Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Boundary of the Ocean
Rob Gieselmann, Pent. 24B, Oct. 18, 2015

Seven or eight years ago, I kicked a sabbatical off with a short camping trip. I drove to Big Sur, and pitched my tent on a cliff, high above the Pacific Ocean.  The nights were deep and dark. No moon, no light pollution, only stars. Millions of them, their ancient light, piercing the eternal veil –

Several shooting stars flew high above, as I sat there, alone with God. One, and then another, and one of them flew so low above me, it seemed larger than any I’d ever seen before – Fiery orange, and the size of my fist, and I thought to myself – if I listen hard enough, I’ll hear it splash into the Pacific …
The thought was foolish, and the meteor landed miles away. I’m sure.  The stillness of that night, the holiness of that dark, and the only sound besides my heartbeat was the low rumble of waves that kept pushing in vain against the craggy coast. Those waves seemed to think they could alter the ocean’s boundaries. The swells moved in a cadence like marching troops, wave after wave after wave, but the army failed, and the shore didn’t budge, not even an inch. God was explaining to Job how foolish he’d been, God said of the oceans – No farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped. No farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped. To me, sitting high above it, the ocean seemed almost benign, only I knew better.
A roiled ocean emasculates and destroys. 

Growing-up in Florida, I learned to body-surf. October was always the best month for it.  The water isn’t winter-cold, yet, but the waves become large, when hurricanes flirt with the coast. To body surf, you have to yield to the wave, enter the wave’s fold, and if you do it correctly, the wave will carry you to the shore, and gently release you.  If you fight against the ocean, one of two things happens: either you won’t catch the wave, or the wave will slam you violently downward, against the ocean bottom, rolling you over and over. Complete chaos, and I wonder whether Jonah felt that chaos as he roiled around in the belly of the fish. I’m certain that’s the chaos Job felt with his life now upended. Before this, he had lived a harmonious life, abiding by all the rules. Do good, and you will receive good. But his rules betrayed Job. He felt as though swallowed by the waves, rolling over and over, thrust hard against the sand. To survive, Job needed to learn the lesson of the body-surfer, to let the waves enfold him. To enter into the chaos, rather than fight against it. He had to change. Before now, Job believed the same thing 90% of all religious people believe: That God was good -  because Job was good. Think about it – this faulty assumption placed Job at the center of his universe. God was good
because Job was good. But now, with waves crashing down on him, the perennial question became his question: Why do bad things happen to good people, and why do good things happen to bad people?

*Chaos theory is the construct that admits: not all of life is predictable. Not everything can be explained. The most obvious example is the weather – so many factors determine the weather, it is ultimately unpredictable – it acts chaotically.
Remember that time when Knoxville sunk to 24 below, back in 1985? Job – to survive - had to convert – to chaos theory, if you will, that he was not in control his life, that God or good or bad are not entirely dependent upon him. And sometimes – bad
things just happen. And when they do, God is still good.
All the time. *Theologians and scientists have parsed the relationship between religion and science in any number of ways – Anglican priest and physicist John Polkinghorne distinguishes between science and religion this way: science inquires into the physical universe – religion inquires into truth. To understand the distinction, you have to define truth as something distinct from fact. Truth does not equal fact. For example, The Genesis story claims God created the earth in six days. If that is a fact – as some people believe – then God created the earth in six literal days. But my junior high teacher taught me about evolution. Which is a scientific fact. Does the science of evolution render the Genesis story meaningless? To the extent the story claims to be science, then yes –  But it doesn’t claim to be science, it is a myth - a story not written for its factuality, but its truth. Six days, six thousand days, six quadrillion days – it doesn’t matter. What matters from the story is this: God is the breath of life – behind it all. And, God is a creator. Always a creator. Astronomer Owen Gingerich, takes a different tack from Polkinghorne, in his little book, God’s Planet. He says that science and religion overlap. That our understanding of one has always influenced our understanding of the other – The two cannot be divorced, one from the other. Science influences faith – for example, evolution has reminded us that the creation story need not be literal to contain truth.
And, faith influences science. Interpreting science, giving science and life meaning beyond cold fact. Because each influences the other, our understanding of God has evolved with the evolution of scientific thought. Which is exactly what is happening to Job  – his foundational belief that God is good because Job is good – has been challenged by fact. And let me insert here - the minute you think you understand God, God will resist you – and ask you the same question asked of Job: Were you there when I laid the foundations of the earth? Instead, the question of integrity – is the exploration question asked daily by St. Francis: Who art thou, O God, and Who am I?A question of integrity because the question never presumes its answer … James and John presumed to know the answer. Can we sit on your right and left in your kingdom? They asked Jesus. They presumed God planned to supplant the Roman occupation of Palestine. But God didn’t send Jesus to solve Israel’s political problems. And their very question reveals their need for spiritual evolution.  The kingdom of God, Jesus told them later, is within you.  An explosive and radical concept to men who wanted political change. Start with yourselves.
The ocean is bound not by rocky shore, but by the voice of God. And yet, the rocks keep the sea at bay. Which is it? The voice of God, or the rocky shore? Either way, I hear them, the troops of the ocean, swell after swell, and wave upon wave, crashing below me, as I sit alone with God on the cliff. Asking myself the question of Francis and of Job, Who art thou, O God, and who am I?

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Hope Defiant
Pent. 23B, 2015, Rob Gieselmann

I don’t know about you, but I’m wondering, why the rich man didn’t argue with Jesus.

Think about it – The man was honorable.  And unlike the Pharisees, he didn’t try to either manipulate Jesus or obfuscate the law for selfish purposes.  Instead, he lived a life Moses would have been proud of.  He was honest as the day is long, he didn’t commit adultery, and he brought honor to his parents.

And now he is seeking spiritual direction, and that from Jesus, the rabbi. Jesus loved him, Mark tells us.  Loved him, a phrase peculiarly out of place in this story, especially if the story is one only about money.  It is a story about money – but far more.
Upon loving the man, Jesus advised him to divest. Sell it all, and give the money to the poor, then you will inherit life.
But what I want to know – like I said – is this:  Why didn’t the man argue with Jesus?  Job argued with God, literally, like a lawyer.  He filed a complaint, a metaphoric lawsuit.  I have lived a righteous life.  He argued.

I have obeyed commandment from birth; exercised  my religion faithfully. Attended church every Sunday, if you will.  I should have been rewarded, not punished, yet here I sit on this mat my body wracked with boils, once rich, now destitute.  It isn’t right.  Where are you, God?  Job’s friend, Eliphaz, advised him to repent –  You must have done something wrong, or this wouldn’t be your plight.

*My wife Laura used to tell stories about family trips to the beach. The four kids would be piled in the backseat of the station wagon – They’d start bickering, and invariably Laura’s mom would swat her hand across the vacuum of the backseat –
That hand always seemed to catch Laura and not the others. She was the youngest, and couldn’t get out of the way fast enough.  Each time, Laura would protest, I didn’t do it.  To which her mother responded wryly,  Well, you did something to deserve that!

Eliphaz is saying to Job You did something to deserve your plight.  But Eliphaz misses Job’s point.  He has only God to whom to complain, but God has gone missing.  AWOL.  Absent without Leave.  And I wonder – how many times in your life have you turned to God in complaint, but God seemed to be missing.

*The translation is incorrect.  You just heard these words: If I go forward, God is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him.
Rather, Job is more poetic:  If I go eastward, God is not there;
or westward – still I cannot see him.  If I seek him in the north, he
is not to be found, invisible still when I turn to the south.

As if to say, I go east, and continue east, and yet cannot find the west. Think about it. God becomes the horizon, you move, and it moves, always beyond your reach. Where are you, Oh God?
Your soul cries out. Job’s soul cried out.

 *I want to know, why didn’t the rich man argue with Jesus like Job argued with God?  *Theologian Martin Buber
wrote this about Job – Job’s problem is not that his faith has broken-down.  Rather, it is that he has two faiths, not one.  One is a faith in justice – Job believes that justice will and must prevail. And the other faith – is in God.  Job believes in an all powerful, all prevailing God.  Which means, Job believes in justice despite believing in God, and he believes in God despite
believing in justice.  And right now – there is no justice.   Or, justice has fallen asleep.  And God seems AWOL.

***And here – and maybe you, too – here is when I think of people like Nelson Mandela and Elie Wiesel, for whom God went AWOL – both imprisoned unjustly, both freed later to lead subsequent remarkable lives.  Nelson Mandela – in South Africa – a lawyer who conspired with others to overthrow the legitimate yet immoral government of South Africa, Legitimate by law, immoral because of apartheid.  Mandela was imprisoned for twenty-seven years – 27, and you know, of course, that during at least  some of that time, he would have cried out at the injustice, cried out to God:  My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?

But God had not forsaken Mandela -  Twenty seven years, plus some, and Mandela became not only South Africa’s first black president, but also the man who brought spiritual peace to a divided country – engaging forgiveness through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  These days, Mandela is called the Father of the Nation.  And Elie Wiesel, who suffered as a boy in concentration camps that killed, literally killed, the rest of his family – and don’t you know he spent years following that experience wrestling with justice and God and darkness, and eventual light – In the end, he wrote about truth, and hope.  It was Elie Wiesel who said,  There are victories of the soul and spirit. Sometimes, even if you lose, you win.
Sometimes, even if you lose, you win –

And Job wrestling with his own demons, and darkness – and the absence of God – putting God on trial, not afraid to ask the hard questions of God – At the end of his quest, he and God reconciled, settled his lawsuit.  And to echo the psalm, his two faiths, in God and in justice,  kissed each other.  I don’t know about the injustices in your life. I can’t easily tell you where God is to be found – although I’m convinced she’s there .But I do know there is this thing called defiant faith. The rich man walked away from Jesus. He failed to engage. To argue, to question. Jesus loved him, and would have loved equally had he stood there and protested.  Indeed, Jesus himself would do exactly that with God, only later: protest – in the garden sweating drops of blood –  So Jesus loved the man,  And I have to say, I think it must have saddened Jesus to watch the man walk away.