my attention. He’s talking about how terrorism affects emotional systems, the church being a type of emotional system. He says a terrorist could be “a bomber, a client, an employee, or a child.” (Kindle edition, Introduction, section 2, paragraph 14.)

After thinking about it, I can see how a child could be a terrorist! If we ourselves are childish (please note that I say “childish,” not “childlike”—there is a difference), we also can be terrorists or bullies!

I have a question. What is it that inspires this terror? I’m speaking first of all about the terror that Jeremiah encounters. Why is Pashhur so terrified? Why are the powers-that-be so terrified? Certainly, we can point to their idolatrous disobedience of God. That’s something the human race constantly struggles with. But I suspect there’s something more.

By insisting that the Babylonians will invade and that there’s no point in fighting them, Jeremiah is presenting a future that Pashhur and his friends strongly reject. To be honest, it is hard to blame them. If we were in their shoes, I wonder how we would behave.

But this isn’t just about them. Often, when we envision the future, we ourselves are inspired with terror—or at least, a wee bit of anxiety! And it’s not always helpful when people ask, “Well, where’s your faith in God?” or “Why aren’t you just focusing on Jesus?”

Sometimes it might feel like we’re standing on the edge of a precipice, looking down at the canyon below. It might especially feel that way if someone else is there, someone who’s about to give a not-so-friendly shove!

No one likes being shoved; no one likes being pressured. I know that I don’t. One time in the office, I got a phone call from someone selling Bible studies on some particular topic. I was told it comes with workbooks and DVDs and a free gift just for giving it a twenty-five day trial and “can I verify your address so we can get that in the mail today”? Nowhere in that monologue was the question “Is this something you think you could use?”

As interim pastors, we do bear in mind that no one likes being pressured. As intentional transitional ministers, we work on certain things during the interim period. That way, the next called pastor won’t need to fool with it. He, she, or in the case of co-pastors, they, will have a better starting point. And you will have a better starting point.

We don’t want to go in the direction of insisting on our way. That doesn’t do honor to the process—or to anyone. This intentional interim period is a gift from God—a gift of grace and mercy. The goal for this time of transition is to move along with the process, suggesting any necessary changes slowly, clearly, thoughtfully, and prayerfully.

That last one, prayerfully, is especially important. Sisters and brothers, we have to pray for each other. That is not an option. We have to learn to trust and love each other, at least, to remain on the path. (Which is a serious challenge!) But if we stay true to that, we are much less likely to heighten the level of anxiety. I, for one, am not interested in getting the nickname “Terror-all-around”!

After all of the terror and horror in our scripture text, verse 13 strikes a very different tone. “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers.” I wonder if that verse provides a way out. I wonder if it provides a way to transition terror to tranquility.

It’s difficult to have a heart that sings and is filled with praise, while at the same time is filled with anxiety and fear. It isn’t magic, but when we can find ways to praise the Lord, we regain our perspective. Our imagination is opened to see new possibilities, where before, we couldn’t see any.

In his book, Friedman talks about the effect of anxiety, the toll of terror. “What also contributes to this loss of perspective,” he says, “is the disappearance of playfulness, an attribute that originally evolved with mammals… You can, after all, play with your pet cat, horse, or dog, but it is absolutely impossible to develop a playful relationship with a reptile, whether it is your pet salamander, no matter how cute, or your pet turtle, snake, or alligator. They are deadly serious (that is, purposive) creatures.” (2.4.8.)

Our friend Pashhur, “Terror-all-around,” needs to work on his sense of humor. He needs to learn how to be playful.

Friedman continues, saying that chronically anxious people “tend to mimic the reptilian response: Lacking the capacity to be playful, their perspective is narrow. Lacking perspective, their repertoire of responses is thin. Neither apology nor forgiveness is within their ken. When they try to work things out, their meetings wind up as brain-stem storming sessions.” (2.4.9.)

He says, “In an atmosphere where everything is dire, a vicious cycle develops as a loss of playfulness destroys perspective.” (2.4.10)

Jeremiah’s world is literally falling apart, but verse 13 shows us that he doesn’t forget who he is. He is the prophet of God, the one at the center of a singularity and the one who pervades the cosmos. The God of peace, the God of shalom, lifts the heaviest of hearts.

We can face the future, not with terror, but with tranquility when we make time to play and laugh with each other. Bonds in the Spirit of Christ are strengthened, and trust is engendered. We recognize the church as not just a place to go, but as a people to be.

Again, it isn’t magic, but that singing and praising and playful nicknaming delivers us from a lot of terrible stuff!

[originally posted on 22 Sep 2013]


the neutral zone

Sometimes fans of certain TV shows, musical artists, or sports teams will make very lame attempts at bringing those interests into conversations.  I can assure you that this is not one of those lame attempts!  I have a very good reason for the title, “The Neutral Zone,” aside from the fact that it exists in the universe of Star Trek!

image from pre09.deviantart.net
For those who don’t know, and for those who don’t care, I will give a very brief explanation.  Between the United Federation of Planets and the Romulan Empire there exists a region, established by treaty, which is called the Neutral Zone.  It’s more than a demilitarized zone.  Neither of those governments is supposed to send ships of any kind into that area without the consent of the other.

Now, here comes that good reason to speak of the neutral zone!  It’s a concept presented in the book, A Door Set Open, by Peter Steinke.  He has done a lot of work with congregations, including those who are either in conflicted or transitional situations.

He uses the term in reflecting on work done by William Bridges, a consultant on transition management.  His theory is that “change is an event.  Our experience of the change is transition.  He cites three movements—endings, the neutral zone, and beginnings—in the transition experience.”[1]

We might think of “endings” as the chapter or the phase of life that is drawing to a close.  “Beginnings” would be the next step or the new reality that has now appeared.  It’s the middle one, “the neutral zone”—in which things seem chaotic and unsettled—that can really unnerve and alarm us.

Neutral zone

An example from the Bible would be Isaiah 62.  It deals with the community who has returned from exile in Babylon.  They are in their own neutral zone, so to speak.

For them, the “endings” would be the time of exile, as well as the celebration and relief of homecoming.  That is disappearing, and in its place:  question marks.  It doesn’t yet feel like home.  There’s a sense of drift, a feeling of limbo.  The glorious future promised by the prophets—the “beginnings”—have yet to arrive.  Or at least, the people don’t perceive it.

We can also see the people of Nazareth in Luke 4 as being in their own neutral zone.

As we begin in verses 14 and 15, Luke presents Jesus returning from the wilderness, having endured temptation.  He says of Jesus, that being “filled with the power of the Spirit, [he] returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.  He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.”  It’s when he comes to his hometown of Nazareth that things really get interesting.

Jesus attends “synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom,” and he reads the beginning of Isaiah 61 (v. 16).

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (vv. 18-19).

What is in the background is a reference to the sabbatical year and the year of jubilee, which are mentioned in Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15.  In the sabbatical year, debts are forgiven, slaves are set free, and the land enjoys its own sabbath—it’s allowed to remain fallow.

In the year of jubilee, every fifty years, property is to revert to its ancestral owners.  It’s a sort of land reform, to help prevent the extremes of the very wealthy and the very poor from remaining in place.  But it seems that these measures were rarely, if ever, followed!

In any event, this “year of the Lord’s favor” is what the returned exiles were longing for.  Now Jesus is telling the people in his hometown synagogue that “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21).

The people are astonished by the way he addresses them.  They’re asking each other, “This is the son of Joseph, isn’t it?”  Some say that this first reaction is one of rejection.  Something like, “Who do you think you are?”  However, Luke says, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth” (v. 22).  They’re surprised, but pleasantly surprised, by his eloquence and his insight.

Dennis Bratcher notes, “It seems at first that Jesus had won acceptance at Nazareth.  They marvel at the gracious words spoken by Joseph’s son now become a man.  But the people have not yet truly responded, at least not on the level necessary to engage the future that Jesus is bringing.  Beginning in verse 23…Jesus drives to the heart of the issue, and to the heart of the people.”[2]

Jesus lays bare the sense of ownership and control the people would exercise over him.  “Hey, he’s from our town; he’s one of us!  He should do the stuff here that we’ve heard he’s done in Capernaum.”

Bratcher says, “We can almost hear them.  Why, yes, we have blind people here in Nazareth.  We are all poor and need good news…  We are oppressed and carry heavy burdens!  Yes, we want the year of the Lord’s favor, because we want the release from debts and taxes that it might bring.  Yes, we welcome this future that will bring us all we want.”

When they hear how Jesus elaborates, their attitudes change pretty quickly.  He speaks of beloved prophets, Elijah and Elisha, doing good deeds for foreigners.  After all, he says, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (v. 24).  And it looks like they want to prove him right, if it’s the last thing they do!

Luke tells us that “all in the synagogue were filled with rage.  They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff” (vv. 28-29).  But apparently there was enough confusion with people milling around, since we’re told that “he passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (v. 30).

I said earlier that the people of Nazareth experience their own neutral zone.  Change is going on, but their experience of that change has them emotionally paralyzed.  Families, communities, congregations:  all of them can be seen as emotional systems.  Verses 28 and 29 show us that the people in the synagogue are emotionally stuck—and they want to stick it to Jesus!

I just mentioned that change is going on.  What change could that be?  There are a number of ways to look at it.  I want to mention something we see evolving throughout the entire Bible.  Throughout salvation history, the faith gradually becomes more inclusive.

In the earliest times, each nation, each ethnic group, believes in their own god, and that’s true for the people of Israel.  Their God is Yahweh, but they also believe that the gods of the other nations actually exist.  It’s just that they’re forbidden to worship them or to follow their practices.  As time goes on, they come to see that the God of Israel is the one true God.  Other gods are simply idols.

With the urging of the prophets, the God of Israel is seen to be God of all the earth.  Foreigners are welcome, and indeed called, to worship this God.  And with the advent of Jesus (and absolutely with the early church), the barriers between Jew and Gentile begin to fall.

That evolution of the faith has continued, with many bumps in the road.  Interfaith dialogue continues to explore the similarities, and to clarify the differences, among our understandings of God in our twenty-first century world.

The people Jesus is addressing understand all too well what he is saying.  He’s letting them know that their claim on him, and at a deeper level, their understanding of themselves as “the” people of God (that is, the only people of God), can no longer be defended.  Their faith must expand.  This produces anxiety within them, but instead of handling their anxiety, their anxiety handles them!  And as we’ve seen, they want to handle Jesus!

Anxiety

Jesus would like to lead them in the change that is inevitable.  But as our friend Peter Steinke comments, “Leading change brings out both reactive forces and responsive ones.”[3]  That first one, reactive forces, is when we become defensive.  Sometimes people speak of instinct, the “lower brain,” or the “reptile brain.”  We sense danger; anxiety kicks in.  Anxiety is an automatic reaction to a threat, whether that threat is real or imagined.

What happens when we’re anxious?  Are we relaxed?  Or perhaps, does our chest tighten up?  Actually, “anxiety” and “angina” come from the same family of words.  When we’re anxious, we want instant answers; we see things in terms of yes-no, either-or; we literally become narrow-minded.[4]  When we feel threatened, there’s no time to take an opinion poll!  Everything within us is screaming, “There’s no time to think!  Just do it!”

The second force that leading change brings, being responsive, is when we are reflective.  This is learned behavior.  We are free to exercise reason and creativity and imagination.  We’re free to explore possibilities.  We’re using the “upper brain.”  And it has a physical response.  Instead of tightness, there tends to be a sense of calm.  We remember to breathe!

Both reaction and response are necessary for human life.  With the “knee-jerk reaction,” we quickly pull our hands out of the fire.  But the reptile brain is not very useful in building community.  We need response that’s more elevated.  In a similar way, we’re reminded that “once anxiety runs a high fever…one can never rely on insight or reasonableness or even love.”[5]

Having said all that, we shouldn’t get the impression that anxiety is a bad thing.  It’s not that anxious people are bad people.  As just suggested, anxiety is a normal part of who we are as humans.  But it’s a part of us that can easily overwhelm us and drive our behavior.

Maybe we can see ways in which both those who’ve returned from exile in Babylon, as well as those in Jesus’ hometown synagogue, have spent some time in the neutral zone.  In various ways, the winds of change have swept through their lives and communities.

That feeling of being in the neutral zone is not unfamiliar to a congregation in an interim period.  Feelings of anxiety would be expected.  I’m sure many can attest to that.  To be honest, my efforts to learn new skills in being a non-anxious (or lesser anxious) presence never end.

A moment ago, I spoke of how anxiety can overwhelm us.  In Galatians 5, the apostle Paul warns his sisters and brothers, “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (v. 15).  He’s addressing a different matter, but I think his words can still be applied to the subject at hand.

The neutral zone can be a scary place.  We can learn the wrong lessons there.  We can learn how to bully each other.  We can learn how, in ever so slight a way, to belittle each other.  And that can be expressed in a thousand different ways.

So it’s true, the neutral zone can be a scary place.  But it’s also necessary, though not in the Star Trek sense of keeping enemies apart.  It’s necessary because that’s the time and place to re-orient ourselves.  We hold on to what is good and true from the past, but not so tightly that we cannot embrace the future into which the Holy Spirit is leading us.

Remember, before Jesus deals with the hometown crowd, he is filled, not with the power of his own ideas, but with the power of the Spirit.


[1] Peter Steinke, A Door Set Open (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2010), Kindle edition, chapter 7, section 5, paragraph 1.

[3] Steinke, 2.8.8

[5] Steinke, A Door Set Open, 2.8.8

(The image “The Neutral Zone” is by David Akerson.)

[originally posted on 27 Jan 2013]