17 Pentecost: Leaving the 100 Acre Woods

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I go away for one week
and someone slips in two awful readings.
Billy Collins is a saving grace, however.

Psalm 137 has an iconic beginning
and an horrific ending.
And Luke’s gospel story
has Jesus, who is talking to slaves
and horrendously poor peasants
who are de facto slaves,
and using them as fodder
in his parable.
I’m going to slip the noose
with these readings
and sneak into territory they imply
even if not directly.

There is that haunting cry:
”By the waters of Babylon
we sat down and wept…
How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a strange land?”

This is a cry,
a lament for what has been lost,
and a grief
transformed into bitter,
violent resentment
as we see at the end.

It is the lament of the exiled,
those who look back
to what was
and should have been
and land in a pool
of nostalgic vengeance.

We hear it today in our own world
rising up from the rubble
of lost manufacturing jobs,
union members who remember
how it used to be
before they were exiled
to a gig economy.

We hear it today
among Christian church-goers
who used to be a majority
with bulging congregations
and have been exiled to a secular culture,
in which one religion seems much like another
and none of them quite fit
with modernity.

We hear it today
among Liberal Arts academics
that used to carpet the floors and walls
of the academy
before their forced march
into a STEM wilderness where big incomes
for engineers and programmers
replaced pure knowledge for its own sake.

We hear it today
from the fear-festering pockets of White America
calling for or demanding a return to “normalcy”
when power and privilege never had to be
thought about because they were assumed,
and a multi-racial, mutli-cultural nation
sounds to them like exile.

Whoever or whatever brought us
to the places
we do not want to be,
“dash those little ones on the rock!”

Nostalgia soon morphs into resentment
leading to bitterness,
and arriving at vengeance.

But authentic faith,
the little mustard seed kind,
is a bulwark against nostalgia
for the way things used to be
and against the anger
that arises when brittle beliefs
crumble like autumn leaves.
Faith, as we know,
has nothing to do with beliefs.
Beliefs are things we pad our minds with
in the hopes they will protect us.
Faith is something else altogether.
In that whacky and weird parable
Luke has Jesus tell,
there is a similar kind of bitterness
beneath the apostle’s plea
for Jesus to increase their faith.
They want more…they want protection.
When they don’t get it —
when faith turns out to be something else —
they will be bitter
and wander away.

Crushed by grief,
endangered by trauma and tragedy,
raked across loss
as all of us have
or will be,
how can we have faith?
How can our faith survive
the ordinary ravages
of an ordinary life?

This is the question
posed by Psalm 137
and Luke’s funky little parable.
(Well, maybe it is the question posed
and maybe it is just my take on them.
But either way,
this is where we arrived today).

It takes us back to bedrock,
to the place we cannot dig any deeper.
So let’s revisit it.

We start with an ancient Hebrew word.
You will remember it
because I bring us back to it often:
‘Emunah (em-oo-nah).
It means a fierce
and ferocious holding onto.

was a word they used
to describe the experience
— the experience not the idea — of “faith.”

You see, faith
was not an intellectual set of beliefs
for our ancestors,
it was ‘Emunah:
a holding onto God.
It indicated a fierce and ferocious
grasp on the experience
of God.

‘Emunah – holding onto God
and not letting go.

And of course, holding onto
and letting go are choices.
Faith is a choice.
More about that in a moment.

Billy Collins helps us
that wonderful yet
melancholy border
between childhood and the next phase,
whatever we want to call our next phase.
It is the phase in which
we choose faith or not,
because before that phase
we don’t have to choose.
In post-childhood
we have to choose to hold onto
a power greater than ourselves
in a life that is bigger
and more ferocious
than any single belief we ever have.

Do you remember the last scene
from the original Winnie the Pooh?

In it Christopher Robin
leaves the 100-Acre Wood
for the last time.
The 100 Acre Wood
is a metaphor for childhood
and reading it as an adult to a child,
we know he is never coming back.
The child we are reading to
doesn’t know it yet,
but we know
Christopher Robin
is never coming back.

At turning 10,
that first big number,
when we discover that we bleed,
and that mom and dad can’t always fix it —
and by extension
that mom and dad
cannot always protect us —
suddenly the world
seems a more dangerous place.

On the day we turn 10 — metaphorically —
or on the day we leave the 100 Acre Wood,
or on the day our parent dies
and we are still a child,
or on any day when the magic light
drains out of our bicycle for the last time
and we bleed,
is the day we arrive
at the border of ‘Emunah.

That is the day
when you and I have to decide
for the first time,
to choose God
or retreat into our nest of beliefs.
It is the day we know there is a choice.

Now please do not misunderstand me:
I am not talking about believing in God,
as in all the things
we were ever told about God
in Sunday School
or from the Nuns
or the Preacher.

I am talking about choosing God:
to hold onto
our “experience” of God.

You see, young children
do not have difficulty believing
that Mohammed moves mountains
and Jesus walks on water
and God protects us from disaster.

We do not have to work
to believe such things
because there is magic everywhere
when we are small.

The world is a magical place
before we arrive at that border.
But at that border
and beyond,
‘Emunah — holding onto God —
is that tiny mustard seed
of faith
that Jesus tells us
is powerful.

Holding onto God no matter what:
no matter how painful the loss,
no matter how depressing the outcome seems,
no matter how bleak the options appear,
no matter how confusing the events shake out.
Holding on…holding on…holding on…no matter what.

You see, faith is not a thing that protects us —
that if we have it
we will be safe
or rewarded
or protected.
It is a thing we hold onto…no matter what.

Faith is rooted
in our experience or experiences of God.
It doesn’t come
from what someone told us about God
or Bible stories about God.

That is where our beliefs
come from.

Our beliefs
are the ten thousand images
of how we want life to be
that cover the walls
of the cave or hut or house we live in.
Beliefs come from others
and are made up within our minds
and they help us make sense
out of a world
that probably does not make a lot of sense,
and beliefs help us to feel bigger
in a universe in which we are so small
as to be insignificant.

But when we have faith —
the kind the ancient Hebrews meant
when they used the word, ‘Emunah —
we know that our beliefs
are just beliefs.
We know it
and though it is a little scary
we can still live forward
because we are holding onto

is holding onto God
even when the pages of our beliefs
flutter by
and we no longer know
what to believe.
Not knowing what to believe
is okay
because we are holding on…holding onto God.

You see, most of our religious mistakes
come from the fact that we live
in an economic culture
in which everything of value
is transactional.
We ask of everything:
”What good is it?”
”What can I get for it?”
”How much is it worth?
”What will you give me for it?”

Which is what we also ask of faith.
But faith has no answer
for transactional questions.
does not buy us anything.
does not protect us from anything.
does not have value beyond itself.
Faith is simply the ability and choice
to hold onto our experiences of God
regardless of how far
they recede into the rear-view mirror.

Can we step into any hurricane
that surrounds us
and know, deep
in our bones,
that no matter what happens
it will be okay?
Not even that we will survive,
but because of God,
because God is good
and we are part of God,
we are and will be okay?

I think that is what it means
to hold onto faith.

No theology professor or spiritual director
ever told me that, but
it seems to me,
that mustard-seed faith
is about that kind of holding onto God
while letting go of beliefs
as our foundation.

Now I know we have to have beliefs,
it is part of the life of the mind
and human beings were given
beautiful minds.
But beliefs are not faith
and most of them will dissolve in a storm.
But an experience of God,
small or large
dramatic or quiet,
is enough to hold onto for a lifetime.

‘Emunah — hold on to it.