A Lovely Dwelling Place

Psalm 84

We sing the hymn about “how lovely is your Dwelling Place” and think about the beauty of the church’s sanctuary but this limits our vision. Sure, the psalm focuses on being “beside your altars” and we’re used to seeing God present in a particular building. This leads however to the mental habit of assuming that God is only present in a particular building. Even worse, we start to assume that God’s dwelling place actually is a building.

Now I love those buildings, and love to be in them whether people are gathered there or not, because the whole space speaks of God Present Among Us. But this limitation of God is… unhelpful/short-sighted/flat out dumb because it lets us pretend that God is ‘out there’ and not ‘in here.’ This is particularly surprising given the way the psalm mentions the highways to Zion that are in our hearts. (and yes for those who remember the 80’s, there is a song about that highway).

The psalm talks about going through the valley of trees and finding it a place of pools, of going onward strength to strength (or height to height) and seeing God. For those who remember, when we talk about God being seen upon the heights, there’s some rich biblical imagery involved. So this psalm which we would expect to be just about houses talks about journeys and hearts as well. And that, ultimately, is the point.

You see, the psalmist is indeed singing the praises of the place of God in life.But far from our bound view of where God can be, the place of God is more than walls, it is hearts. There’s even a hymn about this whose last verse includes the line “my heart an altar and thy love the flame.”

Our hearts are thus the dwelling place of God. For that matter, the whole cosmos is also the house of God, with  a moon like a sliver of silver, like a shaving that fell on the floor of a carpenter’s shop.” God is therefore on the hills around us, dancing on the heights, singing in the breeze. We taste God present in the water we drink and even in our longing for water. God is everywhere, softly, strongly present. And one of those places where God is, is our heart.

So what kind of dwelling is our heart? Is it  open, closed, hard, soft? How’s our spiritual spring cleaning coming along? Are we dreading the Dire Footfalls which precede that Eternal Question “would it kill you to clean up in here?” What does our life look like, what kind of altar is our heart upon which the flame of God’s love will burn?

If the highways to Zion are in our heart, if we are going on “from height to height” within our hearts as we go on this journey, then we are ourselves the dwelling place of God. And we are a lovely dwelling place no matter what we might think of ourselves.

We have developed (and in some cases, been given) images of what we are and how our being stands before God. Some images are of our life as Glorious Wonder, others would have us as Ugly, Dirty-Thing but all of them are our images. The image which God has for us is that we, our heart, our flesh, are a lovely dwelling place.

The psalmist explains that “blessed are those whose mightiness is in you” and although our translation uses “happy” the word “blessed” is just as true. Blessed are those who live in your house, blessed are those whose strength is in you, blessed is everyone who trusts in you. Thus the people who see their heart and life as God’s lovely dwelling place, are blessed in their seeing and in their living it out.

How lovely you are, God’s Dwelling Place.

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Conspiracy Gnosis

For those who don’t remember, gnosticism (which is still around) is based on the idea that the person has ‘secret knowledge’ (gnosis) which makes them superior to the ‘uninformed.’ The idea appeals to our pride and our sense of being ‘in the know,’ and ‘on the inside,’ the smugly superior ones with the knowledge rather than those sheeple who follow the shadow masters of the world.

We faced the same appeal when keeping seeeeecrets in middle school. They were so delicious. We knew something no one else did. We could go along in the day laughing up our sleeve at all those people who weren’t “in.” It made us feel special and superior and cool. (Eventually we discovered that most of the world didn’t care about our secrets and that those secrets could be an horrible burden, but until then, secrets were sooooo cool).

The conspiracy industrial complex thrives on this same impulse to know more, to consider oneself awake while every new else is sleeping. Additionally, once we’ve started down the road of conspiracy, the pressure to buy more conspiracy products is, understandably, extremely high. Skepticism directed toward the assertions of the theorist is “just what they want you to think.” For the theorist then, nothing ultimately can be simply explained or obvious, everything is a lie with dark hands holding the strings. But we know, we’re awake to all the darkness and they don’t so we’re better than they are.

Regardless of which brand of Secret Knowledge we follow, we cherish our secret knowledge and the joy of gathering with people who think ‘just like me.’ We look out smugly at the sheeple, the ignorant fools who do not know The Truth, the uninformed masses. We dismiss their questions by telling them to “get educated (you ignorant fool).” Because they don’t listen to the One True Preacher, listen to the Awake Media, or are unaware of The Truth, we dismiss them as idiots. We can be smugly ‘smarter than those people‘ and delight in our superiority.

That feeling of confident superiority is really the best test for when we’ve slid into dangerous territory. When the things we know make us  better than “the others,” we’ve stepped off a dangerous, and sadly too familiar, cliff.  We join all the smug, self-righteous jerks, crusaders, jihadis, and wild-eyed revolutionaries who treat with contempt anyone  uniformed enough to not be part of ‘the movement’.

No matter what kind of secret it is, treasuring the secret (and our supposed superiority that comes from it) without compassion for others leads us off into I’m-better-than-you land. We end up gnawing and biting each other just like the Corinthians did for seven chapters and then we run into Paul’s reply to that arrogance. Instead of overbearing smugness he says, meet one another with love and compassion.

In Romans Paul urges the ‘more informed’ to refrain from exercising their subjective ‘superiority’ for the sake of those who do not know. But he doesn’t exactly establish who ‘the informed’ are. Thus the ascetic vegetarians would refrain from their asceticism for the sake of the meat eaters (whom the veggies would consider weak) and the meat eaters are to refrain from their meat for the sake of their (supposedly weaker) vegetarian sisters and brothers. The biblical answer then to our temptation to smug, “informed” and fundamenally gnostic superiority, is to require our strength to give way to compassion for the others’ “weakness.”

Back when we were in middle school secrets made us ‘special’ and ‘better’ than ‘those people’ but we have put aside childish things. In fact, part of growing into the fullness of our humanity is a willingness to test the spirits that whisper to us, checking to see if they are inviting us to a false superiority based on the notion that “I’ve got a seeeeecret.”

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Our Itching Ears

2 Timothy 3.14-4.5

In this day of personal media we have the great power to scratch our itching ears. Don’t like the story? declare the news source “mainstream” or “corrupt,” invalidate it, and join up with the others who “know the truth.” Don’t like that page on Facebook? Block it. Don’t like what that person posts? Ignore them.

And then, ever so gradually, the truth of the world changes to match our prejudice. What we hear exactly matches and does not challenge our assumptions and so we never have to wonder if we might be wrong. We have, in short, found preaching that scratches our itching ears. And we like it.

Whether Alt-Right or Progressive, Conspiracist or Lame-Stream we fill our ears with the words we long to hear and rise up with pitchforks and torches if anyone should dare to speak against The Truth. But in doing so, we fall into the trap of believing our own personal mythology, our own custom set of lies about the world. And whether these lies come from our history “you’re fat'” “you’re stupid,” “nobody loves you” or from our chosen media sources “everything’s rigged,” “we’re being controled by (insert group name here),” the lies are still just that, lies.

We choose news source A and discount source B and find ourselves listening to Russia Today and never questioning why they uncritically accept what the Kremlin says about how everyone is against Russia or a terrorist. We find the BBC a congenial source and never notice that the site has been “simplified” for tablet use and populated with fluffy stories. The examples go on and on as our itching ears subtly shape what we hear.

This is not confined to news of course, we laugh at satire of other people but are upset when our own beliefs are targeted. We love to pass on memes that reflect our worldview but angrilly block pages and posts that go against our grain. In all of this, our itching ears find congenial scratchings and we like it that way.

How then are we supposed to deal with this problem? We like to have our itches scratched and dislike when our fur is ruffled. We seek comfort and avoid discomfort so how are we supposed to find our way out of the lies and into truth? Do we make ourselves choose whatever is least comfortable and go with that on the assumption that if it scratches our itch it must be bad? No, that’s just a way to be a masochist.

Instead, it is time to test the spirits that speak to us, because not every voice we hear is from someone who wishes our good. And how do we do this testing? By banging the messages we hear up against the writings, the testimony, the Scriptures that tell us about how God lives with the cosmos.

It is true that some of what we “know” about the bible is flat out wrong and other parts are misunderstood. It is also true that uncritically accepting what we were taught as kids is as sure a path to mental emptiness as uncritically rejecting it all. But in the midst of our certainties and uncertainties there is still a hard core of truth in the book. There is still the story of a God unwilling to be sidelined from our lives by our own stupidity and self-absorbption and determined enough to be with us as to choose human life rather than antiseptic edicts as the method of salvation of the cosmos.

It is finally going to be our willingness to wrestle with this God we do not understand, through the testimony of this book and our own experience of how God works with the world that we will come to know the truth. And this truth will both set us free of the comfy little lies and set us free “to run wild with the hope that this thirst will not last long, that it will soon drown in the song not sung in vain.

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Wrestling With God

Genesis 32.22-31

This is one of those passages where knowing the names and what they mean is vital to understanding what the text is saying. This is because the text hinges around the name game in verse 28. “No longer shall you be called Grabber (Jacob) but Struggles-With-God (Israel) because you have stuggled (Sraeet) with God (Elohim) and humans, and prevailed.”

What Jacob was doing, Sraeet, also at root means “persist, endure, exert oneself” or, since we’ve just had a wrestling session in the dark, “wrestles.” While his past name meant essentially “thief,” his new name I-Sra-El (Israel) quite literally means “One Wrestling with God.” He gets this name not by going off on some Spirit Quest or by thinking long, deep thoughts, but by wrestling in the dark. In other words, he gets this name because of his faith.

That’s because faith is something we do with our life rather than simply something we assent to with our head. In other words, Jacob becomes Israel the same way we do, by wrestling in the dark with this mysterious God we do not understand. And yes, I said that we too become Israel.

This is because, given the whole history of human life and the volumes of theories we have offered to Explain It All, in the end we all find ourselves wrestling with this Mystery we call God. It is big, and awesome, and other. It is blow your mind complex and unknowable and yet we persist in worrying it like a terrier with a bone.

The 12 Step programs talk about “the god of our understanding” as a shorthand way of talking about the holiness, the otherness that is described as a benevolent force in life without demanding that this force be identified with any particular shape of god which we may know or understand in the world around us. It is ‘what we understand as god without putting a particular face on that god.’ Since the whole idea is a massive mouthful, the shorthand is “the god of our understanding.”

Behind that god however, is the god I do not understand, the god in mystery, in other words, the God Jacob wrestled with by the Jabbok. He wrestled in the dark with this intimate mystery he could not see or know and yet he held on with everything he was, he persisted, he endured, he exerted himself and in the end he prevailed.

It was intimate work because there is no credible way to wrestle that does not include getting right up close in the other person’s buisiness. It was a mystery because he could not see or even hope to completely know the one with whom he wrestled, but he persisted, he endured, he kept at it when he wanted to stop and in doing so he became Israel, the one who struggles with God.

Part of the promise of the life of faith is that there will be time where we find ourselves at our own Jabbok, wrestling with this one we cannot know and yet will not let go. When that happens, we are both in good company, and in a safe place because the God who wrestles with us will not let us go until we receive the blessing.

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In their Going, Healing

Luke 17.11-19

One of the challenges of the life of faith (and life itself, for that matter) is going out into life before we are “ready.” We decide that things have been bad lately so we need to ‘catch our breath’ or ‘get our head on straight’ before we can do whatever. We say things like ‘I’m not quite ready yet’ or find ways to linger where we are because we just haven’t ‘gotten it together.’

But while we’re lingering on the edge of the steps to new life, life is going forward. Our present tick tocks into the past at a steady sixty seconds per minute regardless of what we do or don’t do. But it is scary to step out and do something new when we aren’t absolutely sure that what we’re doing is going to work. This is part of why when groups  are confronted with a task they tend to look out the corner of their eyes at each other hoping someone else will go first.

In a sense, the lepers who met Jesus in “some village” along the way to Jerusalem are on that same precipice, that same edge. They are ritually unclean and cry out for Jesus to have mercy on them. His answer is not the expected ‘stand up, call upon God, wave the hands over the spot and have it be cleansed’ which is the expected mode of healing time out of mind. Instead, he tells them to go and show themselves to the priests and the rest is left up to them.

They have a word “go and show” and nothing else. There is no promise ‘do this and be healed’ no ‘when you get there, you’ll be OK.’ Nope It’s just “go and show.” Someobdy had to go first, the bible doesn’t record who it was or how long they lingered waiting for something more to happen, some sign that ‘everything will be OK.’ But eventually the did go and something happened in their going.

The NRSV misses this point because they are trying for a fluid translation but the Greek is clear: “And it happened, in their going, they were cleansed.” The phrase starts kai egeneto which we use for “and it came to pass” in other places in scripture. It goes on to say that what happened, happened in (was located in) the going of these people. The verb is infinitive here but the point is actually clear, it is in (within) the going of these lepers that they were healed.

The one who spoke that healing is Jesus himself and the power for healing is most definitely God’s but it happened when they did the work of walking in trust. They, to borrow a phrase from the 12 step program, “acted as if” the promise was true and they found that it was in fact true.

This then is how this story connects to our lives. We have been given promises of life and newness through Jesus Christ and find ourselves at times teetering in the brink of actually believing this stuff and living it out. The whole idea of giving our entire, deep life into the hands of God is difficult and counter to our experience. It takes our whole life to do it, and we have to step into that dark not-knowing-if-this-will-work with only the desire to know and be known but it is in the process of walking in faith that there is healing.

Therefore, it is time to let go of the shuffling on the verge of life, watching to see who else will take the step and take the step for ourself because in our going there is the healing we seek.

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We Get to Tell Our Story

In the Narnia stories Aslan has a standard reply to people who want to know about someone else. “No one is told any story but their own” he says. But why? We ask, what happens to them? Don’t they get punished/blessed/something else? But Aslan stays firm. No one is told someone else’s story.

In the modern ‘”I must know every minute bit of information about your life and likes” world, this comes across as downright unfair. We’re completely comfortable venting our life on Facebook, spamming our meals on Instagram and reading about some celebrity’s dog walking service while perfectly coifed former teen queens hyperventilate about it on the local “news” channel. Of course we should know everything about everybody else (but don’t you dare invade MY privacy!) So Aslan’s stance seems just plain mean. Of course it is also a rather positive thing because it insists that because people have their own story to tell and because they have that particular story to tell, they get to tell it.

That then is the real point I draw from his saying. Because it is our story and we know it best we’re the only ones who get to tell our story. Abusers and siblings and enemies and friends will all try to tell our story, but we’re the ones who get to tell it true. This is important for several reasons, the simplest being that no matter what you or I think about your story, it is yours alone. You have the power to tell it, to shape it, and to make it live. I can relate what I see but it is still your story.

And then there’s the corollary: because you are the only one who gets to truly tell your story, if someone wants to know your story, ask you. As a Clergy Weenie/God Botherer/Pastor, I hear a lot of stories and can be encouraged to believe all kinds of things about others. But I have learned it is best to start with you telling your story. In fact, while there may be other people most willing to tell your story, their tales all get put on the shelf marked ‘treat with care.’ You get to tell your story, you get to tell the whole story and your story has first rights to be heard.

It may be true that the story is full of self-serving distortions (like “I’m basically a good person”) and may be based on lies we were told or false assumptions we have made. But we still get to tell our story. Once we tell it we do get to evaluate it and others can help us understand what may be going on behind what we see, but it is still our story.

In fact, in a larger sense, the whole of our life is the story we tell. We interpret the events of our life in this or that way, turning defeat into triumph and back again as our words and moods shape and turn. Other people will try to tell us our story “you’re fat,” “you’re stupid,” you’re perfect” but their telling only has power when we agree with it. This is why it is good to test the stories we are told and the stories we tell about ourselves to see if we are truly telling our best story.

We get to tell the story, we get to tell the whole story, and ours is the voice that tells it true.

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