God is Dead, God is Love

There’s been quite a bit of fuss over an nationwide ad campaign sponsored by some humanist groups who are determined to make us hear, in this the Christmas Season, that they believe God does not exist.

I agree with them.

These ads are reacting against a judgmental, limiting, inflexible god who’s main purpose seems to be to oppress humanity and destroy freedom.  I would have a hard time with such a god myself.  And so, I agree, the god they are reacting to does not exist.

The God I know is a god of relationship, a god of love.  Love transforms you.  Therefore, the god I know, a god of love, cannot be inflexible and unchanging.  Just as God’s love changes us, our love must change God.  My god is not a god of oppression, inflexible judgment or limitation.  My God is a god that would (and did) die for us; a God who wants to walk with us in the both the light and dark times of our lives.

So, my advice to those offended by these “God does not exist” advertisements is to agree with those who have such a viewpoint, then show your love to them, to those who seem to hate God.  What they hate is the pain inflicted on them in the name of a god that does not exist.  Let the love that God has placed in you show them that there is a different God, a real God, a God who loves them, too.  A god who gives us the freedom to love back, or to choose to not love at all. To love God is our choice, if it isn’t a choice, then God’s love would be meaningless.

 

Copyright (c) 2010, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).

Power and Silence – First Sunday of Advent

Sermon given at Payson Park UCC Church, Belmont, MA November 28, 2010.

Scripture readings:
2 Samuel 11:2-5; 11:14b-15 and 11:26 – 12:7a (Bathsheba & David)
John 7:40-8:11 (The Story of the Adulterous Woman)

My thoughts today are on two themes, Power and Silence, which are both found in this morning’s scripture readings. We will look at how Power and Silence interact with each other in each story, and how they tie these two stories together across a one thousand year gap in time. Then we’ll close with some reflections on what we’ve learned and how these two themes are reflected in the coming of Christ, and Advent.

Let’s start by considering our Old Testament reading, and the setting of Nathan’s audience with David.

Nathan’s story is presented as a legal dispute. This is significant. For thousands of years throughout the ancient world disputes were brought to the local ruler or wise man for judgment. It was a very public event, with many people there: those seeking a resolution to their disputes, spectators, the King and his Court, all listening to the proceedings.

When Nathan presented his case to David, it was in such a setting; which, given what he intended to do, was a wise move! I suspect that if he had done this in a private audience with the King, he might have succumbed to a “Sword Malfunction.”

Let’s imagine what the scene must have been like: David is there with his badges of authority, a scepter and crown. He is sitting on a simple chair in front of the crowd. Scores, and perhaps hundreds of people are standing around the edges of the courtyard, waiting for their turn to be heard. David’s advisors are waiting off to the side for him to call on, if needed.

Then Nathan steps forward to tell his story. The King listens, his anger rising as he hears the tale, and when he can’t restrain himself any more, his face red, gripping his chair with both fists, he leans forward and says “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity!”

And then Nathan said four simple words, “You are the man!”

Continue reading “Power and Silence – First Sunday of Advent”

What’s in a Name?

My hometown, Brattleboro, VT, has built a new bridge across Whetstone Brook to replace the historic but long outdated “Creamery Bridge” (which will be turned into a pedestrian bridge).

Although there seems to be a consensus that some person should be honored by naming the bridge after them, there is much controversy over exactly who to memorialize in such a manner.  I hear that a very vocal group wants to name the bridge after a local man who gave his life in service of our country.  — A similar effort a few years ago resulted in a bridge in the center of town being named after a young man who died in (I think) Iraq.

I applaud and agree with the motivation behind the campaign to name the bridge after him, and have no objection whatsoever to honoring those who have served our country, particularly those who have had to put their own lives on the line while doing so.  (If anything, I think they should get far more recognition, honor and support than many or most of them do. Without them, the USA would never have become the great nation that it is.)   Yet, I have two significant reservations with regards to naming a bridge after a single fallen soldier.

The first is that we don’t have enough bridges!  Brattleboro, VT has perhaps a couple of dozen significant bridges in town (though some are Interstate Highway, not local, bridges).  Hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of Brattleboro natives have served in the military over the years; and many of them made the ultimate sacrifice.  Should we name a bridge for each of them?  What do we do when we run out of bridges?

Second, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from working with those serving in the military, it’s all about your buddies. Going into a fight, you are betting your life that the men and women with you, and supporting you, will “have your back” when the going gets tough.  That sort of complete reliance on each other to survive in the midst of battle is at the root of a camaraderie and trust that I have often heard those in the service speak about, but which most of us civilians will never experience.

In the center of town, on the “Common”, are a number of monuments. They list the names of those from Brattleboro who served and died in every war since the Civil War. What’s important to me about these monuments is that there are many names listed. A fallen soldier’s name is listed along all of his (or her) comrades in arms who died in the same war. The companionship that sustained them, and which more than a few gave their lives in battle-for is echoed in these monuments.  They are remembered together in death, just as they served together in life.   By having all of these heros memorialized and honored in one place, it gives us who pass by a chance to reflect on the dedication of the men and women of this town to serving our country, and the magnitude of the losses we’ve experienced in the fight to keep this country free.

Therefore, while naming a bridge after a single fallen soldier will honor that individual’s memory, and provides closure and solace to those they leave behind, it in effect dishonors the very thing that they and their comrades risked their lives to preserve – the lives of their fellow comrades in arms.   From what I’ve heard WWI, WWII and younger veterans all say when lauded for their service, I also think that most of those who have died while serving this country would be unhappy to hear that their sacrifice is being honored above the sacrifices of so many of their fellow servicemen.  Therefore, listing the fallen on a monument that honors all fallen soldiers from the same war together, and in a place where soldiers from all other wars are similarly honored, is (to me) much more appropriate, and provides a fitting way for us as a people to remember and honor those who gave their lives that we might remain a free and democratic country.

So, I ask the Selectpersons of Brattleboro to consider carefully whether it is appropriate to honor a single servicemen when naming this bridge.  Also, we must consider that the person we will memorialize through having their name on this bridge says something about who we are as a town, and what we think is important to be remembered about our community in years to come.  While every life is important, and the loss of even a single soldier in battle is a disaster to those who knew and loved them, no soldier (at least in this era) achieves victory by fighting alone.  Every soldier that has fallen was part of a community, a community they were fighting to preserve.  Let’s honor what they felt was worth giving their life-for.

For me, a bridge is about connection and community, about bridging gaps and making paths were no path existed before.  Therefore, whomever we name this bridge after should be a person whose life impacted Brattleboro in a positive and significant way, someone whose life reflected deep concern for the community, someone who worked to bridge gaps, and/or someone who built paths were no path existed before.

Copyright (c) 2010, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

A Memorial Day Prayer

Given at the regular Sunday Worship Service at First Parish, Lincoln on Sunday, May 30, 2010…

Before giving this morning’s pastoral prayer, I’d like to read you a poem that inspired my prayer and, I think, fits well with this Memorial Sunday.  It was written by Sgt. James Lenihan, a veteran who passed away in 2007.  He is known to have written only one poem in his life, describing his feelings after killing an enemy soldier in 1944.  Here it is:

A Warrior’s Poem: “Murder–So Foul”

I shot a man yesterday
And much to my surprise,
The strangest thing happened to me
I began to cry.

He was so young, so very young
And Fear was in his eyes,
He had left his home in Germany
And came to Holland to die.

And what about his Family
were they not praying for him?
Thank God they couldn’t see their son
And the man that had murdered him.

I knelt beside him
And held his hand–
I begged his forgiveness
Did he understand?

It was the War
And he was the enemy
If I hadn’t shot him
He would have shot me.

I saw he was dying
And I called him “Brother”
But he gasped out one word
And that word was “Mother.”

I shot a man yesterday
And much to my surprise
A part of me died with Him
When Death came to close
His eyes.

On this Memorial Day weekend, we remember all those who fought and died for this, our Nation, but we also remember that those who died fighting against us had mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, spouses, sons and daughters – just like us – who are grieving their loss, as we grieve ours.  We remember that in War there is loss and pain for all involved, affecting a community that extends far beyond the battlefield in time and in space.

Holy Spirit, we come before you this morning, remembering the losses we and those we love experience as a result of War.  We remember the pain and anguish that many, soldiers and loved ones alike, have endured for years after those battlefield experiences.  In doing so, we honor the sacrifices that so many have made in the name of freedom and in defense of this country.  We ask, Holy Spirit, that you work in us, and in those we confront as enemies, to bring peace, healing and understanding, so that armed conflict and hate no longer come between us.  Instead, let Your Love and understanding embrace and fill all of us.

We also lift up those who are battling in other ways at this time: justice or job loss, illness, and other crises in their personal lives: battling the effects of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; and those who are still seeking to recover and rebuild from the effects of the earthquake in Haiti and other natural disasters.  We ask that your spirit, love and healing fill and strengthen them, and enable us, individually and as a community, to support them in their times of spiritual and material need.

Thank You, Holy Spirit, for Your presence, Your guidance, Your Love, and Your healing power working in and through us.

Amen.

 

Copyright (c) 2010, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).

The Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:23-34), a Narrative Sermon

You know, never in my whole life did I think I would ever see the things I that saw today.  Boy and how, it’s been quite a day, I can tell you!  What did you think?

Oh, that’s right: you were out in the vineyard since early this morning, picking grapes for the master.  So, I guess I’d better tell you the whole thing from the beginning.

You remember the steward telling us that today was the day when the master was going to come out from the city to settle accounts?  That’s right, I guess he was going to do you after you guys came back from the vineyard.  Yeah, I know, it’s been a long time.

Well, this one fellow – you know, the guy with a swelled head, always thinking he’s some hoity toity bigshot?  Parading around showing off his nice clothes?  Yeah, him!  Well, now we know where he got the money for all that nice stuff!

You shoulda seen his face when he was brought in to the master!  He was the first one!   Hee hee hee!  It was just too good!  I don’t think he ever imagined the master would actually make him settle up.  Maybe he thought the master had forgotten about him.

Anyway, my jaw just about hit the floor when I heard the steward tell the master how much this bozo’s debt was: 10,000 talents.  10,000 talents!  Can you believe it?  The master couldn’t!  He was angry, I can tell you.  And you know, I think the guy spent all of it.  I have no idea where, you could buy a whole kingdom with that kind of money.  Remember how he’s been calling in the debts us other slaves owe him for the last few months?

So, like I said, the master was already really angry, I think because the steward never told him about the debt.  Then this guy said he didn’t have the money to pay it back.  So the master, he stands up, turns red and starts shouting at the guy.  Then he tells the steward to sell him, his wife, his kids and everything he owns to repay the debt, not that the few thousand denarii you’d get for the sale would do any good against a debt like that!

What’s amazing is this guy is as cheeky as ever.  He falls down on his knees and starts worshipping the master – worshipping him!  I mean, I never saw a bigger suck up in my life.  He grovels, pleads for mercy, tears running down his cheeks, grabs the master’s knees, said he’d name his oldest son after the master, kisses his feet, the whole bit.  Yeah, can you believe it?  I wanted to poke a stick in the guy, the whole thing was absolutely nauseating.

What’s worse, the master buys this guys act. He eats it up!  Really!!  We all knew the master wasn’t the brightest lamp on the block, but come on!

Then comes the part you just won’t believe: the master goes ahead (and I think probably went soft in the head) and forgives the guy’s debt.  The whole thing!  Every last bit of it, down to the last mite!  … And the guy just gets up and walks out of there without a word, and what does our master do?  Nothing!  He just smiles, lets him go, and starts reviewing the accounts of the next guy in line.

Ah, but then the good part.  A little later, after my turn, I went to have lunch in the shade, you know, where everybody hangs out under the fig tree over by the far wall of the barnyard?  And here comes that guy, the one who’d had his debt forgiven.  You should have seen him! …And we thought he was bad before!  The guy was acting like he was the master!  Kicking the old woman and making her give him the best spot; then taking the best piece of meat away from her, too.  I could hardly stand being in the same province with the guy!

Yeah, I know –hold on, I’m coming to it!

Then the guy who just had a baby comes up.  You know, he had a rough time the last few months, his wife was sick while she was pregnant, and he had a real hard time scraping together enough money to pay the physician.  Now he’s trying to do both his job and his wife’s because she’s not up to working yet, and the steward isn’t giving him or his family any slack.

Well, the new father gets his lunch and sits down.  Then this other guy, the one with the swelled head, goes over, grabs the new father with both hands and hauls him to his feet.  He starts yelling at him, cursing, choking him, and demands that the new father pay him back what he owes him – 100 denarii – right now.  I was like, be real!  It may not be as big as that stuck up guy’s debt was, but nobody carries that much money around with them!  It’d take any one of us years to pay back a debt that big!  What was Mr. Fat Head thinking, that he was the master?  Unbelievable!

The new father didn’t have that much money either, of course.  So, this guy, he throws him in prison until he can pay the debt.  Now, how’s that going to help?  Not to mention that when the steward finds out he’s in prison and that neither he nor his wife are working in the field, then the stuff is really going to hit the wall, if you take my meaning.

That guy’s fun didn’t last long though.  We all ran up to the house – really! We ran into main hall where the master was, and told him what had happened – yeah, me too.  I don’t know what we were thinking, the master could have whipped or tortured us for coming to the house, let alone interrupting his meal like that.  But, when he heard the story, he got mad like we were afraid he might, but (praise the Lord) not at us!  He had the steward go out and drag that guy into the hall.

Then the master said “You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?”

He didn’t say a thing.  I mean, really, what could the guy say?  Then the master handed him over to the torturers until he could pay back everything he owed him.

Good riddance, but I wonder: I mean, we all knew this guy was a real nut job.  Yet, the whole thing is just too bizarre.  Running up a 10,000 talent debt, and the master didn’t even know, then forgiving the guy?  Then the idiot goes ahead and acts like he’s the master!  I mean, what did he think was going to happen when the master found out about that? And so, when we tell the master about it, he tortures the guy – no surprise there!

But, the master doesn’t even try to reclaim the debt.  Torturing him until he can pay it back? … Never going to happen: that guy’s gonna be in a world of hurt for a long, long time!

You know, the master would’ve done better if he’d just sold the guy and his family, like he said he’d do at first.  I just don’t get it.

 

Copyright (c) 2010, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).

Healthcare and Battle Fatigue

I may not be a conservative Republican, but I do respect and admire the opinions of thoughtful, balanced writers, no matter what their political stance. David Frum’s recent CNN column is a very well written and persuasive commentary on the damage the Republican party has done to itself in the healthcare battle, as well as some well reasoned suggestions as to where to go from here.

I agree with Mr. Frum on most of his points.  Healthcare is an accomplished fact, and the Republican leadership needs to accept that and move on.  Attempts to derail the legislation after it is signed into law may well have far-reaching negative consequences for the country as well as for the Republican party.  As Frum says, a more productive and probably more favorably received (by the voters) strategy would be to pass laws to fix those portions of the new legislation that are the most troublesome from a Republican point of view.  Blindly attacking the entire legislation is a strategy that is very high risk and which has already failed (probably at great cost to the Republican Party), and continuing to do so may well have additional major side effects.

I find it disingenious, for instance, that former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is denouncing the new legislation as unconstitutional due to it’s requiring all citizens of the US to sign up for healthcare or face fines.  He seems to have forgotten that he was governor when the system upon which the new Federal Law was based became law here in Massachusetts, legislation that he championed as a bipartisan victory, and for which he lauded the Late Senator Ed Kennedy’s assistance in making it possible.  Does he think Democrats will forget this in the upcoming election cycle?  Romney’s claim will be great ammunition for any Democrat running against a Republican who makes the constitutionality of the new law an issue.

I also wonder, in this rash of Republican State Attorney Generals filing lawsuits to get the law declared unconstitutional even before it has been signed by Obama, if anyone has considered the consequences of such a legal victory (should it ever happen)?

If the U.S. Supreme Court were to decide that Federal Government programs forcing citizens to get insurance are unconstitutional, then does this impact Social Security, which is another Federal Insurance program that all citizens are required to sign-up for?

If not, then it will be because the new legislation forces citizens to sign up for private insurance, not a government program.  This will leave Republicans with the option of either taking responsibility for ditching healthcare reform entirely – not likely to win them many friends when millions of formerly uninsured Americans instantly lose their newly acquired protections; or else they will need to create a government sponsored insurance plan in its place – the very thing they spent lots of time and effort demonizing the current legislation for!

Finally, there is the issue of “battle fatigue”.  You can’t keep on whipping up the rank and file of your party into a frenzy on every major issue, especially if you keep on coming back to them with nothing to show for it.  Eventually they’ll get burned out and turn their back on you, or else they’ll go and look for someone else who is actually able to get things done.  As Frum says, the “All or Nothing” approach the Republican leadership is currently using is a negative, short term, high risk approach.  It is not a long term, strategic plan for positive change.  It can be effective, but is a weapon that gets “blunt” very quickly.

Frum’s column is one I think Liberals and Conservatives, Democrats and Republicans should read.  He raises issues and questions about the new legislation that all of our representatives in Washington should seriously consider, and not just dismiss out of hand, or sweep aside in favor of a broad attack upon the entire package.

Liberals take note: there is intelligence on the other side of the fence!

Copyright (c) 2010, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

The Unseen

When I lived in Belmont, MA I would often see an old man – big beard, thick graying hair (though going a little thin on the top) with a Mediterranean-looking complexion. He usually stood near the exit of the store: not saying anything, just standing there. His clothes were neat, but obviously old and worn. Yet, no one saw him. Yet, no one saw him: he was ignored as if he didn’t exist. His face, stoic as it was, always seemed to me to be filled with a hurt pride: doing what he had to do to survive, yet once having lived a life far better than the one he has now.

A few Sundays ago, at the beginning of Advent, I was asked to give the “Childrens’ Message” at my church – appropriate (or ironic, depending on how you look at it) since at the time, my son was due to be born any day.  I warned my fellow worship leaders that this might interfere with my being there — making it difficult for me to give the Childrens’ Message!  I said that if it happened, I would be invisible (even though everyone would know why), but that I would be “present in spirit”.

Yet, there is another kind of invisibility: the invisibility of those who are unseen.

When I lived in Belmont I would shop at the supermarket at Belmont Ave and Mt Auburn Road, not far from “Mt Auburn Cemetery” where so many notable Americans have been buried.  While shopping there, I would often see an old man – big beard, thick graying hair (though going a little thin on the top) with a Mediterranean-looking complexion.  He usually stood near the exit of the store: not saying anything, just standing there.  His clothes were neat, but obviously old and worn.  Yet, no one saw him: he was ignored as if he didn’t exist.   His face, stoic as it was, always seemed to me to be filled with a hurt pride: doing what he had to do to survive, yet once having lived a life far better than the one he has now.

Not many people think about it, but there is an abandoned railroad spur that runs behind that store: it starts as a branch off of the “Red Line” near Alewife, runs behind Fresh Pond Mall, through Fresh Pond Park, past many industrial buildings and Mt. Auburn Cemetery, before it dead ends at the Lexus dealership near the Arsenal in Watertown.  It is heavily overgrown, with at least four bridges where it passes under major roads.

Such an overgrown area in the middle of suburbia is a perfect hideaway for the homeless: trees, old buildings and overpasses provide excellent shelter.  Recycle and trash bins provide excellent foraging for cans and bottles to redeem at the supermarket.  (I often see the homeless in the area: pushing grocery carts piled-high with cans, bottles, and their worldly possessions, searching in our garbage cans anything that they can use or redeem.)

These are the real “invisible” people: living right alongside us, sometimes sleeping just a few yards from our bedroom windows, but we never see them, we never acknowledge them, we never engage with them.  — Just like that old man I saw so many times at the Shaws in Belmont.

In this Holiday season, we often talk about how Jesus, the babe is a gift from God to the world.  (…John 3:16!)  Yet, we often forget that this gift is to the world, not just us.  That world includes the homeless, the hungry, the poor.  Also, the gift wasn’t “stuff” rather, God gave of himself.

I’m reminded of another poor man I once knew – “Old George” – who had just enough money from his Social Security Check to pay his rent, and that was all.  He survived as so many of the poor in this area survive – scrounging tin cans and bottles so that he could buy food.  He was renowned for being verbally abusive and mean to people, but he changed.  The change came not because he got more money or was given more “stuff” but because someone I knew invited him to lunch.  She befriended him, and saw him as a person.  She gave of herself, her own time: showing him that he mattered, that he wasn’t just a forgotten and poor old man.

As the friendship with him continued, he began to take the love and friendship he was receiving and “spread it around” to others.  The thing that changed him as a person is that he learned that someone cared.  So, in this Christmas season I ask myself: how am I showing that “I care” to those around me?  How will that old man at the Shaws Market in Belmont know that he matters to God, unless I show him – as Jesus taught us to do?

Next time I’m in that neighborhood, I’ll seek him out and say “Hi, my name’s Allen: what’s your name?”

I wonder if he’ll be hungry.

 

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).

For Unto Us

It is with great pleasure that I tell you that my son, Allen Vander Meulen IV, was born on December 9 at 1:15am.  As for his vital statistics, his weight was 7 lbs, 12 oz and he is 20.5 inches long.

“Junior” is a very happy, peaceful baby boy – very much like my daughter was at that age.  In fact, about the only thing dimming the beauty and wonder of this occasion is that the relationship with my daughter is still broken.

I very much want her little brother to get to know her – I am certain he will grow up to be as fine and wonderful a person as she is.  I will be just as proud of him and love him no less (and no more) than I am proud-of and love my daughter.

Oh, THAT Prayer!

A Classmate gave a sermon in “Preaching Class” that made me realize how my current experience parallels that of Zachariah (the father of John the Baptist, in the Gospel of Luke) in some ways, and how thankful I am for the grace of God in my life.

In “preaching” class recently, a fellow student gave a message that was deeply moving and poignant.  The text was Luke 1, the story of Zachariah, father of John the Baptist.  She talked about how Zachariah had been chosen to burn incense on the altar in the Temple and pray.  Then, an angel appeared and said “your prayers are answered.”

Then she asked “which prayers were being answered?”  At the time, Zachariah was praying as part of a public ritual, he was not praying solely for himself.  He must have done a double-take, thinking “Oh, THAT prayer!” when the Angel said “Elizabeth will have a son” instead of saying something like “the Messiah is coming and Israel will be restored.”

Zachariah was old, as was his wife.  Would they have bothered talking about wanting a child to anyone, any more?  Was that long-unanswered prayer one that they only thought-about in the dark hours of the night, when sleep could not find them, when (as my classmate said) they stared at the empty spot in the corner where they had once hoped a cradle, someday, would be?

These are the types of prayers that we hide and bury down deep because we can no longer bear saying them out loud.  Was God answering a prayer that Zachariah had given up-on himself?

His response to Gabriel seems to indicate this was the case: “How will I know this for certain?”  At this point in the sermon, a whole train of thought hit me: All those unanswered prayers of my own broke upon me, and I completely lost track of the rest of her message.

All of us can identify with Zachariah’s “hidden prayers” all too well.  We have all spent many lonely nights, remembering those earnest prayers that never seem to have been answered.  And yet here, those hopes were answered in an unexpected way, at an unexpected time: Zachariah was completely unprepared for it.  What can his story teach us?

First, God’s timing is not ours.  Zachariah had given up on his hidden prayers being fulfilled.  There was no longer any reasonable expectation that they could be:  Zachariah certainly didn’t expect it, nor did I when my own such prayers were answered.

Second, that God’s means of fulfilling those hidden and buried prayers is not ours.  If someone, on July 9, 2005, had told me that my life would be anything like where I am today, I’d have (bitterly) laughed in their face: at the time I felt that all of my life’s prayers were beyond reach, any hope of attaining them gone forever.  Yet, a day later, my feet were firmly on the path to the life I have now.  Like Zachariah, the change was sudden, startling, and irrevocable.  For me, the path forward was not clear, nor was there any certainity to it, but I knew that the path forward could only be far better than where I had been.

Third, that attaining the fulfillment of those hidden prayers is not easy – even once the door opens.  There was a high cost, at least for me and Zachariah.  Yet, I don’t think either of us would think about paying it all over again if we had to.  For us, every step of that journey has been worth it.  In Zachariah’s case, it was the birth of a son.  For me, it has been a whole multitude of things, not the least of which is my wife, my new (and restored) family, and the opportunity to pursue the career that itself had been a hidden prayer for many years.

Finally, the journey is not done.  The need for God’s grace and presence didn’t end with Zachariah’s naming his son “John”.  Although we are not told the rest the story, I am certain that John’s walk towards becoming a Prophet was marked by unnumbered examples of God’s grace and guidance, and that his parents were on their knees frequently: thanking God and praying for their son.  In my own case, a similar journey is one of several that are just beginning for me.

Other “hidden prayers” remain in my own life, as in all of our lives.  For me, one unanswered prayer that I think about every day, if not several times a day,  is seeing the relationship with my daughter healed and restored: a hidden hurt that has become all the more poignant for me, now that her brother’s birth is imminent.  I pray that the gulf between us is somehow bridged, so that I can at least know that my constant prayers for her safety and happiness are being answered.

But, maybe those prayers aren’t as hidden and forgotten as we think: from Zachariah’s example, we know that those prayers are not hidden from God, and so that hope of their fulfillment never needs to die.  But, we can also be sure that God will fulfill them in a way and time of His own choosing, not ours.  So, I will also remember what Romans 8:6 teaches us: “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.”  If we focus on worldly means of achieving our prayers, as Zachariah and I did, those hopes will die.  But, by staying focused on the inner witness of God’s Love for us, we will have peace even when all worldly hope is gone.

 

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).

Amen!

Why No Fence? (The Prequel)

Further reflections on why and how the Bible seems to be saying that our ability to have a relationship with God is inextricably tied-to our mortality.

The musings below initiated the train of thought that led to the writing of my previous posting, the sermon entitled “Why No Fence?”.  So, I’ve posted this article to give some additional background on the sermon and it’s theological / philosophical perspective.  Also, I just recently learned that a dear friend of mine (that I’ve tried to contact several times over the last couple of years) passed away in June, 2007 – which makes this an appropriate time to reflect on this subject again.

Reading “George’s” “My Wife has Cancer Blog” (http://themywifehascancerblog.blogspot.com/) has been thought-provoking.  I often reflect on how cruel and heartless the world can be.  Yet, what is also true is that this world is filled with beauty, beauty which we often find in unexpected places, as George’s reflections show us.

Recently, I’ve thought a lot about the implications of Eternal Life.  Something which YHWH denied us after Adam and Eve (meaning “we”) ate of the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil”.

To me, what Eternal Life means is that time no longer matters.  For someone who has Eternal Life, no day is any more, or less, valuable than any other.  Such people are (in essence) immortal: they have infinite time to complete unfinished business, correct mistakes, or finish their “to do” list.  So, what value would any day (or century) have?  Could love and beauty exist in a world without time?  Many writers have thought on this…

Jonathan Swift in “Gulliver’s Travels” imagines an immortal race called the Struldbrugs.  But, they do not have eternal youth: their bodies eventually age to the point where every breath is torment – yet, they cannot die.  Immortality for a Struldbrug is a curse, not a gift.

In “Lord of The Rings”, J.R.R. Tolkien has a race with eternally youthful bodies: the elves.  Yet immortality is still a burden:  They are a people not quite in tune with the world, a “vision of the elder days living in the present”.  A people whose bodies do not age, but who have an inescapable sadness because they know that everything they build, everything they know, will eventually pass away – and they cannot stop it.  They are doomed to outlive everything they love.  They cannot escape from the past and live fully in the present.

Science Fiction author Robert H. Heinlein imagined immortality through technology.  In “Time Enough For Love” Lazarus Long is the oldest human: a man who is “rejuvenated” whenever old age afflicts him.  Yet, Lazarus tired of life.  Like the elves, Lazarus outlived everything he loved.  Heinlein also pointed out that our brains are not infinite: If we live long enough, like Lazarus, we run out of room for new memories.  Even if that weren’t a problem, our memories get cluttered and disorganized with age.  (Lazarus complains about hunting all morning for a book, only to realize he’d put it down a century ago.)  Through Lazarus we see that even with youthful bodies, our minds (and spirits) will still age.

Heinlein’s Lazarus had his mind “washed” of old memories to make room for new ones, but then asks what good is immortality when memory no longer links you with who you once where?  Immortality is a burden for Lazarus because he outlives his youth, and because of the broken connection between his present and his past.

Mortality makes time precious: every day is a gift that cannot be recaptured.  The flip side of this is that we cannot go back and make different choices when things don’t turn out as we hoped.  We cannot choose to avoid the pain that is the inevitable result of the choice to love (…hence the title of Heinlein’s book).

In the end, we need to ask ourselves  whether it is worth it: to live a life like that of Lazarus, or the elves, or the Struldbrugs, or the timeless existence Adam and Eve had before they ate of the fruit.

What I believe is that the choice to eat of the fruit is what allowed Adam and Eve to choose to have a relationship with God.  This fruit represents the choice to have choices – an essential first step.  It is the choice we must make if we do not want to remain in endless existence as a creature without choices.  That tree’s fruit was the “escape hatch” – the First Choice – that enabled us to have the Second Choice – of whether to Love God (or not).

So, while I am not eager to come to the end of my mortal existence, and know that the end will probably include pain and suffering, the tradeoff is that I have a life that is worth living.  A life where I can have a relationship with God.

Genesis says to me that God gave us mortality because God wants a relationship with us, and knows what is best for us.  So, I know that our mortality, and that of those we love, is a gift, part of God’s plan.  Just like time, if our relationships were never-ending, they would have no value to us: love would have no value to us.

This does not eliminate or even alleviate the pain and hardships of life, but knowing that mortality is necessary for love and life to have value, and that it is all part of God’s plan, gives me the strength I need to endure such things when they come, and the ability to appreciate and rejoice-in the beauty and love that are in this world.  Amen!

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

Why No Fence?

Many people focus on the “fall from sin” aspect of the “second creation narrative” in Genesis chapters 2 & 3. But, a question we never ask is “Why was the tree there in the first place?” This sermon provides a possible answer to that question, and the implications of such an answer.

Below is the text of a sermon I gave in a class at Theological School on 11/19/2009.  The scripture is Genesis 2:7-9; 2:15-17 & 3:1-7, which recounts the creation of the Garden of  Eden and the eating of the fruit of the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” by Adam and Eve, up to the point where they are “ashamed”, sew fig leaves together to “cover their nakedness” and then try to hide from God.  The reading includes only those scripture verses pertinent to the sermon – others, such as those describing the rivers that flowed out of the Garden of Eden, are omitted.

Many of my readers with a strong knowledge of the Bible will note – and some will probably object – to my using “she” when referring to God, as well as to the use of the name “Yahweh” instead of using only the more traditional consonants (YHWH) or phrase “Lord God”.   I use the name “Yahweh” and pronoun “she” very intentionally here: to emphasize that YHWH as shown in this story is seen as a very personal, relationship oriented sort of God (wouldn’t you know the name of a very personal acquaintance or friend?) and to emphasize that Yahweh’s attributes seen in the scripture we examine here are often traditionally associated with the feminine.

Why No Fence?

You know, the story of Adam and Eve is a great story, but it’s always bothered me.  I mean, come on: if the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil were so darned important, why didn’t God put a fence around it?  I mean seriously: even if the man and woman obeyed, I could easily see one of their kids or grandkids, or great-grandkids “forgetting” and taking a bite.  Without a fence, someone was bound to slip-up eventually.  So, why run the risk?

On the other hand, there was no penalty for eating of the Tree of Life – until we slipped up.  Was God trying to trick us?

Well, let’s step back for a minute and consider the text as a whole.  This particular story, the second of the two “creation narratives” at the start of Genesis, belongs to the “Jahwistic” tradition: identified primarily by its use of the name “Yahweh” when referring to God.

In this narrative, Yahweh is a very hands-on sort of God: unlike the “Priestly” God that we see in the first narrative (in Genesis 1).  God (in Genesis 1) “spoke” the world into being, hovered over the waters and said “Let there be light!”, but Yahweh (In Genesis 2 & 3) doesn’t command things into being, Yahweh gets down and dirty: She lovingly forms us with her own hands, then gently breathes the breath of life into our nostrils.

Yahweh is concerned for us personally, saying “it is not good that the man is alone” and created the woman.  Yahweh isn’t a distant, hands off God.  She talks face to face with the us.  The man and woman, we are told, “heard the sound of Yahweh walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.”  Yahweh works, walks, talks and breathes.  Yahweh is a very human God.  Yahweh is a very personal God.  Yahweh is a God of Relationship.  Yahweh is a God of Love.

So, what does the type of God that Yahweh is have to do with all this?  Why wasn’t there even a “keep off the tree” warning sign?  Why was it left unguarded, tempting us?

First: its clear God was not trying to trick us.  Nowhere in the Bible is there a case where God “tricks us”.  True, there are many places where God tests us, but such tests are always explicit, never hidden – never a trap.  As James 1:13 states, God never seeks to “ensnare us”.  Yahweh did not “trick” us into eating of that tree.

Still, there had to be a reason for no fence!  My hunch is that it has something to do with the kind of God that Yahweh is.

What kind of relationship can you have if you have no choice about it?  Sure, you can have relationships with a doll, or a toy, or a computer – but they don’t have any choice in the matter, do they?  Such relationships don’t have much going for them because you control both sides of the interaction.  There is no synergy, no freshness, no exploration, no intimacy, no growth. They are relationships that give nothing back.  They are relationships without a future.

If Yahweh controlled every aspect of our relationship with her (which she could easily do), we wouldn’t be much different from that doll, or that toy, or that computer.  At best, we’d be a kind of pet: cuddled, fed and watered, but not an equal, not in charge of our own destiny.

We need a real choice as to whether we will have a relationship with Yahweh.  The fence can’t be there – if it is, we’d never have a choice.  To have a meaningful relationship with God, we have to choose to have it: it cannot be forced upon us.

But, let’s not forget about the other tree, the Tree of Life: it has a role in this story, too.  The Tree of Life was no big deal to the man and the woman.  There were no rules concerning it – Yahweh doesn’t even mention it to them.  It was just another tree – over there, next to the “Knowledge of Good and Evil” one.  There was no reason why they wouldn’t have eaten of it all the time.  They had eternal life in the bag (at least, as long as they hung out in the garden)!

But, we don’t even know how long they were in the Garden.  If you think about it – what would it matter?  With Eternal Life, and no experience with death, time was an unlimited commodity for them: every day was just that – simply another day – one of an infinite number.  There was no need to count them, no need to keep track of them, no need to worry about them.  With Eternal Life, time meant nothing.  It was not a precious commodity.  Phrases like “saving time”, “making time” or even “wasting time” – all of which you and I hear every day – were meaningless.  The man and woman never ran out of time, they never gave time a thought.

Yet, they certainly made choices all the time – whether and what to eat, when to sleep, but their choices were never about the future – they were always about immediate things: after all, they didn’t even worry about what to wear!   They never considered the consequences of their choices, they couldn’t – they hadn’t eaten of the fruit.  They existed purely, and eternally, in the present.  In a sense, they had no future, because their future was identical to their present, and to their past.

In this timeless world, Yahweh was … just there: there was no choice as to whether we wanted a relationship with God – or not.  Without meaningful choice, there was no meaningful relationship.  Yet, Yahweh is a God of Relationship: She would not have created us without providing a path for us to choose to have a meaningful relationship.  There had to be a way to escape eternity.

Let’s call that escape-path the “First Choice” – the choice of whether to eat of the fruit – or not.  But, we had no knowledge of Good and Evil.  Or, to put it another way, we never had to choose between Good and Evil.  We never had to deal with the consequences of making choices.  Good and Evil are always the outcome of choices.  Good and Evil cannot exist unless there are choices, choices with consequences.  That tree is all about knowing the possible consequences of our actions, about choosing between what is Good and what is Bad, about knowing the difference.

Eating of that Tree was the only thing in the Garden for which we’d been told there was a consequence – “In the day you eat of it, you shall die.”  Yet, the man and woman did not know what a “consequence” was: Yahweh was speaking way over their heads: a specific day?  Time?  Death?  What’s that?  I’m sure the man and woman thought: “Hmmm, sounds bad, let’s not go there!”  Time was infinite, so why rush? Why push the boundaries?  Why risk change?

Yet, there was a reason.  The serpent knew what it was: they would “become like God, knowing Good and Evil.”  Eating that fruit meant we’d learn new things: we’d escape from merely existing.  Something new would happen in the never ending cycle of days.  But, to do so, we had to be willing to face what we had never known: change.  We would have to experience limited time, we would have to experience death.

Yahweh knew we would eat of that fruit when we had outgrown the Garden, when we were ready for change.  She did not tell us we’d be cursed if we ate of that fruit, She told us change would happen, that things would be different.  The endless sameness would go away.  We would step into a world where we would have to make choices, we would be able to envision the consequences of our choices, and we would see our choices making a difference in the world: consequences we would have to live with – for Better or Poorer.

Our relationship with Yahweh would change from a one sided, limited relationship to a full one, a two way relationship: one capable of growth and change, one that would produce fruit.  Eating of the fruit marked the point where we changed from being one creature among many, to being capable of having a real relationship with Yahweh.  We escaped from eternity.

Now, we can’t say this escape was all good!  Having choices means we have to live with the choices we make.  We’ll inevitably make bad choices, and will be faced with situations where even the best choice is not good.  It means pain.  It means loss.  It means death.  (I could go on, but would rather not do two sermons at one time!)

But, most importantly, having choices is part of Yahweh’s plan for us.  As we saw: Yahweh is a God of Relationship.  To have relationship with her means being allowed to chose to have a relationship with her.  To make that choice required the man and the woman to make the first choice, of whether to eat the fruit: the choice to have choices.

We cannot Love Yahweh through a fence: we first had to be allowed to escape eternity.  We had to be able to make choices that mattered.  We had to have the choice to Love.

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

Thoughts on Ecclesiastes, the Second Great Commandment, and Homosexuality

I lived in the mid 1980’s with a man who – unknown to me at the time – was gay.  “John” was a broken, hurting, hiding individual – filled with conflict and deeply buried anger over who he was vs. who his church and his family and society as a whole expected him to be.  His own sense of self and self-worth was so deeply hidden under layers of self-deception, self-loathing and fear that it never surfaced in the time I knew him.  Compulsive and self-destructive behaviors filled his life: a vicious circle of turmoil and pain that he could not escape.

Conservative Christians focus on the Old Testament’s condemnations of homosexuality, especially verses like Leviticus 18:22  – “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable (NIV).”  Yet, Leviticus also condemns the eating of shellfish as “detestable” (Lev 11:10).  So, should we stone to death everyone coming out of “Red Lobster”?

Both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures condemn homosexuality to some extent.  Many argue this was because the ancient Jews lived in a world that had no room to care for (or even tolerate) people that we would have labelled as “unproductive members of society”, though the ancient Jews did not think in those terms (nor am I suggesting homosexuality falls into that category).  In that ancient time, homosexuality may have been seen as a behavior that was unproductive in terms of the critical need to sustain the culture through procreation.  It might also have been seen as an activity that threatened the status quo /or and gender roles within the culture.  Who knows?  Whatever the reasoning, it was seen as a threat to the community’s ability to survive in a world where the margin of survival was very thin.  Such threats therefore had to be dealt with firmly, if not harshly – since that same slim margin made less harsh punishments – such as prisons – impractical, if not impossible.

Homosexuality in the early Christian era was apparently not condemned of itself.  But, it is clear that it was often an expression of power and dominance or lust, not of love.  The New Testament has much to say in its condemnation of the misuse of power and wealth in many different dimensions and venues of life at that time.  So, is homosexuality itself being condemned by Paul and others, or its use as to express dominance?

Progressive Christians therefore question whether laws against homosexuality have a place in the modern world, a world where the challenge is not that of making sure enough children are born to carry on the culture, but is one of having too many: leading to the destruction of resources critical to our survival as a species.  Yet, in throwing out some Biblical teachings as outmoded or irrelevant, we need to be very careful: it would be too easy to throw out everything we don’t like if we pursue such a path.

A friend of mine once encapsulated the issue by asking me this question: “If someone close to you said they were planning to marry someone of the same gender, what would you do?”  My natural inclination and Jesus’ “Second Great Commandment” (in Matthew 22:36, where he quotes Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”) both tell me I should take the approach of love: accept them for who they are and wish them and their partner happiness in their life together.

Although homosexuality was only one of the factors contributing to his problems, if “John” had seen such love in his life, perhaps he would have had the inner peace he needed to build a meaningful and productive life for himself.  His inner torment and outward pain are evidence that we (as a society, as well as individually) failed to treat him as the Bible teaches us.

Another challenge is the teaching of “hate the sin but love the sinner” that many have adopted as their attitude towards homosexuality.  To me, this is hypocritical: if we criticize someone’s lifestyle or sexual orientation as a “sin,” how can we say that we “love” them unless we’re saying we accept them with a hidden agenda: that we want to change them into something they’re not?

We need to remember the conclusion to book of Ecclesiastes’ in the Hebrew Scriptures: “Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.”  This verse has two messages relevant to this discussion:

First, we all have a duty to keep the commandments as best we can, realizing – as the Teacher in Ecclesiastes did – that we can never fully succeed.  Also, Jesus taught us to not judge one another, and it was for this very reason: we all do the best we can, and have no right, nor sufficient wisdom or knowledge, to judge others in God’s place.  Since I know that I am not perfect, and will never be so (in this life, anyway), this plus Jesus’ Second Great Commandment teaches me I need to accept my neighbor for who they are, someone just as imperfect as myself: both of us trying to make sense of the world in which we live, and our place in it.

Second, hidden sin is no different than visible sin: a hidden agenda is hurtful, as it requires you to be false to another – requiring the relationship to be built on a false foundation.  I am certain God will judge such behavior more harshly than homosexuality, which, in the modern context of being a behavior shared by two consenting adults, hurts no one.  (Some will question this statement, noting that the Christian Scripture’s Book of Romans makes clear that God judges all “sin” equally.  But, what I’m saying is that homosexuality is not necessarily a sin at all.)

In fact, since Jesus constantly taught about how we are called to love one another across gaps that others claim cannot be bridged, why would homosexuality be any different? If anything, it would seem that being brave and caring enough to love another in the face of the judgment of the world around you is right up Jesus’ alley.  Some will say “Jesus was not talking about sex!”  Hmmm, maybe.  But, do not forget that sex is but one component of the many facets of the deep and healthy and loving relationship that can exist between two people.  Why are we trying to separate one aspect of that type of relationship out as “wrong” when approving of all the others?  Especially since Jesus never spoke against homosexuality himself?

Therefore, I know that I am being consistent with the teachings and spirit of the Bible when I conclude that I am to be concerned only about whether someone is living a productive and balanced life; and what I should (or can) do to support them in that regard.  A person’s sexual orientation is an issue only if they are not at peace with it themselves, or if it harms others.

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).