3 Easter 2017: When you stop is where you stop

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“How could I know the moment I moved
within except in retrospect?”

In seminary
we are given the analytical tools
to put small passages and stories of the Bible
through an historical and literary MRI.
The hope is such tools will help us see
the soft tissue on textual bone,
so that we might be able to decipher:
what the original author’s intent was,
and how the original audience heard and understood it,
and even how many contributors there might have been
as the text evolved over time to its present form.

Then there is the question of how the text
was understood over the centuries by later theologians,
and doctrinal advocates,
and eventually preachers and teachers and scholars.
All of that is 20th century scholarship
and it is still being taught
and touted
and valued.
But it now seems like a wobbly WWII bomber
compared to a 21st century stealth wing.

That kind of 20th century biblical scholarship
is still valuable as a counter-weight
to the whacky biblical literalism
that arose in the 20th century,
in reaction
to academic theological analysis of the text.

But we are light years away
from pre-WWII German biblical scholarship
like Karl Barth;
and where we stand in 2017
is an experiential leap away from
the great 20th century theologians like Paul Tillich,
C S Lewis,
Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
Reinhold Niebuhr,
and Jürgen Moltmann.

They now represent the big ideas
and eloquent rhetoric
of a world long dead and gone.

Think of the intellectual,
and imaginative distance
between the world before Hiroshima
and Auschwitz
and the world after it.

I am not talking about the physical world
so much as the human perspective –
the mind’s eye.

Or another example: take just a moment to consider
the difference between the political context
before the assassinations of JFK, MLK,
Bobby, and Malcolm,
and then the post-Nixon context.

There is an awesome and terrifying distance
between perspectives on the human condition
before the Moonwalk
and more recent images of the ice shelf melting.

Stand for just a moment in your memory,
or your imagination if you are younger.
Conjure up the difference in worldview when,
in your left ear you are waiting minutes
for an operator to connect you with another party,
and in your right hand,
with your thumb,
you posted a tweet…
that two thousand people
on six continents will read
within seconds.

My friends, those are different worlds,
and they are just barely connected,
like a spinal fracture
exposing a thin strand of nerve.
The distance is so great
it has utterly changed the human mind
and what the brain sees and imagines.

Now, if you are touching the enormity of that distance
and can feel our historical dislocation
from what came before us,
even though just a little bit ago –
even though you may have lived through it yourself –
then let’s add one more layer.

At this present moment in the history of humankind,
we have at least three centuries of human mindset
double and triple exposed
one on top of the other.

At one and the same time,
looking around the world
and even in our own country,
we have people living within the assumptions
of the 19th century,
and others within the worldview of the 20th century,
and still others in the 21st century.
At one and the same time,
we have human beings sharing the same planet
but seeing the world around us
from totally separate experiential frames –
even though sometimes
all of us are using the same super modern technology.

So, for example,
Educational institutions designed in the 19th century
are straining to hold together
like hundred-year-old bridges carrying the weight
of more traffic than we ever dreamed of.

A two hundred year old financial system
is doing things that it can’t control,
known and unknown,
unexpected and unanticipated,
because the speed of wealth and capital transfer
makes much of past institutions irrelevant.

The international Christian denominations,
what we call “The Church” –
like Roman Catholicism, Anglican and Episcopal, Orthodox, and Lutheran –
all of which were originally designed
from the prototype of an empire…
now seem like a dry, dead coral reef
where the ocean has receded and left it as a ghost
of a once vibrant ecosystem.

Change can be merciless like that,
especially to those organisms,
and ideas
that tether themselves
to stationary objects
in hopes of preventing change.

Let me use a painful Church example
that I know is near and dear
to many hearts here.
Classical music.
3% of the population
listens to Classical music.

What happens then,
to a Church with worship
that is tied exclusively
to European Classical music tradition?
It becomes that dry, exposed reef
whose watery environment receded.

But misery loves company.
Evangelical mega-churches
that adopted American pop music formulas
with which to create praise music
and love songs to Jesus,
are having the same struggles –
in part, because,
while they innovated twenty years ago
they have not continued to shift with the culture.
Music and culture never stops evolving.

But church growth
and church survival
is not really the tail I want to wag today.
It is just an interesting implication
I wanted to point out
because you and I will be facing decisions
about what to do about it
sooner rather than later.
And just to ease anyone’s anxiety about music,
it never has to be either/or,
rather, it can be both/and.

But I mention all of this
because what we call “secularism”
is something that every person of faith
needs to contend with,
sooner or later,
and with varying degrees of intensity.

It is not about science and technology
erasing the need or capacity for faith in God, either.
That is a giant misnomer
and misunderstanding of both science and faith.

Many of the most brilliant and agile minds
in the world of science,
retain deep personal reservoirs of awe
in which they also can imagine God.
Some of them have personal faith experiences.

The threat to faith
is not science and technology
it is neglect.
When we neglect to expand,
adapt, and change
the mindset and imagination of our faith as we change,
then our faith becomes brittle,
dry, and eventually, lifeless.
There is a reason
that ritual and sacrament
can become rote,
and then empty of content.
We must refresh it
even as we are refreshed by change.
We must bring our new
and renewed imagination
to the questions
and rituals of faith
if indeed we want them to survive
as powerful influences in our lives.

We have to work at it,
and do something about it,
and give it attention,
and nurture,
and exercise.
When we stop is where we stop.
When I was a freshman in college
I was struggling to keep up,
and one of my professors offered her students
a speed-reading course.

When I was tested at the beginning,
I had an 85% retention rate
but my speed level was at 3rd grade.
I felt humiliated when I found out,
but was told it wasn’t unusual.
In part, I was told,
it is because we stop teaching kids
“how” to read in 3rd grade.
So many kids like me stopped learning to read
around 3rd grade and and simply read.

So when did you stop your intentional learning
about spirituality and religion? Or did you?

Most of us were taught
that faith is a fixed point on the horizon –
a particular idea
that when we come to embrace it,
THEN we “have” faith.
But that is not faith;
that is a belief.

We “believe” in ideas
but faith is something altogether different.
It is experiential, as I said last week,
and it is something that is an organic part of us
that grows as we grow
or shrivels with neglect as the rest of us grows.

“How could I know the moment I moved
within except in retrospect?”

Faith grows in the imaginative,
and emotional sphere
of our personhood.

We must constantly tend to it,
seeking new metaphors to embody it
just as we continue to collect
new music we hadn’t heard yet,
or new poems
or new novels we hadn’t read yet,
or ingested new visual art we hadn’t seen yet.

God as envisioned by CS Lewis
probably isn’t big enough in 2017.

And Christian spiritual practice
as articulated by Dietrich Bonheoffer
might continue to inspire us
but isn’t voiced quite right for 2017.

Imagining God as a cosmic ecosystem though,
given what we know about biology
and environmental science, might work for us.

God as an improvisational jazz musician,
riffing on familiar as well as unique patterns
but always unexpected and mysterious,
instead of than controlled and rationalistic – that
might work for us.

But keeping our faith vibrant in the midst
of a highly secularized culture,
requires us to be intentionally
and continually reflect on our experiences –
“How could I know the moment I moved
within except in retrospect?”

Being open to new experiences is vital,
but then reflecting on them
and allowing those experiences to form and change us
is also crucial.

The fact is,
mostly I do not care any more what Luke
wanted his audience to believe,
and mostly I do not care any more
how our understanding of this text
has changed over time.

What I care about
is whether or not this text
speaks to us
now –
in the highly global,
rapidly shifting
technological environment
that threatens us
with a wide array of human-sourced hazards.

What, if anything,
can Cleopas and company
shout to us
that we can still hear
across the chasm of time?

It is the reminder
that when we keep our imagination fresh,
our hearts and minds open,
and we actively attempt to adapt
to the changes taking place around us,
that God will be able to pierce even our resistance.

Mostly in retrospect,
we will be able to see the shadow and outline
of a presence we didn’t quite register at the time,
and we will be amazed and grateful.

Knowing it,
whenever we see it,
will change us
and keep us supple, adaptive, and open.

That is as true for a congregation
as it is for each of us as individuals.

So fire up
the imagination;
open up
the heart and mind;
start stretching now
and get that spiritual muscle flexible.

We’ve got change to ride
and it’s a bull!