Thank You, Simon Cowell

ACC-on-AGT-600x394

This article first appeared in the Spencer Daily Reporter, July 20, 2018.  

A popular TV show in the wasteland of summer options is America’s Got Talent, a.k.a. “AGT.”  Last week the Angel City Chorale appeared on the show.  160 members strong, the choir is led by Sue Fink.  When Simon Cowell asked her what the choir is about, she replied, “I want to bring together people of diverse backgrounds and build community when we make something beautiful together.  That’s the goal, and it’s working.”

The audience was captivated by the performance, which began with finger snapping, thigh slapping, and jumping to simulate a rain storm.  The choir launched into a joyful rendition of Toto’s “Africa.”  The camera zeroed in on individual men and women, their faces shining and bodies swaying as they sang.

Of course the camera also caught the reactions of audience members as they smiled with delight and stood to applaud.  Simon Cowell, the resident grump (actually a seasoned talent scout) on the judge’s panel, reacted with surprise and smiles, leading the judges in their standing ovation.

YouTube recordings predictably appeared on social media the following day, with reactions like “I want to be in a choir like that!” and “We need more of this!”  It reminded me of typical responses to flash mobs, where “Hallelujah” by Handel is staged surreptitiously in a shopping mall, or instrumentalists slowly gather in a public square to perform Pachelbel’s “Canon in D.”  My favorite flash mobs are playfully staged by a group called Improv Everywhere.  (Check it out!)

Spectators typically react to flash mobs with the same surprise and delight elicited on AGT.  They stop to listen, laugh, and applaud.  Afterward everyone seems more relaxed and happy.  The shared, unexpected experience creates a momentary sense of community.

As a pastor I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the church.  It seems to me that the Angel City Chorale manifests what we as God’s people are called to do: welcome people from all walks of life to join in a joyful enterprise.  You can bet the choir members have bonded through shared stories of both pain and joy, just as the church tries to do.  Both choir and church find themselves working, laughing, and crying together in regular gatherings.  Offering our corporate efforts to the world, spreading the joy.

I wonder if that is the impression people have of their local churches.  In our best moments we do these things.  Yet throngs of people of all ages are rejecting the church’s invitation.  Might this have something to do with our battles over doctrine, ethics, and politics?  The answer is complex, but these ugly, public debates can’t help.  Add to that personal stories of exclusion from local churches, and just plain mediocrity and apathy.  Even people who have never gone to church know that this is not what the church is supposed to look like.

How far have we strayed from the generous welcome Jesus embodied and taught?  How sad that we have let ideological arguments distract us from following him.  Or worse, apathy.

The Bible we claim to revere does not ask us to defend it or create doctrinal litmus tests from its pages.  It simply provides us with stories of struggle and heartache, deliverance and victory, brokenness and redemption, death and resurrection.  It does not provide us with a list of cut and dried answers, much as we might want them.  And it certainly doesn’t leave us yawning.  Instead, it invites us to wrestle with reality in the safety of God’s loving gaze.  Jesus asks us to follow him in a way of life among the beloved community, for whom compassion and hospitality, forgiveness and love are the hallmarks.

When we let go of our rigid requirements and simply follow Jesus’ way of love and freedom, the church creates beautiful, joyful music that captivates the world around us.  Whether we’re in the choir or in the audience, we experience the greatest artistry God has created for our pleasure and healing.  What a gift!

Now, here’s the bottom line for you, reader.  If you belong to a church and this critique hits home, you can sigh and say, “Well, we try,” and move on.  Nothing changes.  If you don’t go to church, you can nod your head and say, “See, that’s why I have better things to do!”  Nothing changes.

Or both of you could take your longing for beloved community seriously and demand better of us in the church.  You can ask questions, and raise the expectations for hospitality, and find ways to make that beautiful music of worship and works of compassion with other people in your local church.  You need this, and our country, our world needs this.  Disillusionment and fatalism don’t have to overwhelm us.  Mediocrity should not dull our spirits.  We are called to participate in God’s love, in millions of ways.  We should not be surprised that it takes some effort…like choir practice!

Thank you, Sue Fink—and Simon Cowell—for reminding us what we were made for.

 

 

July Morning

Summer morning

I look out at the non-air-conditioned

unvacuumed, untidied backyard

and see life teeming

every leaf unfurled from a bud two months ago

goldfinches hatched from eggs.

 

My cat sleeps on his tail-cushion.

He was a kitten once

and I was an embryo before that.

The rug under my feet came from seeds

fibers woven by some hands

that once rested on mothers’ breasts

 

Native life

and processed life

but all life

silently pulsing with

the casual wisdom of having been created

being here

now

for this.

It’s in the Writing

Before I started my blog, I felt a stirring inside to write, I mean writing for others to read.  I did not know what form that would take.  I wondered if I had a book inside me, or anything of value to offer.  I mused aloud to my daughter that I was thinking of starting a blog, but I wanted to wait until I was ready.  She wisely urged me to get started no matter what, or I would be paralyzed by my own expectations.  As an artist, I imagine she has some idea of the creative process and its barriers.

“Learn by doing” came to mind.

This summer I finally have large blocks of time in which to write.  In one of those moments that feels Spirit-guided, I went to my bookshelf and found that one of the books I had collected for future reading was The True Secret of Writing by Natalie Goldman.  She connects the contemplative life and the act of meditation with writing.  Well, “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”  Her book was exactly what I needed after completing two years of instruction in spiritual direction and incorporating contemplative practices into my life.

Still, one has to sit down and write.  Thankfully, Goldman and many other writing teachers tell us that we cannot and should not expect to sit down with a plan and simply flesh out an outline unless we have some rare flash of inspiration like G.F. Handel when he composed “The Messiah” in 24 days.  (Sounds terrifying, not to mention exhausting.)

No, the act of writing itself yields discovery.  It also yields plenty of BS.  Which we have to expect.

Find Your Voice
Image by Leigh Standley for CG Design Inc, used by permission

I am inspired by the idea of “finding your voice.”  But what does that mean, exactly?  Did it start when I began questioning my assumptions twenty years ago?  Or when I wrote poetry in the fourth grade?  Or when I finally felt as though my sermons were coming from a deeper, more genuine place?  Why was it lost, or obscured?

I was heartened when reading Henri Nouwen’s Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith (with Michael J. Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird), that he approached writing hesitantly: “Even after many years of writing, I experience real fear when I face the empty page.  Why am I so afraid? …I can’t imagine that I have anything to say that hasn’t already been said better by someone else…These fears sometimes paralyze me and make me delay or even abandon my plans to write.” (p. 98)

He says that writing is not about “recording preexistent thoughts.”  Instead, he says, “Writing is a process in which we discover what lives in us.  The writing itself reveals to us what is alive in us.  The deepest satisfaction of writing is precisely that it opens up new spaces within us of which we were not aware before we started to write.”  (p. 99)

I experience what Nouwen described.  Writing opens up new spaces within me that I didn’t realize were there.

Part of my process right now is going over journals, the notes from my spiritual direction course, and reading old letters penned by my mother over the course of the last 60 years.  I received these unexpectedly from my sister-in-law two weeks ago, mysteriously coinciding with my first foray into more intentional writing.  Yet another sense of the Spirit at work…

As I read through some notes from class last night, I found the outcome of an assignment, a letter from God to me.  (I do not hesitate to write these.  Some might consider them highly presumptuous.  I find them enlightening and comforting.  And God never “says” anything out of character when I do it.)  I put the letter in quotes because it is my previous writing, not because I think I am quoting God directly:

“Do not be afraid.  What is inside you waiting to be expressed is not petty, clumsy, or trite.  It is my fresh breath of life for you.  Words from me can never be cliché no matter how many times they have been uttered or written. New babies are born every day with the same basic physiology as all the rest, yet they are unique and welcomed with joy as a sign of my vast love and creativity.

“You were born, you have lived, you are gifted as an expression of my love for the world.  It doesn’t matter how anyone else receives your words.  I love them.  And they will resonate for the ones I have in mind.  Nothing else matters.

“You are enough because I am enough.  There is no other reality except my life made manifest in the world and my love made manifest in you as part of the whole.  The words you write are expressions I want the world to read.  Whether you are proud of them or anyone is impressed by them is beside the point.  Remember [an old friend’s] word for you?  Express my love to the world; do not seek to impress anyone.  All will be well, my Beloved.”

So, the desire, the call the write might not be about producing something for you, dear reader.  If nothing else, it will serve my own understanding of myself and the world, and that is a worthy endeavor indeed.  I don’t have to identify and brand and market my unique “voice.”  I can simply listen to it as it flows through my pen onto the page, and follow its inky path, wherever it leads.

Thoughts on Spiritual Direction

June 14, 2018…This week I received my certification as a spiritual director from Seeking the Spirit Within, a ministry of the Nebraska Synod (ELCA) Institute for Spiritual Direction Formation.  Spiritual direction happens when someone seeking more depth in their spirituality receives assistance from a companion who is trained to help them recognize the work of the Holy Spirit in their life. 

Hidden milkweeds

I ran across a picture from an autumn run a couple years back in West Oneota Park.  The caption read “hope for monarchs: milkweeds.”  The milkweeds are hard to detect, except the one that has yellowed a bit.  Look more closely, and in the middle right of the photo you’ll find two pods waiting to open and thrust their feathery seeds into a passing wind.

Who knows where those seeds will land?  Most of them will not find purchase in soil.  Next year the monarch butterflies will find those that take root and offer their pink globes to signal their winged guests.  I imagine the long journey overcome with weightless wings, the instinct to seek and find the precious weed.

The inner landscape is vast and multiform.  There are dangers and delights.  Signposts and dumping grounds.  Glorious sunrises and sunsets.  Dark places.  Paths that lead to discovery, and those that take us back.  Memorials for pause and grief.

If I’m not care-ful, I pass by memorials and sunsets and weedy beauties unaware.  I need help to see what is there, all that is waiting to teach me about itself.  I need someone to help me train my eyes, not to show me what is there, but in order to simply see it and discern what needs my attention.

With my spiritual companion, I celebrate the pulsing goodness of my heart.  I mourn the losses that throb and press.  I welcome the memories whose parsing will transform their power.

We walk the path and notice what is flitting by, what is waiting to give life, what beckons with its dark invitation.

We look closely, together, my spiritual director and I.

 

4: “…and the Holy Spirit”

If Jesus turned the religious world upside down while he lived among us, things did not settle down after he left.  It is recorded in The Acts of the Apostles: Pentecost was just the beginning of a revolution.  The Holy Spirit blew into the room with the sound of wind, the appearance of fire, and the chaos of several languages chattering at once.

Jesus’ friends were so inspired they didn’t let the authorities stop them from preaching the gospel and healing people.  Even imprisonment and death didn’t scare them off.  Then the Holy Spirit got downright pushy, forcing Philip and Peter to admit that Gentiles were legitimate members of God’s family.  And Saul went from killing Christians to becoming one of them.  There’s no mistaking that God was up to something big.

One of the pieces of the story gets too easily overlooked.  When Philip got sent to help an Ethiopian man with his Bible study on Isaiah, we are told the foreigner was also a eunuch (Acts 8:26-40).  Such a man was considered safe to work with the women in a royal household, having had his manhood rendered inoperative.  In fact his sexuality violated the ancient purity codes (Leviticus 21:17-21; Deuteronomy 23:1).

But the Holy Spirit thrust Philip into his path to see a man who was seeking God.  When the man asked to be baptized, there was no demand for repentance, no required statement of faith.  His faith was enough.

While this story does not amount to an affirmation of the man’s sexuality—a cancellation of the purity laws—neither does it condemn him.  I would contend that the story is included precisely because his sexual identity is significant, and the Spirit was constantly revealing the truth about God’s inclusiveness in those days.  Why else would this incident be reported?

Paul is a prominent character in the books of Acts.  In a previous post I briefly addressed Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality.  In fact, the use of that word in modern translations of his letters cannot be supported, because the word itself did not exist in Greek, and the modern concept of same-sex, lifelong, monogamous relationships was culturally unacceptable back then.  Same-gender sex was a practice employed by wealthy men who could afford to exploit younger men.  Of course Paul was against that.  At the same time, slavery was common practice and not considered barbaric as it is today.  Paul told slaves to be obedient to their masters.

We have learned a lot about human dignity since Paul’s time, but we still have so far to go.  We are suspicious of foreigners.  Racism is still pervasive and deadly.  Prejudice against the LGBTQ community wields deadly force as well.

It’s time to listen to the Holy Spirit.  Jesus said the Spirit’s job is to remind us what he said.  “Love one another, as I have loved you” comes to mind.

#3: “Then There’s Jesus”

Jesus was popular with masses of people not only because he healed some of them, but also because they sensed that he spoke with authority.  From our (Christians’) perspective, we know why he had that authority: he is one of the Godhead, the Son himself.  Because he is divine, and we believe the radical claim that he became human and lived among us, what he said and did ought to have the most weight in considering what God wants for us and expects of us.

Jesus vexed the respected religious leaders of his day by violating Sabbath laws publicly.  He disregarded the laws about purity by touching lepers, conversing with women, and eating meals with people known as “sinners”—tax collectors and prostitutes among them.  By his actions, he indicated that people and their well being mattered more to him than legalities, even the Sabbath laws that were fundamental to the life of God’s chosen people.

Several stories are provided for us to show how Jesus cared more for people than for upholding and enforcing rules.  One is his conversation with a woman of Samaria (John 4), in which he listens to her views about religion.  A Jewish man was not supposed to speak with a woman nor a Gentile, let alone give her credit for having a brain.

Another story is an almost comical situation where Jesus heals a man born blind, but then the temple leaders simmer and then boil over with fury because they cannot make the blame stick on this man or his parents, and their accusations at Jesus resound with bluster and hypocrisy (John 9).  An unschooled man ends up pointing out the holes in their logic, so they dismiss him in frustration.  Jesus goes on to tell these self-appointed gate-keepers that he is not just a gate-keeper, he is the gate and does not need their help, thank you very much (John 10:7-9).

In case stories like these are not enough to show us Jesus’ values and authority on legal matters, there is the point-blank question posed to him, asking which commandment is most important.  Jesus replies that loving God with all of one’s being and loving the neighbor as oneself is the best guideline we can follow.  (Matthew 22:34-40)  He never said anything about loving the wrong person.

See, Jesus didn’t simply throw out the old laws.  In fact, his Sermon on the Mount made it clear that his standards are even higher.  He cares about the condition of our hearts that lead us to behave the way we do.  (Matthew 5:17-48)  Motives matter.  It’s no wonder he cited love as the bottom line.  Love is hard!

Nobody knew this better than Jesus.  He went all the way to the cross to embody his love for us, to let himself be tortured and crucified for the sake of laws he himself never violated.  But his silhouette hung starkly against the sky to show us what our legalism ultimately leads to: killing the God who loves us.  He would not let any sin—nor our judgments of one another—keep us from his love.  And that love could not be snuffed out; He lived on to forgive and to heal, and to enable us to do the same for each other.

Jesus talked about bearing fruit, and that was about love too.  (John 15:1-17)  I’ve seen a lot of good fruit from all kinds of people, both gay and straight.  He said we can detect good people by their good fruit.  (Matthew 7:15-20)

Still, we think we can put ourselves in the position of judging what sin is, and like the Pharisees, think we are justified in declaring whom God approves of and those God doesn’t.  Which part of “do not judge” don’t we understand?  (Matthew 7:1-5)  I am not pointing fingers, tempting as it is.  I am as guilty of it as anyone, compulsively judging people who do not agree with me on matters of faith.  Jesus calls that the plank in my eye while I’m searching for the speck in someone else’s.

I hate that.  I want to feel right, and righteous.  Don’t we all?

Jesus comes to us and says, “Don’t get worked up about that.  Just love each other.  Okay?”

#2: “But the Bible Says…”

This is the second of several posts addressing the debate about homosexuality that will soon take place at the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America (June 7-12, 2018).  To see earlier posts, scroll down.  

Before I continue, let me say that every single statement I make in these posts is backed up by many hours of study and thought and dialogue.  I could provide lots of footnotes, but I am just going to ask you to trust that I have done my homework in the Bible, in scholarly resources I trust, in relationships and conversations. If you want a bibliography, I’ll be happy to furnish one.  More than anything else, I am trying my hardest to follow Jesus.  That doesn’t mean I’m right.  It just means I’m earnest.

The first consideration that has to be addressed about affirming or not affirming LGBTQ persons as full and legitimate members/leaders in the Christian church is the Bible.  The arguments using biblical texts for either stance reflect the speakers’ understandings of how and why the Bible was written and what it means for us today.

For that reason, in my own exploration of what the Bible says about homosexuality, I had to ask myself the question, “What is the Bible for?”  Did Moses, or Paul, or anyone else think that what they were penning would be scrutinized two or three thousand years later for evidence in ethical debates?  It seems unlikely.  Nor did those who prayerfully determined the biblical canon (the writings included in the Scriptures) anticipate fundamentalism many centuries later, when people would consider every word in the Bible equal to every other word in weight and meaning.  (See, that idea is pretty young.  Christians didn’t play “my text can beat your text” for many centuries, probably because they were dealing with things like the plague, war, slavery, stuff like that.)

Here’s what I think about the Bible.  It is a record of people’s understanding about God that evolved over centuries.  It was not one-sided; God was active in the process.  But it seems that God let people deduce things about the divine that weren’t so great (like God annihilating people out of wrath) because it was all on the way to revealing the bigger (truer?) truth, but one step at a time, each one through the lens of anthropology at the time.  These are big things to teach, and God is patient.  So… there’s a story of God calling Abraham to sacrifice his son and then stopping it so he could learn that God doesn’t operate that way even though the religions of the time thought God did.  There are so many other examples, but I’ll leave it at that.

Did the Holy Spirit inspire it all?  I think so, because that’s what the Holy Spirit does.  How that happened was probably as different as each writer was to each other.  Are there things in the Bible that no longer apply?  I think that’s true too, because the Holy Spirit is dynamic and involved in our progressive understandings of God and what it means to follow God, from four thousand years ago until today.

Am I wise enough to know which things still apply in original form and which don’t?  Well, I do have a God-given brain to help me with that.  But thinking we can tell everybody else precisely which text is timeless and which is contextual is a weighty responsibility that pastors can fumble even when we take it seriously.  We need to offer one another grace about it instead of spending all our time debating, because too often the people whose lives we are discussing end up suffering collateral damage.

So we have Paul telling the early Christians that people who lusted after their own sex were sinners, because back then, there’s a good chance that older men taking advantage of younger men is what that meant (pederasty).  Nowadays we have a different understanding of what homosexuality is.  It’s good to have Paul’s example of discerning what it means to follow Jesus, because that is what we should be doing.  But assuming that Paul’s advice two thousand years ago was meant to be a static ruling for all time seems to me to be an insult to the Holy Spirit, who expects us to pay attention to the factors at play in our time, in light of what we know about God.  Then we can determine how we are called to love each other, the driving ethic for followers of Jesus Christ.

And frankly, Paul had a background of killing people over rules, and we can’t expect him to shake that impulse completely.  He had his dark side just like the rest of us.  He also wrote about grace, and about love being the bottom line, so I am willing to give him a pass on a few comments in his letters.

Then there is Jesus.  I have to give his words and witness more weight than anything else, because he said himself that he is the only one who has been in both places (in the full presence of God and here among us), so he ought to know what he is talking about.  But that’s for another day.

In case you are wondering which texts people have been arguing over, here’s the list.  I’ll take you to a few others in the next few days, so stay tuned.

Noah and Ham (Genesis 9:20–27)

Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:1–11

Levitical laws condemning same-sex relationships (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13)

Two words in two Second Testament vice lists (1 Corinthians 6:9–10; 1 Timothy 1:10)

Paul’s letter to the Romans (Romans 1:26–27)

I believe that these texts do not refer to homosexual relationships between two free, adult, and loving individuals. Legitimate (non-condemning) interpretations of these texts include rape or attempted rape (Genesis 9:20–27, 19:1–11), cultic prostitution (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13), male prostitution and pederasty (1 Corinthians 6:9–10; 1 Timothy 1:10), and promiscuity and/or the Isis cult in Rome (Romans 1:26–27).