Posts Tagged ‘Faith & Church’

What follows are excerpts from an interview with Barbara Brown Taylor by Becky Garrison, on Brown Taylor’s book, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith?

GARRISON: Who is the intended audience for Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith?
TAYLOR: Over the years, I have met a lot of people like myself—people who have grown up loving the church, who have been fed by the church, and who know they can never quit the church–but who have also come to the realization that loving the church and loving God are not the same thing.
Some of them have even discovered that serving the institutional church has diminished their capacity to serve God in the ways that give them life. These tend to be stubbornly loyal people—many of them clergy—who are convinced that putting this truth into words would amount to treachery. So they keep quiet, while the cracks in their souls widen. They learn how to live with the sense of being spiritual imposters even as they continue to serve the church. In many ways this is extremely admirable. As we have recently learned, Mother Teresa continued to serve both the poor of Calcutta and the sisters in her religious order while she suffered a sense of great separation from God. My book is for lesser souls like myself, who register that sense of separation as a danger signal and who set about amending their lives as best they can. In a sense, then, I wrote the book I needed to read when I left parish ministry—a book about how the love of God surpasses all institutional containers, and about how there are many, many ways to serve God, both within and beyond the local church. I wrote the book for people like me, even as I remain grateful for people whose experience is the opposite of mine.

GARRISON: How did God become real to you as you were playing around in black dirt?
TAYLOR: As I say in the book (Leaving Church), I had no concept of God while I was playing around in the black dirt of Kansas. What I sensed, instead, was my closeness to the basic elements of life—to earth, to dampness, to heat, to light—and because I had not learned to think of myself as separate from these things, I felt deep kinship with them. To put the word “God” on that experience later was to acknowledge that I had come close to what Paul Tillich called “the ground of all being.” I had experienced the one heart beating inside all living things. I discovered that I was not a discrete unit but a current in the divine sea. Or a clod of the divine dirt? Take your pick. Both are true.

GARRISON: What drew you to the Episcopal Church (a.k.a. the Frozen Chosen)?
TAYLOR: I was drawn to the Episcopal Church by the exquisiteness of the liturgy, which gave me a role to play in a drama much more ancient than myself. I was drawn by the Book of Common Prayer, which—significantly—was not a book of common doctrine or a book of common beliefs but a book of common practice.
I was drawn to the earth-loving aspects of Anglican Christianity, which has as many roots in the sacred groves and wells of the British Isles as in the caves and deserts of the Middle East. Above all, I was drawn to the community of people who were also drawn to these things. I recognized my kin in them, even if I did not know their names.

GARRISON: As you were being ordained to the priesthood, why did you say you were getting exactly what you wanted but you didn’t realize how much it would hurt?
TAYLOR: The person to be ordained kneels at the communion rail in front of the bishop. All the other priests come up out of the congregation to lay hands on the head of the newly ordained. Sometimes the ones in the back lean on the ones in the front, and they all lean on the person kneeling at the rail—which was what happened to be me. They all leaned on me, and I thought my neck would break. I also registered my unexpected distress as God’s little joke. There I was, feeling so special and privileged that I almost forgot I was signing up for a life of service. The neck pain was a helpful reminder that the yoke is not always easy, and the burden is not always light.

GARRISON: Why do you compare your time at Grace-Calvary as akin to living in a Flannery O’Connor novel?
TAYLOR: Like most rural southern towns, Clarkesville is a town full of characters, where the range of “normal” is much wider than it is in many cities. People don’t have therapists here; they have neighbors. They talk to their corn. They have twenty cats. They still drink moonshine and roll their own cigarettes. I say this fully aware that I am one of the characters.

GARRISON: Can you elaborate on what you meant by this reflection on your ministry that “as long as I fed them, I didn’t feel my hunger pains?”
TAYLOR: Most addicts could parse that reflection. One way to deal with your own pain is to use pain-killers. Another is to focus on other people’s pain. I chose the latter. Feeding other people was my way of avoiding my own hunger. As long as I focused on what was hurting them, I did not have to think about what was hurting me.

GARRISON: What went wrong between the church and you?
TAYLOR: Read my book! I think that something went right between the church and me. I think that when I resigned from parish ministry, I discovered the wideness of God’s mercy. I discovered that “church” means the whole of God’s family, and not just one particular group that meets for worship at 11:00 am at the corner of Wilson and Green Streets.
I discovered a whole slough of neighbors God has given me to love who will never darken the doorway of a church, but who are nonetheless eager to embrace the ways of peace and justice with me. I discovered a whole wide world of sorrow and jubilation that was unavailable to me while I was tending one particular flock of sheep.

GARRISON: What parts of the priesthood do you still keep and why?
TAYLOR: As best I am able, I still keep all my vows. I am diligent in the reading and study of the scriptures. I care for God’s family. I persevere in prayer. I offer all my labors to God. In the Episcopal Church, one is a priest forever. I would have to renounce my vows to stop being a priest. I have no plans to do that.

GARRISON: What is Sabbath sickness and how did you find a cure for this ailment?
TAYLOR: I devoted one whole chapter of my book to this. Sabbath sickness is what happens when you stop trying to earn God’s love for at least one whole day each week and consent simply to be loved for no good reason. The cure is to practice this every week, paying close attention to all your reasons why you do not deserve to be loved without reason.

GARRISON: How can church reach those whose lives are breaking down and they don’t feel welcome in a church setting?
TAYLOR: That’s what Christians are for—people of the Way—who are on that Way whether they are in church or not. The church can reach those whose lives are breaking down simply by forming Christians who know how to practice compassion, how to listen, how to withhold judgment, how to bake casseroles, how to look after other people’s children when those people are too confused or grief-stricken to do it themselves, how to give away their money and their time without expecting any direct return, how to be quiet with people in a noisy world, how to see God in the lost and the least, how to work for justice instead of just talking about it, how to make decisions that will benefit the widest number of people, how to swallow bitterness and choose peace, how to love God so much that they see God in every person they meet. Church is not a building. It is a community of people who know how to do these things and do them.

***** Becky Garrison’s books include The New Atheist Crusaders and Their Unholy Grail, Rising from the Ashes: Rethinking Church, and Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church: Eyewitness Accounts of How American Churches are Hijacking Jesus, Bagging the Beatitudes, and Worshipping the Almighty Dollar.

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Sister Adelaide.

Sister Adelaide.

This feel-good human interest story is from today’s Dallas Morning News:

By ROY APPLETON / The Dallas Morning News
She arrived in a place called Dallas as another summer was setting in. She was a stranger in a flat, hot land – uprooted from her native Colombia.
“They told me, ‘Get ready, you are going to Dallas.’ I asked where was that,” says Sister Adelaide Bocanegra, recalling the superiors who sent her into the world to help some old folks in some faraway home. “I said, ‘I don’t speak English.’ They said, ‘You will learn.’ ”
Half a century later, the physical, emotional and spiritual care of seniors continues at St. Joseph’s Residence in Oak Cliff.
And gently guiding the operation is the tireless, ever-present Sister Adelaide.
“They told me, ‘Three years and you come back.’ Now, here I am,” she says with a playful laugh.
She joined the Bethlemite Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in 1955, after visiting a school run by the order. The decision angered her brother and disturbed her father, but “I figured that’s where I needed to be. God was calling me.”
Two years later, at age 20, she took her religious vows. And when Dallas Bishop Thomas Gorman asked the Bethlemite order to run the Catholic diocese’s fledgling St. Joseph’s home, Sister Adelaide was among the first sent to serve.
“I’d never seen so many old people,” she says.

‘Every moment
is different’
Today, at age 72, she leads the way, one of six Bethlemite sisters at St. Joseph’s, the Colombia-based order’s only presence in the United States.
Cooks, housekeepers and attendants also work at the 45-room assisted-living residence on West Pembroke Avenue, where a private 200-square-foot room with shared bath costs a relatively affordable $1,250 a month, including meals.
Membership in the Roman Catholic Church isn’t required.
But a chapel enriched by three stained-glass windows provides worship opportunities for residents, their families, friends and neighborhood.
Religious statues, artifacts and a massive gold-leaved, mahogany cathedral replica have their places in the public spaces indoors, as do the televisions, exercise equipment, books and piano. “This is a very important place,” Sister Adelaide says of the three-chair beauty room. A patio, lush lawn and shade trees are lures out back.
“Every moment is different,” says Sister Adelaide, talking about her days that begin at 5:15 a.m. with an hour of prayer and meditation – days that unfold to perhaps cleaning, paperwork, talking with doctors, soothing residents. And listening to their stories, no matter the repetition. (“That’s so basic. Just to listen.”)
“She’s a tough cookie. She can handle anything that comes up,” says resident Edith Meinert, as Sister Adelaide walks by shaking her head, shaking off such praise.
Her days also involve Sherry, her aging black Lab. And they really never end because Sister Adelaide is always on call. Always will be, she says, until it’s time to stop.
“If you tried to follow her around for a day, you’d be exhausted,” says Bob Hohman, St. Joseph’s business manager. “She never sits down.”
The six sisters work 12 to 16 hours a day, receiving pay for their personal needs that amounts to about $2 per hour, Hohman says. Every three years, they get a monthlong vacation.
“Prayer is what keeps you going on,” says Sister Adelaide.

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Barbara Brown Taylor

Barbara Brown Taylor

Yes, Jitterbuggers, we’ll be honoring this prolific and insightful writer in the month of September and you’ll want to tell all your friends, acquaintances and loved ones to go to jitterbuggingforjesus.com to find interviews with, articles about and excerpts from her much-acclaimed books.
If you’re not acquainted with her, here’s an introduction from her web site:
Barbara Brown Taylor teaches religion at Piedmont College in rural northeast Georgia and is an adjunct professor of spirituality at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur. She is the author of twelve books, including An Altar in the World, published by HarperOne in February 2009. Her first memoir, Leaving Church, met with widespread critical acclaim, winning a 2006 Author of the Year award from the Georgia Writers Association. An at-large editor for The Christian Century and sometime commentator on Georgia Public Radio, Taylor lives on a working farm with her husband Ed and a yard full of animals.

An Altar in the World, HarperOne, 2009
Leaving Church, HarperSanFrancisco, 2006
The Seeds of Heaven, Westminster John Knox, 2004
Speaking of Sin, Cowley, 2000
The Luminous Web, Cowley, 2000
Home By Another Way, Cowley, 1999
When God is Silent, Cowley, 1998
Mixed Blessings, Cowley, 1998
God in Pain, Abingdon, 1998
Bread of Angels, Cowley, 1997
Gospel Medicine, Cowley, 1995
The Preaching Life, Cowley, 1993

Yale Divinity School, Master of Divinity, 1976
Emory University, Bachelor of Arts in Religion, 1973

Deacon, Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, 1983
Priest, Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, 1984

Honorary Doctor of Divinity Degrees
Wake Forest University, 2006
The University of the South, 2005
Hastings University, 2005
Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, 2002
Colgate University, 2001
Virginia Theological Seminary, 2001
Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, 1997
Piedmont College, 1995

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When the mighty ones fall

The news about politicians, sports figures and other high-profile folks and their infidelities has become all too common.
It’s easy enough to condemn these public figures as cads and hypocrites and really turn up the heat on them with harsh judgment, especially if it’s a politician. The libs love to see a conservative fall, and the conservatives love to see the libs fall.
I don’t like to see anybody fall.
I actually felt sorry for Hillary and daughter Chelsea when Bill Clinton’s had has Monicagate. I couldn’t help but think of the family’s pain and public humiliation.
I actually feel sorry for the Republican governor of South Carolina’s family because of the enormous pain and public humiliation they are suffering still.
These things get into some really sticky areas–a famous coach gets a pass from fans because the coach is a winner in some cases. And when it’s a politician, the supporters on his or her side of the aisle will do all sorts of moral gymnastics to excuse the sinner’s adultery.
In addition, the late-night comedians and everybody pile on night after night.
We tend to become way too unforgiving and unmerciful–or way too merciful and forgiving in these matters, depending on whether it’s our Democrat or our Republican, our coach or our rival’s coach.
But it’s hard enough on spouses and children when these things come to light in the most obscure of families. For a spouse and children to have to endure the enormous public exposure and fallout would be almost unbearable, I would think.
That’s not to say that the adulterers–especially those who profess their religious faith at every turn from their public-office pulpits while carrying on affairs–should not be held up to the light of day and held to account. What I do want to say is that they and their families should be held in prayer and not bashed without mercy for political or any other ill-begotten reasons–not by Christians. We’re all broken, sin-sick people living in a broken world full of worldy temptations.
Anyway, here’s an interesting take on such “cheap shots” from Father Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest in Tennessee who blogs at a site called “Glory to God in all things”:

The news story is so common that the name can be left blank. ” N. confessed today that he has been unfaithful to his wife and children and let down his fans. ‘I want to say I’m sorry for what I’ve done and ask God’s forgiveness.’”
I do not believe that our nation is suffering a rash of infidelities. We are suffering a rash of cheap shots – easily made because the targets are too big to miss.

A Basketball Coach, a Senator, a Congressman, a News Anchor – these, and similar folk, are all people that our entertainment culture has “writ large.” The few minutes of fame afforded certain figures usually brings additional wealth and influence. Many of those around them are eager to use the cache of their presence for their own ends – sometimes the ends even seem good. Thus the commonplace headliner at a local evangelical church – the popular coach or the football star. It carries a not so hidden message: ‘Jesus is a winner.’

With every winning headline the target gets bigger. When human frailty reveals itself, the headlines that follow are bigger still. That a football coach goes to Church and believes in Jesus is not news. That he does drugs and chases women on the side – that’s news.

Hypocrisy sells.

The popular-figure-as-Christian-leader is an American myth. For years our history books were filled with mythic tales of the righteous founders of our nation. Not even ancient Israel had such righteous leaders. King David was a murdering adulterer. George Washington could not tell a lie. The disconnect between these two figures is the disconnect between the traditional Christian faith and the American Christian faith. Jesus is not an American and He did not found our country. He also did not coach at Notre Dame.

Being moral does not make you famous – and being famous has nothing to do with being moral.

I am not a believer in traditional morality – because I think it’s a modern invention. Conventional morality thinks in terms of a moral code well kept. Think Immanuel Kant as business leader. Proper Christian morality thinks of death and resurrection. Jesus did not die in order to make bad men good – He died to make dead men live. Immoral people act the way they do because within they are filled with death and corruption. There is something fundamentally broken about the human being – and we often find our lives to be a mass of contradictions.

The moral man, in this understanding, is the one who acknowledges his utter weakness before God. Christ told His disciples, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Someone who believes this spends his life learning to depend not on himself but on the only Lord and Giver of Life.

In Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the 12 traditions teaches that anonymity is essential to the program. AA does not depend on famous spokesmen to sell its way of life. It wisely depends on men and women who successfully struggle for sobriety. What they do and who they are is of no consequence. All that matters is sobriety. Indeed a famous spokesman, returning to the bottle is just the kind of advertising they do not need.

The Christian faith is not helped by the endorsements of the rich and famous, the talented and successful. The resurrection does not need the testimony of dead men. For the Christian Church is a communion of dead men and women who cling to God because He alone gives life. We survive because we can share the good news of that life with each other. Anonymity is not a bad idea.

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O Susanna, O won’t you pray for me?

Help me, Lord, to remember that religion is not to be confined to the church, or closet, nor exercised only in prayer and meditation, but that everywhere I am in thy presence. So may my every word and action have a moral content. . . . . May all the happenings of my life prove useful and beneficial to me. May all things instruct me and afford me and opportunity of exercising some virtue and daily learning and growing toward thy likeness. Amen.”
—- Susanna Wesley

Susanna Wesley (1669-1742), although she never preached a sermon or published a book or founded a church, is known as the Mother of Methodism. Why? Because two of her sons, John Wesley and Charles Wesley, as children consciously or unconsciously will, applied the example and teachings and circumstances of their home life. Their early purpose was to help people reshape their own lives for the better and almost before John and Charles knew it, they were shaping a movement that would reform not only individuals, but the church and the society of England. Because they behaved purposefully and methodically in the Holy Club they organized at Oxford, other less disciplined students who had not had Susanna for a mother derisively called them “method-ists”. The Wesley brothers accepted the term as a badge of honor for their growing movement.

Susanna was a remarkable woman. She certainly never went to university or had any of what we would term formal education; that simply was not available to women in 17th century England. But her father taught her to read and to think for herself and as the twig is bent, so grows the tree.

Her father was the Rev. Dr. Samuel Annesley, a noted scholar, beloved clergyman, a mentor to young seminarians, renowned and respected preacher, and sometime chaplain to Parliament [noted for chiding the members of Parliament to “forget your greatness and give account of your goodness, if you have it”.

Dr. Annesley was a man of conscience – a Dissenter who could not sign the Act of Uniformity in 1662 which would have meant agreeing to changes in the Church of England Book of Common Prayer. He left St. Giles Cripplegate in London and founded a new parish, thus setting an example of independent thinking both for his daughter (who later chose to rejoin the Church of England) and ultimately for his grandsons who, although they remained priests in the C of E all their lives, applied their own independent thinking to reform of abuses in church and society.

Susanna Annesley was the youngest of 25 children, so it seemed unexceptional to her that she gave birth to 19 children (including two sets of twins). At the age of 19 she married Samuel Wesley, a congenial and bright young clergyman who’s father was also a Dissenter, John Westley. After 1662, Westley had chosen to travel from parish to parish preaching, thereby setting another kind of example for the grandsons he never lived to see, for he died young.

After living for a few years in London and in South Ormsby, Samuel and Susanna moved to Epworth near Lincoln, where they remained until his death nearly 40 years later in 1735. Of the children born to them, ten survived to adulthood: three sons and seven daughters. Despite the Wesleys’ poor financial condition, all three sons earned M.A.s from Oxford. All three were ordained in the Church of England. The eldest, Samuel Jr, became a teacher at Westminster in London and helped his family generously by sending home money and by taking Charles especially under his wing when the younger brother came as a student to Westminster. Samuel Jr later became head of Blundell School the Free Grammar School in Tiverton, Devon.

Samuel Jr was already in London but John was about five and Charles a babe when in 1709 a fire destroyed the Epworth rectory in fifteen minutes one cold February night. Homeless, the family was forced to split apart for a while two daughters looked after by an uncle in London, other children staying with friends nearer home. Susanna’s 19th child was born a month later and not for the first time in her life was Susanna deeply sad and almost immobilized by shock and grief. Yet she seems to have survived, and with a great determination to unite her family and to save her children’s souls. This, she wrote, was indeed her focus for twenty years of the prime of her life.

It was now, after the rebuilding of the rectory, that Susanna more than ever regulated home life in order to reassure her family of stability and to reestablish the necessity for order and priorities by which to live a useful life. The Wesleys arose at 5:00; each hour of the day was assigned to specific activities.

She set aside an hour each day of the week for a particular child – Thursdays, for instance, was Jacky’s (John’s) day. During this hour she would inquire after the state of their soul on its journey as well as their progress, fears, expectations, and goals in other endeavors. Thus began lifelong habits of regular self examination.

As children left home – the sons to school, the daughters to serve as governesses or to marry – Susanna wrote them letters not only about family news but about manner of living and subjects of belief.

John asked if she might convert the customary hour spent in one-on-one conversation to an hour spent in writing him on various themes… but she had already in effect been doing this, and not only for John. Letters to other children too are meaty and insightful products of a probing and devoted mind.

In addition to letters, Susanna Wesley wrote meditations and scriptural commentaries for her own use. She wrote extended commentaries for instance on the Apostles Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments. Alas many of these were lost in the rectory fire, but many survive. The most accessible means to her writings is Charles Wallace’s excellent and important Susanna Wesley, Her Collected Writings.

Susanna Annesley Wesley was a remarkable Christian woman. One can only wonder to what she would apply herself were she alive in this 21st century!
But she was not of the 21st century; she was of the 17th and 18th centuries and it is in that context that, tucked away in a small town, she planted seeds in her children’s minds that engendered the Methodist movement. From her frequent illnesses and no doubt the often poor health of others in the family suffering the wants of poverty grew a lively concern for clinics for the poor.

 From Susanna’s effective home schooling grew a recognition of the importance of education and schools for the indigent; from this grew too schools where the unskilled could learn trades to lift them from poverty and dependence. From her own love of learning and habits of independent thought grew the respect for differences in persons and beliefs. From her determination to provide regularity in a world of disorder grew a method for bringing creative, positive, Christ-centered change. From her example and methods grew Methodism.
{*** Bio taken

Susanna Wesley

Susanna Wesley

from the web site of Susan Pellowe.}

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The word salvation, a key term for understanding the Christian worldview, derives from the Latin word salus, which means healthy and sound, in turn deriving from the Greek holus, which means whole. The Christian Gospel, as a message of salvation, can also be understood as a message of healing, one that brings wholeness to our lives.
The Gospel, or Good News, is addressed to us in our cosmic woundedness, proclaiming the Way wherein we can be healed and come to wholeness once again. This is by undergoing a total change of heart and mind, a metanoia wherein we experience a renovation of our being as we are reconciling with God, with our true selves, with our fellow human beings, and with the whole of creation.
“Understood this way, we can see how the Buddhist expression of the human predicament in terms of duhka, that is, as a situation that is dis-located, dis-eased, out of step, or out of touch with itself, is in basic resonance and in agreement with the Christian understanding of cosmic woundedness.”

—- From Healing Breath: Zen Spirituality for a Wounded Earth” by Ruben L.F. Habito. He spent nearly 20 years in Japan where he did Zen koan training and is now resident Zen Teacher at the Maria Kannon Zen Center in Dallas. A former Roman Catholic priest, he also teaches world religions and spiritualities at Perkins School of Theology where jitterbugger here obtained his Master of Divinity.

I like to think of salvation in terms of its healing power with Christ as the great Physician of souls. We are all broken people living in a messy, broken, noisy and violent world. We all stand in need of God’s saving grace, love and mercy and God comes to heal us in all our brokenness.

United Methodist Bishop Scott Jones, a former Perkins professor, writes in his book United Methodist Doctrine, that in Wesley’s scheme of salvation, “genuine religion is best understood as the therapy of the soul. Christianity is the way in which God is transforming God’s creation away from its sin and restoring the original God present in the first creation. This means changing of individuals and of entire social systems.”

“A common mistake about salvation is to relate it only to life after death,” Jones wrote. {Wesley’s Sermons} emphasize that salvation is a present reality, not merely something acheived after death.”

We’re all wounded, all broken, all “dis-eased,” all standing in need of God’s grace and healing power–all in need of renovation and restoration to original blessing.
Before there was original sin, there was original blessing.

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Been reading a lot from the Psalms lately and the Psalter is full of those “lament” or protest or complain Psalms–those dark ones in which the Psalmist is stuck in some really horrible situation and complains to God about it. (See Psalm 22, for example, which Jesus utters from the cross, or Ps 137–which is nothing short of venemous! As with any scripture, it helps to learn the context and background upon which it was written).
In one of his many outstanding theology books on the Old Testament, The Message of the Psalms, Walter Breuggemann describes the lament Psalms as “Psalms of disorientation.”
Here are a few excepts from that insightful book:
“The use of these ‘psalms of darkness’ may be judged by the world to be acts of unfaith and failure, but for the trusting community, their use is an act of bold faith, albeit a transformed faith. It is an act of bold faith, on the one hand, because it insists that the world must be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way. On the other hand, it is bold because it insists that all such experiences of disorder are a proper subject for discourse with God. There is nothing out of bounds, nothing precluded or inappropriate. Everything properly belongs in this conversation of the heart. To withhold parts of life from that converstation is in fact to withhold part of life from the sovereignty of God. Thus these psalms make the important connection: everything must be brought to speech, and everything brought to speech must be addressed to God, who is the final reference for all life.”

“The God assumed by and addressed in these {lament} psalms is a God ‘of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.’ . . . The presupposition and affirmation of these psalms is that precisely in such deathly places as presented in these psalms new life is given in God.”

“It is no wonder that the church has intuitively avoided these psalms. They lead us into dangerous acknowledgment of how life really is. They lead us into the presence of God where everything is not polite and civil. They cause us to think unkthinkable thoughts and utter unutterable words. Perhaps worse, they lead us away from the comfortable religious claims of ‘modernity,’ in which everything is managed and controlled. In our modern experience, but probably also in every successful and affluent culture, it is believed that enough power and knowledge can tame the terror and elimate the darkness. Very much a ‘religion of orientation’ operates on that basis. But our honest experience, both personal and public, attests to the resilience of the darkness, in spite of us.
“The remarkable thing about Israel is that it did not banish or deny the darkness from its religious enterprise. It embraces the darkness as the very stuff of new life. Indeed, Israel seems to know that new life comes nowhere else.”

“Psalm 88 is an embarrassment to conventional faith. It is the cry of a believer (who sounds like Job) whose life has gone awry, who desperately seeks contact with Yahweh, but who is unable to evoke a response from God. This is indeed ‘the dark night of the soul.’ when the troubled person must be and must stay in the darkness of abandonment, uttlerly alone. . . . The unanswered plea does not silence the speaker. Perhaps the speaker is in fact speaking to the empty sky, but that does not deter the speaker. The faith of Israel is like that. The failure of God to respond does not lead to atheism or doubt in God or rejection of God. It leads to more intense address. This psalm, like the faith of Israel, is utterly contained in the notion that Yahweh is there and must be addressed. Yahweh must be addressed, even if Yahweh never answers.”

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“Believe in as much of God as you can”

Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969), American preacher, was a popular exponent of liberal Protestantism and a key figure in the struggle to relate the Christian community to its contemporary technological and urbanized culture.

Harry Emerson Fosdick was born in Buffalo, N.Y., on May 24, 1878, the son of a high school teacher. Reared to traditional religious sympathies, Fosdick questioned his faith while in college. By the time he graduated from Colgate University in 1900, his new religious views rejected biblical literalism in favor of “modernist” theological attitudes that coincided with the emerging scientific world view currently sweeping America.

Fosdick entered Union Theological Seminary in New York City to prepare for the ministry. A center of theological liberalism even at this early date, the seminary further confirmed his new religious commitments. After graduation in 1903, his first pastorate was in a Baptist church in Montclair, N.J. During his 11 years there, Fosdick advocated liberal views, both in the pulpit and in published articles. He also perfected a pastoral and preaching technique that made him a model minister for a generation of churchmen.

Fosdick first attracted national attention for his role in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920s. Politician William Jennings Bryan and conservative churchmen attacked him, especially after a sermon in 1922 entitled “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Efforts to remove Fosdick from the Presbyterian church in New York City where he was then minister were ultimately successful. The imbroglio led one of Fosdick’s most famous parishioners, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to initiate the proposals that led to the establishment of a large, nonsectarian church where Fosdick would be the principal minister. Here, at Riverside Church, Fosdick’s congregation became one of the most famous Protestant groups in the nation. Dedicated in 1931, the church provided for Fosdick’s preaching a weekly forum until his retirement in 1946. The church symbolized his belief in interracial unity and a nonsectarian, ecumenical approach to church life.

Fosdick sought to adapt Christianity to the increasingly sophisticated urban milieu, stressing the intellectual respectability possible in Christian teachings and repudiating the theological obscurantism that had served as the basis of much popular, evangelical Protestantism in the 19th century. Fosdick was a prolific publicist, publishing 40 volumes in all. He preached to a nationwide audience each week on radio, and he influenced a generation of fledgling ministers as professor of homiletics at Union Seminary. Relatively undoctrinaire, he was capable of seeing the flaws in his own religious perspective, as evidenced in a sermon, “The Church Must Go beyond Modernism.”

A supporter of America’s intervention in World War I, Fosdick had become a thoroughgoing pacifist by the time of World War II. Above all, his sermons dealt with contemporary problems. He was perhaps the most widely known and respected preacher of his generation.
This excerpt is from his book of letters to a skeptic:
Over thirty years ago I preached a sermon in which I used this analogy:

Recently I visited once more my island off the coast of Maine and fell in love again with the sea. Now, I do not know the whole sea. It is very great. I never sailed the tropic ocean where the Orinoco and the Amazon pour out their floods through primeval woods. I never watched the Antarctic sea where today pioneers press their perilous way over the polar ice pack. Wide areas of the sea are to me unknown, but I know the sea. It has a near end. It washes my island. I can sit beside it and bathe in it and sail over it, and be sung to sleep by the music of it.

So is God. He is so great that in his vastness we can think of him only in symbolic terms, but he has a near end. Indeed, the nub of the whole inquiry about the nature of Deity lies in the answer to this question: Where do we think in our experience we touch the near end of God? Do we think that only matter is the near end of him and that all the God there is is simply physical, or do we think that in spiritual life at its best we have touched the near end of Deity, and that when we start with that and think out through that as far as we can go, we are thinking most truly about him?

I still believe that to be a true analogy.
The cosmic end of God I marvel at, but the near end of God I love the Divine close to us wherever there is beauty, love, integrity, truth. No one ever can believe in all of God. He is too great for even our faith to grasp. Believe in as much of God as you can — that is the way to start. Begin with the near end of God and think your way out through that toward the whole of him.

Begin, for example, with the moral order where “whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.” We live not simply in a law-abiding physical system but in a moral order also. Pilate sat in judgment on Jesus but now Jesus sits in judgment on Pilate. In the long run the Bible is right: “Be sure your sin will find you out.” How ever could a chaos of aimless atoms eventuate in a system of moral cause and consequence?

Or begin with the mathematics in the universe. Einstein condenses the truth about cosmic energy into a mathematical formula, E=MC2. Man did not create this mathematical order; he discovered it. Mind meets mind at every step in our exploration of the world we live in. How can aimless, purposeless chance be the explanation of such a system?

Or begin with the beauty that Shelley sang about. There is plenty of ugliness here, but why should “dynamic dirt going it blind” make symmetry and rhythm and light and color and the endless charm of their variety? How can such an explanation account for a scarlet tanager playing in a dogwood tree, or Chopin’s nocturnes and Beethoven’s symphonies? Sometimes I think that if all other evidence for the divine should vanish, I still should have to believe that there is an artist somewhere at the heart of things.

Or begin with great character in persons who have made this world a more decent place for the human family to live in. If you have a father and mother such as I had, if through the reading of biography you have fallen in love with history’s transcendent souls, if Jesus Christ has captured your imagination and devotion, you simply cannot believe that blind, aimless matter can explain them. No! They are the near end of God.

Or begin with your own inspired hours, when you experienced what Hugh Walpole, the novelist, once described: “I affirm that I have become aware, not by my own wish, almost against my will, of an existence of another life of far, far greater importance and beauty than this physical one.” You must have had hours like that. When John wrote about “the true light that enlightens every man,” he was talking about all of us. There is a spark of the Divine in each of us, and sometimes it surprises us with an hour of insight, vision, and faith.

See all these near ends of God with which we can start and think our way out through them toward the whole of him. And if you say that this is too good to be true, I am sure of the answer: it is too good not to be true.

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*** IN THE PHOTO: The Rev. Stan Cardwell and his wife, Michelle, followed God’s call to Uganda where they met with youth who were victims of the country’s civil war. The Cardwells hope to become the legal guardian of one former child soldier. UMNS photos courtesy of the Rev. Stan and Michelle Cardwell.
From the United Methodist News Service, a “love story” from Uganda:

By Melissa Lauber*
August 25, 2009 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)
They’re called “the invisible children” – a generation of young boys and girls in Uganda who were torn from their villages, brainwashed and used as pack animals and bullet fodder for the Lord’s Resistance Army of Joseph Kony.
A teen named Lazarus, who also calls himself Joe, lived amid these atrocities, and then on the streets, eating out of garbage pits, after escaping Kony’s terrorist army.
Only about a year ago did he let himself smile.
This fall, if all goes according to plan, Joe will join the Rev. Stan Cardwell, his wife, Michelle, and their three children in Bel Air, Md., welcomed as a blessing from God.
Talk about a divine plan. Less than four months ago, the couple knew next to nothing about the civil war that had ravaged the east-African nation for 23 years. They had never heard of Joseph Kony.
The whole whirlwind journey to become the legal guardian of a former child soldier is overwhelming and risky, said the associate pastor of Bel Air United Methodist Church.
“But God doesn’t call us to love abstractly,” he said. “God calls us simply to love, and love is messy.”

Saving one life
The journey began in May, when Caldwell and his wife joined friends from a house church called Burning Hearts on a mission trip to Uganda.
With the assistance of the ministry Active Blessing, they met with victims of Kony’s campaign to establish a theocratic government in Uganda. The United Nations estimates that his rebellion as leader of the Lord’s Army from 1987 to 2006 involved the abduction of an estimated 30,000 children, who made up 90 percent of the army, and the displacement of more than 1.7 million Ugandans.
In Mbale and Kitgum, the Cardwells spoke with the former child soldiers and discovered many of them had moved past sheer survival instincts and were now searching for some kind of love, trust and purpose.
They walked with the boys to church and worshipped with them.
“They would teach us their music and some songs and dance and we would teach them ours,” Michelle Cardwell said. “Our team would teach them from the Bible about love and the Father’s forgiveness, because a lot of them have a lot of guilt about what they were forced to do in the war, and they all still have nightmares every night.”
One day, Simon Peter, 17, approached Cardwell carrying a King James Version of the Bible. “I don’t understand this passage,” he told him. Cardwell, who had an easier to understand Today’s New International Version, suggested they trade Bibles.
The passage Simon Peter was having trouble with also stirred Cardwell’s heart – Psalm 68, which reads, in part, “A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows is God in his holy habitation. God sets the lonely, the solitary, in families.”

Considering adoption
Both Stan and Michelle Cardwell had, over the years, toyed with the idea of adopting a child.
Michelle Cardwell says many young Ugandans are searching for trust, love and purpose.
But, on this trip, the idea of God creating families spoke to them both, and each also knew the person to whom God had led them.
Joe had taken Michelle Caldwell into town to buy souvenirs. On the second night of their visit, he told them his story. Several of the details were vague. “He said just enough, making sure to not displease us,” she said.
The teen gradually let his story unfold, an act of trust the Cardwells hold as sacred.
They don’t see a victim when they look at Joe. They see a child of God – someone God has placed in their path to love.
“We hope to give him back a family,” Stan Cardwell said. “We will love him as a father and a mother and help him grow fully into the person God created him to be.”

Sacrifice for love
It will not be easy.
The Cardwells are aware that someone who lived as a rebel soldier at the age of 5 is bound to have post-traumatic stress disorder or other trauma-related issues. They will be dipping into their college savings to bring Joe to their home.
“It’s a level of trust with God that we’ve never had,” Stan Cardwell said. “It’s one more step in the journey.”
Their act of self-sacrificial love is already bringing blessings.
On Father’s Day, 14 families from Bel Air United Methodist Church sponsored young men from Uganda through Active Blessing after Stan preached, sharing their story.
The Cardwells’ children, ages 14, 15 and 17, also share their excitement. Daniel, their son, volunteered to share his room with Joe. They wonder about this new member of their family, who may arrive as early as November.
“I wonder if he’s a picky eater and how he’s going to do at night. He might have nightmares, I could comfort him,” said Daniel, who is looking forward to teaching Joe something about American sports and American girls.
They exchange e-mails now. “He’s a cool guy,” Daniel says.
The Cardwells no longer love Africa abstractly. They cannot ease all the suffering there, but they can make a difference in one youngster’s life.
“God doesn’t call us to love the whole world, that’s his job. But God does call us to love a slice of the world,” Stan Cardwell said. “Uganda is our slice.”
* Lauber is the editor of UMConnection, the newspaper of the Baltimore-Washington Conference.

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bigstockphoto_Bible_With_Ribbon_Bookmark_431250I hear it all the time at the hospital from people laid low by severe illness: “The Lord must be punishing me for something I did” with whatever disease or malady the hospital patient has.
I point out to them that the Bible has something to say about that:

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
— Psalm 103: 8-18

If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins,
O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
therefore you are feared.
— Psalm 130: 3-4

But I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that your may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
— Matt. 5:44-45

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
— Lamentations 3:22-23

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