Fear: An Invitation to Risk

by Rev. Dr. William M. Lyons

“Fear is good,” says Peter Bolland. “It keeps us alive. It keeps us from falling off cliffs, touching fire and kissing rattlesnakes.”

“If [humans] were to lose his capacity to fear, he would be deprived of his capacity to grow, invent, and create. So in a sense fear is normal, necessary, and creative. Normal fear protects us; motivates us to improve our individual and collective welfare.”

SO why does the Bible consistently encourage us to ‘fear not?’

  • Do not be afraid – 70 times in 67 verses
  • Do not fear – 58 times in 57 verses

Because “there is another kind of fear, abnormal fear,” wrote Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Abnormal fear paralyzes us, constantly poisons and distorts our inner lives.”

Fear can be “our greatest liability,” according to Bolland. “It keeps us from taking the risks necessary to develop our unrealized potential. If we let it, fear has the power to keep us from becoming who we really are. Fear is a thief that steals our joy.”

“FEAR is one of the persistent hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the poor, the dispossessed, the disinherited,” wrote Howard Thurman. “There is nothing new or recent about fear—it is doubtless as old as the life of man on the planet.

“when the power and the tools of violence are on one side, the fact that there is no available and recognized protection from violence makes the resulting fear deeply terrifying.

“Fear…becomes the safety device with which the oppressed surround themselves in order to give [themselves] some measure of protection…”

Certainly I resonant with Dr. King’s observation, “In these days of catastrophic change and calamitous uncertainty, is there any [one] who does not experience the depression and bewilderment of crippling fear, which, like a nagging hound of hell, pursues our every footstep?”

Dr. King was right when he preached, “Our problem is not to be rid of fear but rather to harness and master it.”

But how? Our texts, and scores like them in both Jewish and Christian sacred texts, help us know how.

Whom shall I fear? Of whom shall I be afraid?
I’ve learned your ways, Sovereign One.
I believe that I shall see [your] goodness, Gracious One,
in the land of the living.
Self, be patient. Self, be strong. Self, take courage in the Lord!

“I tell you, my friends,” said Jesus. Friends! “Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more.” Recognize that the threat of violence, with the possibility of death that it carries, “for what it is—merely the threat of violence with a death potential.” With that perspective “death cannot possibly be the worst thing in the world. There are some things that are worse than death.”

Verse 5 of our Gospel reading we must hold for another discussion this week because the prospect of hell or God casting someone into it can’t possibly be handled by a sermon in a UCC context. For this morning we are invited to remember that five sparrows were sold for two pennies, yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight!

God counts even the hairs of your head. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your [Heavenly Parent’s] good pleasure to give you her whole realm, his entire dominion!

“In the absence of all hope, ambition dies.” But to know that Creator God, cares for us – cares for me – to know that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus “renders us unconquerable within and without!”

When the time comes to speak truth to power do not be afraid of them. Just remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt,

When the time comes to speak difficult words to the people of God  And you, O mortal, do not be afraid of them, and do not be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns surround you and you live among scorpions; do not be afraid of their words, and do not be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house. You shall speak my words to them, whether they hear or refuse to hear; for they are a rebellious house.

When the time comes to do something that you’ve always been taught was contrary to God’s Law, remember how an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.

When you’ve poured out your fears to God in prayer, know assuredly that like Haggar and Zechariah God has heard your prayer, and that you are living the fulfillment of the plan of God.

I wish that we had time this morning to consider every one of the 128 times we hear the admonition to lay aside our fears. Aren’t you glad we have a whole week to consider them together?! Know this morning that taken together, those 128 passages invite us to:

  • Learn to live beyond the war of nerves, keeping perspective on our priorities and values as people of faith
  • Live apart from conditions imposed by an oppressor.
  • Find ways to love while under the threat of violence when the power and the tools of violence are all on one side.
  • Create ways to live outside of the artificial limitations that offer the illusion of safety-restricting freedom of movement, of employment, or speech, and of participation in the common life.
  • Ferreting out even the smallest glimmer of hope fanning those embers into the flames of ambition.

Fear is neither good nor evil; it is [an invitation to risk] that must be read with great care. Cultivating the skill to interpret fear accurately is an essential task in the creation of the well-lived and fully-realized life.

  1. If I do this frightening thing, will it bring real quality and beauty into my life?
  2. If I do this frightening thing, will it move me further toward the fullest expression of my innate potentialities?
  3. Am I respecting my health and life, and the health and life of others?
  4. Is this fear really just a misguided attempt to protect my fragile and limiting self-image?
  5. Is this apprehension and anxiety simply the death-throes of my outmoded ways of acting, thinking and being in the world?
  6. If I took these risks and let go of my old ways of acting, thinking and being in the world, would I be closer to my highest good?
  7. Is the larger purpose of my life the realization of my highest good as opposed to being comfortable?

“If the answer to any of these questions is no, your fear is telling you something important. You should probably listen,” writes Peter Bolland. “But if you can answer yes to even one of these questions, then” remember the words of David to his son, Solomon: “Be strong and of good courage, and act. Do not be afraid or dismayed; for the Lord God, my God, is with you. [God] will not fail you or forsake you, until all the work for the service of the house of the Lord is finished.

They’d Had a Tough Week

by Rev. Dr. William M. Lyons,
Designated Conference Minister

It had been a tough week for Jesus and his posse.  As Robert Brown observes in Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes, the realm of God wasn’t “exactly appearing overnight.”[1]

In a sobering moment, King Herod Antipas arrested Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptizer, and beheaded him.

After fleeing north to escape Herod, Jesus asked his closest friends, “Who do people say I am.” And then more pointedly, “Who do you say I am? ” Peter nails the answer with, “You are the anointed one, Son of the Living God.” Jesus used the moment to clarify for the group what Peter’s answer meant. 21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.[2] And then, if that wasn’t scary enough, Jesus adds, “If any [of you] want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow [after] me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? [3]

“Jesus’ followers had never seen crosses dangling over the stomachs of princes of the church, writes Brown, “but had seen plenty of crosses used as instruments of torture and very, very slow death.”[4]

How does one hashtag that? Yes, it had indeed been a rough week for Jesus and his followers.

One might think that being on a mountain with Jesus, and seeing him shining in all his glory accompanied by the Lawgiver, Moses, and the Proclaimer of Justice, Elijah, both dead for millennia but now somehow alive, would have captured the attention of John, James and Peter.  But they were exhausted. They’d had about as much ‘rough week’ as anyone could bear. So they laid down into as much sleep as they could find. There was a time for staying awake with Jesus but this was not it. This was a moment for surrendering to tired, and their feelings of enough.

After the mountain-top-experience in which Jesus took on the physical identity that is the real Son of God’s due, Jesus and his three climbing companions descend into the reality of a man whose soul is pierced through with the pain of caring for his epileptic son, the seizures of whom have thrown him into the fire to be burned, and rolled him into the water leaving him nearly drowned. His last hope had been Jesus’ followers waiting at the foot of the mountain for Jesus to come down again, but they hadn’t been able to cure the boy of his illness.

What is a few moments of Jesus shining with God’s glory when your cousin and best friend had been set up to be murdered, when your child faces the possibility of death everyday from his illness?

Being God’s anointed, the Son of the Living God, doesn’t mean much to anyone but the anointed one if all you do with it is enjoy it on the mountain.

Being on the mountain with God’s anointed and witnessing the glory of God doesn’t mean very much to anyone but you if all you want to do with the experience is relish the perks of having had the vision.

This story’s meaning is all about God’s glory – the anointed One through whom that glory broke into the world, and the ones who witnessed God’s glory in the anointed One – coming back down the mountain and into the lives of families like the family of the epileptic boy, or the martyred John the Baptist. God’s glory only means something if we do something with it.

Those few moments of glory give meaning and reliability to the words that accompany them – words from God. Did you catch God’s words about the experience? “This One is my beloved; listen to him.”  Did you hear what Jesus said? “Rise up and fear not!”

Four other SWC pastors and I were at the ICE  building in downtown Phoenix [5]
when Guadalupe Rayos reported for her check-in appointment and was detained on Feb. 8. She was deported the next day. She was the test case for our new immigration rules for undocumented non-violent offenders. That was a tough week for the Rayos family; I saw it on their faces. It was a tough week for every family who has an undocumented loved one with a traffic ticket.

Earlier that morning the SWC announced that it joined other faith communities in filing an amicus brief in the Eastern District of New York on behalf of two Iraqi refugees denied entry into the US.  Ahmed Darweesh is a husband and the father of three children. He worked for the US military and his life was in danger in Iraq due to that relationship. The wife and son of Hader Alshawi, the other plaintiff in the case, were threatened because of their perceived ties to the US. Both men had been granted legal entry into the US only to arrive and be detained and threatened with deportation. That was a tough week for Darweesh and Alshawi and for every refugee awaiting entry into this country.

Next week the SWC becomes a friend of the US Supreme Court because we have befriended Gavin Grimm, a Texas High School student denied access to school facilities because he is a transgender youth. This week was a particularly tough week for Gavin and every trans high school student because rules protecting them and granting them access to facilities appropriate to their expressed gender were rescinded by the President.

Pastors all over our conference, and throughout our beloved United Church of Christ, have shared stories with me that everything they say seems to be heard as political speech. Maybe the examples of people having tough weeks sounded political or even partisan to you.

“Empathy seems like an act of defiant resistance,” wrote John Pavlovitz in a recent blog , “and in many ways, it now is. Maybe homeless refugees and sick children and the working poor and black lives and fewer guns and universal healthcare are indeed now ‘Democratic talking points,’ he continues. “And if they are, then you should take a long look in the mirror, let your knees hit the floor, and ask Jesus just why that is. Maybe some repentance is in order.”[6]

Before anyone accuses any preacher of being political because she or he proclaims those talking points, remember that those very same talking points are in every sacred text known by humanity.

“When Did Compassion Become Partisan Politics?” asks Pavlovitz.[7] Yes, when did compassion become partisan politics?!

You see, beloved, the people whose stories I shared with you a moment ago are at the foot of our mountaintop experience here this morning, and they’re waiting to see what we will do with the glory of God we’ve experienced. As dark and terrifying as things might get, in the deepest, worn out, tired, lost, scared and confused moments of our lives, God’s voice still breaks into human experience inviting us to listen, to rise up, and to fear not.

NT Wright, in his book Simply Jesus, invites us to

“suppose, just suppose, that the ancient prophetic dream had glimpsed a deeper truth. Suppose there were a god like Israel’s God. Suppose this God did after all make the world. And suppose [God] were to claim, at long last, … sovereign rights over that world, not to destroy it … or merely to “intervene” in it from time to time…, but to fill it with … glory, to allow [us] to enter a new mode in which [we] would reflect [divine] love, [divine] generosity, [the Creator’s] desire to make it over anew.

“[That] might mean a living God really had established … sovereign rule on earth as in heaven and was intending to [put] an end to the fantasy of human sovereignty, of being the master of one’s own fate and the captain of one’s own soul, of humans organizing the world as though they were responsible to nobody but themselves.

“Perhaps the real challenge of Jesus’s transformations within the material world is what they would imply both [spiritually] and politically.”

In the transformation/transfiguration story of Jesus on the mountain, “Jesus seems to be the place where God’s world and ours meet…where God’s new creation intersects with ours.” What if the gospels are not about “how Jesus turned out to be God.” What if they are about how God is becoming more and more “ruler on earth as in heaven.”  Isn’t that, after all, how Jesus taught his followers to pray? “Your kingdom come, will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” [8]

Sometimes whole churches get caught up in their own moments of glory – past days on the mountain top – as if those glory days were an end in and of themselves. Like Peter sometimes congregations want to enshrine them, build booths of veneration to them, and never let them go.

But in today’s texts Jesus and his followers are new players in the old, old story of God’s encounters with God’s people.[9] And so are we! Moments of glory like this one today are only valuable if in them we are transformed in ways that bring God’s presence, God’s glory, God’s compassion into the time and space of suffering and marginalized ones, in ways that heal and bring hope.  The story of Jesus’ transfiguration/ transformation invites us to spend our lives stepping into both God’s glory and human suffering in ways that connect one with the other in healing hope-filled ways.

All this is more than supposition, beloved. We are not following cleverly devised myths, wrote Peter. We are in relationship with the powerful and majestic person of Jesus – the Child of the Divine One – who is trustworthy and gives us the strength to do what God has always invited God’s people to do: make God known in the world. That’s how this season of Epiphany comes to a close. And on Wednesday Lent begins, a season reminding us that there are tough weeks ahead of us, weeks filled with crosses and costs. “It’s time to listen, rise up. There isn’t any reason to be afraid.” Amen.

[1] Robert McAffee Brown. Unexpected Eyes: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes. P. 118ff

[2] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mt 16:21). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[3] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mt 16:24–26). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[4] Robert McAffee Brown. Unexpected Eyes: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes

[5] Immigration and Customs Enforcement

[6] http://johnpavlovitz.com/2017/02/19/when-did-compassion-become-partisan-politics/

[7] Ibid.

[8] NT Wright. Simply Jesus.

[9] Audrey West http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=27

Helpful or Not?

by Karen Richter

I’ve been mulling over the words sacred and secular lately. Just yesterday a member of my congregation described themselves as “a pretty secular person.” I’m sure I blinked, eyes wide because I have zero poker face skills. How could this person – no matter what theology or philosophy – who I have experienced as chock-full of passion and integrity, be secular? And now that I think about it, how could a person whose faith compels them to act in ways contrary to justice, compassion, and peace be sacred?

What do these words even mean? Is the distinction helpful any longer, if it ever was?

In high school choir, we sang sacred music.  Just a side note, because surely you were wondering, my favorite piece was John Rutter’s For the Beauty of the Earth.

We also sang secular music. Here’s one I remember that you probably recall as well.

Why is a song about connection and longing and common humanity labeled secular just because God isn’t mentioned? And surely, if we thought about it, we could think of religious songs that are so soaked in nationalism, exclusivism, and fear that the word God sours in our mouths as we sing.

I’m always suspicious about either/or choices, and the sacred or secular choice is no different. Questions worth asking always have more than two potential answers!

In this holiday season, we so often get pulled into irrelevant discussions about what is appropriate as part of our Christmas celebration and what isn’t. Mistletoe and holly, yule logs, decorated trees, candles… these treasured traditions all originated in pagan winter celebrations. Contemporary questions abound as well… Santa during church events? Starbucks cups? Church on Christmas day?  How do we choose what to affirm and what to discard? What goes and what stays?

It all stays. It all belongs. If incarnation means anything at all, it means that the false dichotomy of sacred and secular is revealed as illusion, forever broken down, shattered completely, and re-formed as part of a blessed whole.

You belong too! Merry Christmas and peace in 2017!

Okay, but why?

by Davin Franklin-Hicks 

I remember my 13-year-old self sitting on the altar of a small Southern Baptist church. The altar was brown, carpeted steps. A woman who had shown me incredible kindness sat with me. She was holding my hand. I was wracked with sadness and sobs. She listened to me as I told her about the divorces, the turmoil in my family, the fear that I was not normal (that meant queer, but I didn’t yet have the words for that). She listened. She leaned in. She cared.

After I shared, she opened her Bible and I remember her taking me through “The Roman Road”. I spent most of the time listening for Roman to show up in the story line. The Roman character never made an appearance.

The Roman Road is a fundamentalist evangelical tool often used in explaining the “Plan of Salvation”. I would come to know that well later, but for that moment, I didn’t understand any of it.

This is pretty much how the many conversations would go:

Nice lady (NL): When Eve took that apple and decided to eat from the tree, sin entered the world. We needed a path back to God and we get that through Jesus.

Perplexed 13 y/o Davin (PD): Well, why did God make that tree then?

NL: God wanted us to choose Him. When we don’t we invite sin into our lives and we need salvation.

PD: I don’t get it. If I poisoned candy and put it in a kid’s room, wouldn’t that mean I poisoned the kid if the kid ate it?

NL: blinking with a minorly irritated look.

Our session ended for that day. Two weeks later the nice lady tried again. Same place, ready to dig in, Bible between us.

NL: Okay so please remember that we chose sin.

PD: Yeah, but God kinda made that happen, right? Why did he put that tree there?

NL: Because God wanted us to choose Him.

PD: What? Why?

NL: Because he loves us and wants us to love him.

PD: Then why didn’t he leave out the tree that would ruin everything?

Our session ended again.

We met more and I had many questions:
Why did God make Lucifer if He knew that he would turn into Satan?
Who was Cain afraid of? Wasn’t it just him, Abel, Eve and Adam in the world? Who was Cain afraid would harm him when he was cast out of the garden?
If God made us and the tree of good and evil, isn’t that kinda passive aggressive?
She sighed a lot in those visits.

I was a teenager who just discovered faith community.
I liked the church a lot.
I liked the people.
I liked the adults who worked in the youth group.
I kept coming back and the nice lady kept trying to help me understand why I needed salvation in the form of repentance.

After many sessions with her, I was willing to admit I was a sinner, admit Jesus died for my sins, profess my belief in Christ, invite Jesus into my heart and promise to walk a path of faith, sharing the Good News. This is called a few things in literal, evangelical Christianity: being born again, getting saved, turning my life over to Jesus. Once I was in, I was in. The questions went away and I was determined to be the next Billy Graham.

Much of my theology in those days was slathered with fear and shame. I passed that on to those who took time to listen to my conversion messages. I was going to make sure Heaven was full and Hell was empty.

I was zealous and I was persistent. I was also very scared, brokenhearted, shame-filled and sad. The church kept me busy so my heart didn’t feel so very alone.

I was always angry back then. If you had to find me in a crowd, you could simply look for the kid with arms crossed over their chest, glowering, glaring, guarded and grrrrrr…

All the while I pushed people away, I was super offended when they did not talk to me. Hurt people often long for what they desperately try to convince others they don’t need.

I was creating an emotional wall; I was a teenage emotional construction worker with endless mortar and bricks: Sob the Builder.

There’s reasons for that wall. There’s reasons for everything we think, feel and do. Behavior is to meet a need, or at least a perception of a need. We spend so much time judging actions we rarely think about what is behind those actions. We rarely are compassionate with ourselves.

Everyone’s behavior makes sense to them at the time or else they wouldn’t do it. My fortress was built for a reason. It kept the bad out, but then it started keeping EVERYTHING out.

If I ever write a memoir I will call it “Well, that didn’t work.” And we still try again.

It’s comfortable to think in black and white because there is certainty there. It’s super hard when you let in the colorful world of all sorts of living and needing. It changes everything.

The option of truly being present with someone and learning who they are without an agenda to change them is the only way we get to have honest relationship. I didn’t get that concept for much of my life. I wanted the world to bend, not for me to bend. That’s how brokenness happens, in the not bending and the demanding it be different.

2016 has been awful for me and many I love. It has been the worst year of my life for sure. It also has been a very rich year. I have felt loved more often than not. I have given love more freely than I have in any other year. And 2016 was still the worst ever for me.

I am not someone who believes life’s trials are there to make you a better person. I don’t believe it is orchestrated in that way. I do believe, though, in every situation that sorrow exists, we can see aspects of living we never would have noticed without the sorrow. I don’t believe sorrow exists as a life lesson. I think it’s just part of life and what we choose to do with it determines a lot.

It’s been almost a year since I was harmed through sexual assault and there have been oh so many layers of pain my family and I have walked through. It has been horrendous and it has been illuminating. It has been heartbreaking and it has been healing. For me, what makes it or breaks it is my willingness to engage life in hard times vs run, run, run!

Engaging in life requires some courage when everything within wants to retreat. When that’s my reality I take the absolute smallest inching forward I can muster to just stay in the world, stay in my life. I have to get open, drop the mortar and brick, and choose to live in the elements, responding to life and love as it comes and as I co-create it. Dear ones, we are creating our inner world as we participate in life. I want my inner world to be a sanctuary and refuge.

The idea of refuge reminds me of my younger brother who tells a story that when he was about 19 years old or so, his AC busted and he had to have more windows and doors open at night to keep cool. He did this regularly in the apartment he lived in so he had adjusted and slept well most of the time.

One morning he gradually woke from sleep with the cat on his belly. He petted her, she purred and nuzzles. Then the slow dawning: “I don’t have a cat.” Yup. A random cat decided to sleep on my brother’s belly.

I love picturing this story playing out. It’s awesome, funny, and it highlights my gentle brother who awakes with welcome.

What I really love most, though, is the cat. The cat went all rogue and decided this house was as good as any and my brother’s warm belly was just the stuff this felonious cat needed to get a good rest.

What’s hurting within you? What’s preventing you from welcoming warmth and companionship into the core of who you are? What is this fortress you are building? What is keeping you from the wander and the wonder that may lead to new relationship?  What is the smallest inching forward you can muster today to answer the pain with hopeful forward momentum?

Whatever it is, I promise you this: the pain you feel in that place is made worse with isolation and vigilance. Peace to your precious, scared heart and peace to your amazing, enduring spirit.

We all have the “why” questions. Keep that up! The questions are beautiful and welcomed. The altar is within you as you seek your heart out.

Knowing this and living this is my road to salvation.

Theology of the Nursery

by Karen Richter

This blog is dedicated to all church nursery staff and volunteers! You too are loved!

Where is faith birthed?

What early experiences correlate to a lifetime of prayer and service?

What opportunities are we overlooking or missing or failing to maximize for congregational vitality?

These are the questions that occupy me, especially on my commute to and from Shadow Rock UCC. As a parent and as a church staffer in the area of faith formation, these are crucial inquiries.

A couple of years ago, we were struggling with a mid-week after-school program. So many families couldn’t commit to regular attendance, and adult volunteers available 4 pm to 6 pm on a Wednesday were hard to find. For a time, we had a low-key program with several activity centers that required minimal adult direction. Different and often more cynical questions were asked: are social and play-oriented activities worth investing in? what kinds of experiences do kids need in the midst of the school week? where’s the proper balance between relationship-building and content for children’s faith programming?

In the end, we discontinued the program, but the period of questioning bore fruit for me. A vision for what children must experience in their spiritual community emerged: Church is where people love me.

I’ll say it again: Church is where people love me.

Church is where I am LOVED.

These wacky people really care about me!

When my teenage son was a wee Cub Scout, he got a little note from a church member congratulating him on a successful scout food drive. Under her signed name, she wrote (one of the church people you probably don’t really know). When I asked him about it, he said, “Of course I know who that is. She says hello to me every week.”

All of the life of faith, all service and care of people and creation, and all growth in faith, understanding and spirituality – the whole of what we do! – hang on this kind of experience. There will be time later to learn Psalm 23 and the Beatitudes, time for skits about Jesus calling the fishermen, even time for wrestling with Romans chapter 8.

But it starts in the nursery. The warm safety of the place, the gentle hands of nursery workers and volunteers, the opportunity to make connections and first friendships… for babies and toddlers, it’s their first Sunday learning.

So this week, show some appreciation and gratitude to those people who make this wonderment happen. Hug a nursery person. They might be a little sticky (or worse!), but it’s worth it.

Buddhism and Christianity

by Don Fausel

Several years ago when I was writing my memoir, From Blind Obedience to a Responsible Faith, I ran across a book by Paul F. Knitter titled, Without Buddha I Could Never be a Christian. Knitter has held the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and has been a leading advocate of globally responsible inter-religious dialogue. His book is described on back cover as “…a moving story of one man’s quest for truth and spirituality authenticity: from the nature of prayer to Christian views of life after death.” He was ordained a Catholic priest in 1966 and granted permission to leave the priesthood in 1975. His book is his personal exploration of Buddhism as a way of dealing with these issues and with blending of Eastern mysticism.

Knitter’s book proposes how the Buddhist perspective can inspire a more person-center understanding of Christianity. The preface of the book is titled Am I Still a Christian and rather than focusing on rigid dogma and rituals, its center of attention is religious experiences, and how a Buddhist approach can enliven Christianity and benefit worship, and social action.

In my naivety when I first read Knitter’s book, I was surprised that Buddhism didn’t have a God! It became apparent that I needed to research more about Buddhism. Knitter suggests we need to become familiar with the Buddha’s first sermon, which he preached sometime around the 500s BCE. The subject matter was The Four Noble Truths, which Knitter states “He (Buddha) preached it shortly after his Enlightenment…” The Four Noble Truths are:

  1. Suffering (dukkha) comes up in everyone’s life.
  2. This suffering is caused by craving (tanha).
  3. We can stop suffering by stopping craving.
  4. To stop craving, follow Buddha’s Eight-fold Path (which consists essentially of taking Buddha’s message seriously, living a moral life by avoiding harm to others and following a spiritual practice based on meditation.)

Let me suggest several books and articles that I found helpful in connecting the Four Noble Truths with Buddhism and Buddha with Jesus:

Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings, edited by Marcus Borg . In the preface of his book Borg warns the reader that although he is an “expert” in the study of Jesus but, “In my understanding of the Buddha, however I’m an amateur. I do not know the scholarship surrounding the Buddha as I do Jesus.” Having said that, he goes all the way back to a Dutch writer named Ernest de Bunsen who wrote a book in 1880 titled, The Angel-Messiah of Buddhists, Essenes, and Christians—up to the Dalai Lama himself when he wrote The Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teaching of Jesus in 1999.

The rest of the book has eleven chapters including: Compassion, Wisdom, Materialism, Inner Life, Temptation, Salvation, The Future, Miracles, Discipleship, Attributes and Life Stories.  Each chapter has at least ten examples of Jesus’ and Buddha’s moral teaching. For example under Compassion on page 14, is Jesus’ speaking about compassion, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” LUKE 6.31. On page 15 is Buddha’s thoughts about compassion  “Consider others as yourself.” DHAMMAPADA 10.I.  Here’s another saying on pages 36 and 37 under Wisdom.  Jesus is quoted as saying “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” LUKE 6. 41.42. Buddha is quoted as saying, “The faults of others are easier to see than one’s own; the faults of others are easily seen, for they are sifted like chaff, but one’s own faults are hard to see. UDANAVARGA 27.1.

Here’s an article, Jesus and Buddha on Happiness that starts out by the 29 year old Prince Gautama Siddhartha (563-483 BC) , who later was called the Buddha (the enlightened one) left his family and set out on a search for the meaning of life, and for lasting happiness. Since he had no God happiness for him was being free from desires induced by suffering (dukkha). Jesus’ answers are very different than Buddha’s when a rich young man sought Jesus directions for eternal happiness. “You lack one thing: go, sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven; and come follow me.” (Mark 10:21)

The article goes on to say, “Jesus and Buddha agree that pursuing happiness is transient things is futile. But they direct us to opposite solutions. The Buddha say satisfaction is treasuring no thing. Jesus says it is treasuring God. In God we get all things. In no thing we get nothing.”

I found this article in a website titled All Well Within. The article is  The Buddha’s Essential Guide to Happiness. The article starts out by saying, “You don’t have to become a Buddhist to benefit from the essential teachings of the Buddha because they are universal in nature. Moreover, they remain highly relevant to successfully modern life and finding the deeper sense of happiness and contentment you deserve.” Even though it doesn’t deal with both Jesus and Buddha, I thought most of us know a lot about Jesus and this article is worth it. It’s seven pages long, but again, it’s worth it. Plus I learned that “…the Buddha encouraged his followers to carefully examine his teachings and only accept them when they rang true, rather than following his guidance out of blind faith.” That sounds close to my memoir that I mentioned in the beginning of this blog.

I hope this blog inspires you to look deeper into Buddhism. As a present, here is a TED TALK The Habits of Happiness  by biochemist turned Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard who says we can train our minds in habits of well-being, to generate a true sense of serenity and fulfillment. It already has 6,470,020 readers. It’s worth listening to.

Shalom.

One Big Idea

(reprinted with permission from a Facebook post by Diana Butler Bass, author of Grounded: Finding God in the World)

Ten years ago, in Christianity for the Rest of Us, I shared a vision of institutional church renewed by vibrant spirituality. That vision emerged from three sources: 1) my own experience, 2) dreaming of a different sort of church, and 3) solid research.

Community renewed by vibrant spirituality. That’s the dream. That’s the big idea. An old idea. But an idea that needs new life today when institutions and communities are struggling and can’t find their way.

It is really pretty simple. Christianity for the Rest of Us was about spirituality embodied in practices — ten beautiful practices of faith. Communities that found new heart by choosing to do good.

People’s History of Christianity was about the same thing — the life of institutions being renewed through vibrant spirituality — this time, it was about the life-giving power of those practices throughout history as the real “thread” of faith, a living tradition. The heartbeat of Christianity at its best.

Christianity After Religion argued that the future depends on us getting this right — that spiritual experience and touching the holy is not only a path to renewing the church but is part of a larger story about the renewing of our culture — an awakening.

And Grounded opens the door to spiritual experience,”storied” by religious traditions, as a path to full humanity and renewal of the earth.

That’s it. One big idea: the whole point is experiencing the power of the sacred, of trusting and following the Spirit as it moves toward love of God and neighbor. Of eyes open, awake to love and joy, hearts “strangely warmed.” And if we do this, we can get across the dangerous chasm of our times and find ourselves on the other side of a bridge — the side where there is more love for the earth, more love for each other, a kind of community that can be accepting and peaceable. We can set a bigger table for the future. It is real.

One idea.

One idea that has called my heart since I was a child. One idea shared in speech and story. But not my idea. It is OUR idea. For so many thousands and thousands and thousands of us know this idea in our bones, we’ve ached for it, prayed for it, worked for it. One idea of justice and grace and goodness in a renewed way in transformed community.

And we can measure our progress. Not by attendance, but by measuring the spread of the conversation, by tracking things like spiritual depth, gratitude, awareness of awe and wonder, and our understandings of meaning and purpose of our lives (for instance, Pew “measures” these things in polling). We can figure out if we are successful by framing the questions differently, by looking for alternative forms of “success” and transformation. We can do this — there are ways of introducing these ideas into communities and congregations and discerning the changes in people’s lives.

And it is lovely. It is a way full of stories, laughter, unexpected surprises, everyday heroes, tragic mistakes — it is like living the play we are writing — everyday enacting grace in the world’s theater. It is magic. It is the greatest drama, comedy, farce, thriller, ballad, and romance ever.

And it is hope. Hope, hope, hope.

Do NOT give up. The current ugliness is because the greater vision beckons, the new possibilities are closer than ever. A more hospitable world, a more just humanity. It isn’t about fixing the church. It is about renewing our life together — and our life with the planet — by experiencing God with us.

A Transgender Trinity

by Karen Richter

Have you ever noticed what happens in the gospels when Jesus gets asked a question? The people ask “Jesus, THIS or THAT?” and his reply comes from the side always like a quick and sly slanting pass, pushing the question back on his audience. How many times does Jesus respond to a question with, “well… let me tell you a story about that…”? He has a tendency to leave everyone a bit bewildered, especially the disciples.

  • Who sinned that this man was born blind?
  • Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?
  • Why does this Teacher eat with sinners and tax collectors?
  • Are you the One we have been expecting or shall we wait for another?

In his responses, Jesus begins the training of the disciples in non-dual thinking. Duality thinking that we find so natural and easy is the tendency in the human brain to see things in opposing pairs: good and bad; dark and light; male and female.

Easy, right? If I write the word up, you think “down.” It’s the way our brains are on auto-pilot.

Getting past this is tough work, and I have a lot of empathy for the disciples. In our own time, the Holy Spirit has taken over our training in non-dual thinking.

And the gentle leading of the Spirit over the generations is a gift to us – a gift that includes a strange and wonderful idea: that God’s nature is simultaneously 3 and 1. This seemingly esoteric and even outdated dogma can stretch us into new ways of thinking, if we let it.

There’s an Episcopal mystic whose books I sometimes muddle through – Cynthia Bourgeault. She talks about Trinity as PROCESS rather than PERSON. In other words, the Trinity is about how to think about things rather than about creed and doctrine. Trinitarian thinking is a reconciling approach that interweaves what at first appears to be a dichotomous choice. This kind of thinking is a spiral upward, beyond the either/or. When we get to an impasse – a problem, disagreement, decision – when we feel stuck, it’s an opportunity to look for a reconciling path, a third way.

And it’s this Trinitarian thinking, this PROCESS of sitting with mystery, that is so helpful when talking about gender. We have long misunderstood gender as an either/or scenario, driven by chromosomes and anatomy. The lived experiences of our friends tell us that we are wrong.

Knowing when we are wrong is useful information. What do we do next?

Well, moving away from the gender binary is a SPIRITUAL PRACTICE. If I have friends reading this, they are laughing at this point because I sort of think everything is a spiritual practice.

As with most spiritual practices, getting beyond the gender binary is about building a pause of awareness before our response. When we practice listening to others, when we practice holding open the question of another person’s gender (often this looks like letting go of our curiosity), when we let go of the need to put people into little boxes marked M and F, when we are willing to be vulnerable, willing to admit we’re going to get it wrong sometimes and we hate getting things wrong, when we practice – we train our brains to take a deep breath.

Breathe, and let go.

Over and over.

With much practice and patience, this makes us into a gentle welcoming people. We grow into the welcome that we profess, with trans and gender non-conforming people and with everyone!

A pediatrician friend and I were talking recently about kids who are late bloomers, shorter and smaller than their peers. She said that with her late blooming patients, sometimes there’s an appointment, after a period of growing, that their height and weight finally appear as dots on the standard growth chart curve. And they pause for a little celebration: “Yay! You’re on the chart!”

Just like the disciples, we’re beginners in the Trinity way of thinking – that kind of nondual thinking that led Jesus to respond to questions in that wacky way we love so much, the nondual, Trinity-shaped thinking that can be part of our learning about gender. WE ARE BEGINNERS, but we’re on the chart. Thanks be to God.

Notes and sources:

Cynthia Bourgeault’s book is The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three: Discovering the Radical Truth at the Heart of Christianity.

For fantastic transgender educational resources, see PFLAG’s Straight for Equality project at straightforequality.org/trans.

Why Religious Liberty Compels Me to Serve Everyone

by Ryan Gear

The Orlando tragedy raised the stakes between LGBTQ rights and religious liberty. The worst mass shooting in U.S. history targeted a gay club, and it did not take place in a vacuum. Far from being an isolated act, the massacre is an eruption of violence out of the heated rhetoric against the LGBTQ community that has come from politicians and pulpits alike, around the world and in the U.S.

Those who deny shared responsibility would have to prove that Dr. King’s assassination had nothing to do with racism and that date rape has nothing to do with a “bro culture” of misogyny. The Orlando mass shooting took place in a time of intense political and religious rhetoric against the LGBTQ community, one in which some business owners go so far as to seek legal grounds to deny service to same sex couples. As we have learned from every civil rights struggle, rejecting and demonizing others breeds violence, both physical and verbal, and now the families of the 50 shooting victims are grieving the loss of their loved ones.

In his June 8 Arizona Republic op-ed, Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Jonathan Scruggs suggested that religious liberty entitles business owners to deny service to same sex couples on religious grounds. Mr. Scruggs represents the owners of Brush & Nib Studio owned by two women who self-identify as Christians and sell customized art, including pieces used in weddings. The owners are suing the City of Phoenix, claiming that the city’s anti-discrimination law, requiring their business to serve same sex couples, is a violation of their religious liberty.

I used to see this issue similarly to Alliance Defending Freedom, but I changed my mind.

I grew up in a conservative evangelical Christian home in the 1980s and 90s, with my views of the Bible, politics, and the LGBTQ community formed by the likes of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. While a student in high school, however, my views were confronted with new evidence. I discovered that two of my close friends were gay. Confusing to me, they simply did not fit the description of a person who is gay that had been given to me by Religious Right televangelists. After knowing them for years, I found it hard to believe they chose to be gay. In fact, I knew one my friends didn’t quite fit the normal boy-girl mold when we were in the first grade. I was confident that he didn’t make a choice prior to being six years old, and I struggled to make sense of my religious views in light of my friendships.

Then, for an entire week during my sophomore year of high school, I witnessed a young male student endure a level of bullying on the school bus route that I will never forget. One Monday afternoon, the school bus stopped to drop off this young man at his house, and a few of the kids on the bus spontaneously began chanting “faggot” at him as he walked toward the front of the bus. Every day that week, the number of students joining in the chant grew, and by Friday, nearly every student on the bus was yelling “faggot” at this young man for a solid minute. It was a painfully long time. After dropping him off on Friday, the bus driver finally put a stop to it. Thankfully I can say that I never joined in the chant, but I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t defend him either. Perhaps that’s one reason I feel compelled to speak out now.

After several years of dissonance between my fundamentalist upbringing and my daily experience of life, while already serving as a pastor in my mid-twenties, I had a crisis of faith. For the first time, I began seeking answers to the questions I had sidestepped earlier. Among other theological issues, some of my questions centered on how we interpret the Bible on issues like science, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights. I also realized that certain Bible passages seem to be used more than others for political purposes. Regarding LGBTQ rights, I could only make sense of my experience of the world and my questions about the Bible by recognizing the dignity and worth of each person in the LGBTQ community, and I affirm loving, committed same sex relationships.

The questions I asked in my twenties apply directly to the current debate surrounding religious liberty in America, and there are several points I believe Christians must consider.

First, in contrast to the view of the Bible I had been taught as a child, that the Bible was essentially written by God and that apparent contradictions could be harmonized to make the Bible read like a logically airtight divine term paper, I began to see the human influence on the Bible. In fact, the Bible is a collection of books written by various authors, more like a library than a term paper, and no one would expect all of the works in a library to agree with one another on every topic.

Second, regardless of what each Christian believes about same sex relationships, almost no American Christian obeys all New Testament commands. For example, in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul cites six reasons women should wear head coverings during worship gatherings. Of course, very few American Christians retain this practice. Also in this passage, it seems that women are permitted to pray and prophesy during worship, while in 1 Corinthians 14:34, women are commanded to remain silent. Again, this raises questions about biblical authority and how to thoughtfully interpret the Bible consistently. The role of women in worship is still a difficult subject for many Christians.

Third, regarding same sex relationships, compared to the controversy surrounding the issue in our culture, the Bible says shockingly little about them, and the context of these verses is extremely important. There are over 31,000 verses in the Bible — only six or seven of those appear to condemn same-sex relationships. Sometimes referred to as the “clobber passages” because of their unfortunate misuse, these passages were influenced by ancient culture, as was the whole of the Bible.

In contrast, over 2,000 verses in the Bible address the injustice of poverty. If one were determined to pass laws based on the Bible, legislation giving greater opportunity to the poor would likely be first on the list. Unfortunately, it seems that instead of addressing poverty, some leaders and groups have used these six or seven clobber passages out of 31,000 verses for political purposes.

The American understanding of religious liberty means that we are each free to hold our own religious views regarding LGBTQ rights. In fact, the pilgrims who settled the earliest American colonies immigrated to the New World to escape theocracy. The earliest settlers in the colonies were religious separatists who did not want to be forced to worship in the state sponsored Church of England. To them, religious liberty meant that they could practice their own religion instead of being forced to practice the religion of the state.

This is at least partially why, in American courts, religious liberty has generally not been used as grounds for a business owner to deny service to her or his customers.

A 2016 report from The Leadership Conference finds:

“Courts have generally declined to recognize a religious right to discriminate that would trump a government’s interest in combating discrimination. In a 2013 case involving a wedding photographer, the New Mexico Supreme Court unanimously upheld a finding that the business had violated the state’s human rights ordinance by refusing to photograph a same-sex couple’s commit­ment ceremony.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Richard Bosson wrote that the business owners ‘are free to think, to say, to believe, as they wish, they may pray to the God of their choice and follow those commandments in their personal lives wherever they lead.’ But, he said, in operating a business, the owners have to channel their conduct, calling it a compromise that “is part of the glue that holds us together as a nation, the tolerance that lubricates the varied moving parts of us as a people.” It is, he wrote, “the price of citizenship.”

In the United States, business owners cannot legally deny service to persons based on their religious differences or sexual orientation, and the Phoenix anti-discrimination law will likely be upheld. Religious liberty does not entitle a business owner to deny service to any population.

Religious liberty does mean, however, that Christian business owners have the freedom to wrestle with issues of biblical interpretation according to their own consciences, as long as they do not infringe upon the rights of others. In fact, it is the American concept of religious liberty that gave me the freedom to change my mind and affirm the dignity, worth, and rights of same sex couples.

The Micah Mandate

by Talitha Arnold

What does God really want from us? 3000 years ago, the Israelites wanted to know. The Assyrians had overrun their country. The people were wracked by war and oppression. To make sense of the hardship and suffering, they asked what we humans often ask in such times–what are we supposed to do? What does God want from us?

Did God want animal sacrifice–new born calves or thousands of rams? Would sacrificing their first-born children do the trick? What did God really want?

The (minor) prophet Micah answered his people with words that echo through the ages:

God has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God?

President Theodore Roosevelt called it “The Micah Mandate.” “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.” In this 8th c. prophet’s words, Roosevelt heard God’s call in his life and the life of this nation. For Roosevelt, the individual soul and the country heart both needed a sense of justice that is tempered by mercy and mercy that is strengthened by a commitment to justice. Moreover, Roosevelt knew that neither the individual nor the country is the center of the universe nor the seat of all wisdom. God is.

Like the other Hebrew Prophets, Micah didn’t go into great detail as to how to live out the commitment to justice and mercy. That is for each generation, each nation, each individual to work out. Instead, as with Amos’ call to “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” Micah’s words are a standard by which to measure our lives and the life of our church and our nation.

The Prophet’s words are echoed in those of Janusz Korczak, a Jewish educator and pediatrician in 1930’s Poland. Known for his humane approach to teaching, Korczak had his own radio show (before the Nazi occupation of Poland) in which he advocated for the rights of children. He also directed an orphanage for both Jewish and Gentile children. When the Nazis came to power, Korczak was offered sanctuary but continually refused it, choosing instead to stay with the orphans in his care. In 1942, Korczak and 190+ children were deported to Treblinka where all were put to death.

In one of his radio presentations, Korczak offered an understanding similar to that of the Prophet Micah’s, 3000 years before. “You lived,” Korczak affirmed,

. . . . how many fields did you plow,
How many loaves of bread did you bake,
How much seed did you sow,
How many trees did you plant,
How many bricks did you lay?
How many buttons did you sew,
How many patches, how many seams did you make,
To whom did you give your warmth,
Who would have stumbled but for your support,
Who did you show the way without demanding gratitude or prize,
What was your offering,
Whom did you serve?

What does God really want from us? Korczak’s answer was to give warmth, offer support, live a life of service–even to the end. For the 8th century Prophet Micah, it was to “do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.” Micah’s Mandate shaped Janusz Korczak’s life, even as his world thundered with hatred and fear. Amidst the thunder of our time and our world, we need to hear Micah’s Mandate, too.