Sunday, August 15, 2010

"So What I Said Was..." -- Obama and The Mosque

I got this email from one of my sisters today.

"Obama slammed, praised for backing NYC mosque. Barack Obama was compared to America's first president and castigated as "insensitive and uncaring," after defending plans for a mosque near New York's ground zero."

"Brent, I was wondering how you feel about this? I am trying to understand his rationale, and hosting an iftar dinner when he would not host the National Day of Prayer recently."

For some reason, her question struck a chord in me -- mostly because it's a good question. How do I feel about that?

Here's what I said (leaving out all our names and endearments and other personal stuff and adding a clarifying remark or two) --

I have mixed emotions about this whole scenario -- especially the mosque. As a matter of religious rights in our country, I agree with his statement that Muslims, like any other religion, have the right to build houses of worship where ever they want to (so long as they obey all the building laws).

I also agree with that he was not saying that the Muslims building a mosque there was a "smart" decision -- “I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding."

I think the Muslim group is being politically/socially insensitive to build a mosque there (given that feelings -- right or wrongly run high about that ground)... but that they do have the right to (so long as they obey all the zoning laws, get the permits, etc).

I'm not sure how I feel about the National Day of Prayer thing. The National Day of Prayer is not a holy day/month observed by a specific religion -- like Ramadan, or Passover, or Easter or whatever. President George W Bush was the only one to hold observances at the White House -- even President Reagan who got it going (President Truman signed it into law in 1952, but it was largely ignored until the 80s) didn't have anything at the White House.

It is an interfaith day of prayer supposedly, so I don't see what the harm would be in having a ceremony at the White House. Reportedly, Thomas Jefferson was the first to host an iftar dinner and it is a custom of modern White House dinners -- as they do host seder dinners, Christmas dinners, and other religious dinners. Personally, I don't think any "religious" dinners -- regardless of the religion -- should be held at the White House as a public event. Separation of church and state and all that. If the president wants an Easter dinner, for example, he should have one in the private quarters as private meal for his family and friends.

If he or she (whoever the president is in the future) wants to attend an iftar or seder, it seems to me it should be at a mosque or synagogue -- a religious place for a religious ceremony. The same would be true of National Day of Prayer event -- go to the National Cathedral or neutral ground like Nationals Park (the baseball field) or some such place.

Perhaps I'm just a cranky old Quaker (okay, so I am a cranky old Quaker), but state involvement in religion has long been bothersome to me. Almost 400 years ago, the state (both England and some colonial governments) had no problem locking up, exiling, and even hanging people for being Quakers. They said where we could meet and where Meetinghouses could (or could not) be located. I had hoped we had moved past that... but evidently Bob Dylan was wrong. The times, they are not a-changin.'

-- Brent

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Mouse and the Deere

The heat and humidity has been brutal here in Indiana for the better part of ... well, all summer! At the start of last weekend though, there was a bit of a break and so I refilled all the fuel cans, put diesel in the John Deere, fired him up and headed out to mow.

It had a been a few weeks since I had used Deere John and, frankly, I had put him away dirty after mowing hillsides. I was low on fuel and my biggest concern was not cleanliness but fuel-ishness -- I wanted to make sure I got back to the barn. So I decided to hose the various seeds and schtuff stuck in the grill so John could breathe well before heading to the lower field.

I thought I had detected some scurrying sounds in close to the tractor when I mounted up and when I stopped by the water hydrant, out of the engine compartment scampered a cute little field mouse. I watched him head through the grass to safety under the fence close by the hydrant.

He had evidently taken up residence next to John's engine. I opened the hood and there was a nice little mousie nest there -- but it was awfully close to the fan blade and various pulleys and belts.

I wondered why he built there? Maybe because it a tight little place and Ebony the cat, who likes little mice in a way much different than I do, can not get there. But poor mousie's house was not nearly as safe as he thought, as he found out when the diesel clattered to life.

For some reason the Jesus' story of the foolish man who built his house upon the sand came to mind. I thought about that man. Did the sand look safe? Far from the river ... perhaps some sandstone? Then the floods came and his house crashed down.

Of course, Jesus goes on to talk about the wise man who built upon the rock. How'd he know it was a good rock? How'd he know it wasn't sandstone that could crumble or slate that could split? The mouse thought Deere John was a rock. It had been there awhile. Wasn't moving. Was solid. Safe. Well, at lease to all rodent appearances. But he was wrong.

And I thought of times that I had built upon "rocks" that looked solid -- friendships, business plans, and the like -- which turned out to be. So I am a man (from a Bible story) or a mouse?

Mostly a mouse, I guess. But trying to learn to be a man of faith -- and to be able to tell the Rock from rocks.

-- Brent

Sunday, August 08, 2010

"So, What I Said Was..."

The following is one of the sermons I delivered recently. Someone suggested that I occasionally post them, so here's what I said at Mooresville (IN) Friends this morning...

How Good Is Good Enough?
Galatians 5:1-15

“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area we call “The Twilight Zone.’”
We present for your consideration that a man dies and wakes up a moment later at the end of a long line. At the front of the line he sees two doors — one marked heaven, the other marked hell. There’s an usher present and he keeps saying, ‘Move along, keep the line moving. Choose either door, heaven or hell, and walk in.’

The man approaches the usher and asks, ‘What happened to the Last Judgment? Where are my deeds weighed and measured? Where am I told if I am a good person or a bad person?’ The usher replies, ‘You know, I don’t where that story ever got started. We don’t do that here. We’ve never done it. We don’t have the staff to do that here. I mean, look, ten thousand people arrive every minute. I’m supposed to sit down with every one and go over his whole life? We’d never get anywhere. Now, choose either door. Choose heaven or hell, and go in. I don’t want to see you again.’

The man then shrugs and walks through the door marked hell.

This old television drama points out one of humankind’s greatest dilemmas. How do we know when we’re being good enough? What’s the standard by which we are judged – by ourselves or by God? Certainly the man on TV decided he hadn’t been good enough. That’s why he chose the door he did. And while, for a moment, we may be amazed at his selection, when we thing about it longer I have a feeling that many of us would make the same choice. When we judge ourselves against society’s standards, or those of business colleagues or acquaintances, we may feel do okay. We may even feel pretty good. We don’t lie or cheat or steal from our bosses. We don’t do things that border on the unethical, even if they are not unlawful. But when we look at the end of our lives, we’re left wondering if we were good enough. And that’s because we know our own hearts and minds. We know in our innermost selves that we often miss the mark – even if we question exactly what that mark is.

Are we good enough? There is certainly ample evidence to say that we aren’t. A quick reading of the Bible seems to say it’s pretty hard to be good enough. We especially find the Old Testament full of laws and behavioral proscriptions. The books of Leviticus and Dueteronomy are studies in how rigid the standards for daily life for the people of God were. In these books we find laws about sin offerings, guilt offerings, war, duty to a brother’s widow, chastity, jealousy, feasts and more – and these are on top of the famous 10 Commandments. In addition to the law written in the Old Testament, Israelites had codified laws about the Law. For example, in Jesus day there were over 400 proscriptions for the keeping and breaking of the Sabbath – all in explanation of that one law.

In the New Testament, Jesus calls us to an even higher standard. He tells us even our thoughts subject us to possible judgment. And then he gives us the “blesseds” and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. How in heaven’s name can we ever live up to all this?

That is both the dilemma and the way out. Because, truth be told, I think most of us want to live up to all that. We know that there is something in the very deepest part of our being that calls us toward God and lives of positive goodness. We want to live moral lives that are positive examples of faith. We try to live as such. But we, like the apostle Paul, find ourselves doing things we don’t want to do and not doing the things we know are right. For most of us, the question of how good is good enough is serious one. It’s not one to try and get us off the hook, as in “how much can I get away with?” No, for those of us who want to be considered the friends of Jesus, the question is “what must I do to find favor in the eyes of the Lord? How good must I be to hear those words ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant?’”

We submit for your consideration another story. The tale is about a man in high authority. He’s the chief executive of his country. One day he spies a beautiful woman and desires her. He makes arrangements for her to come to him. She becomes pregnant. To try to cover his act, he calls her husband home from the country’s war and grants him leave. But the husband feels guilty for leaving his comrades who are locked in combat and so doesn’t sleep with his wife. The leader of the country then sends him to the thickest part of the battle, hoping he will be killed. His wish is granted, the husband is killed, his sin covered and nobody is the wiser. At least that’s what he thinks.

Then a man comes and tells him a story of rich man who steals poor man’s much loved pet and uses it for his own selfish gain. The ruler is incensed and says the rich man deserves to be punished because he had no pity on the poor man. And the visitor replies “You are that man.”
This, unlike our first account, is no Twilight Zone story. It’s from the Bible, II Samuel to be exact. It’s the story of David. And by the Bible’s own standards, which David accepted, David is not good enough. When he hears the words “You are that man,” David answers back “I have sinned against the Lord.” He knows he is guilty – and he has pronounced judgment upon himself. But the prophet Nathan says, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.”
Why? If David, the spiritual and temporal ruler of Israel, broke many commandments in his quest for Bathsheba and to cover his guilt, is judged not guilty, why? Surely he was not good enough. What made him good enough?

Well, for one thing, we read that the Lord loved him and called David a man after his own heart.

What makes the difference?

What justified David in God’s eyes was his attitude toward God. He sincerely wanted to follow God. He longed for God in depths of his heart. But his mind and desires, and not just for Bathsheba, frequently got in the way. His psalms, praises and devotion to God were counterbalanced by lying and duplicity and outright lust for life and power. Does this make him a hypocrite? I think not. Rather, it makes him human. One who struggles with the spiritual while living in the temporal. David is man who, like us all, is deeply flawed. David also deeply loved the Lord. And he was willing to acknowledge God and repent when he finally saw his actions for what they were.

That’s the good part about the question “How in heaven’s name can we ever live up to all this?” It is exactly in heaven’s name that we become good enough. The bad news is we can never be good enough – not on our own, anyway. The good news is, that in heaven’s name, we don’t have to be.

In our scripture lesson, Paul is telling the church at Galatia to watch out for those who use fulfillment of the Law as a mark of true faith. The people Paul is warning the church about want the followers of Jesus to obey the Law as a way of determining behaviour and a seal of Christianity. Paul tells the church, and us today, that it is though faith we are made righteous. Christ working in us in love is what justifies us in God’s eyes.

In theological terms, this is known as the doctrine of grace. In reality, it is hard for us to grasp. After all, it does seem to imply that we get something for nothing. That’s not the American way! Many of us act as if the saying “God helps them who helps themselves” is in the Bible. So the concept of grace is a tad bit unbelievable.

That’s true. It is unbelievable – but available. It is free, but it is not easy. What made God’s grace available to David, the early church and us today is a willing and contrite heart – an attitude that admits that we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. If we are honest, like the man in the television sketch, that is easy enough to own up to.

Grace lets us off the hook as far as ever being good enough. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. The early Quakers held that Christ’s will could be known and obeyed. We call ourselves Friends after the verse in John 15, “You are my friends.” The verse doesn’t end there, though. We are the friends of Jesus, according the rest of that verse “if you do what I command you.” Grace then, as a guide for practical living, allows us to try to live lives that model as closely as possible the teachings of Jesus and while realizing that we will inevitably miss that high mark, we still find favor in the eyes of the Lord. We cannot, on our own power, ever be good enough.

David wasn’t. We will not. We don’t have to be.

What does the Lord require? A contrite heart and a willingness to follow him. We need to love God and be as good as we can. With God’s help we can be better than we think. And ultimately, if we learn to rest in God’s grace, that will be good enough.

And that’s no Twilight Zone story. And news I need to hear.

-- Brent

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Cult Alert -- From Rural Indiana

Since I have been asked about this a number of times over the past few weeks, I thought I would say "Yes" the worship group that gathers at our farm continues to meet. Nancy's kids (all adults) call it the "Cult" -- as in, "Is 'The Cult' meeting this Sunday evening or can we come over?"

While our summer schedule has been a little erratic (due to vacations and Yearly Meetings and other things), we do have two gatherings planned for August -- the 8th and the 29th.

The group has been meeting for a few years now. It started (and continues to be) based on Spirit-led Quaker worship. No agenda except that which arises from God's moving within those who gather. We have agreed on a principle of theological hospitality, too -- which means that all are welcome regardless of their theological leanings and are encouraged to speak in their language (Evangelical, liberal, whatever) about their spiritual experience.

We never know how many will be there -- three or twenty. The only thing I know is it seems that God has been at work bringing together the people that need/should be there on that particular evening.

Likewise with what happens there. There is no set format. Our unprogrammed stuff is not even slightly programmed ... there is no pattern. Sometimes there's lots of silence. Sometimes there's lots of talk. One time we watched a movie ("Lord Save Us from Your Followers"). The last time we met, the sharing focused on forgiveness -- our role in forgiving, the other's role in seeking forgiveness, the cost of forgiveness, and more.

We also never know what religious traditions will be there -- what variety of Quakers and others. Pastoral? Unprogrammed? Christocentric? God-centered? Not everyone who gathers is Quaker, either. We have a few Methodists and others who are regulars.

One of the questions, in addition to is the group still meeting, I've been asked, too, is "Can anyone come?" One time, I said, "No. It is just for people I like." The person who asked the question said, "Oh..." and acted disappointed. I had to laugh. What kind of theologically hospitality could be extended if we had a closed group? So, "Yes! Anyone can come." If you feel led, make your way out to 6960 E. Hendricks County Rd, Mooresville, IN at 6:30 p.m. on the 8th or 29th. There are no guarantees about what worship will be like that night. But then, isn't that the way of the Spirit?

-- Brent

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Quakers in the News

My Google alerts (the same service that told me about the invasion of Russian Quaker hordes) recently sent me notice of these headlines, both of which I found a bit troubling.

Blue Quakers I have 2 quakers ready now and two more coming up..They are tame and loving and looking for their forever homes..They are also banded[deleted]

Well, I have been around some Quakers lately and they I wish they had been tame and loving. Well, at least loving. I doubt that Quakers are ever tame -- is not the nature of our spiritual experience. And I wonder if they are blue because they are "banded." We Quakers don't tend to like being banded, smacks too much of credalism.

male &female baby quakersI need to rehome 2 baby quakers I live in jersey and they are ileagel here and I did not know this when I got them if you are interested please contact me [delete]

It's a wonder these Quakers are not blue. Banned in New Jersey! In this day and age. Yes, we Quakers were hung in Massachusetts, but had been holding Meeting for Worship in New Jersey since the 1680s. How terrible that baby Quakers are now illegal. What brought this around? At least I have learned a new word -- "re-home." Guess it is like re-gifting, except more extreme. Well, send those little Quaker kids to Indiana. Lots of wide open space here -- and we're more tolerant (never thought I'd said that!), too! Of course, it is the Midwest so we will have to keep the male and female Quakers apart. As the rules at Quaker camp used to say -- "no dancing" and "no mixed bathing." (Like I wanted to take a bath with a girl as a kid at elementary school camp anyhow!).

-- Brent

Monday, August 02, 2010

Indiana State Fair -- And the Jury Says...

For those of you who have been wondering (like I have) how my photographs fared (shouldn't that be "faired") at the 2010 Indiana State Fair -- well, they fared fairly well. Of the three I submitted, two won honorable mentions.