Will the Circle Be Unbroken?

I attended a Bluegrass Festival with some friends a few weeks ago and have been singing or humming “May the Circle Be Unbroken” ever since. Bluegrass is not my music of choice; so I’ve been pondering why that song has stuck in my head. There are good memories of singing that song around campfires when I was a youth minister many years ago. But it has taken on a deeper more pervasive meaning lately. Some of that became clearer to me this week after a depressing visit with my 94 year old father who has outlived his mental and physical faculties and is miserable. Is there a better day coming for him and his wife suffering from dementia?

I don’t think it’s in the sky but where? What? How? Those questions become more relevant as morality pounds harder on my door each day, in aches and pains, friends in surgery, cancer diagnoses and biopsies, longer list of things I can no longer do. I’ve toyed with the lyrics of that song by changing the “e” to an “i” in “better,” i.e., “There’s a bitter day a coming….” That’s what happens when we turn in on ourselves, we get bitter and go victim. “Why me?” “It’s not fair!” “Why didn’t I take better care of myself?” “Let’s try one more miracle supplement that flows out of the fountain of youth!” Fear springs from the unknown “in the sky” or in some place of darkness, from regrets over a lifetime of sin or just dumb mistakes we can never erase.

Fear is epidemic in our society. I was at a wedding reception recently where I was told one of the men at my table was carrying a concealed weapon “because you never know what might happen.” The next week my relatives at a family gathering were discussing preparedness drills for an active shooter at their little country church and in their schools where children are being taught to throw anything they can find at a shooter ala David versus Goliath–only Goliath didn’t have his NRA sanctioned AR 15.

A father was shot dead last Friday in front of his six kids and wife in a burglary in our affluent “safe” suburb. And today Ted Koppel was on the morning news talking about his new book Lights Out, about the coming cyber-attack that will paralyze our society. The temptation to buy some guns and a generator and become a survivalist is so strong even I feel it tugging at me. There is a little solace for me that I’m old enough I may not have to deal with the worst of the Hunger Games scenario, but I fear for my kids and grandkids and feel hopeless and helpless to do anything significant to help them.

Will the circle be unbroken? Or has human depravity and selfishness reached epic proportions that strain the bonds of civility beyond the breaking point? Is Jesus’ pacifist advice to turn the other cheek and put away our swords just naïve idealism? Those are not verses that fearful Christians cite when they turn to Scripture for comfort. I quoted Isaiah (2:4) and Micah (4:3) once to a life-long Christian, the verses about “beating our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks,” and she said that in 60 years of going to church she didn’t remember ever hearing those words! Unless prophetic voices stand up to the fear mongers and proclaim a message of hope and reason to a world gone mad, the circle may indeed be broken.

I remember being this depressed about the state of the world back in 1972 after Nixon’s landslide victory in spite of Watergate and the protests about the Vietnam War. I wrote a letter to the editor saying that all we could do now was “wait for the inevitable judgment of God.” 43 years later we are still here. We’ve survived that war in SE Asia, the resignation of Nixon and his Vice President, 9/11 and a host of other terrorist attacks, too many mass shootings to count, a huge economic recession, and at least so far several ill-advised wars in the Middle East that have only fanned the flame of hatred in that cauldron of religious and ideological conflict that is the eternal flame of human strife and animosity.

The circle is frayed and contorted out of shape, but it is still unbroken; and that last paragraph is a micro-second in the eternity of the cosmic circle viewed from God’s perspective. As we scroll backward in time through Holocaust, Civil War, Slavery, Genocide of native people, the Dark Ages, the Crusades, Roman, Greek, Syrian, Egyptian, Ottoman Empires, the rise and fall of numerous Dynasties in China and Japan, Exile and Exodus, Stone Age and Ice Ages, and all the other eras of our planet’s history that I missed in history class, our current fears and woes are put in better perspective.

In every generation there have been concerns about the elasticity and tenacity of the circle, and it is still unbroken. That is not an excuse to blithely bury our heads in the sand or in our parochial platitudes. We must counter the fear mongers with words and lives of hope and visions of peace in any way we can. And remembering the great circle maker and sustainer gives us the courage to witness to our faith even when fear and doubt threaten to overwhelm us.

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Stages of Faith

Another of my faith journey mentors has passed on to the next stage of faith.  The news came in an obituary shared by a colleague on Facebook: James W. Fowler III, Prominent Practical Theologian and Ethicist, Dies at 75.

I discovered the work of James Fowler through his 1981 book, Stages of Faith, when I was working on my doctorate in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s.  His research and writing on the stages of faith development resonated with my own faith journey from a very concrete-literal understanding of faith to a more universal and inclusive theology and became a central focus of my dissertation on a narrative of moral discourse.  That paradigm for how preaching and teaching can promote moral and faith development has been the foundation of my ministry and teaching for the past 35 years.  I invite you to read the brief descriptions of Fowler’s 6 stages of faith development at the link below.

http://www.psychologycharts.com/james-fowler-stages-of-faith.html

In the multi-cultural global village we live in today, the need for a more universal and inclusive faith has never been more needed.  I especially like this description of Stage 4, the Individuative-Reflexive stage:  “This is the tough stage, often begun in young adulthood, when people start seeing outside the box and realizing that there are other “boxes”. They begin to critically examine their beliefs on their own and often become disillusioned with their former faith. Ironically, the Stage 3 people usually think that Stage 4 people have become “backsliders” when in reality they have actually moved forward.”

And when we despair about those who seem de-churched or “post-Christian,” Fowler reminds us that a mature faith comes only with life experience.  This is what he says about stage 5, Conjunctive Faith:  “It is rare for people to reach this stage before mid-life. This is the point when people begin to realize the limits of logic and start to accept the paradoxes in life. They begin to see life as a mystery and often return to sacred stories and symbols but this time without being stuck in a theological box.”

Faith is a journey, not a destination.  It is not a straight line but a maze of twists and turns, highs and lows.  It is a dynamic adventure.  The faith stories we live by are never the same when we read or hear them again because we are not the same people we were yesterday or yesteryear.  I am so grateful for sages like Jim Fowler who teach us that we are shaped by our past but we are not defined or confined by it.

When I saw the news that he had died this week I was saddened.  Many of the mentors who shaped my understanding of myself and the divine are no longer present on this earth.  But their legacy lives on in me and countless others who have and will continue to benefit from their wisdom.  We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.  My cloud includes saints like Jim Fowler, Fred Craddock, Paul Tillich, Van Bogard Dunn, Bob Browning, Everett Tilson, Jeff Hopper, Bill Croy, Bob Chiles, my mother and grandparents, and far too many more to name.

When someone important in my life passes on, I try to take time to give thanks for his or her contribution to my life and the larger world.  And I also ask God to help me be worthy of that legacy and share it with those who are learning and growing and searching for meaning in their own faith journey at whatever stage or phase they are.  My job is not to preach or lecture or insist on my way or any particular way.  My job is to come along side others and share the journey with them.

Thanks be to God for people like Jim Fowler who have been my companion on the way.

James W. Fowler, distinguished Howard Candler Professor of Theology and Human Development at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, was Director of both the Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development and the Center for Ethics, and also served as an ordained elder in the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.

God as Puppeteer or Quarterback?

An important question about the nature of God was raised in a Bible study I am in last night. We are studying Exodus 2 and came to the scene where Moses kills an Egyptian who is abusing one of the Hebrew slaves. The question raised was, “Did God want Moses to kill that Egyptian?” Some argued yes, because it was necessary for the rest of Moses’ preparation to be a leader. Others said there are numerous stories in the Hebrew Scriptures where God tells people to kill someone. (Note: those stories were all written by the victors/killers who were interpreting God’s will from their perspective and likely to justify their actions. Jesus preached and lived a very different Gospel.)

I reject the puppeteer model of God’s control of our lives, and I do not believe it was God’s intention for Moses or anyone to kill another human being – sort of goes against the 6th commandment don’t you think? Rather I think God is more like a quarterback who has to call audibles and change the play a lot when circumstances require it. God takes our mistakes and makes the best of them, using them to teach us. In Moses’ case his homicidal outburst was the vehicle God used to get him out into the wilderness where God could work on him and get him ready for the work ahead.

Leslie Weatherhead’s great little book, The Will of God (based on a series of sermons he preached in London during World War II) is one of the best discussions of this topic ever. Weatherhead describes three dimensions of God’s will – God’s intentional will – what God really wants to happen; God’s circumstantial will – what God makes of the situation when human free will changes the game plan; and God’s ultimate will – what the eventual outcome is. In Moses’ case God’s intentional will would be a peaceful resolution of the conflict Moses witnessed and liberation of the enslaved Hebrews; God’s circumstantial will or Plan B was to use Moses’ escape into the wilderness as a time of spiritual formation and preparation, and God’s ultimate will was to empower Moses once he was ready to lead the liberation of God’s people. The ultimate result is the same as the original intention; it just took a different path and about 40 years to happen.

It took that long because Moses wasn’t ready. I heard Rev. James Forbes preach on the Exodus many years ago and still appreciate his insight into that issue. Forbes said we know Moses’ wasn’t ready for leadership when he killed the Egyptian. He had the motivation; he was angry about the suffering of his people, but he let his anger consume him. What God needed was the compassion for those who suffer, the passion for liberation, the fire in the belly, but the maturity not to let that passion consume him. Forbes said that’s part of the significance of burning bush story in Exodus 3 where Moses finally hears God’s call. The bush was burning but it was not consumed.

When that happens, our will is in harmony with God’s playbook, and God’s ultimate will is done. No one knew that better than Jesus who prayed the prayer we all must pray, “Not my will but thy will be done.” Amen.

Finding Our Way Back to God: The Search for Meaning, Micah 6:1-8

Many years ago I overheard a dinner table conversation between my in-laws that stuck with me. This was back in the days before bucket seats and consoles with gear shifts and cup holders began dividing the front seats of cars like the Berlin wall. For those who don’t remember those good old days, the front seat was a bench seat and dating couples could snuggle up close to each other while driving. We didn’t need cell phones to be guilty of distracted driving. My in-laws had been married for many years at this point, and my mother-in-law was reminiscing about their dating days and how she used to sit over in the middle right next to her beloved. And she asked, “Why don’t we do that anymore?” Her husband got a mischievous grin on his face and said, “Well, I’m not the one who moved.”

As we consider how we find our way back to God the first thing we need to remember is that God isn’t the one who moved either. And our text from Micah addresses the question of how we make that journey.

We sometimes move away from God because we are searching for purpose and meaning for life in a scary confusing world. What is our passion, our purpose for living? What gets us out of bed in the morning saying? And how we answer that question is one of the keys to finding our way back to God when we feel lost and like running away.

The most familiar verse in the book of Micah is one attempt to wrestle with the search for the meaning of life and our relationship with God. Micah 6:8 says, “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? That verse is Micah’s reply to the question raised two verses earlier – “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high?” This is familiar format for an entrance litany as Jews prepare themselves for worship – asking what must we do to please God, to make ourselves worthy of God’s presence and blessing?

Part of our struggle when we feel removed from God is centered in that basic question – am I good enough? And when we feel like we are not, what does God do about that? When we mess up do we get what we deserve from God? I hope not. And if we feel like we don’t have a clear purpose for our lives or we are failing to achieve it, it’s hard to feel all warm and fuzzy about God.

What is your why for living? Unless we can answer that question we are just going through the motions in some kind of cosmic rat race, and that feeling of meaninglessness is not conducive to closeness with God.

Micah prophesied at the beginning of that time when Israel and Judah were in the deep trouble that eventually led to the Exile. The Assyrian empire was threatening their very existence; the rulers of Israel had put their trust in foreign alliances instead of in the ways of God, investing vast sums in armaments instead of taking care of their own citizens, going into crippling debt by borrowing from the Assyrians. Sound familiar?

Listen to how the NRSV introduces the book of Micah: “Micah offered a theological interpretation of the dizzying events near the end of the 8th century: the fall of Samaria, the expansion of Jerusalem fueled by emigrants from the north, and the international situation made unstable by an aggressive superpower, Assyria.” So this question about the meaning of life and what we must do to please God was not some idle Sunday School discussion topic for Micah – it was a matter of life and death, and it still is.

Micah begins chapter 6 with an Imperative – “Listen up people to what the Lord says.” He then portrays the situation of Israel being on trial for breaking her covenant relationship with God. Then follows a quick review of God’s salvation history with Israel. Micah begins with the seminal event in Israel’s history, how God chose Moses, Aaron and Miriam to lead the people out of slavery in Egypt. Secondly he highlights a much less familiar, at least to us, story of Balaam’s encounter with King Balak of Moab during the long wilderness journey of the Exodus, and wraps it up with a reference to two cities representing the crossing of the River Jordan, Shittim on the east side of the Jordan and Gilgal on the west in the Promised land.

If you’re like me, the exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the Jordan are familiar stories, but the Balaam and Balak reference, not so much. We’ll come back to it because it’s a really cool story, but for now let’s just say Micah uses it to remind the people of one of many times during the 40 years in the wilderness that God rescued the Israelites and helped them overcome obstacles and enemies that stood in their way to freedom and promise.
So with a God who has done all that for his people, people are asking why have things gone so sour? Their world is going to hell in a handbasket. They feel abandoned and alienated from this God who has been their deliverer and savior for centuries.

They need to remember, God isn’t the one who moved – God is faithful and just forever; so when we feel separated from God, the question is what do we need to do to get back next to God.

Micah responds by turning to the question of worthiness and atonement. Verse 6 says “With what shall I come before the Lord.” How can I find my way back to God? And then follows a litany of sacrifices that gets increasingly ridiculous – the best calves, 1000 rams, 10000 rivers of oil, and first born children. You see, the Jews are big on laws. We’re familiar with the top ten list from Mt. Sinai, but those tedious books of Leviticus and Numbers that we don’t often read spend a lot of time explaining the 10 commandments and trying to legislate specific rules and regulations for daily life in order to fulfill what God requires. There are 613 laws the Jews tried to live up to –- and they didn’t’ have any apps to keep track of those. So obviously, being the imperfect fallible human beings they were, they needed a way to make amends with God when they messed up, which was often.

And their system for getting back in God’s graces was offering sacrifices to God. These were ritualistic acts of worship, but as Micah and the other prophets point out, to attend church regularly and perform all the necessary rituals doesn’t mean squat if you go on living unjust, sinful lives the rest of the time.

So finally we get to verse 8 where Micah summarizes what the faithful life looks like in three short phrases – what does the Lord require? – do justice, love mercy or kindness, and walk humbly with God. That’s the way to a life of meaning and purpose, that’s the way back to God. It’s not just something we can do but encompasses who we are called to be. I heard a wonderful sermon once that took its theme from a Frank Sinatra song, “Strangers in the Night,” and in particular from the profound refrain to that song that just says, “do be do be do.” The preacher said if you change that phrase and take out the “be” all you have left is “do do.”

We are not human doings – we are human beings, and faithful living is a holistic process that encompasses all that we are, not just some segmented religious part of our life. Micah lists justice, mercy and humility, qualities that include active doing – working for justice, treating others with mercy and kindness as a way of being –not out of sense of duty or obligation, but simply because in a faithful, loyal relationship with God, we take on those qualities of being.

Pope Francis is a fascinating example of what Micah describes here. The Pope is beloved by so many people because of his humility. He has rejected the usual pomposity of his office, traveling in a little Fiat, taking time to listen to a little girl trying to keep her immigrant parents in this country, spending time with the homeless, washing stinky feet. He walks the walk and because he does so he can also advocate for justice in the halls of Congress and get a standing ovation for the golden rule from a badly broken and partisan legislature.
Francis has been criticized for being too political, but that’s where justice has to happen, in the political arena where too often the rules that perpetuate poverty are passed by the powerful for the benefit of the powerful.

We sometimes use separation of church and state as an excuse for not getting our hands dirty in the messy business of politics, but that’s a misunderstanding of the first amendment to our constitution. It says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It doesn’t say religion can’t influence the making and implementation of the laws and policies we live by. In fact Micah and the prophets and Jesus are all very clear that God wants laws that are just and that part of the free exercise of our faith is to help make that happen.

Speaking of church and state, let’s go back to King Balak and Balaam for a moment. The whole story is in Numbers 22-24, and I’d encourage you to read it. It is no accident that Micah uses this story in this section about justice and mercy and humility. The short version of the story is that the Israelites are on their way through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land and one of the many hostile territories they have to pass through is Moab. King Balak sees the vast number of these illegal immigrants heading into his country and orders the prophet Balaam to curse them and drive them away. (Sort of like building a big fence?) But Balaam consults a higher authority, and God tells him, don’t curse these people for they are blessed. In a humorous scene, when Balaam’s faith wavers a bit his faithful donkey sees God’s angel blocking their path when Balaam can’t see the angel, and the donkey prevents Balaam from giving in to King Balak.

Three times Balak pleads and begs with Balaam to curse the Hebrew people, trying to bribe him with great wealth and power, but Balaam holds fast and tells this powerful ruler that he must do and say only what God has told him. Instead of cursing the Israelites he blesses them and they continue on their way toward the Promised Land.
What does the Lord require of us? Balaam and his donkey’s kind of courage and steadfast faithfulness – refusing to give into unjust, unethical demands of the world, even when it would seem to benefit us to do so. And how do we do that? By walking humbly with God as our constant companion and spiritual guide.
Finding God’s meaning and purpose for most of us is not about one burning bush moment. It’s a journey not a destination. It’s about a total body of work, a life of working for justice for the least and lost, of being kind and merciful to everyone, and doing it all not to earn brownie points with God but to simply share God’s love with the world.
John Wesley famously said when he was kicked out of the Church of England, “The World is My Parish.” And he took his ministry to the streets and to the open fields where people who did not feel welcome and worthy in the church were looking for their purpose and trying to find their way back to God.

On this World Communion Sunday, when our world seems to be on the way to the same destruction that befell Samaria and Jerusalem, the Word from God is this: Listen up People, I have not moved, trust my ways. Do not be overwhelmed or despair. I know your sins and they have not driven me away and never will. Don’t worry about paying for your sins, that has already been done by Jesus Christ, and your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to be Christ-like in humble, merciful service, to work for justice in whatever part of my world you are in – I’m right here with you always.

Benediction: May God grant us the vision of Balaam’s donkey to see that God is not the one who has moved. God is on this journey with us to empower and lead us. By our own strength we cannot live just and merciful lives all the time, but if we humbly walk with God, he will show us the way. That is our purpose. Let’s go.