Monday, February 16, 2015

MG's, Mystical Visions, and Marcus Borg


Suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.
Matthew 17:5-6

In his book, “Convictions,” the late Marcus Borg describes a series of mystical experiences that convinced him of the reality and the mystery of God.

None of his experiences were as dramatic as the disciples’ experience at the Transfiguration. The Bible does not describe many visions or mystical experiences, and when they are described, a lot of them are negative. There are many instances of “false visions,” in which a false prophet tries to convince the people of Israel that what he wants them to do is really “from the Lord.” Not surprisingly, those episodes tend to end badly for the false prophets. And when the narrative speaks of an authentic vision, as at the Transfiguration, most of the time the response is overwhelming fear.

Marcus Borg’s mystical experiences are reassuring rather than fearful.

Remembering the first of these, he writes, “It happened as I was driving through a sunlit rural Minnesota winter landscape alone in a nine-year old MG two-seater roadster. The only sounds were the drone of the car and the wind through the thin canvas top. I had been on the road for about three hours when I entered a series of S-curves.” Then suddenly everything glowed and looked wondrous and he was amazed.

As you might guess, this brought a lot of questions to my mind.

What model of MG was it?

Was it an MGA?

Or an MGB?

Or (it takes my breath away even to think about it) could it have been an MG TF?

If it was an MG TF, then it would have been mystical, but hardly surprising. The TF’s were the last of the classical MG’s. One of the most beautiful cars ever made. How could anyone drive a TF and not have a mystical experience? Richard Dawkins would have had a mystical experience in a TF.

Theoretically, it could have been an MG Midget. They were the MG version of the Austin Healey Sprite (the later ones, not the “Bug Eye Sprite) and they looked like a miniature version of the MGB. But a mystical experience in an MG Midget would be a true miracle. They were cute and fun, but it’s hard to imagine one experiencing any sort of transcendence in an MG Midget.

Many of my childhood experiences centered on events at the Cape Cod Sports Car Club. Our “Sports Car” was a Volkswagen Beetle, but my dad was a founding member and always very good with all sorts of cars. He spent many hours fixing other peoples’ exotic automobiles.

I was not old enough to drive any of those cars, but I often rode in them, and I remember riding across the Bourne Bridge in an MG TD. The low seating and the low cut doors made it feel like you were in a race car. On that day the sky was clear blue and the sun reflected off of the canal below. I don’t know if I would have called it a mystical experience. But it was close.

A mystical experience in an MG on a sunlit road entering a series of S-curves. I can easily believe that.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Just Do What's Right

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Philippians 4:8

Over the years, many of my heroes have disappointed me.

But there are some people for whom my admiration grows with time and I later realize that although I may have thought well of them, maybe even idolized them, I also fundamentally underestimated what they had done.

Dean Smith is in the latter group.

I was always a fan. I admired the way he never got flustered, never seemed to lose his temper. He did not gloat when his teams won. He did not whine when they lost. He was gracious in victory and defeat. He seemed to keep it all in perspective. And when he retired after 36 years of coaching basketball at the University of North Carolina, nobody had won more games. And his players actually graduated.

In a book called, “The Carolina Way,” written with Gerald Bell and John Kilgo, Smith said, “My basketball philosophy boils down to six words. Play hard; play together; play smart.”

But there was a lot more to Dean Smith than basketball.

In an article written for the Washington Post, John Feinstein told of researching a feature on Smith. He writes, “One of the people I interviewed for the story was Rev. Robert Seymour, who had been Smith’s pastor at the Binkley Baptist Church since 1958, when he first arrived in Chapel Hill. Seymour told me a story about how upset Smith was to learn that Chapel Hill’s restaurants were still segregated. He and Seymour came up with an idea: Smith would walk into a restaurant with a black member of the church.”

“You have to remember,” Reverend Seymour told Feinstein, “Back then, he wasn’t Dean Smith. He was an assistant coach. Nothing more.”

So Dean Smith, an assistant coach, not yet 30 years old and a newcomer to Chapel Hill, invited a black member of the church to go to lunch with him at a restaurant where the management knew him because the (all white) basketball team often ate there. They were served without incident, and that was the beginning of desegregation in Chapel Hill.

When Feinstein went back to Smith to ask him for more details on what happened that night, Smith was visibly angry. “Who told you about that?” he demanded.

“Reverend Seymour,” Feinstein answered.

“I wish he hadn’t done that.”

“Why?” asked Feinstein. “You should be proud of doing something like that.”

And then, Feinstein recalled, “He leaned forward in his chair and in a very quiet voice said something I’ve never forgotten: ‘You should never be proud of doing what’s right. You should just do what’s right.’”

In 1988 Smith was part of a delegation of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty in a clemency hearing for a man whom Coach Smith had befriended when he brought members of the UNC basketball team to visit inmates on death row.

Smith led the discussion with the governor. Pointing his finger at him, he said, “You’re a murderer!”

And then, one by one, he pointed to members of the PFADP and the pastors in the delegation and said, “And you’re a murderer! And you’re a murderer! And you’re a murderer!” Then with his finger pointing at himself he said, “The death penalty makes us all murderers.”

In “A Coach’s Life” he wrote: “What do you call the worst human beings you know? Human beings loved by the Creator!”

At the end of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hear these words of mine and do them.” Dean Smith was that kind of Christian.

The Apostle Paul followed his message on truth, justice and excellence with a sentence that Dean Smith would have been too modest to speak, but he is one of the few people who could have said it without exaggerating his values and actions, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”

Friday, February 6, 2015

Four Guys on the Roof

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven. . . . Stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
Mark 2:1-5, 11-12

I need to begin with a footnote. The healing stories in the Gospels are always problematic texts for preaching, because all of us know people who have not been healed. At least, not in the way that they would wish. We only have to read the “Fellowship of Concern” in our bulletin to know that that is true. And it is important that Christians never, never burden those who are already suffering with the notion that if they had more faith they would, in fact, be healed. The healing power of God must always remain a mystery. And the forms of God’s healing must also be a mystery. But in spite of that caution, these stories speak to us in a profound way about our need for healing and about God’s healing power.

Let’s look at the story itself.

First, from the perspective of the paralytic and the people who carried him. Four guys. Maybe they were in Capernaum, that’s where Jesus teaching. Maybe they were in Bethsaida, which is not far away. Maybe they were in the hill country not far from town. We don’t know where they were. But some way, somehow, these four guys got together with their friend who was paralyzed. And they began to talk. And someone said, “You know, there’s this rabbi, Yeshua, and people are telling amazing stories about him. There have been healings. We should take you!”

And the man probably protested, telling them they shouldn’t go to all that trouble, they have their own lives, they are too busy. Besides, it wouldn’t make any difference anyway. But I imagine they persisted. “WE have nothing to lose. Let’s try this.”

So they picked him up and they carried him. Can’t you imagine them walking through the market and down the village streets, and people looking and wondering what’s going on?

Eventually, they arrived at the house. Not only is it full inside, the crowd spills out through the doorway and into the courtyard. There is no possibility of getting into the house. But these guys are determined.

In those days, in Palestine, houses were often made with a mud and thatch roof. Sometimes they were built into the side of a hill, so that you could actually walk around the side of the hill and up on top of the roof. And that’s what they did. They went around the side and up the hill onto the roof. Then they set their friend down and began digging through the thatch and the mud.

Now, let’s switch perspective. Imagine that we are inside. Rabbi Jesus is teaching, and a group of rabbis are gathered around him, along with the disciples and a crowd of other listeners. The house is so full that it is hard for anyone to move.

The scripture says, “He was teaching them the word,” which probably means he was teaching Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament, what we call the Pentateuch, the Books of Moses). Suddenly, things begin to fall from the roof.

Things begin to fall. First dirt and dust sifts down. Pretty soon Jesus can’t even tell his story. Everyone is looking up at the roof, and by now large chunks of things are falling on them. People scramble and cover their heads. And then the roof opens up. Jesus looks up there where there are these four guys looking down, probably pretty proud of themselves. What a great opportunity! They have been able to engage in an act of vandalism and do a good deed, a mizpah, at the same time. It just doesn’t get any better than that!

Before Jesus can say anything, the four guys are lowering a fifth guy down into the house right in front of Jesus. They lean down as far as they can, and then pass him to those in the house.

Jesus is amazed at what he sees. Mark observes, “When he saw their faith . . . .” Not the faith of the paralyzed man. He is marveling at the faith of the four guys who carried him through town and ripped up the roof. What a risk they took! “When he saw their faith, he said to the man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’”

Somehow, Jesus understands that what is paralyzing this man is an overwhelming sense of guilt. There may be fear also, but guilt apparently plays a major role. He is so scared and so guilty, that he cannot even move. Jesus understands that the only way for the man to be healed is for him to feel a sense of grace and forgiveness. He is making a connection between the physical and the spiritual. He turns to the paralyzed man and says, “Take up your mat and walk!”

The man stands up. And takes his mat. And walks out of the house. People are in shock. The crowd gathered around the house saw the man carried up onto the roof, and now they see him walking out the door. They are excited and amazed, and they shout, “We never saw anything like this!” Which is the only proper response to the church in action. When the church is really the church, when we are really being the people God has called us to be, the only proper response is, “We’ve never seen anything like this!” It is always amazing to believers and non-believers alike.

When we look at the church, we often take a whole lot of things for granted. But I will have to say to you, there have been many times in our life together here, when I have looked at what has gone on and said, “I’ve never seen anything like this!” And I suspect that others of you have said the very same thing. To see God’s grace among us is always amazing.

What are the points of the story?

First, we shouldn’t miss the most obvious point. If you want to preserve your roof, you need to build a ramp, or an elevator, or provide some other access. If you don’t let persons with disabilities in through the door, God may find another way. And the other way may not be as comfortable for you. We can apply this same point to other parts of our lives. Whenever we block someone or something out, God may find another way.

The central point is almost as obvious. The take home message is this: if you are not on the stretcher, then you ought to be carrying it. At a Bible study, we were talking about whether in our understanding of God’s grace there are “shoulds.” Does God speak to us in terms of “should” and “ought”? Or are those words an implicit denial of God’s grace?

Certainly, we ought to be careful in our use of “should” and “ought.” But let me try to explain what I mean when I say that if you are not on the stretcher, then you ought to be carrying it. If I don’t need to be carried, then I need to grab a corner and pick up somebody else.

A word of warning. There are in this life what I would call “pathological helpers,” people who define their own self-worth and the worth of others in solely in terms of their utilitarian value as helpers. If they cannot help, then they feel they have no worth, and they tend to help even those who don’t want to be helped. They help people who don’t want to do things, to do the things that the helper believes the helpee ought to do. If you have ever fallen victim to such a helper, then you know what I am talking about.

But even with that caution, who are the happiest and healthiest people in the story? The guys that carry the mat have to be the happiest people in the story. And they have to be the healthiest people in the story. We cannot be carried and be healthy. If we are carried long enough, eventually our muscles atrophy.

The healthiest and happiest people in this life are those who are able to help others. And we know that in our own experience. The “should” is not because if you don’t help you are naughty. The “should” is because this is what God calls us to do and to be. We are called to be the church in action.

There is another side to this. The other side is that every single one of us has times when he or she needs to be carried. There is not one of us who will go through our lives without needing to be carried multiple times. We are carried at the beginning of life and we are carried at the end. But we also need to be carried over and over again in between. There are times when we need to be physically carried, and there are times when we need to be emotionally carried.

When we need to be carried, emotionally or physically, and refuse that help, we hurt the whole community of faith. Carrying and being carried should be a gift of grace; a gift for the person who is lifted up and carried, and a gift for the persons who do the carrying. Sometimes the greatest gift we can give to other people is to let them carry us. Not forever. Not if we are able to get up and do it for ourselves. But until we are able to do that.

My grandfather Gibbs lived all of his life on Cape Cod, and he was a marvelously independent old Yankee. He was a helpful person. And for most of his 90-plus years he was a “carrier.” But there came a time at the end of his life, when he was no longer able to do for others or even for himself. One of the greatest gifts he gave to his family and friends was in the way he responded to the help of others.

Everything that anyone did was always “wonderful.” I remember one summer day when Elaine made him corn muffins. “Best muffins I ever had,” he told her. At the end of a summer day, when we were sitting in the yard, as the sun finally went down, he would turn to me and say, “Well Billy, I guess we got all the good we can out of this day.” I have never been a great conversationalist, by he was just grateful for the company and the sunshine. Everything that anyone did was received as if it were an act of overwhelming generosity.

Of all the things he ever did in his life, and all the help he gave to others, perhaps the most important thing he did in his life was to gratefully and gracefully receive the help of others when that time came. God grant that I should have such a spirit in similar circumstances!

There is an emotional and spiritual connection that Jesus wants us to understand. Jesus wants us to be clear that there is a link between the guilt that this man feels and his need for healing. There is an emotional component to his healing.

Forgiveness comes first. Jesus gives that first, because that is his greatest need. In more modern language, we might say that first comes God’s acceptance.

Then comes the challenge. “Stand up. Take the healing that God has given. Be the person God has called you to be.”

If we allow ourselves to act sick when we are not sick, if we allow ourselves to be carried when we don’t need to be carried, if we refuse to carry others, we will not be healthy. It is impossible. If we refuse the challenge to stand up and walk, we won’t be healthy.

We all know examples of people who use their weakness, their illness, to manipulate and control others. We have all experiences that at one time or another. (And my suspicion is that we have all done it at one time or another. But we are less clear about that).

Jesus brings both a word of grace and a challenge. Receive the healing. Get up and walk. Be responsible. For us to be the church, we need to know that we are healthiest and happiest when we are carrying others, when we are lifting folks up. And we need to know that in those times when we need to be lifted up, there are people who will do that for us.

Finally, we need to know that God loves us and accepts us just the way we are. And with that love and acceptance comes a responsibility to take hold of the life that God has given us and live it to the full.