Afghanistan: Bear Witness We Must!

When I was in my early twenties, I was so much more adventurous than the pastor who stands before you. Still foolish enough to believe in my own ability to meet any situation I stumbled into; I travelled the world seeking all the excitement which life might bring my way. More than once, I ventured into worlds beyond my meagre capacity for wisdom. With a reckless spirit, a rail-pass in my pocket, a backpack slung over my shoulders and several hundred dollars’ worth of travelers’ cheques, yeah, travelers’ cheques. That’s how long ago it was. I had several hundred dollars of travelers’ cheques tucked into my wallet, when I boarded a train in Zurich, Switzerland, bound for Athens, Greece. Despite my youthful vigor, I was tired. Several months of backpacking in Northern Europe had left me weary. In just five days my rail-pass would expire, so I decided to head to Greece, where previous visits had taught me, the living was easy. I longed for the warm sun, the blue skies and the equally blue waters and the promise of a cheap place to rest.

As the train made its way through the Alps, I remembered a similar trip which I had made the year before and I tried to calculate whether my remaining funds would allow me to return to the village of Hannia on the Island of Crete. I knew that in Crete I could find work. I planned to mix a lot of relaxation and fun with just a little work and try to live out the winter on the Mediterranean. As the train rattled through Austria towards, what was then, Yugoslavia, it began to get dark. I was disappointed that my journey through Yugoslavia would be completed in darkness. I remembered my previous journey by car through Yugoslavia and how, at the time, I had marveled at the diversity of this strange little country. I remembered men and women driving oxen as they ploughed their fields in much the same way as their ancestors had done. I also remembered my surprise at entering the ultra-modern section of the city of Belgrade, the showcase of the dictator Tito’s communist regime. I fell asleep pondering the sharp differences between the lives of the poor in the villages who appeared to live without any modern conveniences at all, and the lives of those who inhabited the city of Belgrade, with its towering buildings and streets filled with automobiles. Several centuries seemed to co-exist in this Yugoslavia.

I was awakened by the sound of people shuffling to find their papers as the train conductor instructed us to get our passports and visas ready for customs inspection. When the Yugoslavian custom officials, with their rifles over their shoulders boarded our train, they were preceded by men guided by vicious looking German shepherds. Even though I knew that I had all the correct papers and that my backpack contained nothing more offensive than some dirty laundry, the sight of the dogs, the guns and the uniformed officials struck fear into my heart. I nervously handed over my precious passport to an official who looked younger than my twenty-two years. He carefully read over the visa which I had obtained in Zurich the day before; a visa which I could not read because it was written in an unfamiliar language using unfamiliar alphabet. The young man handed my passport over to an older official and before I could comprehend what was happening, I was being escorted off the train. I was shaking so badly that the young men on either side of me had to hold me up. I’m not sure if my feet even touched the ground.

After a long, lonely wait in a drab, windowless room, a woman entered. In broken English she told me that my visa was not in order. “NOT in order! NOT in order!” She kept repeating it.  I gathered from what she was trying to unsuccessfully to explain to me, that my passport contained the visa from my previous visit to Yugoslavia but was missing an official exit stamp. She demanded to know why there was no exit stamp in my passport. “NO EXIT STAMP! NOT in order! Needless to say, I could not explain. I told her that I had only spent a little over a week in Yugoslavia the year before and then gone on to Greece. I told her that I didn’t know that an exit stamp was necessary and that I couldn’t understand why the Yugoslavian consulate would have issued my current visa if my paperwork was not in order. She kept insisting that I needed an exit stamp. “NOT in order! NOT in order! EXIT STAMP!” Continue reading

GOD: Dead or Alive?

Traditionally, the Second Sunday of Easter is the day when the church commemorates the story of Jesus’ disciple Thomas’ reaction to resurrection. Now, the New Testament is full of parables like the parable of Doubting Thomas. Allow me, if you will, to draw your attention to a different parable, one outside of the Bible: “The Parable of the Mad Man” was first told in 1882. More recently, it appeared in 1969 edition of Time Magazine, which bore the title, “Is God Dead?”  

The Parable of the Mad Man goes like this: “Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market-place, and cried incessantly: “I am looking for God! I am looking for God!”  As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there, he excited considerable laughter. Have you lost him, then? said one. Did he lose his way like a child? said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? or emigrated? Thus, they shouted and laughed. The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances. “Where has God gone?” he cried. “I shall tell you.  We have killed him – you and I. We are his murderers.

But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now?  Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?  Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time?  Must not lanterns be lit in the morning?  Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves?  That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it?  There has never been a greater deed; and whosoever shall be born after us – for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto.”

Here the madman fell silent and again regarded his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last, he threw his lantern to the ground, and it broke and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time has not come yet. The tremendous event is still on its way, still travelling – it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can be seen and heard.  This deed is still more distant from them than the distant stars – and yet they have done it themselves.”

It has been further related that on that same day the madman entered various churches and there sang a requiem. Led out and quietened, he is said to have retorted each time: “what are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchres of God?”

Some of you will already know that this Parable of the Mad Man, was written by Friderich Nietzsche. One of the characteristics of a parable is that it surprises us with a truth which we already know. God is dead and we have killed “him!” I think perhaps that Nietzche’s Mad Man was right, “God” the big guy, up in the sky, judgemental, santafied, wish-granting, personified, old, bearded, super-man Father, god is dead, and it is we who have killed him. This image of god has been sacrificed on the altars of reality. All that we have learned about the cosmos; all the scientific breakthroughs, our technologies, our philosophies, biblical scholarship and our evolving theologies have killed the personification of god which we once worshipped and adored.

For most of my life the personification of what we call “God” was the only way I had of knowing anything of the MYSTERY which lies at the very heart of reality. I can truly empathize with the followers of Jesus who huddled together in the upper room. In my imagination, this parable takes place in a ghostly terrifying darkness. While it is so very tempting to lock the door against the unknowns lurking in the darkness, there is a line in the Parable of Doubting Thomas which makes me wonder. Not “wonder” in the sense of “I wonder what this means?” But “wonder” in the sense of “Oh my God!” as in “How wonderful!” or “How inspiring.” The line in the parable which causes me to wonder, wonder, wonder, is on the lips of Jesus, when asks and then insists: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Like Thomas, I suspect many of us continue to long for a vision of the DIVINE MYSTERY which we can see and touch. Say what you will about the big guy, up in the sky, judgemental, santafied wish-granting, personified, old, bearded, super-man Father, god, this was an image we could certainly wrap our minds around. Peering into the darkness and the sheer vastness of the Cosmos, it is impossible to wrap our minds around the ONE in whom the Cosmos has being. Faced with the enormity of the ONE who is BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that Also, I can certainly understand why our ancestors insisted that no one can look upon the face of God and live. Shut the front door and let me languish here in the darkness of this upper room, with my too small image of a puny god; a god I can mold and shape and worship without fear.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Faced with the vast, awe inspiring darkness of the Cosmos, it can be difficult to catch glimpses of tangible markers to guide us. Squinting into the abyss of unknowing, I can’t help thinking about the women who stared into the darkness of the empty tomb. The darkness of the Cosmos, like the darkness of the empty tomb, can send us racing back to the safety of a familiar room, a hide-out where we can shut the door and nurse our fears. Or the darkness can be for us, a place where resurrection begins, as the birth pangs of a new way of being give way to new life. Peering beyond the wounds inflicted by our personifications of the ONE who is more that we can begin to imagine, can we begin to touch and be touched by the LOVE which is the SOURCE of everything? Can we begin to feel the power of DIVINTY which is so much more than our personifications? Do we have the courage to put ourselves in the embrace of the SPIRIT which pulses, evolves, moves, shakes, and brings into being all that IS? Inspired by this SPIRIT, dare we begin to see DIVINITY finding expression in the likes of Jesus? Might we see in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus a way of being which is capable of transcending fear, so that we too might become LOVE. For being LOVE is what resurrection is?

The LOVE which is the MYSTERY we call God is beyond our ability to imagine or express, but that L LOVE lives in, with, through, and beyond us. Death cannot limit LOVE. For no matter how many times this cruel world tries to destroy LOVE, LOVE will live again, in, with, through, and beyond all of those who embody LOVE. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Our too small personification of God is dead; sacrificed on the altars of reality. But, do not be afraid. Death will not have the final word.

Out of the darkness, LOVE springs to life. LOVE lives even in us, even in our woundedness. LOVE, which is the SOURCE of all, lives and has being in, with, through, and beyond us. Blessed are you who have not seen and yet have come to believe, believe the ONE who is our LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE Itself. Resurrection happens when we are that LOVE in the world! LOVE is risen! LOVE is risen in us!  Alleluia!

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Exposing Our Wounds: John 20:19-31

All we have are a few brief stories.

There’s the one about the empty tomb.

A stranger robed in white, a gardener perhaps?

Folded grave-cloths.

Weeping women.

Fleeing men.

Horrible wounds.

Rumors.

Confusion.

Fear.

Doubt.

And always the nagging question.

Why?

Just some disconnected stories, scant stories, light on details and yet powerful in their truth. It has been said that, “The shortest distance between a human being and truth is a story.” It has also been said that the greatest story ever told is the story of resurrection. Like all really good stories, the story of resurrection has been told over and over again as storytellers attempt to convey its truth. We have heard Easter’s story of resurrection so many times that you would think the truth of resurrection would be obvious to us all.

Yet, we struggle to find truth in Easter’s familiar stories. Some of us have been shaped by these particular stories. Some of us have built our lives around the truth that others have reported to us about these stories. Some of us have rejected these stories and filed them away with all the other idle tales in which we can find no truth. Some of us have moved on from these stories convinced that there is no longer any truth to be found. Some of us love to hear these stories because they take us back to familiar truths that inspire a nostalgic sense of well-being. Some of us, are determined to wrestle with Easter’s stories until they release all the truth that we can find in, with, and between the lines; truths that call us toward a new way of being, a way of being that we long to embrace.

I myself, I am a wrestler. Like Jacob of old, I wrestle with Easter’ familiar stories determined to get from these ancient tales not just truth, but an inkling of the DIVINE ONE who dwells in, with, through, and beyond all of our stories. Every year, after the excitement of Easter Sunday, the stories of a community locked away in fear come to us. Every year some element of these stories, touches me in ways that open old wounds and awaken familiar fears.

I remember long ago, when I was an intern trying to learn what it is to be a pastor. I’d never been to a visitation at a funeral home before. I remember putting on the uniform of a pastor. Back then, I wore the collar and the black-shirt not so much as someone wears a uniform, but rather as someone who puts on a suit of armor – hoping against hope that the uniform would give me an air of competence and perhaps even hide the fear that so often wells up in me.

I don’t really remember much about that particular funeral home visitation. I couldn’t tell you who it was who had died. I remember being relieved to see a familiar face in the long line up to greet the widow. I remember sticking close to that familiar face trusting that she would show me what was expected of me.

As we waited for our turn to greet the widow of the dead man, I wondered what on earth I could possibly say to ease her pain. Back then, I believed that this was the job of a pastor, to ease the pain. I hadn’t yet learned to be in the pain, to be with, to share in the wounding. Standing and waiting I kept asking myself, “What can be said when a lover dies?” The magnitude of such loss is immense. I don’t think I was the only one in that crowd of mourners who felt ill at ease.

Then suddenly it happened. I was confused as to why it was happening. It was like we were a sea parting as we made way for a woman who strode into our midst with such purpose. People stepped aside, got out of her way and then we all watched as this woman, this widow opened up her arms to embrace the newly widowed woman. Their wounds were not the same except perhaps in their depth. No words were spoken between these widows and yet the magnitude of their touch was a kind of miraculous healing. Continue reading