“To Sing and Love as Angels Do”: Singing our Faith

Singing“To sing and love as angels do” is a line from one of Isaac Watts’ hymns (he wrote over seven hundred). I love the phrase. It places singing right up there with loving as one of those activities that pleases God. I have long pondered the central place singing holds in worship, and its importance to the worshipper. Here is an excerpt of an article I wrote about “the worshiping self:”

“In hymn singing the worshiping self experiences transcendence as one among many within a congregation. There, in worship, God the other is addressed by the singer, not in isolation, but as one voice among many others. The hymn singer uses the body as well as the intellect in an integrated act of worship engaging the whole self. Hymn singing also roots the worshipping self within the life of the congregation among whom the singer works and plays, rejoices and weeps. Since the congregation is the local embodiment of the church catholic (what P. T. Forsyth called “the great church”), the hymn singer is part, not only of the congregation physically present, but also the great congregation, both the ecumenical church in its geographical breadth, and the communion of saints in its temporal length across ages and generations.

Additionally, the hymn is a repository of the tradition of the great church, and the faithful learn scripture and doctrine from singing as much as they do from sermons and catechesis. Finally, and most significantly, the singer of hymns not only addresses God, but is, at the same time, addressed by God, so that hymn singing becomes an event of grace. The singer is addressed as a forgiven and justified sinner, and it is often in the singing of the hymns, that the worshipping self is able to experience the grace of justification, and respond with faith and obedience.” (“The Worshiping Self” in Persons in Community: Theological Voices from the Pastorate. Edited by William H. Lazareth. Eerdmans, 2004.)

I also believe that music in general and singing in particular can give us access to the divine presence as no other medium can, which is why even non-believers often are lovers of Bach’s great religious works. Even though my writing is primarily theological and devotional, I have sometimes turned to writing hymns because there is something I want to express that I can in no other way (to see some of my hymns go here.)

I recently wrote:

Singing can help faith, for sometimes we can sing words that we are not yet able to say. I have often noticed singers in choirs who would not call themselves believers belting out sacred music as if they meant it.

Perhaps they do mean it. Who is to say that a singer singing out “And he shall reign for ever and ever” in Handel’s Messiah is not expressing a faith and hope that he or she might have trouble putting into spoken words? (From my Still Speaking Daily Devotional, to see it all go here)

Singing binds us together and reminds us we are not alone. “Our personal faith may wax and wane, but the church’s faith goes on from generation to generation. I like to think of it as a great choir, where each part supports and strengthens every other part, creating something beautiful and harmonious. ”

(Photo: Easter Sunday, 2014, at the First Congregational Church UCC of Stockbridge, MA, where I am a member.)

On Holy Ground: A Sermon on Genesis 3:1-15

Burning bushOne of the accepted truths of our faith is that God is everywhere. But here and there, now and then, the Bible tells us about a particular in-breaking of the Divine Presence into someone’s life in a most extraordinary manner.

One of the best known and most important of these stories is the encounter we just heard about between God and Moses on Mt. Horeb.

The back-story to this event starts with the migration of Hebrews to Egypt during and after the time of Joseph, where they increased in number and flourished.

But a new Egyptian king, or pharaoh, came to power who hadn’t known Joseph, and he was threatened by the presence of the Hebrews and he subjected them to slavery.

This is the world Moses is born into, a world where his people are oppressed, and his own life is in danger. This paranoid king orders the Hebrew midwives to kill all the Hebrew boy babies, but in an act of revolutionary daring they disobey him.

You all know the story of how the baby Moses was hid in the bulrushes along the Nile River, and was discovered by Pharoah’s daughter. And how when Moses grew up she adopted him, and he was treated like an Egyptian prince.

So Moses escapes the plight of his people, but not for long. One day he saw an Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave, and Moses rushed to defend the slave and in the ensuing fight he killed the man.

Fleeing for his life he ends up far away on Mt Horeb, where he settles down with a wife and tends the goats for his father-in- law.

That brings us to our story for today. It is not a very promising story, Moses wanted for murder, running away from his home and his people. And he knows that his people suffer terribly under the authority of pharaoh, who is the king of the most powerful empire in the world. Moses may have just been relieved to get out of town with his life.

So it’s just another ordinary workday for Moses, keeping an eye on the flocks as they forage for food on the side of the mountain. And then, suddenly, the ordinary day is transformed by this extraordinary sight, a flaming bush that seems to burn but is not consumed. And there is a divine messenger in the fire, for that is what an angel is. The angel never speaks, but the voice of God speaks directly to Moses, calling him by name, “Moses, Moses.”

Moses knows he is the presence of something or Someone much grater than he, and so he says, “Here am I.” Then God warns Moses to come no closer: “Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground!”

What makes it holy ground? It is holy ground because God is present there. God is holy, and where God is present it is holy ground. Did you know that the Latin word, sanctus, meaning holy, is where we get our word sanctuary? A sanctuary means “a container for holy things.” This room is called a sanctuary because it has been set apart as a place where we may know the presence of God. There is nothing intrinsically holy about this room, or Mt. Horeb, for that matter. They only become holy ground because God becomes present there.

I need to say a word about mountains. The ancients often viewed mountains as holy places where the gods or the larger powers dwelt. They were places best left alone. I recently learned that there are very few Native American artifacts on the tops of mountains. For example, Darby Field, who was the first European to climb Mt Washington in NH in 1642, could convince only one of his 26 Indian scouts to approach the summit with him.

They discerned that holy ground can be dangerous ground. Something Moses sensed as well. On Mt Horeb he finds himself suddenly on holy ground, that sacred space where heaven and earth meet.

One of the things I love about scripture is that I notice new details every time I read a passage, even a familiar one like this. Here’s what I noticed about this one: first, it doesn’t say that God is invisible. On the contrary, Moses turns his face in submission to that which is greater than he. The belief was if you looked at God you would die. Later in Exodus, after a long and complicated relationship, Moses gets bolder, but here he turns his face away from God.

The other detail I had never noticed before was the angel. And why doesn’t the angel speak? That’s their job as intermediators. But here it is God who speaks directly to Moses.

Think about it. This encounter with God must have been both terrifying and amazing, both awesome and awful, two words that used to be synonyms but have evolved to being opposites to show the tension that exists in any encounter with God’s presence. Was it awesome? Or was it awful? Both.

There’s an old hymn that captures the former use of awful, “Before Jehovah’s awful throne.”

So Moses finds himself on holy ground, and knows there are dangers. What are some of the dangers of holy ground?

  1. The first is that you are on holy ground but don’t know it. The great English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, wrote: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God . . .” and it is true. You may not see a burning bush, but if you are paying attention something of the grandeur of God is everywhere apparent. But you might be busy or distracted and miss it. You were on holy ground and never knew it.
  2. A second danger is that you are on holy ground and you do know it, find it awesome, but then don’t want to leave it. This is the punch-line of the Transfiguration story, when Peter’s answer to the divine encounter is to want to pitch his tent right there and stay. Recall how Jesus said, “No. We’ve got to go down from the mountain. We have work to do. I have a cross to face.”

And that is the essential truth about all divine-human encounters. They always come for a reason and a purpose. They are always attached to a call. They are not information about God, but an invitation into the work and will of God. We don’t discover God, like the New Yorker cartoons where the pilgrim climbs a mountain to find the solitary guru to tell him the truth about God. Our God is not a God we can discover, but a God who reveals himself to us, for a purpose, the divine purpose.

That’s what makes these encounters so dangerous. Moses recognizes that this invitation is fraught, because God’s work is not safe. This is why Moses offers excuses and alibis to get out of it. And I love that God never refutes his excuses and alibis, but simply ignores them.

It’s a great story, but is it our story? I think it is. And here’s what I think we may need to hear from this story. Moses is going about his day job, and he thinks he is autonomous and answerable to no one. In that way he is like us, because that is the great myth of our time: that we are both autonomous and accountable to know one.

So on this ordinary day on the mountain God breaks into Moses life, calls him by name and tells him he has a job for him. The sudden presence of God, the bush, the angel, the voice, make it clear to Moses that he is not autonomous, that there is something, Someone, greater than he with whom he is in relationship, and he is accountable, he is called. In the face of the divine presence and before the divine authority Moses realizes he has a vocation, and that his own fate is closely linked with the fate of his people, who are enslaved. The very people he has run away from.

Something else I noticed for the first time in this story. In the beginning of Exodus Moses’s people are called “the Hebrews.” But here there is a shift. God says to Moses, “The cry of “the Israelites” has come to me.” This naming creates a new identity. I am reminded of the line from the 1 Peter 10:2: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.”

So Moses wants to know who is this God? We assume monotheism, but in Moses time there were lots of god’s around. God says this is who I am, and discloses the divine name: Yahweh, which means I am who I am. “Tell the Egyptians I am sent you.”

And now that God has identified the Hebrews as Israelites, recall that Jacob’s name became Israel, he explicitly identifies himself as not any old god, but the same God who made covenant with the ancestors. “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

This is the central story that constitutes a people, Israel, and by extension the church. It is not the end of the story by any means; later on this very same mountain God will give Moses the Ten Commandments. The book of Exodus tells us God bestows on his people Presence, Law, and Covenant as the abiding features of a new community set apart to be holy. They are to be slaves no longer, but to live for his will and way on behalf of the whole world.

And on every Passover Jewish families repeat this story at the Seder table. They don’t say, “when our ancestors were slaves in Egypt.” They say, “When we were slaves in Egypt.” In doing so they collapse the time from then to now.

In much the same way when we Christians hear this story and think about this story we know that it is our story too. It is a story of liberation. It is the Passover from slavery to freedom. It is the Easter from death to new life.

The story reminds us that we are neither autonomous nor accountable to no one. That is a lie our society tells itself. But it is not true. On the contrary, our God sees, hears, knows, calls us by name, and invites us to share the divine work of liberation from every form of bondage, and every structure of oppression, whether it is personal or societal.

The bush still burns. The call still comes. “Who will speak for me? Who will hear and respond to the invitation to work for my will and way?” Amen.

 

I preached this sermon on August 31, 2014 at the First Congregational Church of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. To hear a podcast of the service that contains this sermon go here.

 

 

 

Remembering Andrew F. Wissemann (1928-2014)

Andrwe F. WissemanMartha and I went down to Springfield on Monday for the funeral of our friend Andrew Wissemann. I had not talked to him recently and so his death caught me very much by surprise. The Service of Thanksgiving at Christ Church Cathedral was quite lovely and would please him.

Before he became bishop he was my colleague next door at St Stephen’s Church in Pittsfield, where he was rector. I came to be the pastor of First Church of Christ, Congregational, in Pittsfield on December 1, 1982. I was taking books out of boxes and putting them on shelves in my new study when a lively bearded gentleman in clericals appeared at my door. He introduced himself and welcomed me and before he left the room we were friends.

We started an ecumenical study group at St Stephen’s that met in the late afternoon on Tuesdays and then we would all go to the chapel for Evening Prayer. We would read the assigned texts from the lectionary and talk about them to prepare for our sermons. I felt such joyful collegiality from that group. There was Fr. Fran the Roman priest, Julie the Methodist, Ed the Lutheran, and Andrew, David and Tom the Episcopalians. We had frank and spirited discussions and then we would pray together. I don’t know how many other churches anywhere had a ecumenical rota of ministers leading Evening Prayer in an Episcopal church but we did over 30 years ago.

Andrew had gravitas, but he also loved to laugh and as he aged the smile lines in his face grew more profound. He was not a big man, more thin and spry, but he had a great big laugh that took over his body.

And he loved to make others laugh. One day we followed him into the chapel and he was standing straight with his back against the wall and his hands folded at his chest as if he were a statue of a saint or an apostle. He had put an offering plate behind his head like a halo. He cracked us up.

In 1983 he was elected bishop, and in 1984 he was consecrated. He called me and asked if I would do him a favor. Would I come forward with the bishops and ask an ecumenical question in addition to the several canonical questions the bishops would be asking? He had secured permission from the Presiding Bishop to have this done. Andrew said the consecration would be in a Roman Catholic Church and it was an important ecumenical sign for there also to be someone there from the Reformed side of the family.

I was honored. And so it came to pass that I lined up with the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and (was it 5?) other bishops. I, in my black Geneva gown, and they splendidly arrayed in copes and mitres. I felt a crow among peacocks. My wife Martha took communion from Andrew’s hand. She was nine months pregnant, my daughter Rebecca arriving a few days later. It was just thirty years ago in April and Rebecca herself is now an ordained minister.

Andrew was my model of a faithful parish minister, hardworking, diligent, prayerful, and loving. He brought those habits and qualities to his episcopacy. For years we would meet to have lunch in Springfield (at the Student Prince) or in Lee (at the Morgan House.) We talked theology and ministry and shared personal joys and challenges. Since we weren’t in the same franchise he could be more priest and confessor to me than my own leaders.

He was one of the first people to tell me about P.T. Forsyth, for which I am most grateful. He claimed he wasn’t a scholar, just a good reader and he loved to read (and buy) books. He once joked, “of the buying of books there is no end.”

When I had to leave my pastorate for health reasons ten years ago he came to my goodbye service and spoke at the dinner.

Last week my friend and colleague Jane Dunning sent me the news that Andrew had died, and I called her and asked if it was OK for me to vest and process. She said, “Of course.”

So I did. I vested on Monday and processed with the clergy, and I am especially glad I did, because I think I may have been the only one in the procession who wasn’t an Episcopalian. That sense of what Forsyth called the “Great Church” was so important to Andrew, and an essential part of his belief in the life we share in Jesus Christ.

Before we entered the cathedral Bishop Fisher had a prayer with us. He prefaced it by asking us all to speak one word that came to mind about Andrew. Mine was “kind.”

I could have added many others. One is “humble.” He and I once drove to Hartford to hear N.T. Wright, with whom I studied briefly at Oxford years before. After the seminar I wanted to introduce him to Tom Wright, but he demurred.

Another time we were together at an ecumenical banquet for the judicatory heads from Massachusetts, an annual event for the Massachusetts Commission on Christian Unity (MCCU.) I was the United Church of Christ’s representative. We wanted to sit together and he led me to the far end of the table. He looked around at all the clerical dignitaries and said, sotto voce, “When you are invited to a feast, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.” (from Luke 12) He smiled that twinkly smile.

Andrew always wrote these encouraging notes in his fine handwriting. I have a bunch of them which I treasure. Rebecca got one last year at her ordination. His fine hand was still the same.

I am blessed to have many dear friends, but Andrew’s death leaves a certain hole in my life, for he was such an extraordinary person and so good at being a friend. He had such a steady faith that I would dishonor him by only grieving, for he believed, as I do, that “we do not sorrow as those who have no hope.”

So I give thanks to God that he was my friend. I give thanks for him. May he rest in peace, and rise in glory.

 

 

“By Their Groups Ye Shall Know Them”: Celebrating Max L. Stackhouse

Max Stackhouse FlyerWe had a very moving day today, as we celebrated Max Stackhouse at First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ,  in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, first in our morning worship, then followed by a first-rate public lecture on Public Theology by his former student, Dr. Scott Paeth, one of the editors of a new anthology of Max’s writings, Shaping Public Theology (Eerdmans, 2014). It was not lost on many of us that we were hearing about Public Theology in the congregation where Jonathan Edwards was the second pastor and Reinhold Niebuhr was a member.

Max, and his wife Jean, are well-loved, long-time members of this congregation, and many friends, former students, and colleagues were there. There was very special music from some of Jean’s colleagues at the New England Conservatory, and a beautiful letter/tribute was read from Yo Yo Ma, a board member of BITA, who was unable to be there because he was performing in Cleveland. It was a red letter day. Thanks to my pastor Brent Damrow for putting it all together and for giving me the opportunity to say a few words. Here they are:

“By their fruits ye shall know them.”

Matthew 7:20

 Max’s mentor, James Luther Adams, liked to expand on Jesus’s words “By their fruits ye shall know them” to say, “By their groups ye shall know them.” For me to list all the groups, societies, and institutions Max has founded or been active in would use up all my allotted time this morning

So I’d like to highlight two groups that Max and Jean created here in the Berkshires. When they moved here they planned monthly gatherings of the United Church of Clergy clergy and their families in their home on Sunday nights. We’d all share a potluck supper, and then the children would retire to watch a video (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was a favorite), and the weary pastors and spouses would go to the living room and enjoy friendship and good conversation.

The very first time we went there I firmly instructed my kids during the car ride to address Max and Jean as “Dr. and Mrs. Stackhouse.” When Max greeted us at the front door he knelt down low and said to them “We lived in India, and in India the children call grown-ups Auntie or Uncle, so you can call me Uncle Max.” Andrew nodded soberly and said, “OK, Dr. Stackhouse.” Those gatherings were a blessing to me and to my family, and to many clergy colleagues.

You all know about Max and Jean’s wonderful organization The Berkshire Institute for Theology and the Arts (BITA) that brought together artists, lay people, pastors and scholars for discussions, performances and fellowship. Again Max and Jean opened their home for a meal to the participants.

I mention these to illustrate the commitment that Max (and Jean, too) have to bringing people together to think and talk about important matters, and to share their life with others. Wherever they have lived or traveled around the world, and that list is also huge, they have made deep friendships and countless connections with all sorts of people.

I must confess that in addition to being my teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend, Max is also “a voice in my head.” I think Scott (Paeth) and other former students of Max will recognize how the Stackhousian voice lingers long after the studies are over.

What does this voice say? Well, to take just one example, Max, who is the son and grandson of Methodist preachers has an allergy to hyper-individualistic religion. “Pietism” is the word he uses to describe such impulses.

“Pietism” is a perennial danger for Christians and a regular feature of American religion, where the emphasis is on me: my faith, my experiences. So the Stackhousian voice in my head sometimes says things to me like, “Be careful, Rick, that your faith doesn’t become too individualistic, too private, because faith, though personal, is not private. Your faith is about you, but it’s not all about you.”

Some view a congregation as a collection of beautiful cut flowers collected as in a vase. The beauty is in the individual spirituality, which each person brings to make a beautiful bouquet.

Max, or at least the Stackhousian voice in my head, rejects that view. For Max participation in a congregation is more corporate and organic than that. He might prefer to think of us more like a tree with common roots.

He wants us to think of ourselves as bound together by shared covenants and commitments that are thicker and more transcendent than the sum total of our individual spiritualities. Which is to say that our personal faith is shaped, formed, strengthened and enriched in life together as a congregation.

He wants us to always be asking big questions, such as, “What does it mean to live life together under God?” “What does it mean to be the body of Christ?” He wants us to think about important words such as covenant and vocation.

He believes that out of this shared life and these deep conversations comes a world-transforming Christianity, like that of our Reformed and Puritan forbears, that helps shape our larger community and society.

You can read in Max’s many books the arc of his Christian Social Ethics, but you can also clearly see in his life and commitments the embodiment of his thinking, the caring for peoples and societies by attending to the way they organize themselves and by how they think about who they are together under God.

I give thanks to God for Max’s part, and Jean’s too, in my life and the lives of my family, and also in the life of this congregation. Amen.

(For a podcast of the whole service go here)

Max L. Stackhouse and Public Theology

 

Max Stackhouse Flyer

 My teacher, mentor, colleague,  friend and Berkshire neighbor Max Stackhouse, one of the primary founders of Public Theology, will be celebrated at our church in Stockbridge on Sunday. (see flyer below)

Dr. Scott Paeth, one of the editors of a new book of Max’s writings, Shaping Public Theology (Eerdmans, 2014) will give a presentation after morning worship.

Several years ago I posted on Max’s  “God and Globalization.” You can find that here. In Max’s body of writings he has persistently challenged the dominate economic view of society (whether capitalist or socialist) as reductionist.For example, here is an excerpt from a letter he sent us back in 2009:

The economies in each area (of his several travels in the world) have some things in common, such as whether people have little or much, they want more, and in all contexts the laws of supply and demand operate. But, what people want more of and why they want what they want, and what they are able to supply and what they demand for what reasons are quite different. These things differ according to their view of and experiences in family life, political power, legal systems, educational opportunities, medical conditions and technological capabilities. In other words, economics is less an independent cause in social stability or change, than a result of the cultural and civilizational fabric. And, here is the main point, these are all deeply influenced by the dominant religion as shaped by the professional leaders of that religion — the clergy, intellectuals, theologians, and charismatic leaders who appeal to the core of the faith and relate it to the social realities the civilization faces. Under the influence of the secularization hypothesis, religion is a by-product of economic (and psychological) factors. (For the whole letter go here.)

 

If you are in the area join us for this celebration of Max and his important contributions to Public Theology:

 

Max Stackhouse Flyer

“O Captain! My Captain!” Walt Whitman and Robin Williams

LincolnThe Internet is full of kudos for the late great Robin Williams, many of them referencing the Walt Whitman poem “O Captain! My Captain!” (which is a line from William’s movie “The Dead Poets’ Society.”)

It would be sad if the original context was lost. The poem is an expression of Whitman’s grief at the death of Abraham Lincoln. It is one of my favorite poems, and as much as I loved Robin Williams, and appreciate his cometic gifts and obvious humanity, I  want us to hold on to the power of this poem about the man that emancipated slavery, saved the union, and changed our nation forever. And I imagine that Robin Williams would be first in line to agree with me.

“O Captain! My Captain!”

BY WALT WHITMAN

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

More reflections on worry: “The Peace of Wild Things”

Berry Pond

I recently posted “Are you choking? A reflection on worry” and a friend sent me this poem by Wendell Berry called “The Peace of Wild Things.” As always Berry is deeply insightful about the ways of the world and the human soul.

“The despair of the world” is great these days with wars and rumors of wars and it easy to let fear run away with us. We fear, as Berry puts it, “of what my life and my children’s lives may be.” We worry about the Middle East and Ukraine,  about Ebola outbreaks in Africa, about the tragedy of children on our borders fleeing violence. We worry about the stock market, rising income inequality, and the loss of jobs that cast a shadow over our children’s futures. With the 24/7 news cycle and the relentless posts on social media the fodder for worry is inexhaustible.

One of the features of our humanity is an awareness of the past and an anticipation of the future. It is a mixed blessing, for the cause of much of our anxiety is rooted in what Berry calls “forethought of grief.” We know that we will suffer and one day die, or as the basketball player/philosopher Charles Barkley aptly put it, “Father Time is still undefeated.”

When Jesus admonished his listeners to “be not anxious,” he told them to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. This is “the peace of wild things” that Berry suggests can free us from our anxiety for a time and let us be.

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron
feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
– Wendell Berry

(Photo by R.L. Floyd. Berry Pond at the Pittsfield State Forest, Pittsfield, Massachusetts)