Sunday, June 24, 2018

Phil Kniss: Give me little time to pray

“Where God is in the Storm”
Mark 4:35-41; Job 38:1-11

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About five years ago Cantore—
the men’s acappella group I sing with—
decided to go on tour to Mississippi and Louisiana,
specifically to coastal areas most impacted by Hurricane Katrina.

We sang among Mennonites in Gulfport, MS and a few other spots.
And we sang among African-American Baptists in New Orleans,
including in the Ninth Ward,
including with Park View’s sister congregation,
Christian Baptist Church.

One of the songs in our repertoire that year,
before we ever thought of going to sing to Katrina victims,
was the old African-American spiritual called,
“Been in the storm.”

The plaintive lyrics consist of a continuous, unadorned lament,
from beginning to end.
It does not resolve with a declaration of praise, like
“Thank you, God, because I know you’re going to
make it all work out good in the end.”

No, here are the exact words we sang to these brothers and sisters of ours,
many of whom had still not found the resources
to rebuild their own homes,
8 years after the storm did its deathly deeds.

We sang,
I been in the storm so long,
I been in the storm so long, children
I been in the storm so long,
O, give me little time to pray.

O let me tell you brother how I come along,
O give me little time to pray
With a bowed down head and an aching heart,
O give me little time to pray.

And it goes on and on and on like . . .
Let me tell you, sister . . .
Let me tell you, Christian, how I come along . . .
With a bowed down head and an aching heart,
O give me little time to pray.

I don’t quite know what was in the mind
of the first person or persons to sing those words.
They were handed down to us,
by enslaved persons going through another kind of deadly storm.

For a while, whenever Cantore sang that song,
I interpreted that line, “Give me little time to pray,”
as a statement about how little time the singers had.
They were so preoccupied fighting this constant storm,
that they just didn’t have time to take a break from it,
and pray to God for help.

But I’ve thought about that some more,
and I imagine there is another meaning there,
and it’s more profound and raises more theological questions.

I wonder whether the first singers of this spiritual,
burdened by long-term, multi-generational, oppressive suffering
in which there was no way out . . . were singing . . .
Brother, sister, let me tell you about my suffering,
Give me the time and space to just weep, and cry, and ache.
I wonder if, rather than saying they didn’t have enough time to pray,
they were saying, it’s too soon to pray.
It’s too soon.

Give me more time, before you ask me
to pray and worship the God who delivers his children.
I need a little time before I’m ready to steady my soul,
and pray the prayer of the righteous,
and live in a spirit of hope.

Right now, I need to cry,
I need you to accept my bowed down head and my aching heart,
I need you to give me little time,
before I’m ready to get all spiritual
and pray in a way that makes sense.

Does that kind of statement resonate?
Maybe even with us,
who are not victims of endless suffering or oppression,
but maybe have experienced some debilitating grief?
This kind of statement, in song, might ring true for us.

It’s a sentiment that could be directed toward others,
friends and family and church people who are anxious for me,
a suffering member,
to get back on my feet and be acceptably spiritual again,
so they know how to deal with me.

Or it could be directed toward God,
saying, “give me little time, God”
I haven’t given up on you entirely.
But right now I’m in a lot of pain, and kind of confused and angry.
I don’t really know how to ask you to help,
because I don’t really know where you are in this storm.
Did you cause it?
Are you purposely allowing it?
Do you even know about it?
I’ll get my sensible prayer together, someday.
I’ll pray, but right now, give me little time.

I’ll tell you.
I think God honors that kind of honest statement,
even welcomes it.
even considers it legitimate prayer in itself.
So even while you may be saying to God,
“Give me little time to pray,”
God is probably saying back to you,
“Of course I will. And you just did. And I heard you.
And I’ll wait. As long as it takes.”

When people are going through a storm, especially a long storm,
it raises lots of questions about God.
How does God figure in to human suffering?
Where is God positioned in the midst of a storm?
Is God passive, just watching the people suffer?
Is God active, and if so, how? where? to what end? what purpose?

Those are precisely the theological questions
being posed by the disciples of Jesus,
right in the middle of a raging storm on the sea of Galilee.
They probably didn’t know they were asking theological questions.
But they were.

The version of the story in chapter 4 of the Gospel of Mark,
is short and to the point.
Here’s how it went down.
The crowds were pressing in on Jesus,
and he decided to get away for a bit, to go across the lake.

In the previous chapter, in Mark 3:10, it reads,
“He had healed many,
so that those with diseases were pushing forward to touch him.”
The disciples, of course, had witnessed these healings,
had seen Jesus move to calm and restore the demon-possessed,
were very aware of Jesus’ power to change the unchangeable.

Now, they were in the middle of
a terrible storm on a deep sea in a small wooden boat.
Mark was detailed enough in his description to note, in v. 38
that Jesus was laying in the back of the boat, sleeping, on a cushion.
The disciples were fighting the big waves and wind,
straining on their oars, and Jesus was on a cushion.
Is that a poignant metaphor, or not?!

And here was their question. Note how it was phrased.
At least how this question was remembered
by the post-resurrection community of disciples
from which the Gospel of Mark emerged.
This is how they remembered and distilled the question.
The disciples asked Jesus, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

Isn’t that the very question
people of faith still ask God in the middle of a storm?

They, and we, perceive God to be asleep on a cushion,
and our question is, “Don’t you care if we drown?”
It’s really less a question than it is an accusation:
You don’t care that we are about to drown!
And there you are, on your blankety-blank cushion!

It was a question Jesus did not exactly answer.
He just got up from his cushion, rebuked the wind,
and the seas became calm.
Then he asked a couple questions of his own.
“Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

That elicited another question from the disciples,
which they asked each other, under their breath, “Who is this?”
Who is this who holds such power?
And I can hear their words between the lines.
“Who holds such power, and still can sleep through our terror?”

We ask these theological questions all the time.
How can God have so much power,
yet there be so much suffering?

It’s the question that the long-suffering Job,
and his well-meaning friends were asking.
Throughout the book of Job, we have these long speeches,
after the devil made a deal with God,
and took away everything from Job—
all his children, all his livestock, all his possessions,
and finally his own health.

Job’s friends immediately explained his suffering as punishment for sin.
Job argues back that he has done nothing wrong,
Makes an extended argument that he is righteous,
and God was not justified in sending all this suffering his way.

Finally, God speaks.
And although God sides with Job, against his friends,
God still has some direct words for all of them.

And in the end, God tears apart the argument
that suffering is the result of one’s sin,
and blessing is the result of one’s righteousness.

God is sovereign, and God is compassionate.
Both are equally true, and at the same time.
God is even portrayed as one who would bend down
to the level of human beings
in order to be with them, and be understood by them.
God bares his soul, as it were, to the human being Job,
revealing the cosmic responsibilities of being God.
We heard it this morning, Job 38:8-10
“Who shut up the sea behind doors
    when it burst forth from the womb,
when I made the clouds its garment
    and wrapped it in thick darkness,
when I fixed limits for it
    and set its doors and bars in place?”

And God also makes plain his respect for human independence.
If anyone is to serve God in obedience,
it must be out of love and free will,
not because of any rewards it may bring,
or punishment it may avert.

As I think about the storms swirling in and around my life,
both personal and social—
uncertain futures, political dysfunction, and more—
I come back to this question:
Where IS God in the storm?

In the back of the boat, on the cushion.
With us . . . and at rest.
God is the ultimate non-anxious presence.
That’s not a bad thing to have going for us.

To know that what I am going through,
what the church is going through,
what our culture is going through,
is not keeping God awake at night (so to speak),
that is a source of hope.

I am reminded that God has the big picture in view.
God’s agenda is, and always will be,
salvation and reconciliation and shalom.
The storm is right now.
And it can be scary. I get that.
But knowing that God’s unshakeable promise
is to be with us in the middle of the storm,
and to continue the unstoppable mission of making things right,
and that God is not panicking, not straining at the oars,
but is at rest,
tells me that God’s ultimate purposes are not at risk.

My response, then, can also be one born of peace and hope.
My response can be engaged, active, determined, and hopeful.
It need not be born out of fear or reactivity or anxiety
that God does not care the world is spinning out of control.
It was fear that triggered the disciples’ accusation/question:
“Don’t you care that we are about to drown?”

Would to God that it might be faith, rather than fear,
shaping the kinds of questions we ask Jesus!

It seems to me that in this Gospel story,
is a practical way forward for engaging not only our own storms,
but the storms of our sisters and brothers,
and the storms of those most vulnerable in our world.

I think of the many storms raging, even now,
at or near the US-Mexican border,
and in families all around our country,
and all throughout Latin America,
being forcefully thrown by waves of trauma and grief,
because authorities in our country
treated them as less than human.

Yes, thankfully, the policy of separating families was rescinded.
But the psychological wounds are still raw,
many families are still separated,
and the storm is not over.

We have neighbors here, in our community,
who are either directly or indirectly traumatized
by the way our country’s leaders act toward and speak about
immigrants and the countries they call home.

We have choices before us, as to how we will respond.

We can choose to (and I would add, we are called to)
be in the boat with those suffering a storm.
Following Jesus means going where Jesus would go:
being with the vulnerable and isolated,
and speaking truth to the powers.
Or in terms of Mark chapter 4:
staying in the boat with them,
and rebuking the wind.

I believe it is part of the Gospel imperative
to be as close as possible to those who are storm-tossed.
It is part of the Gospel imperative
to rebuke the powers behind the storm.

We can speak up and say, “No!
It is a distortion of the Gospel when our top leaders—
both elected and appointed,
including ones who identify as fellow Christians,
members of our body—
when they use scripture to urge people
to submit to the injustices done against them.
We must publicly disavow any notion
that the Gospel of Jesus is consistent with a new policy
that says death-threats from gangs,
and from physically abusive spouses,
is no longer enough for us to show compassion,
and give safe haven for a while.

Christians may well disagree, and disagree respectfully,
about what a just immigration policy looks like.
But I dare say all Christians—
every Christian in this particular congregation,
and every publically and politically engaged Christian
from Jim Wallis to Franklin Graham,
can and should say,
“Wait a minute. No.
Followers of Jesus
show compassion for human beings in the midst of a storm.
Followers of Jesus
extend mercy and hospitality toward human beings
whose lives are being threatened, especially children.
The way of Jesus puts compassion, mercy, and hospitality first.
Abstract notions like national security and the rule of law
are significant, and have their place,
but not before seeing the image of God in all human neighbors.

“Zero tolerance”—
as an approach to solve any complicated human problem,
where real suffering is involved—
by definition prioritizes ideology over compassion,
and is not consistent with the way of Jesus.
If we love and are loyal to the God revealed in Jesus,
the God we see portrayed in all of scripture,
then we can’t proof-text our way out of this one.
Compassion, mercy, hospitality, being with the other—
this is the life we are called to,
at whatever the personal and political cost.

May God give us courage and wisdom to live the life we are called to.

And now, let’s turn to the hymn,
“When the storms of life are raging, stand by me.” HWB 558
The verses of this hymn are basically a list
of many different kinds of storms we might be facing.
And the prayer for each of them is, “Stand by me.”
Be with me in the storm.

As we sing, we can make this a prayer we ourselves are making,
as we face our own real and present storms.
But we can also sing it as a prayer coming from the lips
of other vulnerable ones in our world,
and we can hear their cry for someone to stand with them,
and consider whether that is a cry we are being called to answer.

Let’s sing!

—Phil Kniss, June 24, 2018

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Sunday, June 10, 2018

Phil Kniss: No longer beside ourselves

"Sin, forgiveness, restoration"
Mark 3:20-35; Psalm 130

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If a church is out of their building for a summer,
and trying to keep their members’ spirits up,
and choosing worship themes
that will draw people in,
keep them excited and feeling good
about coming to worship every Sunday,
naturally, they would choose to focus a whole Sunday on sin,
because that’s what churches are known for.
And better yet, the unpardonable sin.

Isn’t that just perfect?
An eternally unforgivable sin?
A sin that gives Christians everywhere, young ones especially,
reason to worry every day about their soul
and keep them, out of fear, on the straight and narrow path.

Isn’t that a good pick-me-up sermon to preach,
to get us through the long, hot summer?

Maybe it’s good we can laugh a little about the unpardonable sin . . .
But it could be a nervous laugh.
Maybe it’s a little close for comfort.

I know it was something I worried about
when I was an impressionable Christian teen-ager.
It helped, but only a little, when the adults told me
if I was worried I’d committed the unpardonable,
and was worried that I’d blasphemed the Holy Spirit,
then that was proof I had not done so.
Because worry was the Spirit working in me,
so clearly, the Holy Spirit had not abandoned me forever.
But I wasn’t always so convinced.
What if it was not the Spirit convicting me,
but some internal human tendency to worry?
So I worried about that.

Well, a lot of water has gone over the dam in my life since then,
and I’ve not worried about the unpardonable sin,
probably since my high school days.

But this passage still intrigues me.
It makes me wonder how we ought to read it,
in light of our belief in the unconditional love of God?
It is in three of the Gospels, after all.

I wonder if our mistake all along
has been to read this verse out of its context.
When we isolate this verse, we see a dark moral lesson:
“Be sure not to commit this one dangerous sin—
blasphemy against the Holy Spirit—
because if you do, you will be condemned forever.”

But when I read this in its larger context,
and when I read it side-by-side
with the other lectionary readings for today,
and alongside other key biblical insights—
then I can see good news emerge.

Bottom line—
this scripture is not a dire warning to individuals
not to step on a spiritual landmine—the unforgivable sin.
it is an invitation to followers of Jesus everywhere
to live a full life of wholeness and shalom,
where all the keys parts of our lives align with each other,
and align with the purposes of God.

So let’s examine the context.
Fascinating story here in Mark 3 about Jesus and his disciples,
and his family.
If you read this story, just on the face of it,
the thread that runs all the way through it is not blasphemy,
but integrity—living life as a whole person.

Here is Jesus, early on in his ministry,
already stirring people up.
His message and his ministry are both provocative, in a good way.
They provoke strong responses.
They provoke love and adoration and loyalty
from those on the margins
who Jesus welcomes into his embrace—
women, sinners, lepers, Gentiles.
And they provoke anger and disillusionment
from those whose lives depend
on keeping things calm and stable—
Pharisees, religious lawyers, scribes, the priestly class
(that is, people like me).
And people like Jesus’ family.

Jesus was living out his calling as God’s anointed one
in a way that no one was really expecting.
Least of all, his family.
His mother and Joseph, and younger siblings, I’m sure,
all knew the narrative Jesus was supposed to live into.
It was given at birth,
and probably retold often at home.
He was to be the one to save his people.
That’s why he was named Jesus (or Yeshua, or Joshua).
Same name. Different forms.
They all meant the same thing—
“the one who would save.”
Every time they called Jesus by name,
his identity was reinforced.
He was destined, from birth,
to be the one to confront the foreign powers,
to depose the empire,
to save the people from their oppression
and restore the throne to Israel.

But that’s not how Jesus was acting, now that he had grown up.
Now that he had his first chance to live out his calling,
he ended making enemies out of the very people
he was born to save.
That made no sense to anyone, most of all his family.

It’s an age-old story, actually.
The parent knows their child is destined for great things.
But instead of accepting the full-ride scholarship
to study neurosurgery at Yale,
the child picks up a guitar and writes songs,
and plays for tips at the Little Grill.
Conclusion? He’s nuts!

Knowing the narrative Jesus lived with at home growing up,
it’s no big surprise that now,
as he’s raising the hackles of the Jewish leaders,
and gaining a cult following among the undesirables,
that his mother and brothers would show up outside the door,
and try to bring him back home and straighten him out.

Because after careful observation of what’s happening,
the studied and reasonable assessment of his family . . . is,
that Jesus is “beside himself,”
that he is “out of his mind.”

That’s a fascinating phrase, you know.
One we often use.
And it is spot on, in its meaning.

The original Greek “exístemi” (ὲξίστημι)
means to be displaced, literally, “to stand aside from.”
In other words,
where we are meant to be rooted, standing,
unified in one’s being,
we are instead knocked off our feet, so to speak,
and are displaced.
In fact, so much so that we appear to be “beside ourselves.”

Physically, that’s an impossibility, to stand beside yourself.
But spiritually, emotionally, psychologically,
it’s very possible, and very common.
We experience fragmentation within ourselves.
There is the being we think we are,
and the being that acts the way we do.
There is the self we claim as our primary identity,
but this other distorted self keeps showing up.

Depending on context, and severity,
and frame of reference, and worldview,
this phenomena gets described in different ways.
In its most extreme form,
there’s what we refer to as multiple personality syndrome,
or dissociative disorder.

But we are most familiar with it in much more moderate forms,
when we are confused about who we really are, deep within.
when, for instance,
we have trouble seeing the image of God within ourselves,
the image we were created with.
And there are some fairly benign forms of fragmentation,
that happen when our lives experience stress and strain,
because we feel pulled in several different directions.
All of us, everyone of us,
have multiple commitments and multiple loyalties.
Sometimes these loyalties don’t line up with each other.
And it might appear that we are beside ourselves.

But I also might suggest . . .
that fragmentation is one way we can look at sin.
Sin can be described as a kind of fragmentation
in which how we are living,
is not in alignment with our God-given identity.

I’m not saying, by any means,
that all fragmentation is personally sinful.
Fragmentation can enter our lives in different ways,
often outside our control,
no moral judgement implied.

So . . . not all fragmentation is sin.
But maybe, all sin is a kind of fragmentation.
It’s a way of being beside ourselves,
of living out of alignment with ourselves,
and with who God created and called us to be.

And here is where this ties in again with the Gospel story
of Jesus, and how he was seen by his family,
and by others around him.

Jesus was faithfully living out his identity and calling.
He was whole and unified in his being.
But because that way of being did not line up
with the expectations of others,
others saw him as fragmented, as “beside himself.”

Perspective matters.
It matters who is defining what wholeness looks like.
It matters who we look to, in order to measure our wholeness.
What looks fragmented to others,
may actually be the unified whole that God designed for us.
That was the case with Jesus.

And the opposite can also be the case.
What looks whole to the outside world, as they observe us,
may actually be a deep, and even sinful
departure from God’s intention for us,
a displacement,
a “being beside ourselves.”
We may conform perfectly
to the expectations of the dominant culture.
We might be the model American citizen
living the American dream.

But we do not have shalom,
we do not experience wholeness and reconciliation,
until the identity given to us by the God who created us,
and who named us, and claimed us,
actually corresponds with the kind of life we are living.

We see this moral and spiritual fragmentation everywhere—
in the lives of athletes, entertainers, politicians,
and even, to our shame, in church leaders.
We’ve gotten jaded to the point that we are not surprised,
when one part of a person’s life
does not square with another part.
And if we happen to love their politics,
or their stand on the issues,
or their performance on the field and on the movie screen,
we more easily look the other way
when we learn their lives are fragmented,
when they are beside themselves.

Yes, recently, with the #METOO movement,
and other movements like it,
we are making some progress
in holding our heroes to account
for morally harmful behavior.
But we have a ways to go before we apply it consistently,
without regard to ideology or politics, and
without regard to how high their position in the system.

And, I would suggest we have a ways to go
before regular, honest, deep, and mutual moral examination
of the integrity of our own lives,
becomes commonplace in our walk together
as disciples of Jesus in community.

If we look at sin as fragmentation,
we will face our sins, and our sinfulness,
in a more life-giving way, I believe.
And we will also look differently at this notion of the unpardonable sin.
If sin is fragmentation,
and forgiveness is bringing the pieces back together,
then the unforgivable sin
is that which cannot be brought back together.

Imagine, if you will, in your mind’s eye,
a person being “beside themselves” spiritually.
Notice, in your imagination,
the two different representations of the self,
side-by-side, but irreconcilable.
The one representation is the God-given,
and Holy Spirit-breathed identity given us at creation—
as a good and beloved child of God.
The other is one of human making, or is the work of evil
that is focused entirely on the self and its desires,
or on the destruction of all that is good and holy.

So if this one is Spirit-breathed and Spirit-breathing,
then blasphemy against the Holy Spirit
is this one denying the very existence or validity of the other.
It is one side cutting itself off from the other.
And since God is not coercive,
and only offers salvation as a gift,
then unforgiveness and unforgivability
is simply the natural outworking of this spiritual stand-off.
For as long as the self-destructive side
insists on maintaining the cutoff,
and denigrates the other in word and attitude and deed,
that state of sinful fragmentation will remain.

God will not impose restoration on those not open to receive it.

But there will always, and forever, be a pathway to reconciliation
for those who seek it.
That is the undeniable character of God,
reinforced in scripture from Genesis to Revelation.

A couple difficult verses in the Gospels,
that some people mis-read to mean that
God might cut off access to forgiveness to those who seek it,
does not undo the clear and repeated message
of the rest of scripture.

So, to worry about having committed the one sin God refuses to pardon,
or to suggest to impressionable young people
that they should worry about that,
is a dangerous misreading of scripture.

God’s love and mercy has no end.
And God’s desire for us to live in wholeness and integrity,
is also unchangeable.

That is the repeated message in all the scripture we heard today.

That’s what the poet was singing about in Psalm 130
“If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness . . .
I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits . . .
[and] with the Lord is unfailing love.”

Restoration of internal unity.
That is the Gospel Jesus came to proclaim and to demonstrate.
And that is the gift of God
who will always offer forgiveness to those who seek it.
No matter our offense.
No matter the woundedness caused by others,
or the woundedness we ourselves have caused.
God’s purposes are ever and always,
redemption for the fallen,
restoration for the broken,
wholeness for the fragmented,
salvation for the lost.

The God of Shalom will not rest,
until all who seek shelter are safely home,
and are living the life they were created for.
Thanks be to God.

Even as we acknowledge that we are all, in varied ways,
fragmented, broken, fallen, lost, and in need of one who saves,
let us listen again to the psalmist,
as the poet declares the unfailing love
and full redemption that God extends to us.

4 But with you there is forgiveness,
    so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

5 I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.
6 I wait for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.

7 Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
    for with the Lord is unfailing love
    and with him is full redemption.
8 He himself will redeem Israel
    from all their sins.

—Phil Kniss, June 10, 2018

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