Sunday, June 23, 2013

Kingdom, not fandom

1 Kings 19: 1-15a; Galatians 3: 23-29
Newtown Congregational Church, Newtown, CT
June 23, 2013
(My colleague and friend, Matt Crebbin, has been going full tilt and then some since Dec. 14, 2012.  Not only has he been caring for the members of his congregation, and with his wife, parenting their four active children, he's also been a strong, steady presence in the gun control movement, both here in CT and in Washington.  I'll be preaching at his church through July 14 to help give him some much needed rest.)
Lately, it seems, whenever a television show has an unhappy ending to its season finale, it’s a newsworthy occasion.  Earlier this year when Matthew died in a car crash on Downton Abbey, one could hear the collective “NO!” accompanied by tears, echoed on Facebook and other social media websites.  And just two weeks ago, HBO’s Game of Thrones shocked and disappointed most, if not all, of their fandom with more than its share of violent and unexpected deaths.
Downton Abbey
Do you know the word ‘fandom’?  If you live with teenage or any age fans of The Doctor or Avatar the Last Airbender or Star Wars, you know what I’m talking about.  Fandom is a combination of the word “fanatic” and “kingdom”.  Those who inhabit a fandom are passionate, from the smallest details to the overarching narrative and themes of the object of their focus.  They engage in ‘cosplay’, dressing up as favorite characters, paying attention, again, to every detail so as to look as authentic as possible.  They attend huge fandom gatherings, such as Comic Con or a Star Trek convention, form discussion groups on social media, throw thematic parties, and collect all the toys.  They are invested.
Where Great Stories are Massacred
Where great stories are massacred
They are especially invested in the story arc and the characters.  Whenever any of us reads a novel or watches a movie or TV show, we are invested in the outcome.    How many of you have ever felt betrayed by an author or screenwriter?  What was your expectation that was dashed? 
It seems we are geared for the happy ending, or if circumstances are bad, to expect the worst.  But life is lived in shades of charcoal, slate, and battleship.  In books, TV and movies we often seek to escape the way life is for a more hopeful or sometimes an even darker fiction.  We can put up with villains for a while, even suffer through a few heroes’ deaths, but only because we expect the villains to get their due and the heroes their redemptive victory in the end.  We expect a certain amount of justice and redemption, of fair play.  But a great many events in the past decade up to the past six months have given us cause to question that narrative.
Though it has been with us since the beginning, but especially since September 11, we know that evil, pain, and suffering can come down on anyone, anytime, anywhere.  Some of it is within our control but a lot of it isn’t.  Sometimes the hero wins, sometimes not.  Justice is our aim but oftentimes we miss the mark.  We’ve known for quite a while that fairytales are just that.  But now as a human race it seems we have begun to collectively wonder about the hero’s tale and does it still ring true for us?  There are times we are tempted, like one fan of Game of Thrones who tweeted, “I don't know if I'll ever recover from this.  No, I'm out. I quit. I'm done.”
Our hero, the prophet Elijah, has reached this point in his relationship with the God fandom.  He’s followed God’s storyline faithfully, he’s preached against the foreign god Baal, even ordered the death of the priests of Baal, and it’s got him in deep trouble with Queen Jezebel.  Prophets walk a fine line between hero and scapegoat, good-guy and outlaw.  In order to establish her cult to the god Baal, Jezebel had given orders that all the prophets of Israel be killed; Elijah thinks he is the sole survivor of that holocaust.  Now Jezebel wants Elijah dead.
So Elijah assumes that he’ll never recover from this, that he’s out, he’s quitting, he’s done.  He goes out into the desert, lies down under a tree, and asks God to take his life.  And like a good Jewish mother, perhaps God is thinking “When was the last time he ate?  Maybe he’s just hungry”, and sends an angel with some fresh bread, baked on hot desert rocks and a jar of water to nourish Elijah not just once but twice.  The journey will be long and God wants Elijah to live.
Ferdinand Bol, Elijah Fed by an Angel, (c. 1660-1663)
When Elijah reaches Mt. Horeb, he’s still sticking to the hero’s script:  “God, I’ve been passionate about you and your word.  Everyone else has either abandoned you or has been killed.  I’m the only one who’s left, and now I’m about to be killed off as well.”  God then tells Elijah that he is about to pass by.  Suddenly there is a violent wind, then an earthquake, and last a fire.  Yes, earth, wind and fire.  Knowing the Jewish narrative well, Elijah expects God to show up in one of these.  But no; rather, God arrives in a mighty silence.
We in the United Church of Christ proclaim that God is still speaking but there are times when it seems that God is strangely quiet.  Many a faith community has been closely following the script, passionate about the details, and yet even so, our numbers have been steadily declining for a decade, if not two or more.  The tale of our hero, Jesus, has not rung true for some folks.  Resurrection is not easy to come by.  Good people have stood faithful during the hard times and good, and have left church for various reasons, many of them hurtful.  I don't know if I'll ever recover from this.  No, I'm out. I quit. I'm done.”
But none of this is really new.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German pastor arrested for conspiring to assassinate Hitler, wrote these words from prison in 1944:  “God as a working hypothesis in morals, politics, or science, has been surmounted and abolished; the same thing has happened in philosophy and religion.  …Anxious souls will ask what room there is left for God now.”
He continues, “So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God.  God would have us know that we must live as [those] who manage our lives without him.  The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us.  The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually.  Before God and with God we live without God.  God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross.  He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which [God] is with us and helps us.” [i]
God doesn’t take control of the story, despite all that we have done to mess with God’s narrative of mercy and justice.  Rather, God works within the thwarted plot lines.  God uses us to accomplish a sacred purpose, even though our character is riddled with flaws.  When the inexplicable, the unthinkable happens, God comforts us in the faces of unexpected helpers.  And, with the patience of Job, God guides us through what we often cannot understand, even violence and meaningless death.  And time and again, it’s not our death or another’s that we’re afraid will be meaningless but our lives or the life of one cut short. 
We live in an unpredictable world, sometimes random and cruel, yet also fiercely beautiful and fragile.  We’re beginning to realize that maybe there isn’t a script to follow so much as we’re co-authoring a story, our story, each day.  And it’s full of contradictions, not just Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, but gay and straight and bisexual, transgendered and queer.  It’s extreme wealth, different kinds of middle class, working poor, and abject poverty; it’s seeker, believer, agnostic and atheist; not just Republican or Democrat but Independent, Libertarian, Tea Party, Green Party, and many others.  We are many colors, many voices, all inhabiting this one earth.
Norman Rockwell, The Golden Rule, 1961
God IS still speaking but through us and within our stories.  How invested are we in the outcome, not just of our own stories but of the story of our neighbor and the stranger and the enemy?  The ending will take care of itself if we are mindful of our character, our actions, decisions, and attitudes.  But it is up to us to choose each day whether we are going to hang in there, not with the fandom but the kingdom—God’s story of righteousness, mercy and justice.
There are times, I am sure, when we all have been in doubt that we would recover from a blow to our faith, when we thought we were through with church and were ready to quit.  What brought us back from that cliffhanger?  What is the story of this church and how has it changed your life?  What choices do you need to make in order that the outcome is one of mercy and justice?  Just how invested are you as one Body?
The story is ongoing, and we have come this far by faith.  May God grant us the courage to live out what we pray and profess, that in the end, love will win.

[i] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison. (New York:  Collier Books, 1972) 360.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Positively obsessed

(Almost six months ago I wrote a letter to the author Richard Russo in response to his memoir Elsewhere.  As yet, I have not received a response.  So consider this letter to be a book review of sorts.  And if you cannot tell from the letter, yes, I recommend this book wholeheartedly.)

December 12, 2012

Richard Russo
c/o Alfred A. Knopf Publishers
1745 Broadway
New York, NY 10019

Dear Mr. Russo:

Thank you for your courage and willingness to be vulnerable in the writing of your recent memoir Elsewhere. Though a book does not seem to be part of what is known as ‘call and response’, still I feel compelled to respond to what seemed to me, a prayer.

In the last paragraph of the chapter entitled “Unsettled” you come to understand that you possess some of the same tenacious qualities that plagued your mother. You describe novel writing as triage and obstinacy, then go on to use several metaphors to illuminate a rather dark process. Though you did not intend to, in those metaphors you also portrayed a life of faith and how I have come to experience what it means to serve the Church as ordained clergy. The Church is nothing if not obsessive, at least with its own survival if nothing else. If the Church is to survive, it must live with and welcome uncertainty, experiment again and again, welcome clutter, surrender a good idea for a better one, put one foot in front of the other, and so on. And one more thing: forgive.

I’m not sure that obsession is something to be cured so much as one needs to find meaning, a purpose in which obsession can thrive and accomplish something, a magnum opus. I have always felt the need, heard the call to participate in something larger than myself. Though many of us lead small lives in small towns or big cities, our dreams long to be made visible on a wider stage. My own mother struggles with OCD but as a hoarder; she has often felt the need to find a larger purpose other than wife, mother, sister, grandmother—which I know has not been enough for her, nor for many women or myself. I too recognize some of the same traits in myself, yet I do not believe it was only dumb luck or grace that expanded our worlds as you suggested.

You and I and countless others made a conscious choice to have a different life. We put our obsessive energies into something positive— resolutely we put one foot in front of the other. Some might call it evolution. We adapted. Author Octavia Butler wrote in her book Parable of the Sower, “Prodigy is, at its essence, adaptability and persistent, positive obsession. Without persistence, what remains is an enthusiasm of the moment. Without adaptability, what remains may be channeled into destructive fanaticism. Without positive obsession, there is nothing at all.” In the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is quoted as saying, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.”

The journey for all of us is the congruency, the integrity of our inner life and our outward being, something I learned from Jenny Boylan. We were all given the ability to create, to make manifest, to bring into Being, but life has a way of thwarting us as much as it is the source of inspiration. You found the means by which your imagination, your persistence, your obsession could find a positive expression but with a good measure of humility, grace, and dumb luck, as well the choice you were compelled, perhaps called, to make: to be a writer.

Like many sinful saints before, that mystery that we name as God calls the obsessively compelled. I mean, who else is going to get the job done? Who else makes a story so engaging? We hope the pendulum is going to swing one way rather than the other but we know better and on the story will go. And on we go as well. Because we must. We can’t help it. The Bible calls it ‘steadfastness’. To me, that’s what faith is all about.

Peace be with you,

Rev. Cynthia E. Robinson