28 February 2016

Accept Your Acceptance

Isaiah 55:1-9

Third Sunday in Lent

28th February 2016

Isaiah wastes no time. He gets right to the point.  How did your perspective get so skewed?  How did your values become so misplaced? How did your attitudes become so twisted, distorted, warped?  How?  Or, deeper, why?

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread? 
Why do you labor for that which does not satisfy?  
Why do you invest your life in that which does not feed your life? Why do you exert energy and waste time on that which 
             does not satisfy your soul? 

Isaiah is calling Israel­­—calling us—to a time of honest soul-searching. 

Now is the time to take stock of what matters and what doesn’t. Now is the time to reevaluate how we live,
       how we invest and spend resources. 
Now is the time to question our values. 
It’s a time to listen to our hearts, be attentive to the soul,
          give up surface living and go deep.  It’s Lent, after all.

Isaiah is calling Israel to conduct a moral examen, a season of self-examination, calling them to take stock of their lives.  And in love, with grace, he asks them:

Why are you sabotaging yourselves? 
Why are you undermining yourselves, saying that you want one thing, but going after another? 
Why are you looking for love in all the wrong places?
Why are you striving after that which will only leave 
         you disappointed?

Isaiah’s questions are all rhetorical.  He’s not asking because he doesn’t know the answer.  He’s posing the questions—an effective tool of rhetoric—to move the argument, to make a point, to cause the listener to stop and consider. He’s not waiting for Israel to answer.

Isaiah offers the answer; it’s actually contained in the question. Israel’s search for and striving after something, expending a lot of money and time and effort in the process, suggests that Israel really lacks something at its core.  There’s a desire and hunger at work here that cannot be satisfied, gratified, fulfilled.  It’s that hunger and desire that Isaiah wants them to be attentive to.  He wants them to feel the depth of their hunger, to feel the depth of their desire.  

For what do you really hunger?  For what do you really thirst?  What do you really desire?  These are critical questions because our hungers and thirsts and desires inevitably push, move, direct us down one road or the other, one way or the other. We could say, then, that Isaiah is inviting them to consider what’s really driving their lives, what are they really hungry for, thirsty for?  These are questions we need continually to ask ourselves.  They’re essential for the journey. 

What’s really driving you?
What’s really motivating you?    

Isaiah cries to them, “Ho, everyone who thirsts”—actually, being from New Jersey I prefer to say, “Yo!”  “Yo, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters,” thus extending the invitation to all of us (Isaiah 55:1).  The invitation stands: the water of life is here. But do you thirst for it?  Or are there other thirsts? Are you thirsty for this water?  Desire it?  Long for it?  Dream about it?  And, can they—can we—acknowledge what’s missing in our lives? Can we name what we crave?  Is it the hunger for God? 

It’s important to remember this bit of wisdom running through scripture: need, want, lack are all required in the life of faith.  Need, want, lack.  If you think you’re self-sufficient, think you need nothing, want for nothing, lack nothing, then don’t be surprised if God seems absent or unnecessary.  There’s a direct correlation between wealth and self-sufficiency and the decline of faith, particularly in North America and Western Europe.  There is a direct correlation between the rise of secularism and the growth of enormous wealth in the West.

What Isaiah is offering doesn’t come through us or from within us, it doesn’t come from what we can buy or because we’ve earned it; we don’t own it.  What we’re really looking for, hungry for, and need, cannot be found in what we have or within ourselves. We have to acknowledge that we are poor, because what God gives cannot be bought.  You don’t need money for this.  We don’t have the currency to obtain it.  What you need is your poverty, to confess what you lack.  Didn’t Jesus say, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). In Matthew, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).  Isaiah says, “You that have no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1).

And so Isaiah calls them to acknowledge their impoverishment, their need for God; he reminds them of God’s covenant with them, and he invites them back.  “Seek the LORD while he may be found…let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy…” (Is. 55:6-7). Seek and return.

But, still, there’s a nagging question embedded in this text.  What keeps them—keeps us—from accepting this gracious invitation?  Why does Isaiah have to remind and encourage Israel?  Shouldn’t they already know the generosity of God?  Shouldn’t they already be living in this life that Isaiah is inviting them to?  Shouldn’t we?

Yes, we all need these reminders.  We all forget what we know—which is a good definition of sin, forgetting what we know about God.  And, thus, we need help remembering.  We all go astray, every one of us, and we need to be brought back home—which is a good definition of grace.

What keeps us from remembering?  What keeps us from experiencing the joy of grace?  We could just call it sin, blame it on sin and be done with it.  But we can do better, we can go deeper. 

In my journey as a Christian, in my experience as a pastor, in countless conversations and classes and counseling sessions, there seems to be one major obstacle that prevents us from accepting God’s invitation.  It’s a barrier, sometimes a massive wall, high and thick, made of stone upon stone, stones of pain and hurt and regret and shame and disappointment and trauma.  It’s an enormous wall that we hide behind, a wall that encircles us, built to protect us further pain and hurt.  If we put words around this “wall” or “sin,” it might have something to do with the belief that we really aren’t worthy of such generosity, we’re not worthy of such an invitation.  Whether consciously or unconsciously, we all struggle with this. 
“I’m not good enough.” 
“I do not love enough.” 
“I’m not generous enough.” 
“I’m not enough enough.” 
“Isaiah’s invitation is for someone else who really deserves it.”

But that’s not what the text says.  Actually, what’s implied in the text and in the invitation is that we are worthy of such an invitation; otherwise we wouldn’t have been invited!  All we have to do is accept the invitation.  Accept your acceptance!

That’s how the great theologian Paul Tillich (1888-1965) beautifully expressed this, written decades ago in a sermon titled “You Are Accepted.”[1]  It’s a profound piece.  I remember first reading it almost thirty-one years ago—it was on March 25, 1985.  I know because I put the date I read it beside its listing in the Table of Contents.  I have returned to it many times. 

It’s really a sermon about grace, that moment when we are struck by grace and we get a glimpse of who we really are and who God is and what this stuff called “faith” or “religion” is all about.  You can’t plan for it, train for it, study about it, practice it, or buy it.  Grace strikes us, often at the lowest point of our lives, in moments of despair, when we’re barricaded behind that wall of not-enoughness. 

“At that moment,” Tillich wrote, “a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying,
‘You are accepted. 
You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, 
      and the name of which you do not know. 
Do not ask for that name now; perhaps you will find it later. 
Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much.  
Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything;
      do not intend anything. 
Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!’”[2] 

Tillich says, “If that happens to us, we experience grace.  After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before.  But everything is transformed.  In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement.  And nothing is demanded of us, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.”[3]

When we know in such moments that God has said, “Yes” to us, we are then free to say, “Yes” to the stranger, “Yes” to your neighbor.  And then we are free to say, “Yes” to ourselves, because that which is greater than us has accepted us.[4]  Perhaps we need first to accept ourselves—every aspect of ourselves, including the part that’s difficult to love—in order to accept our neighbors, especially the ones we find it most difficult to love or the ones that drive us crazy.

Accept your acceptance!

God extends an invitation—to you and me—to share in the very life of God.  Not once, but—thank God!—again and again and again, until we say, “Yes,” and accept the invitation and finally feast upon and in God’s abundant life.  May it be so!

[1] Paul Tillich, “You Are Accepted,” The Shaking of the Foundations (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948), 153ff.
[2] Tillich, 162.
[3] Tillich, 162.
[4] Tillich, 163.

21 February 2016

The Voice of the Heart

Psalm 27

Second Sunday in Lent

21st February 2016

We Presbyterians are a “heady” bunch. We’re one of the most educated denominations in the body of Christ.  We value education—at all levels.  We believe in an educating our ministers. I remember hearing as a boy that the call of a Presbyterian minister is the life of the mind in service to God.  Our seminaries are among the best in the world.  Yes, we are a brainy bunch of Jesus lovers.  We love to think, rationalize, and analyze our way into God’s Kingdom.

The downside to all of this is—we’re a brainy bunch of brainy Jesus lovers!  Sometimes we get stuck in our heads.  We can get easily lost in our ideas, impressed by the brilliance of our thoughts, enticed by the beauty of our theological expositions.  Sometimes we’re so good at analyzing something that we never get around to actually acting; we get caught in the paralysis of analysis. 

Yes, to be sure, a thinking faith is indispensable for a mature Christian life.  A thinking, critical, even rational faith is essential, especially in an age such as ours where there’s a lot of poor thinking going on in the Church, with Christians (some holding public office, others in the public square) saying a lot of foolish things. 

Thinking is required.  But we have to be careful that we don’t reduce the Christian experience into thought, turning Jesus into an idea, turning his teachings into ideas or principals, and, thus, turning Christianity into a philosophy.

Decades ago, it was George Macleod (1885-1991), founder of the Iona Community in Scotland, writing about his vision for the future of the Church who said, “The nature of the new order will be revealed not by the searchlight of high-powered brains, but in response to the obedience of convinced persons. …For Christ is a person to be trusted, not a principal to be tested.   The Church is a movement, not a meeting house.  The faith is an experience, not an exposition.  Christians are explorers, not map makers.”[1] These words have been at the center of my heart for a very long time.

“For Jesus is a person to be trusted, not a principal to be tested”—a person, a person with a heart.

It’s helpful for Presbyterians to remember Jean Cauvin’s (1509-1564) personal motto.  As our theological forebear, Cauvin or Calvin was a brilliant thinker, an industrious preacher, writer, and scholar.  Educated in Paris. Trained as a lawyer in Orléans.  He was logical and methodical in his theological expositions.  He was one of the brains of the Reformation.  He was one of the leading theologians of Church, along with Augustine (354-430) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and Karl Barth (1886-1968).  Yes, Calvin had a brain, a good one.  And he used it.  But what mattered most to himand this might come as a surprisehis heart. 

His personal motto was Cor Meum Tibi Offero Domine, Prompte Et Sincere, translated, “Lord, I offer my heart to Thee, promptly and sincerely.”  These words were linked with an image, the image of hand holding up a heart, a heart resting on an open, upturned palm, a palm offering to God a heart set on fire, “promptly and sincerely.” This became Calvin’s motto in 1541.  He was in Strasbourg at the time, after having left Geneva in turmoil.  But he was called back to Geneva in a letter from the reformer William Farel (1489-1565).  Calvin wrote back to Farel in August 1541, “As to my intended course of proceeding, this is my present feeling: had I the choice of my own disposal, nothing would be less agreeable to me than to follow your advice (to return to Geneva). But when I remember that I am not my own, I offer up my heart, presented as a sacrifice to the Lord…  Therefore I submit my will and my affections, subdued and held-fast, to the obedience of God;….”[2]

Yes, a thinking faith is good, but thought needs to be rooted in something deeper, it needs to be rooted in the heart. And as the psalmist knew, the heart must take the lead.

The psalmist cries, “Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!  ‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!’ Your face, LORD, do I seek. Do not turn your face from me” (Psalm 27:7-9).

“Come,” my heart says!   My heart says, “Come!”  The heart.  The heart has wisdom and a will, a desire.  In the Bible the heart is considered the center of the self, not the brain or the head.  Thought and feel and action all flow from the heart.  The heart is the core of one’s being.  The English word “core” has its root in the Latin cor, which translates “heart.”  You see this connection in French; the word for “heart” is coeur. In the Hebrew Scriptures the heart is the center, the core of the physical, emotional, and spiritual life of human beings.  The heart is the center of all vital functions, including intellectual life.  From a Jewish perspective, we could say that we think with our hearts.  The heart is the source of emotions and feelings.   It’s the center of our spiritual lives, our relationship with God.

The heart is also the source of so much pain and source of our alienation from God.  Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).  In Proverbs we find this warning, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23).  You can see why the psalmist prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (51:10).  We find God’s promise in Ezekiel, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).

This same understanding of the heart is found in the New Testament, in the teachings of Jesus.  Did he not say, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8)?  And did Jesus not say, “For where your treasure is there will your heart be also”(Luke 12:34)?

From a Jewish-Christian perspective it’s the heart that influences the brain.  Contemporary science seems to support this idea.  There’s a fascinating article in Scientific American from several years ago, which makes this point.  Scientists are discovering (rediscovering what our forebears knew?) how psychology impacts our bodies; the body shapes the mind and the mind the body.  In particular, they’re discovering the role of the heart in social life. A healthy heart is not only critical for survival; the heart has a relational dimension to it, it helps us to relate to others.  This is known as the Polyvagel Theory, put forward in 1995, named for the discovery of the Polyvagel nerve that runs from the heart to the brain.[3] This is just one study; there are many others like this one.  The heart and the mind are more connected than previously assumed.  I wonder to what extent so many of our problems in the world is rooted in this disconnect of head from heart, from action divorced from the compassion of the heart.

Perhaps there is a deeper wisdom, deeper feeling, deeper knowledge within the heart, with the core of the self, than in our minds?  Where is your mind, after all? Is it really in your head?  What if in our thinking—assuming that the self is centered in the brain—we’ve become divorced from our hearts, from the depths of who we really are? Did not Augustine confess, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you”?[4]  Heart, not mind.

Several years ago I took part in a three-day men’s retreat in the mountains of West Virginia, led by Richard Rohr.  It was one of the most transformative experiences of my life.  It was intense.  After the retreat, I drove home in a daze, not exactly sure what I had just experienced.  I usually listen to music in the car; I listen to a lot of music throughout the day, mostly classical.  I was not ready for anything except silence.  Eventually, I did put on the radio.  A familiar instrumental piece by J. S. Bach (1685-1750) was playing.  All of sudden I realized some things.  First, I was struck by its beauty. Something so familiar struck me in an entirely new way.  Second, something occurred that I never experienced before.  I wasn’t listening to the music with—or better, through—my ears.  I was listening to it from the core of my being, it was resonating from within, as if bypassing my ears altogether.  I was listening from my heart.

What would happen if we focused more on our hearts and allowed our hearts to lead us?  What difference would this make in our lives—in our feelings, in our thinking, in our service?  How would this shape our ministry?  It’s not that we don’t have a heart now, because we do.  But as we go deeper in our commitment to Christ, it’s the heart that must take the lead.

I recently became aware of a Presbyterian Church in Arlington, VA, that was declining in membership, but situated on a valuable piece of property.  What should they do?  The Session started a discernment process that began with this question, “For whom are our hearts breaking?[5]  After much prayer and struggle and discussion they decided to close as a conventional church, to tear down the sanctuary and replace it with 173 affordable apartments, desperately needed in that part of Virginia.  Doesn’t the psalmist say, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18)?

On this Sunday when we ordain and install new officers, called by the Spirit through the voice of this congregation, may they, may we, all of us, together, offer our hearts to the Lord, the center of who we are.  And let us listen to the depths of our souls, to the voice and wisdom of the heart, hearts that long to seek after the presence and love of God. Let us pay attention to where our hearts are breaking, either our own or others, and then sense in that breaking place ways that Christ might be calling us to offer healing and wholeness.  Let us listen to what the Spirit is whispering or shouting in “here,” in our hearts. 

Calvin said it so well, in his Commentary on Psalm 27, “The voice of God,…ought to resound in our heart, like an echo in hollow places, that from this mutual concord there may spring confidence to call upon him.”[6]  Mutual concord.  Heart to heart. This is the way that brings us to life—and life to the Church and, through us, life to the world! Thanks be to God!

Commemorative coin designed by the Swedish medalist Arvid Karlsteen, 1683

[1] From a sermon preached in August, 1955. Cited in Ron Ferguson, editor, Daily Readings with George Macleod: Founde rof the Iona Community (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 1991).
[2] John Calvin, Tracts and Letters, Volume 4 (Banner of Truth), 280-281.
[3] Adam Waytz, “Psychology Beyond the Brain,” Scientific American (October 5, 2011).
[4] Augustine, Confessions.
[5] Patricia Sullivan, “The church is not the building. It is our faith and people,” Washington Post, December 26, 2015. 
[6] John Calvin, Commentary on the Psalms, Vol. 1. Christian Classics Ethereal Library.