Saturday, August 8, 2009

Saturday Morning and I'm Not Preaching Tommorrow

The few of you that read this post have probably woken up by now on Saturday morning or will pretty soon. And, for about all of you "it's Saturday morning and you're not preaching tommorrow." I have spent 20 years waking up on Saturday morning, and turning my thoughts towards the sermon I am going to preach the next morning. Some weeks, I was about ready; some weeks I hadn't even gotten a start. But, I have always gotten up and worked on the sermon on Saturday morning. Normally, I think on it during the week; even writing out notes on two or three prospective sermons. But, Saturday is when it has to start coming together (not to say I haven't started from scratch on some Sunday mornings).

This process of sermon preparation is a very personal process and a process that I realize has helped my life over the years. But, over the past twenty years, I didn't really think much about what preparing a sermon was all about, I just did it. It wasn't until I started having Sundays off from preaching that I realized what it was about. And, I have to admit that I really miss preaching when I am not preaching. I don't miss it too much on Sunday morning as much as I miss it on Saturday morning. Like I am missing it this morning. But, what is it I like about knowing I will preach the next day?

Part of it seems to be that there is something about it that is just deep down who I am, and when you are involved in doing something that is deep down who you are, it renews your life. When you are involved in something you feel is in a sense part of your good destiny, then it takes the burden away from you, and makes you feel like you are floating on the current of something much greater than you.

Part of it has to do with the challenge of "making sense of life" to yourself and to others every week, by looking to ancient scriptures, seeking an experience of the Holy One in the present, and trying to put that into words. Sometimes what I am putting into words in the sermon is simply the experience of trying to make sense of life in this process, even if I am not too successful in "making sense of life" that week. The struggle to do it, to understand and experience the deepest in life, is a holy and good struggle, even when you seem to come up empty. So, part of it is that the process of working towards a sermon is a deeply human struggle for meaning in a world that often drains us of meaning. It is like going home each week, and the way back to home each week is never too easy or direct, and I never know which way I will get there, and sometimes I don't really get there. More Sundays I am standing before the congregation talking about the dark and twisting path of faith and the hope of getting back to a place where there is energy and peace and purpose. But, there are those Sundays, when I find my way - when it all comes together - just every once in a while. And, when you get there in a sermon, people get there with you. It's hard to describe it unless you have been there in a service. And, believe me, it is not very often at all when I seem to get there. And, I don't know it ahead of time; it is just like somehow, our struggle together is blessed by a gracious and beautiful presence - it is like for a few minutes, sometimes only a few seconds, we experience together that God is completely beautiful and gracious and good - sharing a goodness with us that awakens the joy in living that we thought had died 100 times over.

As I look towards tommorrow, I wish there was some way that others who are not preaching could share in this experience of preparing for the sermon that I have gone through for the past couple of decades. There have been times, when I was so empty that I just had nothing at all to say, and sometimes a word came and sometimes it didn't. There have been times when I have just thought it was crazy that I was going to stand up and try to say anything about God and life and faith. At the depths of my experience has been the experience that whatever has come to me in life, I have to make sense of it all again week by week, and that the sense I made of it in the past is never enough, and that the only real sense I can make of life comes from beyond me, comes from a word that I can never hear until everything in me is at an end, in silence, in confusion, or in peaceful nothingness. There is an experience of disorientation at the heart of true orientation in life - the disorientation comes of our human struggle, the orientation comes as sheer grace - true orientation comes in ecstatic joy at just being alive, sometimes it comes in the most difficult of times. It comes from God.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Worship, Responsibility for Others, and the Search for Meaning

Worship, responsibility for others, and the search for meaning: I guess those are why I am part of a church. There is something primal, deep down about worshipping in a service with others. Of course, often worship services get too far away from these raw depths, but there is something deep down that wants to worship the Creator and to do so with others. And, deep within, for me, there is this conviction that is very basic - that one basic reason I am alive is to help others out in their living. And, another yearning that won't be silenced within me is the desire to make sense of things, to find a meaning in life, and even in death.

These are some basic reasons I am part of a church. Of course, these are also basic yearnings that I carry out in my daily work and living that are not specifically tied to church. Many weeks I worship God more clearly, more intensely in my inner world, and when away from church, than when I am gathered for worship with others. Some days, I just look out at the mountains and am filled with a joy and a praise for God. Many days I discover and carry out my responsibilities to others better in my so-called "secular" job than in my work as a minister of a church. And, I sometimes find great meaning in reading an essay or a poem or listening to a song. Sometimes I turn to these "secular" sources more than to "sacred" sources like scripture or theology or other books written to encourage religious faith. Lately, I have been drawn back into the strange world of the Bible, particularly Paul's letters. And, I have gone a step back down to the primary level of the New Testament by looking at the Greek. Even though my Greek has slipped, reading in the Greek somehow just opens up new connections, new ways of meaning. It is like getting back to where the meanings are being formed and understanding that the step of "translation" from Greek to English is actually a decisive step of "interpretation." It is like getting back a step closer to something real and raw and true. When that happens you come to the point of not-knowing before you begin to experience any real knowing. I am amazed as I look at Paul again. How could he have been hijacked by Western categories - he is so thoroughly Eastern!

O, what was I talking about? About basic reasons I am part of a church, which are yearnings basic to being human as well. At the bottom, church is about reminding us of what is essential to human life, because we tend to forget in the give and take of life. Church is to be about reminding and restoring those deep yearnings that make us human: the yearning to celebrate the goodness of life and praise the giver of life; the desire to share life and bear life with others; the drive to understand and find meaning.

Many people have come to church needing reminding, needing restoring, and finding that these deeply human yearnings were not only not encouraged in church, but discouraged or even manipulated to bad end. But, people also come to church to escape from these deep human needs. And, some churches provide large doses of what Marx called "the opiate of the masses," by which Marx meant a way of deluding people into accepting the frustration of their deepest longings on earth through assuring people that they would have all their longings satisfied in heaven.

This reference to Marx raises some complicated issues about human longing and religion. Because, for many on this earth, life is an unending struggle to survive burdened with horrible suffering. Consider life in Somalia, or Darfur, or the genocide in Rawanda. What about the history of horror for Jews in Germany and in Russia? How is life for citizens of Afghanistan now or Palestinians? Or, what about a mother who just lost her child in Knoxville last week? Or, a father of four young children who has just found out he has an inoperable brain tumor? What I am getting at is the truth that many people in this world seem to have their deepest desires crushed by the course of their sufferings and the injustices they experience in their lives. Everyone, to some extent, suffers the disappointment of deeply good desires and hopes in life.

Marx central point was this: "You workers who are living in misery, dying young, are suffering because of the greed of your factory owners who care nothing at all for you. It's time to get up off your knees (in prayer) and revolt against this corrupt economic system. How dare they tell you to wait until you get to heaven while they enjoy their's on earth!"

And, that part of Marx is good and holy and deserving of not just respect but celebration and hopeful action - whether revolutionary or reformist.

But, even the most fortunate lives in this world always bear a heavy residue of pain, unresolved conflicts, unrealized dreams, and unreasonable results. Marx didn't set out to address this. What he wanted to counteract was the bad faith of a system that had disproportionately placed the heavy residue, conflict, suffering, pain and misery on one segment of the population who served as a barrier against such suffering for another segment of the population. True religion appreciates Marx. False religion is scared to death of him. He gets too close to the truth, and, as Jesus said: "the truth will set you free," free from false religion.