Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The God nobody knows

Acts 17: 22-31

New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE

May 25, 2014

            When I first read this passage in Eugene Peterson’s The Message, I was struck by his interpretation of ‘an unknown God’ as ‘the God nobody knows’.  The first thing I thought of was the song Ray Charles made famous, “You Don’t Know Me”.

You give your hand to me
And then you say hello
And I can hardly speak
My heart is beating so
And anyone can tell
You think you know me well
But you don't know me

No you don't know the one
Who dreams of you at night
And longs to kiss your lips
Who longs to hold you tight
To you I’m just a friend
That's all I've ever been
Cause you don't know me

Afraid and shy, I let my chance go by
A chance that you might love me too 

You give your hand to me
And then you say goodbye
I watch you walk away; all I can do is cry
Oh you will never know
The one who loves you so
No, you don't know me

            It got me thinking about all the different images we have for God.  In that song we would have the image of God as an unrequited lover, who dreams of us and longs to hold us tight but watches us walk away, that God that nobody knows.

            Scripture is replete with a variety of images and names for God.  God is the Creator, Maker of the heavens and the earth, the Almighty One, the great I AM, our Rock and Refuge, our Shield and Deliverer.  God is our Shepherd, kind and merciful, gracious and slow to anger.  God is Warrior, King, the Most High God.  God broods over us like a Mother Hen, fights for us like a she-bear robbed of her cubs.  God gasps and pants for us in labor pains.  God has compassion for us as a mother who nurses her child.   God is the Spirit of Wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, and knowledge.

            Images of God can be doorways through which we can experience God’s presence, and they can become idols and obstacles to that same presence.  Gender can be both a doorway and an idol or obstacle, depending on our spiritual journey.  When I was a young mother, I needed a mother in heaven, who could transcend the gravity of earth and yet inhabit it, who was and is stronger and wiser than me, who lives in the dark corners as well as the light spaces.

She sits with me

            at the kitchen table

Her eyes brighter than mine

She drinks tea, listens, waits

            for me to speak

She is in the oven

            in the juices, the rising bread

Her heat under the boiling water

When I burn my hand

            we both say “Damn!”

She is in the dirty bath water

            the soiled sheets

            and the bottom of the diaper pail

When my child whines, cries “Mommy”

            for the umpteenth time that hour

She becomes the strong steady nerve

            I didn’t know I had

She understands when I lose it—

            she soothes my guilt

She’s in the whisper, my daughter’s warm hair

            smell, the squeal of delight, the “hopping

            frog” through the kitchen that rattles the


She is Mother

            full and empty

            silence and clamor

            peace and fury

            sweetness and shit

She is not too much God for all this

            to be beneath her

Oh no.  She is beneath me

            further descending beyond anything

            I dare

She has saved me more times than I can number

(c) 1999 Cynthia E. Robinson

           Many of our images of God have lost their shock value, that is, their ability to surprise us and startle us out of what we think we know about God. We tend toward the ones that comfort us, that nurture our sense of self and our own image of God.

           The other day on Facebook I posted a quote by author BrenĂ© Brown that gave me one of those startling images of God. She wrote, “Don’t try to win over the haters; you are not a jackass whisperer.” I posted it with my own thought that, no, I am not one but I’m hoping God is.

           I am hoping that God is a jackass whisperer because there are times I need one. There are times I can be tuned into only one radio station: WIFM – What’s In It For Me? The human race needs tender words of love and compassion, words whispered with care, that say to us how rare and precious we are and this earth is, words that can discomfort us, knock us off our you-know-what, and wake us up to what is good and right and true.

           I like this God that nobody knows, that may still have the capacity to catch us off-guard, disturb us, make us think differently, feel deeply, forgive freely, give thanks constantly, do justice relentlessly. Perhaps this God that nobody knows is also the God of the spiritual but not religious.

           The apostle Paul, in his speech to the Athenians, is speaking to what we would call the ‘unchurched’ – those who have a spiritual faith or as columnist Jeffrey Gentry put it this week, “Although I, like most religiously unaffiliated Americans, believe churches help build and strengthen community bonds and generally benefit society, I am not actively looking for a church that would be right for me.”

        To a certain extent, Paul sounds and acts like a salesman. These Athenians, like many Americans today, like to discuss anything new, even if it’s just spin. Paul sees an opportunity to preach, to fill in what looks like a gap in religious belief, to answer an unanswered question. Paul quells their fears and ours: God is not remote, God is near. God doesn’t play hide and seek with us; God makes it possible for us to actually find God. We live and move and have our being in and with God.

        Paul says that it was okay to have this unknown God when we didn’t know any better, but now that we have Jesus, we ought to know better. Knowing Jesus means a radical life change! But then again, how well do we know Jesus and do we really want to know him any better than we know God? In this story Paul is speaking from his own experience. To him, God made known in Jesus means a radical life change: from being a persecutor of Jesus followers to being one of them, from being a hater to being one of the lovers, to knowing himself to be one of the loved. We are all God’s offspring; we’re all created from the same stuff.

        Not many appreciated what Paul had to say. Some laughed at him when he spoke of Jesus being raised from the dead. Others wanted to hear more. Not much has changed.

        We are all just trying to figure out the answers to life’s persistent questions: how to live, how to be happy, how to love, how to be kind, how to live with ourselves and each other when we’re not, how to leave the world a better place. In order to do that, I know that I need the God that I know through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But I also know that I need the God that nobody knows, the God that is still aching to know us, surprise us, shake us up, love us, the One willing to go to any lengths to bring us home.

Afraid and shy, I let my chance go by
A chance that you might love me too

You give your hand to me

And then you say goodbye
I watch you walk away; all I can do is cry
Oh you will never know 

The one who loves you so
No, you don't know me


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Psalm of Awesomeness

This past week was Celebration Sunday, when we honor our teachers and graduates, and the high school youth plan the worship service.

This is a psalm written by three teenage girls - can you see the influences?


O God, your forgiveness is
          Like a big bowl of comfort food:
                   Ramen noodles
                   Fish fingers and custard
                   Smart Food White Cheddar popcorn.
We need your forgiveness because we have sinned,
Because we cannot always hold true to your commandments.
We know we did wrong but we also know
          We can work to make it better.
          Your acceptance is
                   like a mother’s hug
                   An open door
                   No matter who you are or where you are
                             On life’ journey, you’re welcome here.
     You paint the world
          You Van Gogh the stars
          You Monet the garden
     You are the Composer of the universe
          The symphony of Life.
     You sculpt all of creation.
     You spark an idea in our minds
          And kindle our creativity.

     Even the strongest people
          Can’t take on the world by themselves;
     No one remains virtuous forever.
     We see the way the world is going;
     Sometimes it all looks dark and gray;
          Other times it looks bright and green.
     Even if life as we know it ends
          We know that the ending of life
          Provides the pathway to new life.

     O God, you are our North Star
          You are our Doctor
                     our Helping Hand
                     our Parent teaching us to walk, to ride a bike.
You are the Force, created by all living things, that    
 surrounds us, fills us, and binds the galaxy together.

     Huzzah, O God!  Huzzah!

          —Psalm of Awesomeness: A Celebration of Awe and Life
Written by Hannah Cooper, Andrea Kingsbury, and Olivia Kingsbury

Sunday, May 11, 2014

A shared life

New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE

May 11, 2014

20th c. mystic and Trappist monk Thomas Merton said, "To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence."  Sounds like church life, doesn’t it?  We do violence to ourselves, to our souls, to each other when we strive to not only live as Jesus would have us live but be Jesus for the world and each other.  Too often we suffer under the oppression and martyrdom of yes, neglect the freedom and peace of a judicious no, and expect the same from others.

In fact, we human beings can go so far as to neglect our own needs while becoming preoccupied with the needs of others.  It’s one aspect of what is called codependency.  Codependency is described as thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that go beyond or when we shrink from what is considered normal caretaking and self-sacrifice.  We all need to be needed, but when we link this to approval from others and our level of self-esteem, it is then we begin to do violence to ourselves.  We become caught in a web of our own making, where we become the ever-giving victim; dangerously irreproachable, unassailable.  It’s one way we can control an uncontrollable reality.

These are a few of the patterns and kinds of codependent behaviors that can be expressed by an individual or a community:

I have difficulty identifying what I am feeling.
I minimize, alter, or deny how I truly feel.  
I perceive myself as completely unselfish and dedicated to the well-being of others.

I mask my pain in various ways such as anger, humor, or isolation.
I express negativity or aggression in indirect and passive ways.

I am unable to ask others to meet my needs or desires.

I judge what I think, say, or do harshly, as never good enough.
I am embarrassed to receive recognition, praise, or gifts. I value others’ approval of my thinking, feelings, and behavior over my own.

I compromise my own values and integrity to avoid rejection or anger.
I put aside my own interests in order to do what others want.
I am hypervigilant regarding the feelings of others and take on those feelings.

I freely offer advice and direction to others without being asked.
I become resentful when others decline my help or reject my advice.

I adopt an attitude of indifference, helplessness, authority, or rage to manipulate outcomes.

I act in ways that invite others to reject, shame, or express anger toward me.

I use indirect and evasive communication to avoid conflict or confrontation.

I suppress my feelings or needs to avoid feeling vulnerable.[i]

Pastors and congregations are ripe for this kind of behavior.  Usually we behave in codependent ways when we are under stress, when our level of self-care is low:  we’re working long hours, we’re not eating or sleeping well, we don’t exercise enough, we aren’t spending enough time with friends or doing things we enjoy.  And let’s face it: our culture is stressed out 24/7.  We don’t allow ourselves to be led by still waters or lie down on our lawn instead of mowing it.  Restoration of our soul?  How does that happen?  And there are days we wouldn’t know what a path of righteousness looked like unless someone showed us a map.

Have you ever read the book The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein?  It’s often a favorite gift for Mother’s Day and for teachers.  I think it’s one of the most codependent books I’ve ever read!  It’s also lousy environmentalism.  A boy and a tree that identifies as female have a lifelong relationship.  The boy climbs the tree and swings from her branches, eats her apples, and rests in her shade.  But as he grows into adulthood and his needs change, the tree gives more and more of herself, until she is reduced to a stump, upon which the boy, now an old man, sits for comfort and peace.  And the story ends with “And the tree was happy.”

Some of you may love this story and see it as a beautiful illustration of self-giving love, and that’s fine.  Stories are hardly intended to have only a single interpretation.  I see it as codependent because I can be codependent, and I’ve been in relationships where I’ve given my substance despite the fact that the other person was incapable of giving back, because I’ve witnessed relationships in my own family that were like this.  Because I’ve seen people turned into emotional stumps that other folks rest on, and their happiness is more of an extension of the other’s happiness than their own.

That’s hardly what I would call a sustainable relationship.  And the relationships we have with each other, with ourselves, with God, with this church are supposed to be sustainable, that is, nurturing, caring, in a way that gives us joy rather than drains us of it.

The description of the early Church in the Book of Acts sounds idyllic:  

That day about three thousand took him (Peter) at his word, were baptized and were signed up. They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers. 

“Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.  They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved.”  (The Message by Eugene Peterson)


They fed each other.  They were still waters and green pastures for each other.  And the toughest part:  they sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.  They didn’t just share each other’s burdens by talking about them or praying for them.  They did something about it.

This doesn’t seem very practical in our post-modern world:  selling what we own and pooling our resources.  Private property is considered sacred in and of itself.  We can’t even get near national healthcare.  We do hold some things in common at church: we bring meals to those who need some help and comfort; we have potluck meals together; we pack go-bags; we buy grocery cards (what if once in a while we bought extra ones to keep on hand for those who need some help with groceries?); we have a budget that we pledge or give to.

Newark Empowerment Center

This past Friday, Pope Francis, in a bold move, called for a legitimate redistribution of wealth to the poor, stating that we have an economy of exclusion, a throwaway culture, and a culture of death in this world, to which we are giving our passive acceptance.  The Pope has said that he wants a church that is poor and is for the poor.  A month ago the Pope tweeted, “How good it is for us when the Lord unsettles our lukewarm and superficial lives.”  Yes indeed, but I am waiting for the Pope to his money where his mouth is and redistribute the wealth of Vatican City.


Perhaps we spin our wheels in codependency because the radical changes that the gospel requires are scary as much as they are compelling.  The gospel of Jesus Christ shows us our weaknesses, how vulnerable we really are, but it also gives us a glimpse of interdependence, of how we can live deeply connected to each other, and to those who need justice and liberation, in ways that can make us alive again.

Even as I write this, say this, I feel like a hypocrite, because my words do not match my life.  I live quite comfortably.  My name is on the deed to not just one but two houses and the registration of three cars.  When I was a kid, I would’ve thought of someone like me as rich, and indeed I am.  I try to share what I have but I know I can always do more.  I hear the words of the poet Wendell Berry, “Take all that you have and be poor”, and I feel like shrinking inside.

The Church is called to be the antithesis of empire, to be the workshop for the kingdom of God, yet history does not bear this out.  “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” plays out as a struggle between human need and fear and desire.  We are reluctant to be anyone’s sheep.  

 How are we to live a shared life, one that gives us joy rather than drains us of it?

At this point I invited anyone who was having difficulty trusting God to come forward.  A man who had been on the search committee had the courage to answer such a poorly-offered invitation.

I asked him to write down, if he could tithe, what amount would that be, and that only I would see this.  I then asked him to write down what the weekly amount would be.  I then wrote out a check to him in that amount, as a gift, that when we trust God, God blesses us.  I felt that I couldn't ask the congregation to do something that I wasn't willing to do myself.

It was a terribly vulnerable morning - my humanness was spewing all over the place.  I felt so exposed.  I couldn't print my sermon, either at home or at the church, so I read it from my laptop, as well a poem by Wendell Berry for the benediction.  I wanted to play a video of Bobby McFerrin's Psalm 23 on YouTube but I lost my internet connection in the sanctuary.  So I sang the piece myself, about the only thing that went well, from my point of view.

I think I'll move to Australia...