Sunday, November 21, 2010

Got Any Change?

Sermon preached November 21, 2010

Texts: Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 19:1-10

November 29, 1978 I attended a concert at the old St. Paul Civic Center. It was a phenomenal concert by Bruce Springsteen. He and the E Street Band played with incredible energy for over two and a half hours. I was reminded of this in a couple of ways this week. This week, Springsteen released a CD of material recorded during this period of time – “The Promise.” There are songs on there I heard in concert that night. I was also reminded of that concert while watching a Springsteen concert Monday night while walking the treadmill. With winter comes the treadmill, and often, for me, with the treadmill comes music – sometimes concert videos.
The video was of a concert from London in 2009. Springsteen is thirty years older than when I heard him in concert - I guess I am, too – but this concert was energetic, joyful, exuberant. It evoked fond memories of that concert long ago.
And I was thinking, shouldn’t church be like that? What if every week worship was like a rock concert, or, if you prefer, a celebratory symphony, maybe with the orchestra playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Shouldn’t worship be something like that? Shouldn’t our church experience be something like that?
Maybe, but there are limits to the comparison. I really enjoyed myself thirty some years ago in St. Paul, but what impact did it have on my life? I listen to other Springsteen music, and often buy it when it comes out. I know some of the songs well, enough to sing along with them in the car when they are playing. “I wanna know if love is wild, babe, I wanna know if love is real.” The other night, when I was getting off the treadmill, a great song came on the video, and I continued my exercising dancing around for a bit. So Bruce Springsteen has affected my buying habits, and helped me stay in better shape, but my life is not significantly different because I am a Bruce Springsteen fan.
And see, that’s where the church is up to something else. The church is about a significantly different life. The church is about change, about transformation, about messing with your life, with my life, with the world. We hear it again and again. The language in Colossians may be a bit strange, but it is about change. It is about lives being “rescued from the power of darkness and transferred… into the kingdom of” Jesus. Christian faith and the church are about redemption, forgiveness, strength, patience joy, reconciliation. They are about being a part of what God is doing through Jesus.
Marcus Borg argues that there are “two transformations at the heart of the Christian life: the individual-spiritual-personal and the communal-social-political” (The Heart of Christianity, 103). The Christian life, he writes “is about ‘being born again’ and the ‘Kingdom of God’’ (126).
Diana Butler Bass, in Christianity For the Rest of Us, which many of us have been and are reading (and this is the final sermon using that book as its jumping off point), writes, “Transformation is the promise at the heart of Christianity” (281). She uses the image of the tourist and the pilgrim to make her point. Being a tourist means experiencing something new; being a pilgrim means becoming someone new. Pilgrimages go somewhere – to a transformed life (216). She argues that a vital Christian faith and a vital Christian church in this day and time needs to be a pilgrim church, helping people along a continuing journey. But the transformation of the person leads to seeking to make a difference in the world. “Changing the self empowers the pilgrim to change the world” (217).
Between Marcus Borg and Diana Butler Bass and the New Testament, another person also claimed that transformation is the promise at the heart of Christian faith and life – a man named John Wesley – the founder of the Methodist movement. Wesley argued that at the heart of the Christian life was the movement toward Christian perfection. “Perfection” can sound ominous, but here is what Wesley meant by Christian perfection – by perfection I mean the humble, gentle, patient love of God and our neighbor ruling our attitudes, words, and actions (“Brief Thoughts on Christian Perfection, 1767)
To be on the Christian spiritual journey, to be a Christian pilgrim, is to be open to being changed, transformed, in the direction of love. It is the work of God’s Spirit within us, but it is jointly our work. We are co-creators with God of our lives, and so the Christian journey is not a journey toward a destination but without a map. We have a map – Christian practices. Christian faith and life is practice, and a vital Christian faith and church in our day and time will include a renewal of faith practices discussed in Christianity For the Rest of Us: hospitality, discernment, healing, contemplation, testimony, diversity, justice, worship, reflection, and beauty. And in the end, is change, transformation, growth in love. We are shaped by practices, and we need to shape those practices so that they are indeed helping us grow in love. Along the way, I hope there are some moments of joy and exuberance, like a good concert, but concerts are more tourist events, and we are on a pilgrimage.
We are on a change journey, like the man of short stature, Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was a tax collector, thus considered a collaborator with Rome. He had become rich through his work, something that would not have endeared him to those in the society in which he lived. But Zacchaeus was on a journey – literally and spiritually. He kept trying to see Jesus, or have Jesus see him. He ran to get the best place to see-be seen, even climbing a tree. Not very dignified for a rich tax collector! But Jesus sees him and extends hospitality, calling him by name. He receives hospitality from Zacchaeus, scandalizing those who considered Zacchaeus religiously unworthy. Jesus not only associates with Zacchaeus, he welcomes him deeply into the community of faith – “he, too, is a son of Abraham.” For his part, Zacchaeus’ life changes. He practices hospitality. He practices healing – giving to those in need. He practices justice, righting any wrongs he may have done. Got any change? Yes, we do, just ask Zacchaeus.
We are on a change journey, like Sara Miles. I came late to Christianity, knocked upside down by a midlife conversion centered around a literal chunk of bread…. Eating Jesus cracked my world open and made me hunger to keep sharing food with other people. (Jesus Freak, xi) Miles set up a food pantry at St Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, set it up around the church altar. It was an important part of her Christian spiritual journey of being transformed in and toward love. In the thrilling and difficult years after my first communion, I kept learning that my new Christina identity required me to act. Simply going to church offered no ethereal juju that would automatically turn me into a less smug and self-righteous person. Time and again, I was going to have to forgive people I was mad at, say I was sorry, be honest when I felt petty, and sit down to eat, as Jesus did, with my betrayers and enemies: the mad, the boring, and the merely unlikable. (xii) Got any change? Yes, we do, just ask Sara Miles.
Thirty-two years ago this month, I attended a Bruce Springsteen concert, and one of the songs he played that night contains these words. I believe in the love that you gave me, I believe in the hope that can save me, I believe in the faith and I pray, that someday it may raise me (“Badlands”)
In the end I believe in a faith that raises me up, in a hope that saves me, in a love that transforms my life. As Christians we believe in a faith that raises us up, in a hope that saves us, in a love that changes us. We are on a journey of transformation, on a journey of change. We seek to live differently here. We open our lives to being changed. We are inspired to change the world. Got any change? Yes, we do – and if you are interested in a changed life, there is always room here for more pilgrims. Amen.

Bruce Springsteen, "Badlands"

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Seventy Minute Hour

Sermon preached November 14, 2010

Texts: Isaiah 65:17-25; Revelation 22:1-5

This past week we celebrated Veteran’s Day in our county – giving thanks to those who have served the United States in the military. Some churches have large wall plaques commemorating members who served in the military and lost their lives in the line of duty. In one such church, the pastor noticed one of his young parishioners, a boy named Alex staring at that church’s plaque. It was impressive, covered with names and with small flags on either side. The pastor walked over, stood beside the boy, and said quietly, “Good morning, Alex.” “Good morning pastor. What is this all about?” “Well, Alex, this is a memorial to all the young men and women who died in the service.” Without saying a word, the two stood there for a while. Finally, Alex broke the silence. “In the service, which one, 9 or 11?”
One of many memorable lines from the television program M*A*S*H had Major Frank Burns tell a prominent military chaplain that he attended church services as often as he could. “It’s a great way to kill an hour.” A great way to kill an hour? Sometimes worship is one of the few events that can make an hour seem like it is seventy minutes long.
So worship is sometimes difficult, dull, removed from life. Sometimes the sermon is off the mark, or the music is all unfamiliar. Worship can be more, can be better, but I want to ask those of us gathered here – why worship?
Why worship? Listening to some Christians, and some other religionists as well, you could get the impression that God is a God who needs to keep hearing how wonderful God is. In his book, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg writes, “Worship is not about God needing praise” (157). That he feels the need to write this says that there are some who seem to think that is just what worship is about – God needing praise, God needing to hear how wonderful God is, and if God does not get the praise and adoration God deems deserving, well, God gets peeved. We worship to keep the angry God at bay. I don’t think this is very good theology or spirituality, especially not if our spirituality is rooted in Jesus, but we would be less than honest if we did not admit that there is sometimes a fear factor in why people worship.
If we are sometimes unsure about why we worship, we can also be uncertain as to what constitutes good worship. The invitation to worship for this morning used three statements – all of them from an inventory used to determine “spiritual types.” The author of that work argues that there is no one way to be spiritual. None of those statements is meant as the bottom line truth about worship, though persons of particular spiritual types think so.
Worship is complicated stuff. We are not always sure why we worship, and sometimes fear lurks there. We disagree about what makes for good worship. Yet we know worship is central to Christian faith, life and spirituality – we knew it before we read Diana Butler Bass, Christianity For the Rest of Us, yet because many of us are reading it worship and beauty are today’s themes. And if we accomplish nothing else this morning, I hope we will see the link between worship and beauty as important elements in a vital Christian faith for the twenty-first century and I hope we will drive the fear out of worship.
Why worship? What is worship about so that it draws us in? Marcus Borg is right, worship is not about God needing praise, but he is also right in saying that worship is about praising God. But worship, though centered on God, is not just about God. It is also about our lives in relationship to God. Pamela Dickey Young (Recreating the Church, 109): Worship is said to glorify God and sanctify the human being. Worship is focused attention to God and to God’s presence…. Worship glorifies God by noticing God, by being “set apart” moments in time and space where Christians concentrate on the God-human relationship. Worship is about God, and about the human relationship to God. In encountering God, in paying attention to God, we are changed. In the words of Diana Butler Bass, “at its core, worship is an experience that transforms the heart” (177).
What sort of experience. Butler Bass tells the story of Eric, a pastor. Trying to think about the heart of worship during a study leave, Eric one summer day was sitting on the dock of a lakeside cabin. As he stared at the water, the largest bass he had ever seen swam by Eric was filled with wonder and awe. Eric: “This is the foundation of worship. If you can take an hour on Sunday morning and open people to experiencing just a quarter-second of awe, wonder and surrender you just experienced, it is accomplished.” (173). Similarly, Marcus Borg writes about worship as a thin place, a place where we encounter God in wonder, awe and mystery. The Christian life is about the “hatching of the heart,” the opening of the self to the Spirit of God by spending time in “thin places” – those places and practices through which we become open to and nourished by the Mystery in whom we live and move and have our being (The Heart of Christianity, 161).
Worship is about praising God, expressing gratitude for the good gifts of life. It is about wonder and awe and mystery and thin places. It is also about celebration. Kent Ira Groff: “Genuine worship is celebrating God’s work in people’s lives” (The Soul of Tomorrow’s Church, 54). We gather to pay attention to where God has been in our lives, trusting that we may catch glimpses of where God is moving into the future. We pay attention and celebrate. Butler Bass: “Christian worship embodies the full range of emotions any person would experience in celebration, from sorrow to mirth…. Christian celebration… participates in God’s festival of life and shalom” (177). Worship helps us notice good things and among those good things is that we are still here – individually and collectively – and that is good!
We celebrate God’s work in people’s lives, and one way to characterize that work of God in the world is beauty. Read the texts in the Bible that try to describe the direction of God in the world, texts like Isaiah 65 and Revelation 22. God is creating a new heaven and new earth. Houses will go up and vineyards will blossom – and they will be enjoyed. “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together.” There will be a river, ‘bright as crystal” flowing from God. The trees along the river are fruitful and the leaves are “for the healing of the nations.” Only beautiful visions can grasp something of what God is doing in the world. I like the words of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. God “is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by [God’s] vision of truth, beauty, and goodness” (Process and Reality, quoted in Mesle, Process-Relational Philosophy, 86). Only beautiful words can describe what God is doing in the world because God’s work is beauty.
Beauty is not an easy concept to define. Writing about beauty and worship, Pamela Dickey Young writes “by beauty I mean that which evokes satisfaction in all its senses, a balancing of harmony and intensity that allows one to enter into the fullness of life” (111). Another theologian writes “beauty is that which glistens on the edges of our yearnings and lures us into the depth of things” (Patricia Adams Farmer, Embracing a Beautiful God, 1). God’s work in the world is creating beauty – a beauty which includes justice and peace and reconciliation, and healing of the nations. When we encounter beauty, it changes us, and worship is intended to be an encounter with beauty in some form or another. Beauty is intended to change us. Author Sam Keen in Hymns To An Unknown God pens these words: "Throughout my life, beauty, more than any argument, has persuaded me of the blessedness of this world” (123). Beauty opens us up, engages our mind, enlarges our hearts. Good worship is beautiful, and beauty makes itself know in worship as the work of God which we celebrate. We worship because we need to, because we need to encounter the beauty of the poet God which changes us.
Out of all the instinctual needs we human have to put up with – sex, food, sleep, fresh air, water – the most important and least recognized need of all is beauty. It’s what magnifies us into human beings. (Laura Hendrie, Remember Me, 54)
But beauty is better experienced than discussed. This has been a rather learned sermon, lots of quotes, but in the end, I want to give way to beauty – images, music, and a poem.

[ played: John Coltrane, “After The Rain” with 24 slides @ 5 seconds, ending with Denise Levertov poem read while the music was still playing.]

Denise Levertov, “Primary Wonder”
Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; cap and bells.
And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Just This

Sermon preached November 7, 2010

Texts: Amos 5:24; Micah 6:8; Acts 4:32-38

This is the fifth of seven sermons on aspects of a vital Christian faith for the twenty-first century. The basis for the broad ideas in these sermons is found in Diana Butler Bass’ book Christianity For the Rest of Us, which 60-75 of us are reading. Thus far we have set the context for being Christian and being a mainline church in this day and time. The term “mainline” is simply a historical term for Protestant churches that have a relatively long history and were once the center of religious life in the United States. That has changed in some ways and so we are exploring what it may mean to have a vital Christian faith and an alive Christian community in this day and time. We have already explored certain elements of such a faith and community: hospitality, healing, discernment, contemplation, testimony and reflection. Today the key words are justice and diversity.
These are important elements of a vital Christian faith for the twenty-first century and they deserve more time than I can give them this morning given all that is happening in worship. Make no mistake, the relative brevity of this sermon belies the importance of the topic. At the same time, perhaps brevity also reflects something about this church. We already understand the centrality, the utter importance of justice and diversity for Christian faith. The United Methodist Church, of which we are a part, has John Wesley as its founder, and Wesley once wrote: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.” Doing good, caring about the world, working for justice, overcoming the division diversity can create – these are part of the heartbeat of our church. By the way, I use “justice” in the primary sense we get of it from the Bible. Justice has to do with fairness, with right relationship, with respect, with a concern that people have enough of the basic necessities of life. Justice is a central element of “shalom” which is God’s comprehensive dream for the world – a dream of joy, peace, love, reconciliation, justice, beauty and delight (see Nicholas Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace, 69-72). In the words of a theologian, “Shalom is both God’s cause in the world and our human calling” (Wolterstorff, 72).
Caring about the world, working for justice, overcoming the division diversity can create – these are part of the heartbeat of our church. I think we get that here, though our embodiment of it can always grow. In fact, I think that this element of a vital faith is so much our focus that we may give short shrift to the good that also needs doing in our inner lives. Make no mistake, I would rather have a group of people working to feed the hungry, or mentor, or work for justice, or stand up against racism than excuse themselves from such activity because they are reading the Bible. If I had to choose, that would be my choice, but we do not have to choose. A vital Christian faith is both/and - justice and personal spiritual disciplines, justice and inner work.
In Christianity For the Rest of Us, Diana Butler Bass makes some provocative statements about justice in Christian faith. Justice and diversity are “biblical ideals,” part of the “spiritual journey.” Justice is not about backing a secular political agenda – whether that be liberal or conservative…. Justice is part of the faithful life of being a Christian; justice is spirituality….Doing justice is much more than supporting a particular political party and its policy agenda. Doing justice goes beyond fixing unfair and oppressive structures. Doing justice means engaging the powers – transforming the “inner spirit” of all systems of injustice, violence, and exclusion. (161-162) I expect for some those words will give us pause, and they might be pushed too far. Public policy matters, and we should engage our minds and hearts in thinking together about the kind of society we want to create through our political systems and structures. Yet, biblical justice is more than that. To take justice seriously as a part of the spiritual journey is to know that we cannot only work for systemic change and do nothing else. It is to know that we cannot wait until systems change to engage in acts of justice and compassion.
To take biblical justice seriously as part of the spiritual journey of a vital Christian faith for the twenty-first century is to work to create a community that is making a difference in the world by making a difference in people’s lives – alongside whatever policy work we also engage in. We need to be working together here to create a transformational community that weaves diverse people together into a “polyculture of the Spirit” (144). We want to bring people together who have diverse ideas about how best to create justice in the wider world. “Besides the fact that diversity is a deeply biblical and profoundly Christian practice, it is just more fun to go on a pilgrimage with interesting people” (155-156). One of our models for biblical justice and diversity work is found in Acts 4. It is a picture of a community that amidst diversity discovered a deep unity – a unity of heart and soul. It is a picture of a group of people joined together in a shared way. It is a picture of a group of people who cared about the needs of all and shared so that none would be without.
This work of justice does not need to wait until the government does this or that. This work of justice does not wait until policies change or large programs are initiated. Policies and programs matter, but the work of justice does not wait.
We do not wait until social programs are in place to meet the needs of others. We work with other churches through the Gabriel Project to help meet human need. We don’t wait until large-scale food programs are in place to feed the hungry. We set up Ruby’s Pantry Coppertop and work to make a difference in feeding people. We do not wait until the medical system changes to offer care for the sick. We visit, individually and through our lay pastor program. We discuss end-of-life issues. We promote healthy living. It is not all that needs doing, but we don’t simply wait. We don’t wait until programs are in place that provide care for the elderly. We visit again through lay pastors, but also through a number of people who volunteer at places like the Benedictine Health Center. We don’t wait until all the social policies about schools are in place to care about the young. We offer ourselves as mentors.
A vital and credible faith for the twenty-first century is a faith that takes diversity seriously – diversity of race, orientation, background, opinion, yet seeks to create community out of a deeper unity of heart and soul. A vital and credible Christian faith for the twenty-first century is a faith that does justice, that sees justice as a spiritual journey. It is a faith that unites justice and prayer, worship and working for a better world.
Ironically, finding a vital and credible faith for the twenty-first century means rediscovering some old ideas. Hear these words of Amos, in a fresh rendering. “Do you know what I want? I want justice – oceans of it. I want fairness – rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want.” Hear these words of Micah, also in a fresh rendering. “But God’s already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don’t take yourself too seriously – take God seriously.”
Just this – justice – oceans of it.
Just this – fairness – rivers of it.
Just this – compassion.
Just this – loyalty.
Just this – love.
Just this – walking the way with God - a way of justice and prayer, worship and work, unity in diversity, loyalty and love.
Just this. It’s that simple. It’s that challenging. Amen.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Wisdom of the Scarecrow

Sermon preached October 31, 2010

Texts: Philippians 4:8-9; Mark 7:31-37

Dorothy and her dog Toto are walking through Oz on the Yellow Brick Road, when they come to a fork in it. Pondering aloud to herself, Dorothy wonders which way to turn. Suddenly a voice – it is a nearby Scarecrow. The Scarecrow isn’t much help to Dorothy. “I can’t make up my mind. I haven’t go a brain, only straw.” “How can you talk if you haven’t got a brain?” “I don’t know, but some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don’t they?”
I could wile away the hours, conferring with the flowers, consulting with the rain. My head I’d be scratching, while my thoughts are a hatching – if I only had a brain.
Talking, thinking, thoughtful conversation, reflective testimony – Christianity for the rest of us.
Yes, some people without brains do an awful lot of talking. Some of that talk is religious talk. I have read in recent letters to the editor some of the silliest things about Islam written by fellow Christians. I know they have brains, but the letters did not indicate that they were in very full use at the time.
Ignorance is not a Christian virtue – not ignorance about other religions, not ignorance about science, not ignorance about the years and years of scholarly writing about the Bible, not ignorance about the thousands of years of discussion about the meaning of Christian faith.
Ignorance is not a Christian virtue, nor is obnoxiousness. Walking up to someone you have never met, about whose life you know nothing – not their pains, joys, hopes, dreams, sorrows, disappointments – walking up to someone you’ve never met asking if they are saved, that strikes me as obnoxious. I ought to know. I have done it.
Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, and some of those people are Christians and sometimes some of those people are us. And that kind of talk makes other Christian talk hard. I sometimes hear people compare our cultural situation to the cultural situation in the Book of Acts. They argue that Christianity is no longer in the center of our culture, like it was not during the time of the early church. There is something to be said for that, except that the early church did not have hundreds of years of Christian talk already behind them, and the apostles did not have to say, “Well, that is not the way I understand Christian faith.” When you have someone wanting to burn Qu’rans and calling it Christian, it makes other Christian talk difficult. When you have a few people calling themselves Christians and arguing that the heart of the faith has something to do with the “white race,” it makes other Christian talk difficult. When you have Christians who assume that the two most pressing issues of faith in our national life are abortion and homosexuality, it makes other Christian talk difficult. It also makes other Christian talk necessary. Other voices are needed. Other testimony needs to be given.
Mark 7:31-37 is a wonderfully challenging story. It is a healing story and all such stories have their challenging aspects. The word “deaf” itself has fallen out of favor, but it is there in the story. Jesus heals a man who could not speak and could not hear. His ears are opened and his tongue is loosened. Then he makes this impossible request – don’t tell anyone! The man, the crowd witnessing all this – be quiet. Of course they cannot contain themselves.
That’s the kind of Christian word that needs to be spoken, testimony rooted in our own experience of a God who through Jesus touches our lives in deep and profound ways. I can tell a story about a boy who grew up in a family with an unchurched father, a boy for whom public speaking was not anything he aspired to – never on the speech team or the debate team – who gets up every week in front of people to talk about the Bible, Jesus, faith and God and even sometimes sings like the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz. I can tell you about how, on my worst days, when discouragement gets the better of me and the inner pain is deep, I take courage from the story of Jesus for whom things did not always turn out well. I can do what I need to do. I can find my way again.
Testimony is not about God fixing people. Rather, it speaks of God making wholeness out of human woundedness, human incompleteness. (Diana Butler Bass, Christianity For the Rest of Us, 141). I appreciate how, in her chapter on “Testimony” Butler Bass includes a couple.
One story shared in the book is of a man who grew up in an agnostic household. At age thirty-four, he came out as a gay man. He participated regularly in church, but did not readily share this part of his life there, and he felt somewhat disconnected. Anyway, he found himself at a meeting of church leadership, and his story goes from there. By the way, “Lillian” is the church pastor, pastor of a Congregational Church near Yale.
It was hot. I didn’t feel comfortable with the people there…. We started with a simple exercise: Lillian read a passage of Scripture about the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Good stuff. Then she asked each of us to write about a transformation in our own lives. I couldn’t think of a “safe” example, so I wrote about the personal transformation I experienced in coming out, in accepting myself as a gay man. No one had to know: I was writing this for myself. But when Lillian asked if anyone wanted to share their story, the Spirit moved me to volunteer. I didn’t know what would happen. There was a lump in my throat, my palms were sweaty. I took a leap of faith. It was a leap back from the wilderness into a new relationship with God, one based on my true nature. It didn’t hurt that no one gasped or avoided me: in fact I felt affirmation. In moving me to speak from my heart, the Spirit had also transformed my relationship with the congregation. I felt radiant, lighter than air. I felt I had found home. (136-137)
Talk rooted in our experiences of the grace of God in Jesus, we need that kind of thoughtful Christian talk in our world.
A group of disciples gathered around their teacher, peppering him with question after question about God. The teacher said that anything we say about God is just words, because God is unknowable completely. One disciple finally asked, “Then why do you speak of God at all?” and the master replied, “Why does the bird sing? She sings not because she has a statement but because she has a song.” (Anthony DeMillo story in Lamott, Operating Instructions, and Long, Testimony, 157) We have a song to sing.
And our song is a thoughtful song. Christian talk in our day and time needs to be testimony and thoughtful, reflective conversation. Thinking, contrary to some, is a Christian virtue. “Think about these things” we read in Philippians 8. If the world needs to hear Christians share genuinely from their heart, the world also needs Christians who can engage their brains and express their thoughts.
Unfortunately, church people often pit the mind against the heart. Some simply ignore the mind in favor of experience; others reduce intellectual endeavor to memorizing approved dogma or Bible verses…. Many churches encourage thinking – as long as you think like everyone else. As a result, much of American religion has a strangely circumscribed intellectual character, a sort of anti-intellectual intellectualism. (187) Having set that context, Butler Bass goes on to write about a different kind of Christian life of the mind. “Mainline pilgrims insisted upon the importance of intellectual openness to vital spirituality…. These mainline pilgrims linked intellectual curiosity with humility” (191).
Maybe that‘s the bottom line for genuine Christian talk, testimony, and conversation. We share our experience as just that, our experience, trusting that the story might be of help to another. And if not, that is o.k. God’s grace works in people’s lives in a variety of ways and we are humble enough to acknowledge that. Still we have a song to sing. In I Peter 3 we are encouraged to tell our story with gentleness (I Peter 3:16).
And we engage our minds in our faith because we are humbly open to the vast, complex and mysterious world. Who really wants to claim that we know all the ways God is engaged in that world? I Peter 3 also encourages us to combine “a tender heart and a humble mind” (I Peter 3:8). Intellectual curiosity is a part of spiritual vitality. Questions are as much faith talk as are affirmations.
The Scarecrow really is wise. He helps us acknowledge that sometimes we do speak without engaging our brains. In the end, however, he discovers that he had a brain all along and that it could be used for good – for thinking good thoughts, for speaking wisely and genuinely. Maybe the Scarecrow is some kind of saint in a Christianity for the rest of us. Amen.