Thursday, March 26, 2020

Fourth Sunday of Lent, Psalm Series, "Prophets of a future not our own," March 22, 2020.

A Lent 4 Psalm 90 BFC 2020
Psalm 90
March 22, 2020

          Several years ago, you may remember seeing the “Pass It On” billboards about Randy Pausch.  They read, “Wrote book on living while dying.  Motivation.  Pass it on.”  I had no knowledge of Pausch before I saw those billboards.  Randy Pausch was a professor at Carnegie-Mellon University who contracted pancreatic cancer that then spread into his liver. In August of 2007, he was given a terminal diagnosis with three to six months to live. 
He became most well-known for a lecture, after that terminal diagnosis, traditionally given at Carnegie-Mellon, hypothetically titled, “The Last Lecture.”  “The Last Lecture” was so named because professors were asked to speak at the university as if it were the last lecture before they died.  In a stirring speech titled, “How to Achieve Your Childhood Dreams,” that lasted well over an hour, Pausch’s last lecture was not so hypothetical. 
In “How to Achieve Your Childhood Dreams,” he spoke of walls being put in our way not to prevent us from getting something but to determine how much we want whatever that something is.  Pausch referenced his parents and the great childhood he had had because they were people who believed in fun and wonder no matter what their age. He showed slides of his dad on a roller coaster in his 80s and his mother lapping him on a go-cart track. 
He spoke of how his mother and father carried with them a sense of humility.   After his father’s death, Pausch’s mother discovered, in going through his father’s things, that he had earned the bronze star for valor in the Battle of the Bulge.  She discovered this after 50 years of marriage.  His mom encouraged that kind of humility every time Randy Pausch would remark how hard his Ph.D. work was, “Yes, honey, we know how you feel.  At your age, your dad was fighting the Nazis.” 
Here are the other lessons Pausch shared:  Care more about your child’s creativity rather than proper place and fastidious cleanliness.
 His parents also taught him to value people over things. 
How to achieve your childhood dreams.  Work and play well with others and have integrity.  Help others.  Wait long enough and people will surprise and impress you. Loyalty is a two-way street.
You can’t get there alone. 
In order to get others to help you, you must carry these things with you.  Tell the truth.  Be earnest.  Apologize well.  Show gratitude.  Focus on others.  Get a feedback loop and listen to it.
Work hard.  Be good at something--it makes you valuable.  Be prepared.
What he repeated throughout his lecture was to have fun.  Have fun even while you are dying. 
If you are going to do anything that is pioneering, Pausch said, you will take arrows in the back.  Expect it.  Act like it doesn’t matter.  He owned a vest with arrows in the back of it to remind him of that truth.
You have to decide whether you will be a Tigger or an Eeyore, he said.  You can spend time complaining or playing the game hard.[1] 
Pausch died less than a year later in July 2008.
Psalm 90 begins with an attribution to Moses.  Not that the psalm is authored by Moses, but implied within it is an encouragement to see the world from Moses’s point of view.  Within the psalm are those overtures which make it clear why the name of Moses would have been invoked.  Moses was the intercessor before God, who, when God’s anger and wrath were kindled against the people, stepped in, told God to take the long view, to take a step back, and remember that if these people are killed in the wilderness, the Egyptians will laugh.  “Look,” they will say, Moses entreated the Almighty, “their God took them out to a hard and bitter land and then offed them.  Who really wants to worship a God like that?”  And so, the story goes, God relented. 
           In Psalm 90, the psalmnist recognizes the anger and wrath of God and how this leads to the transience of life.  We are turned back to the adamah, the dust, the fertile topsoil.  God’s anger and wrath undoes creation.  We only have so many days. 
           Recognizing that reality, the plea is not to avoid the human condition.  Rather, we are to count the days.  It is to know that even Moses runs out of time.  He never gets to the promised land.  For what is the stretch of human life, like grass that will soon be swept away?  We have 70 years, the psalmnist says, 80 if we are strong and hardy.  Human time is not God’s time.   So because your days are counted in trust with the everlasting purposes of God, they have meaning. 
           Verse 12, according to the New Revised Standard Version translation, reads, “So teach us to count our days so that we may have a wise heart.”  Probably a better paraphrase of the Hebrew would be, “God, teach us to make each day count, to reflect on the fact that we must die, and so become wise.”  Or another paraphrase, “Teach us to live day by day” or “one day at a time.”  “In short, to receive our allotted time as a gift from God and to live our lives to the fullest every single day is what a ‘wise heart’ is all about.”[2]
           Clearly, from the deep resonance people experienced with Randy Pausch’s last lecture, he had developed a wise heart.  During his lecture, he even referred to the educational work he had done and said that he was much like Moses, the fruition of his work in virtual worlds as something he would not see in his lifetime.  He would never get to see the completion of the work he had started.
           That, in the end, is the major point of Psalm 90.  In recognizing the transience of life, we gain a wisdom that allows us to make each day count.  We invest in everlasting things, the things that God values, the things that cannot be accomplished in one lifetime.  In so doing, we pray as Psalm 90 ends, that God would prosper, make last, the work of our hands.  There is that word again from Psalm 1, “prosper”, to be about shalom—wholeness, connectedness, and peace.
Randy Pausch ends his lecture by saying the lecture was not really about how to achieve your dreams.  That was a head fake.   The lecture was about how to lead your life.  It really wasn’t for his students.  It was for his three children.  His “last lecture” was about investing in something that was beyond the span of his short life. 
My hope and prayer is that here and in your homes and in your community that is the church called Billings First Congregational Church, you have heard me saying again and again, “What’s your five year plan?” as a way of encouraging all of us to invest in a wider vision, an everlasting vision, that we might not just limp along surviving but thrive for years to come.  In keeping with Randy Pausch, I share a prayer written by Ken Untener written to commemorate the life of Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of El Salvador, one of my heroes in faith:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.  The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. 

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.

Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us . . .

This is what we are about. 

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. 

We lay foundations that will need further development. 

We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities. 

We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. 

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. 

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. 

We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future that is not our own.[3]

May we plant ourselves, like a tree, by streams of God’s goodness, kindness, and justice.  May God prosper the work of Billings First Congregational Church, even beyond each of our lives, from everlasting to everlasting.  May we take the long view—so that we shall not be moved.  Amen.

[1] Randy Pausch, “Last Lecture:  Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” TED Talk, September 18, 2007, 
[2] J. Clinton McCann, Jr., Great Psalms of the Bible (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 108.
[3] Bishop Ken Untener, Saginaw, Michigan, November 1979,

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Second Sunday of Lent, Psalm Series, "Created to be powerful, capable, connected," March 8, 2020

A Lent 2 Psalm 8 BFC 2020
Psalm 8
March 8, 2020

          A little under six years ago, I gave my candidating sermon at Billings First Congregational Church.  In that sermon, I spoke of human-induced climate disruption and quoted environmental activist and Harvard Divinity school graduate, Tim DeChristopher who asked for hard deeds.  I quoted Nobel Peace Prize winner, Wangari Maathai who said, there come times when a necessary change of consciousness is called for and she said, “That time is now.”  It must seem crazy that I would get up in front of a congregation, in a city built by fossil fuels, and preach what we call a “trial sermon” to ask you all to join me in offsetting human caused climate disruption. 
          Trial sermon.  “Take the accused and throw him in the trough of justice!  If he be a witch, he will float on polluted waters.”[1]  Luckily, all you did as a congregation was make me wait outside with my family as you voted.  No troughs of justice.  Whew.
          But I wanted to know.  Could we be courageous together?  I didn’t want to pretend I was this kind and sweet feller from Illinois only for you to realize, “Yeah, he’s kind of a bastard,” a year into my ministry in Billings.  Seriously, I wanted to find a congregation that would join hands with me to draw a line in the sand and say, “This is not who God created us to be.  This is not who we were born to be, to set the world on fire and watch it burn, to destroy and divide in our diversity rather than celebrate it.  And I didn’t want to preach a sermon that made it easy to like me only for you to find out what a bastard I can be.”  Hard deeds.  The time is now. 
          You may say different but I thought the recent movement to place the Welcoming Diversity Ordinance was glorious.  How amazing is it to be part of so many courageous people who stepped forward to represent the beautiful tapestry of Billings, Montana.  In that moment, I became somewhat of a fanboy about Billings, Montana.  I looked around at all these beautifully diverse people and, contrary to what you hear colloquially, Billings is and is becoming this wonderfully colorful, gritty, celebratory people.  I find myself sneering about other cities in Montana who think they are better.  Even with friends in each city, I have prejudices about the people who live there.  Is that healthy?  Am I just getting grouchy in my old age?  Or is Billings just becoming that glorious—as Native people rise, all the women who represent me at City Council or in the legislature seem to be a force of nature, and the 406 Pride in Billings throws the best parades with the best Grand Marshalls?  This is Billings.  And it’s darn glorious.  Right?  Not only is there bone beginning to connect to bone here but spiritual muscle is straining and growing  and exerting itself in very real ways. 
          I share all this remembering that last week I began my sermon referencing about every person I have talked to over the last month sharing with me just how tired they are, how exhausted they are, how exhausted I am.  I want you to hear that I think that exhaustion is intentional.  We are being fed a steady diet of narratives to batter us, wear us down, to keep us off balance in fear, and to make us believe we are powerless.  So last week I wanted you to make plans to be resilient—to make plans to plant yourself near resources that feed you, to keep your heart pliable and tender, and to share your gifts at the right time remembering your interconnection with all of creation. 
          Today I want to go a step further with this passage I have preached from twice before.  In my trial sermon, the one where I was found not to be a witch (so they say), I preached about our created-to-be connection with Creator’s universe.  In the second sermon, I spoke of the balance the Jewish creation stories put before us—we are created both out of the humus, the fertile soil, literally Children of the Earth, as a humble people full of potential, and created to be a little less than the Divine Artist, crowned with glory and honor.  All that stuff about original sin is just so much fertile topsoil.  Seriously.  This is what the Jewish creation story says and what Psalm 8 says.  
Today I want to emphasize that second statement made by the Jewish creation stories and repeated by Psalm 8.  We are capable.  We are powerful. 
          Recent research by sociologist, Nicholas Christakis, a professor at Yale University, says that we are wired for goodness.  “We come to social goodness as naturally as our more bloody inclinations.”[2]  It is not true, Christakis believes, that we are born for cruelty, selfishness, and fearful of our own diversity.  There is great proof that in our very social DNA is written cooperation, friendship, love, and teaching.  Below the surface, these are tectonic forces we are choosing again and again.  On the whole, we are kind to strangers, we cooperate with one another, and we teach each other things.  We do it, in contrast to much of the animal world, across genetically unrelated individuals.  It is encoded within us to learn from each other, to imitate one another.  Christakis does not discount that each age comes with its horrors of what humankind does to one another and to this good earth.  But he wants us to be aware that we are not naturally just a bloodthirsty, colonialist, and violent lot.[3]  We have built into us what Christakis references as a great social suite that shows our capacity and capability for amazing social goodness.
          We need to be reminded of that great capacity and capability as we turn to the challenges that face us.  Again, at the Welcoming Diversity Ordinance conversation at City Council I was just reminded how intersectional, interconnected all of those challenges are by a speaker who did not support the WDO and said that the City Council should invest their time and dollars in the things that made Billings great as a city—our history in fossil fuel extraction economies which threatens to destroy all of us.[4]  I thought to myself how this gentleman’s speech reflected a weird kind of indigenous wisdom which knows the despoiling of the earth as the first injustice.  For that history not only reflects our present despoiling of the land but it also is a reminder of the historic racism perpetuated against Native people for profit, power, and to perpetuate the lie that white folk are somehow chosen, through manifest destiny, to take as they see fit—all three-power, profit, and to take as we see fit-eerily similar to the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness.  Now this gentleman was confirming that the first injustice also required the dehumanization of the LGBTQ+ community. 
So let’s say it straight out.  We were not born broken with the need to extract and exploit and profit at another’s expense to be human.  This violence does not make us human.  This is a lie.  And I say to you, sisters and brothers, siblings and cousins, we have the capacity and we are capable.  It is God-given.  It is in us. 
          I say this but I also know the reality is grim.  Since that candidating sermon almost six years ago, our historical usage of extractive economies, our unwillingness to see ourselves as made of land and water, is actively leading to cataclysmic results.  The insanely warm winter we are having in Billings and the Corona virus pandemic are indicators.  The World Heath Organization shares that climate change will affect infectious disease occurrence.[5]  In August 2019, Greenland lost 11 billion tons of surface ice to the ocean in one day.  That is the equivalent to 4.4 million Olympic size swimming pools.[6] 
          Our capacity and capability does need to be measured by a humility to remember our connection.  It was Mark Twain who said of glaciers,

A [person] who keeps company with glaciers comes to feel tolerably insignificant by and by.  The Alps and the glaciers together are able to take every bit of conceit out of a [person] and reduce [their] self-importance to zero if [they] will only remain within the influence of their sublime presence long enough to give it a fair and reasonable chance to do its work.[7]

And you may know better than me that the snow in Glacier National Park is now on the ground an average of thirty days fewer than it used to be, meaning that trees grow earlier in the season, grow larger, and use up more water.  Thus, the size of forest fires grows.  To compound this great loss, Dr. Dan Fagre, the United States Geological Survey’s research ecologist and director of the Climate Change in Mountain Ecosystems Project says of the glacier ice at Glacier National Park, “Ice is not just melting, it is collapsing.”[8]
            Once again, the intersectional nature of justice issues has almost all climate action groups centering the voices of indigenous people around the globe.  Noam Chomsky, the celebrated, almost 90 year-old linguistic professor, peace activist, and social critic said back in 2016 that indigenous people are taking the lead in so may struggles to try to save us all.  Even back then he related the great stands indigenous people were taking at threat to their own safety from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  “The commons is under attack,” Chomsky said, there are those who are trying to take the global environment away and sell it off to the highest bidder.[9]  Indigenous people around the world  are making courageous stands to save us.  Chomsky saw that in 2016 with a struggle in Canada which has been heightened all the more by the courageous stands taken by the Wetʼsuwetʼen First Nations people.[10]
            Not surprisingly and sadly, at Standing Rock, all the predictions the Native elders made about what would happen with the pipeline have come to fruition.  Nick Estes, writer of the great book, Our History Is Our Future:  Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long History of Indigenous Resistance  shared that the leaders of the protest were often from the Two Spirit community.   All intersectional.  All tied together.  All connected. 
Stan Rushworth, a Cherokee Elder, and teacher shared that the Elders he invites into his classroom have known what is happening and spend hours speaking to his classes about the recognizable signs.  When asked by the class what they can do, the Elders almost always respond by reminding the students of their capability and capacity.  “What can we do?” Arapaho Elder Henry Tyler was asked.  He would take a finger and point to his head, say nothing in a long pause, and then answer, “Use this,” and smile.[11]
            As our creation stories teach us, we are called to be the shadows of the divine in the world.   Psalm 8, that ancient hymn, remembers these great Jewish creation stories that tell us we are a little less than God or the angels, people of great capacity, capability--and what I know of this incredible congregation, people of great courage.   Think I’m kidding?  When news broke on Facebook of someone with a gun at our church, some feared it was because of our courageous stands in the community.  Who was our most ardent defender?  It was Adrian Jawort, a profound and wise Two Spirit Native writer, who was asked to speak at our church last year for Our Whole Lives Sunday and spoke at the Climate Strike in September.  He spoke in deep and loving ways about how we had embraced him. 
There are some ways that Billings was a great city already.  But what is happening now is that Billings is changing in such profound ways that opponents of the WDO have to ship pastors in from Laurel to tell us how we should run things in our fair city.  People from the LGBTQ community led us out.  Who were the prolific city leader allies who did the blue-collar work?  Who brought up the WDO?  Penny Ronning.  Who helped to organize from the faith community?  Lisa Harmon.  Who organized the speakers?  Carmelita Dominguez and Kiely Lammers.   And this congregation already knows about what great leadership we have in the Montana legislature with Margie MacDonald and Emma Kerr Carpenter.  And, of course, many of us have first-hand knowledge of the rising of the Native community in Billings.
But the challenge is before us.  For our own salvation, Billings must become more than its fossil fuel history to be crowned in glory and honor.  In a month, the week around Earth Day is being hailed as hopefully the largest climate strike ever around the world.  We have the capacity.  We have the capability.  We have the courage.  How shall we use this as an opportunity to sing of the great truths shared in Psalm 8 and make it a point of departure for even greater work in our beautiful city.   Because we are Billings.  We are Billings’ first church.  Powerful.  Capable.  Courageous.  Amen. 

[1] Please . . . you don’t remember?  Steve Martin as Theodoric of York from Saturday Night Live.  See.  When you have to explain a joke . . .
[2] Nicholas Christakis interview with Krista Tippett, “How We’re Wired for Goodness,” OnBeing, March 5, 2020, 
[3] Ibid.
[4] The Scottish American naturalist, author, philosopher, and early wilderness-preservation advocate John Muir who knew a different set of values, “I am losing precious days.  I am degenerating into a machine for making money.  I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men.  I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn news.”  Dahr Jamail, The End of Ice:  Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption, (New York:  The New Press, 2019), p. 8.
[5] World Health Organization, “Climate change and human health - risks and responses. Summary,”
[6] Mark Tutton, “Greenland's ice sheet just lost 11 billion tons of ice -- in one day,” CNN World, August 15, 2019,
[7]Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad (Leipzig, 1880), p. 158.
[8] Dahr Jamail, The End of Ice:  Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption, (New York:  The New Press, 2019), pp. 36-39.
[9] Michael Keefer, “Noam Chomsky: Indigenous people “are the ones taking the lead in trying to protect all of us,” Real People’s Media, December 22, 2016,
[11] Jamail, “The End,” pp. 220-224.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

First Sunday of Lent, Psalm Series, "Happy: We shall not be moved," March 1, 2020

A Lent 1 Psalm 1 BFC 2020
Psalm 1
March 1, 2020

              Over the last two weeks, everyone I have talked to has remarked on how exhausted they are . . . continually tired . . . worn down.  I think that happens when the larger narrative we hear day after day keeps slamming into us and telling us things we know are not true.  We try to stand tall against that narrative but then it carries the day and it is all we can do to pick ourselves up and promise to be resilient.
Psalm 1 begins with the word, “Happy.” 
“Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, stand on the road of sinners, sit in the seat of scoffers.” 
“Happy.”  In his Oscar-nominated song, Pharrell Williams tells us that he’s happy.  “It might seem crazy what I’m about to say; Sunshine’s here, you can take a break; I’m a hot air balloon that could go to space; With the air like I don’t care, baby, by the way.”  So, Pharrell might say, you are not the source of all goodness in the world.  Making the world spin is not your responsibility, “Sunshine, she's here.  You can take a break."  And see if you can stop yourself from clapping along in happiness when it comes to this video—a video that makes me smile every time I see it.

           Pharrell Williams says about his religious life and understandings, “On paper, I’m a Christian, but really I’m a Universalist.”  I think that can be seen in the video, people from all walks of life, all different styles, expressing through their bodies what it means to be happy.  On first blush, the song seems simple, a naïve feel-good tune.  But in the lyrics, one can hear a sampling of Psalm 1, “Here comes bad news talking this and that; Well, give me all you got, and don’t hold it back; Well, I should probably warn you I’ll be just fine; No offense to you, don't waste your time.”  There is a resilience to Williams’ happiness that does not just get diverted walking in the path of the wicked, stand in the path of the sinners, or unseated in the place of the scoffers.[1] 
           In true Wisdom tradition, Psalm 1 gives two distinct paths.  One is a way of the wicked, sinners, and scoffers, in which their choices become more and more limited.  They begin walking, they continue by standing, and, finally, one can almost imagine them with their arms folded, seated on the ground, inflexible, but easily removed like chaff, refusing to receive the happiness intended for them.  Meanwhile, those who delight in the way of the Living God, are like trees re-planted by a stream.  The journey of that person has their roots reaching down into the earth, their branches growing up into the sky, and bearing fruit out in due season for the resilience of not just the tree but for all of creation.[2]
           On first blush, the Psalm that stands like a topic sentence for the hymns and prayers of the rest of the Psalms can seem rather simplistic.  God is not unlike Santa Claus.  Do right, and be rewarded, be happy.  Do wrong, and find yourself blown away, perish in that path.  As the first Psalm, however, we are invited to return to it again and again after we enter the Psalms and read these ancient hymns of creation, complaint, thanksgiving, lament, praise, and suffering that fill this entire book of songs and prayers.  We then return to Psalm 1 and read it with a whole set of different life experiences--experiences that tell us life is much more complex.  People we love are lost.  Tragedy strikes whole communities.  Our health takes a downturn.  We boil with anger against our enemies.
Many of the Psalms have an agnostic tone to them.  All this time we thought we were doing right by the Living God?!  Where is the God who would be my Presence and Savior?  While we were trying to do right, meanwhile, we see the wicked not only surviving but thriving, prospering.  We meet times in our lives when we cry like Jesus did from the cross, using the words from Psalm 22, “My God, my God why have you abandoned me?”
           Returning to Psalm 1, with new eyes, no longer believing in God as Santa Claus, we see the poetic exaggeration and hyperbole meant to teach us a way of life that can sustain us in the most violent storms.  We choose to be planted in a place where we have resources.   Near that stream, we grow our roots deep so that no drought will kill us.  Our branches growing up, sway and bend in flexibility and adaptability so, with our deep roots, no wind can blow us over.  Our fruit produces outward, recognizing our interconnection with all of creation, so that, as others are fed, the world around us does not go to heck in a handbasket.  Our fruit makes sure that we are not left alone, growing while the rest of the world withers, dries, and burns, knowing then that to wither, die, and burn, will eventually be our fate.
           We see this intention for interconnection with words like “prosper” referencing back to the word “happy.”  We often use the word to reflect economic affluence or material wealth,  but the connotation here has much more to do with getting traction, making progress, and advancing.  It has a connotation that the righteousness and justice, the struggle we do on behalf of community is not lost.  It moves with the universe.   Do not worry when the wicked appear to be doing well.   The Hebrew word for “prosper” in other parts of Hebrew Scripture, providing context,  is “shalom”, a word beyond individual well-being, a social word that means interconnectedness, wholeness, and peace.  “Oh,” Psalm 1 seems to say, “the wicked may seem to prosper in their wealth and power, but their prosperity is not long-term and resilient.  When they fall, few are around to support and buoy them.   They are supplanted by other short-root systems who think they are God’s gift to the earth.  Trees replanted by streams, however, know of their interdependence and interconnection.” 
           For Christians, one other word is important that I took the liberty to translate literally.  Verse 2 states that the righteous person, “their delight is in the Law of the Living God and on God’s Law they meditate day and night.”  We have so stigmatized “The Law” in Christian tradition, that I believe we rarely hear the word as it was intended.  Others have translated the Hebrew word as “Torah” as “wisdom” or “instruction”, but the literal meaning of the Hebrew word “Torah” is “Way”, as was read today.  Not surprisingly, early Christians referred to themselves as people of “The Way,” never really intending to break from their Jewish ancestors.  Understood as “Way”, Torah becomes more than the static, granite-like thing Christians have too often made the Law out to be.  The Way is an active path that requires our walking, discovering, and delight.  Delight.  Happy.  Along the way, as we walk in the way, we see an eagle on the Elk River, a child who experiences something new and giggles in delight, or even a bare tree replanted by the stream that tended and resourced will come to bud and flower and fruit.  We smile in happiness and delight knowing that our Sunshine is here, we can take a break as Creator moves with, in, and through us and our community.  We are resilient—even  when the wider narrative of the world batters us.
           Ash Wednesday began the season of Lent within the Christian Church.  Lent is always a call to check our resources, ask ourselves what we may need to leave behind so that we have the freedom for choices that bring our lives long-term prosperity, shalom, happiness, with God.  Those long-term choices give us a better chance to stand resolutely and resiliently against the hardships that most certainly come in every life, the lies that feel like they are winning in the world.  As we dig deep, show our flexibility and bend and sway, we eventually bear fruit, bloom and grow in due season.
           A spirituality website, Contemplative Mind, published a list of spiritual practices with a fitting image to illustrate them, you have it on the front of your bulletin.   The image did not print out as well as I had hoped but what it shows are the diverse ways we might practice “the Way” so that we become more resilient, nimble, and well-resourced.  Maybe you walk as I see Vi and Clarence do, maybe you are a person who practices yoga on your own or with Lisa on Thursdays, or maybe you find halting ways to do exercise and meditation, or maybe you even walk the Red Road by making sure you attend meetings and thereby stitch together community for yourself.  It is important on this First Sunday in Lent just to begin. 
           The tree is a reminder that we need regular spiritual practices, however small, but done regularly, consistently, and persistently, so that we might be those long-term sources of life, growth, and shade re-planted by the stream.  Though those trees may be bare at this time, the resources are stored and gathered for something magnificent to start taking place when more light and warmth and time come to pass.  Lent is the hope that we might declare our freedom to pick up intentional spiritual practice, re-plant ourselves, so that we might inherit the prosperity, the shalom, the happiness God intends for us.  As Pharrell Williams would say, and we are going to get a chance to practice at the end of worship today, “Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof; clap along if you know that happiness is the truth.”  Go down with your roots, go up with your branches, go out with your fruit, as trees re-planted by the stream.  And we shall not be like the chaff blown by the wind.  For we shall not be moved.  Amen.

[1] “Scoffers” and the “wicked” are those people in the Bible who regularly rely on themselves rather than the governance of God.  They are people who refuse to stand up for justice.  J. Clinton McCann, Jr., The Great Psalms of the Bible (Louisville, KY:  Westminster, John Knox Press, 2009), pp. 5, 7.
[2] Danielle Shroyer, “The Road Less Travelled,” The Hardest Question, May 13, 2012.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Ash Wednesday, "Necessary Songs," February 26, 2020

Psalm 88
Living One, God of my salvation,
    when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
let my prayer come before you;
    incline your ear to my cry.
For my soul is full of troubles,
    and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
    I am like those who have no help,
like those forsaken among the dead,
    like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
    for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
    in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
    and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
You have caused my companions to shun me;
    you have made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
    my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you, O Living God;
    I spread out my hands to you.
10 Do you work wonders for the dead?
    Do the shades rise up to praise you?
11 Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
    or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
12 Are your wonders known in the darkness,
    or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
13 But I, O Living God, cry out to you;
    in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 Holy One, why do you cast me off?
    Why do you hide your face from me?
15 Wretched and close to death from my youth up,
    I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.[a]
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
    your dread assaults destroy me.
17 They surround me like a flood all day long;
    from all sides they close in on me.
18 You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;
    my companions are in darkness.

A Ash Wednesday BFC Psalms 2020
Psalm 88
February 26, 2020

Martin Tel is Princeton Theological Seminary’s Director of Music and one who regularly argues for the inclusion of the whole book of Psalms in the lectionary texts we read each year and as part of our regular prayer life.[1]  For we clean up the Psalms.  We sanitize the hard and difficult ones—ones that might not be tidy or agree with our sensibilities.  Particularly within a country and community that almost exclusively experiences peace and affluence, Tel argues, we might be able to hear the voice of others.  A Ph.D. student at Princeton from Latin America was researching the theology of Ignacio Ellacuria, a Jesuit priest who used his position in the church and academia to denounce massacres and disappearances at the hands of the El Salvadoran government.   This student came to Tel seeking a Psalm that might help him relate to his Princeton sisters and brothers some of the experience of what it means to be from Latin America.  They came upon a song for Psalm 94 put to the melody of Salvadoran composer, Guillermo Cuellar titled, “Vos sos el destazado.” 
           Tel asked the student to translate the title.  The student sucked in his breath and said, “You who are being butchered.”  The cantor went on to sing these words of lament from Psalm 94:  “O great God and Lord of the earth; Rouse yourself and demonstrate justice; give the arrogant what they deserve, silence all malevolent boasting; See how some you love are broken, for they know the weight of oppression; even widows and orphans are murdered, and poor strangers are innocent victims; Should the wrong change places with right; and the courts play host to corruption; should the innocent fear for their lives; while the guilty smile at their scheming; still the Living God will be your refuge, be your strength and courage and tower.  Though your foot should verge on slipping, God will cherish, keep, and protect you.”
           Tel wonders, “Is it even possible to find a community in North America that would understand or sing Psalm 94 out of its own experience?”  Yet, these are necessary songs we must sing to know that this is the experience of the Body of Christ  in other parts of our earth—whole communities and nations riven with tears and suffering. 
Maybe a place like Flint, Michigan, might know?  Where they still do not have clean water and children disappear in front of their parents?  Seeing the Canadian government run roughshod over the rights of the Wet'suwet'en where racism and colonialism bare their teeth in violence against indigenous peoples.  The photo in my mind of grief in India as anti-Muslim violence continues, the melting ice sheets in Greenland and sickness leading to death like the Corona virus then leading to anti-Chinese sentiment made all the more possible by climate change, and I remember the story of  a 9 year-old who saw his grandmother blown to pieces by a drone, as she was out in her garden trying to describe to Nabila the difference between ripe and non-ripe okra . . .  All of these are images from around the world that remind me of people who could pray and sing Psalm 94 with an authority unknown to people in our country. 
           The great German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, killed in a German concentration camp, wrote that this is why the Psalms deserve their place in the community in a special way.  Even though a verse or a whole Psalm might not be my own prayer, it is certainly the prayer of another member of the Body of Christ.  And part of our faith is to hear the necessary songs of others, so that our own hearts might be transformed and softened. 
           There are people in our world who suffer calamity, terror, life lived on the edge of hell, not in a single moment, or during one stretch of their life, but on a daily basis.  The Psalms countenance this.  These are necessary songs such that we do not become imprisoned by our own experience, that we might not believe our perspective and our perspective alone carries divine truth.   We then know that when calamity does strike, terror does hit,  we have knowledge of what it is to live on the edge of hell, we know that story is told in holy prayer and song and that these ancient peoples and people around the world sometime not only survive but remain.  That too—that lament and cry—is authentic faith.  We learn by praying and singing the entire Psalter that someone’s experience, never before heard in our sanitized and comfortable worship is for the first time given voice. 
           Psalm 88 is one of those necessary songs.  Left without friend and ally, it is the prayer or song of someone who is hemmed in by life and thought to be cast away by God.  It is to know that when ruin comes to our lives, that there are others, before us, who have experienced life lived at the edge of hell and that there are others in the world who speak these words in prayer and give voice to them in song.  
           In the Netherlands under Nazi occupation, Martin Tel’s father related that his congregation could not sing anything that reeked of nationalism, for their captors and oppressors would not allow such singing to undermine their power.  They were allowed, however, to sing the Psalms, thought to be too innocent or lacking in any real power by which the people might hear God sympathetic to their plight.  Little did they know.  In morning worship they might sing strains of Psalm 68, of a God who would rise up and scatter the enemies.  God is our salvation, this prayerful song concludes.
           Then, at night, they would sing of those Psalms like Psalm 88 which conveyed their anger and hopelessness and lament.  Although Tel relates that his father told him he did not feel very Christian in offering up a Psalm like this, the realness of the Psalm gave them permission to speak of their plight with authority. 
           So tonight begins our work in necessary songs and prayers as we walk through the Psalms.  We recognize our humanness in them and know that they are not always our experience.  But as we sing and pray them, our hearts are given depth and pliability and softness for the calamities, terrors, and the edges of hell.  As the whole Psalter becomes a part of us, the walls we have built between ourselves and the rest of creation, our sisters and brothers in pain, is burnt to ash.  We also experience being anointed for whatever God would call us to do next.  These necessary songs rouse us, infuse us with courage, and we set our faces like flint to make the holy pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  We pray to join in solidarity.  We fast to detach ourselves and proclaim our souls free for the things of God. And now, God, who has been flexing muscles through our spiritual life, rises up and is ready to act.  Amen. 

[1] Martin Tel, “Necessary Songs:  The Case for Singing the Entire Psalter,” Christian Century, December 26, 2013, .  (This sermon borrows heavily from this great article.)

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