Second in Easter (4/8): “Breathing Easy”

This sermon, by the same title, was originally supposed to be about the freedom to be creation that is the first dimension of the Easter message.  Instead, it turned out to be a reflection on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., in parallel with the question about how to live in the wake of the self-sacrifice of Christ.  And in the middle I got into a reflection on the constraints I realized I carry as a white person, the ‘shadow side’ of white supremacy, one might say.  Now, I wasn’t very confident that all of that held together well in under 15 minutes.  But I had a number of compliments on this sermon. 

That leaves me wondering: what made this a good sermon (for some)?  Was it beginning with a dramatic, contemporary story (a device I know works well, but I rarely use)? Was it my use of personal narrative and experience? Was it perhaps the surprising reflections on whiteness that made people see their own experience in a new light?  I didn’t think the humor got as many laughs as I had hoped. Since I think this sermon had some problems working against it, I’m curious why people think it was good despite all that. Please comment! 

Acts 4:32-35; John 20:19-23

As Christians, we live in the wake of a martyr, one who died in our place. How do you honor someone who died for you?

A few weeks ago, a French policeman named Arnaud Beltrame, found himself summoned to a lone terrorist hostage situation. He voluntarily took the place of the woman who was held hostage. When he tried to disarm the criminal, he was shot and killed. French President Macron put what he did this way: “To accept to die so the innocent may live.” What would you do if you were that woman whose place Arnaud Beltrame took? Think about that for a minute. Would you feel burdened by a debt you could never pay back? Or would you feel that you suddenly had a new lease on life?

This week we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr. Without taking anything away from the already monumental sacrifice of Arnaud Beltrame, I think King’s sacrifice brings us a step closer to Jesus. For he did not just “accept to die so that the innocent may live,” as was said about Beltrame. Now, he was pretty sure he was going to die. By 1968, he had been receiving death threats for a decade at least. But King’s speeches in the last days of his life, one of which is captured in our bulletin cover, seem to contain a haunting premonition of his death. It’s the same haunting premonition you hear in the Bible’s stories about the Last Supper.

But also like Jesus, King didn’t die only for the innocent. He certainly died so that African Americans and others—poor people, civilians in Vietnam as well as American soldiers involved in wars that were not absolutely necessary—would be liberated from injustice. But he also died for white America, for privileged America (and that’s me, I don’t know about you), so that we would be freed from our tacit complicity with an unjust system of laws, economic benefits, housing restrictions, educational inequality, and the rest—an unfair system, and God doesn’t want us tied to an unjust system. Now there were activists who were willing to see white people as the enemy, and from where they stood I can hardly blame them; but King was a Christian man, above all a minister and theologian. And he knew that God’s plan in Jesus was for justice that includes reconciliation with one’s enemies, not revenge against them. So let’s not wrongly narrow his legacy: oh, he died for black people. No, this black man was harassed and jailed and died for white people. And so we thank God for what Martin Luther King did for them, but for me.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying: Oh us poor white people. We suffered so badly being stuck on the lonely top of Mount Segregation. Of course not; we enjoyed plenty of benefits relative to people of color, and continue to do so. Sure, white people face all kinds of real challenges and suffering. (I haven’t frankly, but many of you have—addictions, domestic violence, and just the sadness and tragedies that inevitably accompany all human beings.) But think of it this way: if you could enter a lottery to be born in America, would you buy the ticket that has you being born as black, or as white? Who would choose to be born black instead of white in America today?

Not me. I recognize that it’s easier and safer to be born white. And of course, because we are called by God to justice, we have no choice but to desire to give up unjust privileges. Just as Jesus opened up the privilege of being God’s people to the Gentiles—and that’s us—so white Christians should desire to open up our privileges to all.

Now we can try to ignore God’s call, and try to live in ignorance of what is unfair. But because God creates us, injustice eats away at our souls. Benefiting from an unjust system does harm us. Don’t think that your humanity has not been constrained and even deformed by being white. It has nothing to do with race or biology. White flesh is created as good by God as any other. But this flesh has become deformed by being on the wrong side of justice. For instance, people from various European cultures used to enjoy a sense of belonging to a people, to one of many rich and meaningful cultures. They enjoyed belonging to a shared way of life in whatever little corner of England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, Poland, whatever—where they lived. They did not think of themselves as all blandly “white;” the fact that we now do shows us how much we’ve lost. Now today we have technology, and a lot more wealth, and a good share of moral and humanistic enlightenment. But how many of us today have a people? We’ve got maybe a nuclear family, or maybe just ourselves. We’ve practically forgotten how to live in community; it can seem to us like just a burden on our busy, self-directed lives. Somewhere deep in us we still long to be a people; we diligently do genealogies to connect us to a people that has been lost in a sea of whiteness. We long to be able to loose ourselves in a festival of dancing on the streets, like you see in Brazil during carnival or Mexico on saints’ days. If we tried to do that on 202, it wouldn’t be the same. Let’s admit that St. Patrick’s Day doesn’t cut it; it’s just an excuse to booze it up.  We can try to find peoplehood in our American identity, but we’re now so divided that we end up writing off half of ‘our people’ as not true Americans. Our whiteness brought us many benefits, usually at the expense of others; but it took away our ability to have a people, leaving us to be lonely self-achievers.

Growing up I longed to have a people, though I didn’t understand this longing. So I found myself suddenly attracted to Chinese culture, because it seemed to offer such a deep and ancient tradition. (Full disclosure: this all began with watching Kung Fu movies—there’s your ancient Chinese tradition.) I grew out of that, although I studied Chinese and learned to respect Chinese culture. But early on I had also found myself so attracted to churches in the African American tradition. When I finally joined 12th Street Christian Church in Washington DC at the age of 31, it was a revelation. This was a real people of God, with a distinct way of singing, of preaching, of moving, and even of sharing humor—and at the center of this tight culture was God, the God of justice, the same God that had carried this people out of slavery. That deep gratitude to God for taking our side when the world was against us—or rather, when we were against them, but they never put it that way—that gratitude to God was so palpable and powerful and liberating. My whole body felt different after church—free, and relaxed, and swinging with the pulse of God’s Spirit. I bet you never felt that way coming out of this church.

Indeed, it wasn’t until I spent a few years at 12th Street that I realized how constrained I was as a white person. (And we had a good conversation about that at an Advent Bible study.) Hugging for me always required a real effort. Crying was something that could only be done in private. A deep belly laugh felt unnatural; I preferred a brief chuckle to express my mirth, but better yet was a sly smile. Forget about dancing, o my. And in church, as for many white people, I had learned to sit quietly; you don’t move in church. You sit before God like you would before a stern teacher. We don’t know how to cry out to God, except in private. We don’t know how to ‘get to shouting’—to exclaim, “Thank you Jesus.” Some of you tell me I sing well—God bless you! but then I know a lot of you have hearing problems, so I wonder—but before 12th street my voice was tight and thin. That church freed my voice. It’s that liberating spirit that is why African American music keeps drawing us in, from blues to jazz to mo-town to soul to funk to rap and hip hop, and always gospel music and the spirituals. You know, if I had to enter a lottery to get down and party, I’d take the black ticket over the white one. (Sorry.)

We white folk sometimes have trouble breathing easy; we are constrained. We’re constrained in our celebrating. Constrained in our ability to weep and mourn together. Constrained even in our silence, during which we are often distracted or uncomfortable. Constrained in expressing love to one another. I know my parents loved me, and still do; but it was like they were embarrassed to show love. And kids growing up with this feel these many facets of constraint, and so they start to fantasize about gangs, or the glory of fame, or crime, or violence, or becoming Chinese, or wherever they imagine they might find life that’s more real. Do you know what I’m saying? See, I could ask for an Amen if I were back at 12th street.

Maybe you’ve felt white guilt, but I bet you never thought of white people as impaired. What’s wrong with us? I’ll tell you what. We are afraid to lose control. We are afraid of losing control of our personal space, of our time, of our emotions, and of our precious inner thoughts. So we white folk constrain ourselves, because losing control is the worst thing that can happen to us. And this self-constraint harms us. When we are humble enough to admit this, we can begin to see our internalized constraint as God’s reminding us that no one is free until all are free. It is God’s whisper of justice. No one wins if someone else has to lose.

Now, people at 12th Street Christian church also were hurting; they had plenty of harm to deal with. But no one was there was burdened with that fear of losing control. You see, you aren’t worried about maintaining control if your people never had control in the first place. But we white folk learned to listen to and emulate or at least fear the mostly white men in our lives who were in control—the stern, remote fathers, the business owners, the generals, the statesmen, the people bearing arms, the ministers, the colonialists, the slave owners. We learned from them to fear losing control, and we took that lesson deep into our bodies, so that even our most intimate relationships and our inner selves have been affected.

God showed me that big scale injustice has very intimate repercussions. And God also showed me the way to healing. I learned at 12th Street that there is liberation for us white folk too, just like Dr. King believed in. I felt freed from all that internalized constraint, and in my friendships there I felt genuinely part of God’s whole humanity. God can and does deliver us from our fear of losing control, because the control we had was never a good control to begin with. And many of us have learned that its good to express emotion and to embrace our feelings and our body and our children.

Easter is all about giving up control. The authorities thought they could control Jesus and his disciples with the threat of death, and the cross was designed to lift up that threat and show it off to everybody all around. The cross worked the same way that the burning cross and the lynching tree have been used in America, or people today inscribing swastikas, or internet trolls posting their death threats, or an angry white man putting a bullet into Dr. King. But God showed in Jesus that those who lose control of their lives for God’s sake will find a power of life that even death cannot constrain. And so by God’s transforming power, even that cross now signifies not a controlling threat but the power of life beyond all constraints. That cross gave birth to a people who found joy in serving and loving one another, so that control and constraint no longer reigned in them. We get an almost absurd picture of that in Acts, where the early church is depicted as so much “of one heart and soul” that they had no private possessions.

We probably won’t take things that far, but who knows? For now, we’re still trying to figure out how to live in the wake of a martyr, how to honor someone who died for us. Like Dr. King, Jesus didn’t die so we would be wracked with guilt—although guilt is something white people are good at! Jesus died so we could live, live in the fullness God intended for us; to live free—not as lonely individuals, but as a people. For true freedom is found in being in love with God and with one another. We’re aiming to get there, but we know that they way there lies through the cross, which for us will surely involve taking a good hard look at just how much the legacy of racist control is still haunting our world and our own bodies.

We’ll spend the next seven weeks of Easter marveling at and learning to live by this new life of Easter brought to us by the risen Christ. The disciples were constrained in a way that was the mirror image of white people afraid of losing control. The disciples feared those in power, those who had control. But we can all relate to the feeling of locking yourself in a room. And suddenly Jesus appeared among them and said, “Peace.” He reminded them of his martyrdom, showing his pierced hands and side. And they then realized that this was a martyrdom not constraining them by guilt and debt but liberating them for life, for Jesus would always be with them. “They rejoiced.” And then he said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He freed them from their constraints and their hiding behind locked doors, for they realized that this fear being used to control them had nothing over God. And Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on them, and they once again breathed easy, even as they faced a hostile world.

In John’s telling, only three sentences separate the appearance of the risen Christ and his gift of the Holy Spirit. In Luke and Acts, there are 50 days between these two events (Pentecost comes from Greek for 50th [day]). And we will need all of the remaining 50 days to explore this new life we have between Christ’s rising and the Spirit’s holiness.




A Cool Government Office I Never Heard of…

Our Church Council is currently in discernment about whether we want to host a workshop run by Better Angels, a non-partisan non-profit group that works to bring people from across our growing political divisions into constructive dialogue.

Better Angels was cited by Grande Lum in an interview.  He’s the former director of the Community Relations Office under the US Dept. of Justice.  While I’d like to hear other perspectives on this office, it’s an encouraging interview.  Grande Lum on Here & Now


Fifth in Lent (3/18): “What Must We Give Up to Follow Jesus? Our Sins? Our Lives?”

Call to worship: Jeremiah 31: 31-34

Psalm 51:1-12

John 12:20-33

Some people in churches like ours are just done with the word sin. It sounds so backward and old-fashioned, and it’s too often been used to shame women or LGBT folks who don’t conform to “Leave It to Beaver” domesticity. I, on the other hand, am just getting started with the word sin. Despite the risks, I think we need to greatly expand our appreciation for that powerful word, and reclaim it from its petty and narrow use. Because if you remove the word “sin” from your vocabulary, you are going to have a hard time reading the Bible. But the Bible has a wonderfully rich and surprising grasp of sin. And I’ve been trying to convey that surprise by considering the sin, or fallenness or, if I must, the imperfection that shows up in surprising places, like in our religion and our clinging to spiritual experiences.

But I recently realized that my desire to make sin hip and interesting could wrongly neglect the truth of even the old-fashioned, backward sense of sin. I have been reading studies and stories of people who drop out of churches like ours. One story was a man named Wayne Sanders. Wayne had been struggling for some time with his sins and failings. He burned through one marriage and was on his second, and his wandering eye as well as substance abuse made him think that his life was not on the right track. As he looked ahead to possibly failing again as a husband, or worse, as a father, Wayne talked to friends at work, and he watched Billy Graham, God rest his tireless soul, on tv, and all this led him to give his life to Christ. He then joined a fundamentalist megachurch, for he had quickly concluded that the mainline Presbyterian church he had occasionally attended was not calling people to Christ. He would probably say the same of us. Now, I’m not sure I trust his judgment about that. I think fundamentalists who seek absolute authority directly from the Bible don’t realize that the Bible, too, can become an idol. Scholars even coined a nifty word for that: bibliolatry. But it is true: churches like ours often do not speak to the kind of problems Wayne was dealing with. What really seemed to bother him was sexual sin. Wayne believes that sex is a “huge issue, probably the bottom line in most people hearts and minds when” it comes to religion.

Wayne’s story, as well as reading Psalm 51 in our lectionary for today, made me realize that I should not go through Lent without addressing our personal sins, those actions and habits and inclinations that we don’t like about ourselves. Probably many of us feel personally out of control in one respect or another, much like Paul puts it in Romans 7: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Now, some of us don’t feel that way, and some of us really aren’t that way. Keep listening.) This is a real problem; but it doesn’t have to be about sex. Wayne made a common mistake; he assumed that everyone must have the same problem with sex that he does. We don’t. It might be all kinds of things. It might be substance abuse or alcohol, it might be that you have a bad temper you cannot control; you might be unable to stop picking on your spouse or your children and pushing their buttons; you might be even violently abusive to your spouse or partner or loved one. You might find yourself breaking rules, shoplifting, acting out—and for no good reason. My mild-mannered high school guidance counselor was arrested late in life for shoplifting—go figure. These are real sins. And they are hurting others around you.

Let me be clear. God wants you to stop sinning. God wants us to stop sinning against others, that’s for sure. But God wants this for us, also. God wants us to be liberated from that feeling of being out of control. You cannot find real peace within the Kingdom of God if your own actions are not really yours, if your sins are controlling you. God wants you to stop, I want you to stop, and this church wants you to stop sinning and be free. We are a community under God that is here for sinners.

The human spirit is often murky and irrational. We like to pretend that all of us are fully in control of ourselves, and the fact is that none of us is in complete control. Most of us hold it together well enough to stay out of trouble and to appear like responsible people. Some slide off the deep end and commit the kind of heinous acts that we read about every day. We like to draw a clean line through all this murkiness and say, “As long as you aren’t hurting anybody else, you’re ok, you got it all together.” But nothing in the Bible supports that easy compromise. Anything short of a pure heart fully directed to love is a failure to attain the perfection to which God has called us. And I know of none who have attained this perfection. The Biblical view of sin does not allow us to condemn some group of sinners out there. Instead, it calls us all to charity and compassion toward one another, and in humility to take a good hard look at ourselves—remove the log that is in your own eye, as Jesus put it.

And so, beyond the sins that harm others, we should also attend to the kind of private hang-ups we have that don’t seem to hurt yourself or anyone else, but which cause us private shame. It might be a habit for porn or some other embarrassing habit. You might have weird fantasies that you can’t seem to shake. You might often be consumed with pettiness or envy, even if you keep it to yourself. Now Wayne and others can focus too much on private sins. But even though they are affecting you only in secret, the fact that they trouble you means they are somehow affecting your relationship with yourself and with God, and perhaps with others more than you realize. They do not testify to the reign of God’s peace and righteousness in your heart, to what the Psalmist calls “truth in the inward being.” And God wants you to be free of these sins also.

Lent is the right time to confess all of these sins. This is the time to pray, with our Psalm, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love. … Blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” Our sin might be secret; it may not seem to harm anyone else. But you can’t hide from God. “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight.” When we have to hide something from God and others, we are cutting ourselves off from our source of life and truth and love. “You desire truth in the inward being; Therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence”—I would add, when we are out of control, we cast ourselves from God’s presence, we lose our union with God. “Do not take your holy spirit from me.” / You don’t have to be perfect, but you have to be unified and collected to stand in God’s presence and receive God’s power. And finally, the Psalmist’s prayer is not only about being free from guilt, free from a bad habit, or even free from harming others. The point is to put yourself on the path to true joy: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.” We want a spirit that joyfully and with holy pride does good, and has nothing to hide. That is where God wants you to be, and don’t settle for anything less. Confess yourself before God. If it helps, you can confess before me or before a trusted friend or counselor who understands divine mercy. And especially if you are trapped in substance abuse, or abuse against others, you need God working through others to restore you.

All of that needs to be said here more than I’ve been saying it. Now, I think I’ve neglected addressing that kind of sin because some churches both today and in the past have overemphasized them. Like I said at the start, sin is much bigger than those bad habits and inclinations that we cannot seem to control. Feminist theologians helped me learn that lesson, by pointing out that the church’s tradition of teaching (and harping on about) sin spoke mostly to those in power: mostly to males like Wayne whose main problem was maintaining personal control. Still today so much serious wrongdoing is by men who are out of control: name me a female mass shooter. Roughly 90% of both sexual abuse and homicide is committed by men. And so on. So yes, let’s not forget to address all the sins that men, and women also, commit by their wrongful habits and inclinations. But what about the victims? Those without power, typically women and minorities, have often experienced sin primarily as something done to them: as violation, as bodily injustice. Now I’m sure all women, who have been gaining power in many ways, can also identify with something in my earlier words about the personal sins we can’t control. But is a woman who is abused or harassed supposed to deal with that before God and the church by confessing that she is a sinner? No. Jesus healed and restored the victims of sin. He could be hard on sinners, but that was almost always the powerful men who were in charge in his day—the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Scribes, the Roman rulers. So let us all confess our sins before God, and let us ask God to heal us when we’ve been sinned against, and to bring us justice where appropriate (#metoo), and to help us forgive where appropriate. This will take a lot of discernment, and we are here to help each other do that.

Finally, we are sinners, and we are sinned against, but we are more than that. We are called to be Jesus’ disciples. And Jesus taught his disciples to set their sights higher than just overcoming their personal sins, or the sins committed against them. Jesus was more than a therapist. He was ushering in the Kingdom of God, a community of people set aside to live a unique life together dedicated to God and to loving all others. And when some Greek-speaking Jews come looking for Jesus in our reading from John, Jesus reveals the full extent of this life for God for which he came to earth. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain.” What does that mean?

If you have come here with your sins, and maybe your wounds from others, and are looking to be made well, Jesus desires to heal you, for God created you and wants you to be well. But if you then say, “Thanks!” and go home and get on with your life, get back to your career, you will remain “just a single grain.” Your work place will appreciate you, and at your retirement or after you are gone you will be remembered briefly for your accomplishments, your single grain of fruit. But that’s about it. Or, freed from sin, you may go back home and be a good parent. I marvel at the joy and responsibility of raising Silas, and how much impact I will have on him. But I also realize how limited my impact may be in some ways, how much is out of my control. And I wonder about how much from my ancestors was preserved in me and will be passed on to Silas. My father and mother—yes, he will remember them and I will pass on to him stories and some of the values I learned. My grandparents? My great grandparents? I’m not even sure of their names. Can I expect the generations after Silas to bear my imprint? I just don’t see a whole lot of fruit which I will be able to call mine. That’s what I have to show for being a single grain of wheat.

“Those who love their life,” Jesus said, love their single grain, which is not nothing, and is a good gift from God, “Those who love their life lose it.” Let’s be honest about that. And so we come full circle to where we began Lent on Ash Wednesday. “From dust you were created and to dust you shall return.”

But Jesus also said this: “And those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Now, that doesn’t sound very inviting. I am not going to hate my life, my work, my role as husband and father, the little things that I get a kick out of doing. But we can love our little life too much. We have to admit that what I do doesn’t add up to a whole lot. And more painful still, we have to admit that “life in this world” is not fair. There are many, like the Bermudez children, who never have the chance to love their little grain of life, and this was true for some of Jesus’ followers also. But if you give of your life to follow Jesus in God’s way, you will participate in something infinitely greater than yourself. “Whoever serves me must follow me,” he said, “and where I am there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” Now I don’t claim to know what exactly that means for life beyond this one. But if you truly give yourself to the Christian way of being servants together, following the way Jesus came to serve all, and you plant your grain of wheat in this soil, you will bear much fruit, because you are now united in worldwide and history-spanning communion with God, a people committed to loving one another and loving across all barriers and divisions.

We are lucky. We probably won’t have to give up and hate our single-grain lives to take part in this eternal life, the life God honors and makes God’s own in the church. But maybe this Lent, which is almost over, we should listen to see if God is calling us to follow Jesus in this way, and so to be ready to give up our little grain, to let it fall to the earth and die, so that we together can bear much fruit, the fruit of eternal life.


4th in Lent (3/11): What Must We Give Up to Follow Jesus? Our Spiritual Experience?

I got only a few comments on this one, and a meeting after church precluded holding the Sermon Response Table. The Church Council meeting was really great, and I’ll have a posting on that in the future. 

John 3:11-21; Ephesians 2:1-10, 12-13

Last week I asked if we need to give up our religion to follow Jesus. And of course the answer was not simply, yes. But I suggested we should be ready and willing for God to purge all the stuff that goes into our religious views and practices, just like Jesus purged the temple of commercialism.

This week’s question is related, but may sound even more counterintuitive. Must we give up our spiritual experiences? Many people today assume that faith is all about spiritual experiences, although religion can do fine without spiritual experiences. Some of you have shared with me your spiritual experiences, and I encourage you to do so. Religion should be deeply felt and experienced. We New Englanders with our very private faith sometimes don’t like the idea of sharing a spiritual experience or lack thereof, but sharing is the point. Good spiritual experience drives you toward others; it doesn’t leave you in some private realm with God.

When Paul deals with spiritual experiences in First Corinthians, especially speaking in tongues, he ends up saying that what really matters is what we can share as a community, not your own personal spiritual highs. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” I can offer my own experiences here. I had a very dramatic conversion experience when I was 16. It was ushered in by a great flood of tears, and followed the next day by such a powerful sense of love. But it didn’t take me to some place where I was alone with God, like two private lovers. Instead, the Spirit that took me over gave me a keen love for others; it was far more than just a feeling or emotion—I could sharply perceive what it really meant to love others in each particular situation, and how very far from doing that I had been.

I can share this experience with you, and you can share yours with me (please do), and many think talking about your own personal experience makes for moving and effective rhetoric. But even if you’ve had dramatic spiritual experiences, they almost inevitably fade. Then what do you do? You might be tempted to blame God for abandoning you. I recommend we do not. What if the reason our dramatic experience of God’s Spirit fades is because most of us live pretty safe, secure, protected lives. Maybe if we lived on the edge, like many lively Christians in the developing world do, we would be more open to the power of God’s Spirit. Maybe if I hadn’t been living in my secure, suburban 16 year old life, surrounded by devices and concerns that kept me focused on the here and now, my spiritual experience would have persisted. But what are you going to fall back on when you no longer are feeling it?

Well, you need to have a community that practices a faith together to plug into so that you can grow and be sustained in other ways when the feeling fades. So there I was, enraptured in this beautiful state, feeling this loving power of God for people all around me for two days; and then it faded. I couldn’t sustain it. But I did pursue it. I joined a church that seemed more real to me than the one I was raised in, and I began to learn anew. Looking back 32 years later (!), I have such an odd sense of that day. I was so ignorant about God and how to think about God, ignorant of the Bible and the great traditions of Christianity, and yet there was real wisdom within that personal experience of God’s Spirit. But I needed a community larger than myself to supplement that powerful but brief experience with a wisdom practiced and grounded. Sadly, it took me awhile to find that. Wisdom and good faith practices don’t come easy in our complicated and quickly changing world, and our churches are often poorly equipped to provide them. I guess that’s why it took me years—we’re talking decades!—to interpret that experience into a way of life that I can share with others. I don’t have spiritual experiences that powerful anymore, but I’m ok without them. I have a faith in common with others that sustains me.

Do some of you know what I’m talking about? Have you had powerful spiritual experiences, perhaps a long time ago, and maybe you chose to listen to them and follow those experiences, or maybe you didn’t. Maybe you didn’t find the wisdom you needed, and now those experiences just seem disconnected from you. And maybe our teenagers are having such experiences now, in this dramatic time of life. Are you young folk ready to plug into the wisdom of our common faith? Do our adults have the wisdom and faith practices to share with you that you’ll need?

Well, I can talk about my experiences, and you can talk about yours. But what about others who have no dramatic experiences of their own to share? I knew a wonderful woman at our church in Illinois named Linda. An elderly woman, she was faithful, and wise; she offered such great questions and insights in church study sessions. But one day she exclaimed, full of sadness, “People talk about feeling the Spirit. I don’t think I’ve ever felt anything like that. What’s wrong with me?” My answer is, nothing’s wrong with you. Not everyone is given to spiritual experiences. They can be a rich source of blessing and assurance; and if someone is having dramatic spiritual experiences, at least you can be pretty sure that they aren’t just going through the motions. But you can be perfectly faithful without dramatic spiritual experiences. Indeed, dramatic spiritual experiences can make you all wrapped up in yourself, so that today many declare that they are spiritual but not religious, which might mean that they have become focused on an individual spiritual life that leaves no room for any one else or for a community. And of course, many cult leaders have wowed people by their lively spiritual experiences and, without well-tested wisdom, led them to doom.

Like any power, spiritual experiences can be good or bad. They can be vehicles of God, or they can be folly. Maybe it would be helpful to “de-mystify” mysticism, if I may. Mystical, spiritual experiences are found in just about every human culture, taking all kinds of forms, although many forms of religion have done fine without them.   Since ancient times, people have used extreme physical states—sleep deprivation, self-laceration, ecstatic frenzies and exhausting dances (check out 1 Samuel 10:9-13)—to induce religious experience of a mystical kind. In some traditional cultures, hallucinogens (drugs) were used for this purpose, but within the bounds of a carefully structured tradition. More recently, some have used drugs in search of spiritual experiences without that guiding tradition. Indeed, a very good friend of mine had an unexpected experience of God’s powerful presence while tripping at a Grateful Dead concert. I’m happy to report that he went on to become a serious student of Jewish theology, and a member of Narcotics Anonymous. Even more bewildering, there are people who under surgery had certain parts of their brain stimulated, and then reported having out of body experiences and other spiritual seeming phenomenon.

Spiritual experiences are bound up with the complicated and sometimes very odd workings of the brain. Why do I no longer have the same powerful experiences as I had at 16? I used to think that my heart had grown cold, but more likely it’s just something peculiar about the teenage brain and the odd social situation of teens. Now, the fact that hormones or drugs or even brain surgery can artificially stimulate spiritual experiences does not undermine their importance. I think there is a reality underlying them—even the drug trips, I suppose—but nothing we get from spiritual experiences can stand without the testing and direction that comes from a tradition, or without a community in which to share them and supplement them and join them into a common way of life.//

Well, whether we have had experiences and they have faded, or we’ve never had dramatic experiences, we all end up in the same place. We mostly spend our lives going through the daily grind of life, in which God seems more like a remote idea than a powerful, personal presence. How to deal with this?

I think the reading we heard from Ephesians can be helpful here. Once again, Paul will take a love effective in community over a spiritual experience every time. So ultimately he wants to say that you by yourself, no matter what your achievements and spiritual experiences, are nothing. In our passage he makes this point by saying that, before Christ, you had nothing. That makes perfect sense for the people he was talking to: they were adult converts from paganism. His rhetoric doesn’t work as well when applied to people raised as Christians from birth. But the point is the same: what your life is most truly about has nothing to do with you in particular. Aside from what God did in Jesus, there’s nothing special about us. We’d be just “like everyone else,” “following along with the course of the world,” as Paul puts it; or “going with the flow” as we might say. But to the church, Paul says: “By grace you are saved by faith.” Not because we are special and different. Not because of our grand spiritual experiences are we saved. “Ah,” you will say, “but we are saved by faith, and isn’t that something we do, and even a kind of spiritual experience that sets us apart, for which God rewards me?”

I’m convinced that this, sadly, is an understandable but very common mistake people make when interpreting Paul. He makes it as clear as he can that we are not supposed to receive God’s salvation by looking inward and finding what I did—even what I believed or what I experienced—that makes me different and worthy. Paul says we were saved by grace, adding: “and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. Not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” There is a great mystery in God’s grace, and no one, even Paul, can put it just perfectly. It’s something like this: God set us aside, saved us, to be different from those who don’t believe. But we absolutely do not get to say that therefore, I am special. I am better. If anything, we only get to appreciate just how unworthy we are of this gift. And for all we know, others have their own gifts from God.

But we haven’t mentioned Jesus yet. More to the point, it is because we receive all things through Christ Jesus that we never have to look deep inside us to find who we really are and what makes us special. We are under so many pressures in our culture to find out what makes us special. So many of our children’s stories are about discovering what makes you unique and special. Maybe like Disney’s Moana you have a unique destiny for which the ocean chose you; or you are like a superhero who looks ordinary on the outside but inside carries secret powers that set you apart. It’s like our biggest fear is being lost in the crowd. But standing out and being special puts a lot of pressure on us. Our society holds up these celebrities, no matter how vain or pointless their achievements, and tells us, it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you stand out and get famous! So you can have a brief moment of fame, only to become a has-been next week. The system chews up and spits out our celebrities; no wonder so many turn to drugs or even suicide. But we get the message: achieve! Achieve Achieve! We even think that way about our spirituality, looking for something uniquely our own. But at the bottom of this pursuit lies greed.

Our Christian faith frees us from this desire to stand out, to be unique, to be the me that “I’ve gotta be.” Jesus Christ is no celebrity. Because what he did, he did for all. And so we don’t have to find a way to be saviors in our own unique way. We find in him our truest and most shareable self. Everyone can be a member of Christ, can share in his achievement. Without him we are just like everyone else, including those has-been celebrities. As Paul puts it: “You were dead through trespasses and sin…” “but God…raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” We have this not to ourselves but in him. What I experience that sets me apart doesn’t matter. It’s the one story and one name of Christ that matters, and that unites us all equally, rather than trying to set us apart.

That’s why Paul finds in Christ the peace that unites divided people. Christ’s peace is not only an inner peace; it is a peace among and between us, a peace that brings us together across lines of division. “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

We have two more Sundays in Lent. Lent is a time of turning inward to both reflect and then act on ways to repent of our current life and become better followers of Jesus. This is important, but it is not the final goal. Our Christian journey does not end in our turning inward in guilt and shame, nor does it end in personal peace and a spiritual high. I suppose, looking at it one way, our Christian journey never ends, it just becomes eternal. But in another way, it really ends at Easter. It ends by seeing in this one, Christ Jesus, a completion of everything God is and God does. Let us fast well and repent sincerely, and by doing so, we will be well ready to give up on our sin and our spiritual experiences and to receive in all its completeness the joy that is ours in Jesus our Lord.

Seriousness about religion and church survival (some bad news and a good offer)

I’ve been researching the decline of mainline denominations.  Strangely to me, there seems to be much more about this written by sociologists than theologians.  And there are real limits to their analysis.  “Religion” is inevitably a neutral category to sociologists.  But to God, one has to assume (and see my most recent sermon on this), there is an enormous gulf between true religion and false, however hard it may be for us to figure out which is which.

Recent studies show that mainline decline can be greatly accounted for by decreases in fertility among mainline denominations.  Mainliners have fewer children, and have them later in life.  (That correlates with us being more educated and wealthier.  The richer you are and the more you study, apparently, the less you want children.)  The Future of Mainline Protestantism, just out, makes this case several times over.

Another recent study agrees with this.  But Demography, Culture, and the Decline of America’s Christian Churches by George Hawley also considers some data about how seriously various churches take their faith.  And he finds a strong correlation between church growth or at least low shrinkage and the percent in a church saying they take their religion “very seriously.”

Here’s the sad news: bringing up (down?) the bottom of the list is the United Church of Christ, with a meagre 39% saying they take their religion seriously.  Other mainliners come in at under 50%.  And of course, they are all shrinking fast.  But among evangelical Protestants (Southern Baptists, Mormons, Assemblies of God, Adventist) 70%+ say they take their religion very seriously.  Not all are growing (Southern Baptists are shrinking for sure), but they are doing better.

Hawley makes the point that “it is difficult to say what exactly a denomination can do to…encourage their members to take their faith seriously.”  (Instead, he strongly counsels churches to encourage their young people to have lots of children.  Yeah, good luck with that!  Perhaps we could forbid contraception and sponsor a lot of drunken parties.)  He rightly notes that there may be self-selection at work: the people who want strictness will go where they will find that, and indeed perhaps they already have.

I say, let’s see what we can do.  Taking faith seriously would seem to be a good thing for any church to do, regardless.  But we don’t have to try to emulate the Adventists or others who embrace a strict, “sectarian” type of church model.  The mainline churches should continue to embrace the parish church model: if you live near us, we intend to be your church.  But we need to stop pretending like all of us share the same degree of faith.  I want to put out the message that, if you have a small place in your life for religion, you are certainly welcome to join us.  And we will welcome whatever you can contribute.  But I want to be clear that the norm, and what salvation in its fullness really means, is to take God with absolute seriousness and to serve God with all one’s heart and mind and strength.  I am going to keep calling on you to become that, and keep celebrating those who are moving in that direction.  If you have a limited place for religion, and you’re happy with that, well ok.  If we manage to intrigue or disturb you into seeking something more, then I and the other church leaders will be here to help you figure out what you can do.