Tuesday, May 31, 2011

I Spy The Invisible

We live with so many mysteries: unknowns, complexities & contradictions
that sometimes defy meaning
or at least
complicate our perspectives on life.

Like war, for example. It seems that we are always at war these days,
declared or undeclared, just or not-so-much,
and as we mark this Memorial Day weekend
with picnics and fireworks
and remembrances of how wars have shaped us and how
wars have taken loved ones away from us,
I often find myself longing for the day
when we will have a federal holiday remembering and celebrating
But we're human. And we fight.
Sometimes we fight for good reasons
and sometimes that just what we say
but it's complex, regardless. None of our fighting is black-and-white.
So we live with the mystery and complexity of war
and the evasive, unknown, unrealized hope for peace.

We also live with the mystery of meaning:
the wonder of what it all means,
of what we are meant to do with our span of days,
and why we are giving a span of days at all.
Religion fills in the blank of life's meaning for many of us
but religion can go too far in its effort to define life's meaning
and it becomes the method by which we
erase all mystery and
answer every unknown
(even an unknown like when the world will end).
And of course, religion has its own complexities and ironies,
because we're human
and we use tools of power against one another
including religion,
including who's god is bigger and better and more right,
including who's way of living is more divinely-ordained,
including who's meaning of life
should define all of life & every person's life.
So religion is complex as it impacts our lives
and religion is a puzzling contradiction
as it strives to know and to teach what is Unknowable and Undefinable.

And -- in one way or another -- many of the complexities and mysteries
of this life relate ultimately to the mystery that plagues us most of all:
the mystery, the puzzle that is death.
Despite the certainty of death
we still feel a tremendous uncertainty about it:
why this life at this time, why that one...
why the lives of children...
why the lives of those with less access to health care, to water...
Uncertainties like how do we live when we know that death will come
(which circles back to the complexities of religion and war),
and is death ever good?
Because we are human, it is certain that we will all experience death
but the uncertainty of death leads us often to live our lives
as though we can defy death; we race against time to cram it all in
until that final mystery comes.

We live with mysteries: with unknowns & complexities & contradictions
that evade our understanding and complicate our perspective.
Invisibilities that we cannot get our minds around
that we cannot grasp with our hands
that we cannot ever quite put a finger on.

In Acts 17:22-28a, Paul finds that the people of Athens
have put a face on their Mysteries and Invisibilities by creating an altar
that reads: "to an unknown god."
Which I sort of like.
I realize that the Athenians were trying to cover their bases --
trying to name and build an altar to and worship every god
in order to avoid
insulting or overlooking one god in the whole pantheon of gods.
But I like that they created a space for what they didn't know.
In effect, they were saying:
"We know the sun.
We know the winds.
We know death.
We know the pursuit of knowledge.
We know the seas.
We know the seasons.
...And we know that there is so much more that we don't know.
So here is a space to remember
the Mysteries,
the Invisibilities,
the Unknowns."
(And that's not a bad religious tenet, to create space for the Unknown.)

In John 14:15-27, we have the continuation of a speech from Jesus
(via the long-winded pen of John): one of those passages in scripture
that is used within religion to say "Here is truth!"
even though
it's full of complexities and questions and puzzles.
Here Jesus says, "Life is going to get rough but I don't want you to worry;
know that we are intimately connected -- like a vine and its branches --
and I am always with you" ... but as he is trying to impart
this reassurance,
Jesus also says things like:
"The Advocate is coming -- keep your eyes open for it --
but, by the way, most of the world can't/won't see the Advocate
so good luck being the few who recognize the Advocate's arrival!"
And twice Jesus says:
"I'm going away now...but I'll still be here"
and "I'm leaving...but I'll be coming"
which is meant to be comforting, I think, but at the very least
it also reminds us that Jesus has a tendency to speak in puzzles,
and puzzles don't give much definition to life's mysteries
even if they point us in the right direction.

How do you feel about puzzles directing your life and faith?
How much would you prefer to un-puzzle and un-mystify and understand
the things that don't make sense in life
the things that leave us guessing in faith?
Considering all that we don't know,
examining all of the details and questions that are on
your own life's plate:
if you could pick, would you invite the Jesus of John 14
to come and reflect on life with you
in parables and puzzles? or would you prefer
the certain answers of Paul
who looks at an altar of unknowns and invisibles
and offers a clear definition of the One
in whom we live & move & have our being?
Though Jesus and Paul are saying the same thing
-- "God is in all and through all" --
in this case, I prefer how Paul says it more concisely!

How many unknowns
how many invisibilities, complexities, worries,
struggles for meaning and understanding,
or the strain of finding perspective,
how much are these things troubling your spirit these days?

I've been reading Cornel West recently -- he's one of my "go to" authors when I need comfort and challenge and life-compulsion all at the same time. Most recently I've been reading his book Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, and in Living and Loving Out Loud Dr. West describes something called "negative capability."

Negative capability is a phrase first penned by the English poet John Keats, who wrote: "Negative capability [is] the quality when a [person] is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." (from an 1817 letter by John Keats, quoted on pg 38)

That is, negative capability is the ability to observe and to live without panic in the midst of negatives or voids or unknowns. It's the faith to be in the mysteries, and the faith to be with The Holy Mystery. Negative capability is the ability to love & live & strive passionately ... without knowing it all, without adding answers or craving facts to make sense of things that we can't make sense of.

Negative capability is the skill for seeking after and following the Most Holy God who -- more often than we may admit to one another -- is invisible and unknowable and un-pin-down-able.

This is not a theoretical invention or philosophical exercise. This is the basic quality of faith at its strongest: the peace and presence of mind to say "I don't know" without bitterness or fear. And there are plenty of occasions for saying "I don't know" these days:

I don't know -- we don't know -- the complexities
of why we would flood acres of land in order to save acres of land,
or who's land and who's livelihood gets priority in that choice.

We don't know if wars will end.
I, personally, don't know if the act of remembering those who have died
in past wars
will help us end our ongoing wars.

We don't know how life can be so full, so fully lived,
and then be completely gone.

We don't know -- I wonder -- these days if Earth herself is reacting
to our damage of the environment,
but people's lives are being devastated by the
tornadoes and floods and wildfires
of Earth's wrath.

I don't know how or if the sound of a child's laughter can hear the world
but I know that it heals my world.

We don't know some days about God...
...because we want life to make sense to God
when it doesn't make sense to us;
...because in the spirit of the Age of Reason
it seems like Someone should understand
the mysteries &contradictions
and that's the struggle for fact, against faith:
that we want God to know
even when we don't know.

Some days, how much we don't know
feels like too much to bear.
Some days, we want "faith" to mean that we have answers.

Some days, we want our belief in the God
in whom we live & move & have our being
to mean that we can always see and always understand
the God in whom we live & move & have our being.

In the course of preaching "I Spy" sermons during May, I've been saying:
"Look and see God there. And there, and there, and there!"
But we don't always see God there and there and there.
Sometimes we miss it -- sometimes it's our oversight --
but sometimes God isn't readily visible
and sometimes we panic, worried that God's not there at all.

Which brings us back around to the need in our faith for
negative capability:

that quality of having faith in the Invisible
(maybe even in the Absence);

the ability to live & love
right alongside the "I don't knows";

the wisdom to hear truth when Jesus says
"Peace I leave with you...even though you may not see me"
"Peace I give to you...even when you feel abandoned."

Negative capability.

Faith in the Invisible.

Praying to the God who eludes us
even as the same elusive God is so close to us
that we describe God as being within us.

Living and loving always within
the life and love of the Holy One
in whom we live and move and have our being
...even when our beings meet death, and our lives cease to move.

Negative capability.

The discernment to know that the breadth & depth & height of
what is unknown
is so far beyond us
that we don't even know all that we don't know.
And yet we still believe that we are located in God,
even when God feels like part of what is Unknown and Invisible.

Negative capability.

Not just the quality of having faith in the Invisible
but the grace of having hope in the Invisible:
that is, knowing that we fall short of fully grasping God
knowing that we fall short of fully grasping Love --
and realizing that our shortsightedness and our struggles over
"I don't know"
all represent our human inability to imagine
the breadth & depth & height of the God above all gods --
and if
we cannot imagine the breadth & depth & height & possibilities
of God and of Love and of Grace and of Peace
that means
there are possibilities that we haven't imagined!
So instead of responding to the Unknown and the Invisible
with fear,
instead we realize
that within everything that we don't know
there is room for hope
there is room -- so much room! -- for God
for the Unknown
for the Invisible,
and then the Mystery becomes an endlessly bubbling spring
for new hope and new grace in our lives.

We often respond to the void of knowledge,
we react to the invisibles and the "I don't knows"
with fear,
but somewhere between Jesus' puzzles and Paul's unknown altars
there is the possibility that our lack of understanding
is a reason to hope,
an opportunity for the grace of negative capability --
that faith skill of living boldly & loving unceasingly
within the mysteries and the doubts and the invisibles,

within The Mystery that is holy and that holds us
through every day and every doubt

the One who gives us being

the One who gives us peace

the Invisible One who gives us hope


My sermon from 5/29/2011, preached at Grace United Church of Christ.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Weeping Willow (based on Haggai 2:16a)

The LORD asked me, "How are you faring?"
and my soul drooped over with a sigh,
relieved to admit to its fatigue
but not willing to break completely.
"I am tired," I replied, "but look and see LORD:
even now I am determined to show you
my vibrance, my best greens,
my usefulness."
The LORD smiled. "Ah child, it is okay
to weep and sag low in your hurt.
Let me be the gentle sap
through your branches
giving life
while your roots seek new reservoirs
for grace and comfort and healing, until
you are ready to sway and dance
with the winds again.
Take your time, dear one,
but know that I am here."

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Are you receiving prayer-writing prompts in your email?

Friends and readers,

Are you on my email list to receive new prayer-writing prompts every Friday?

If you would like to continue the prayer-writing journey that you began with Writing to God: 40 Days of Praying with My Pen, or if you haven't used Writing to God yet but you're interested in an engaging spiritual discipline for your prayer life, simply send me a message through the "Contact" page at rachelhackenberg.com and I'll make sure that you receive weekly prayer-writing prompts via email for your spiritual journey.


Saturday, May 21, 2011

Psalm 103:1

The words of this verse are familiar -- "Bless the LORD, O my soul" -- but what does it look like for us to bless the One who blesses? What can we possibly do or say to cause God to be blessed?

I cajole my spirit:
Bless the Holy One with all that you are!
Be a blessing to the gracious God who blesses you:

smile at God today like a sunny dandelion;
sit with God quietly and keep the Holy One company
while She watches and weeps over the whole world;

o my soul, get out your best crayons and make
a beautiful drawing for God's refrigerator;
sing love songs to the LORD when no one else is listening;

wake up a few minutes early to make and bring
fresh chocolate chip pancakes (and maybe some coffee)
to the God of heaven & earth as the blazing sun rises;

hide praises for God to discover throughout the day;
text the LORD an "LOL" when life offers up a moment of joy,
just so God knows that it made you chuckle.

O my soul, with all of your being and all of your creativity,

Be a blessing to the gracious God who blesses you.
Bless, O bless the LORD with unending delight!

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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Faith Problems

I'm having trouble getting at God
which is maybe because
I'm having trouble getting at me

The self-perceived complexities of my life
are so much more finite
than the Simplicity that is God

(which lends itself to some odd & awkward
gymnastics of faith)

But the complexities distract from the Simplicity
even though the Simplicity is in all complexities.

Still, I don't trust finding me
to find God
because the details interrupt my view
of the big picture too easily

(Can't God fix that?!)

So I might point to a strong beautiful elm and pray
"Give me faith like that"
only to hear God saying
"But I'm like a fish"

In other words, my compass is off,
so I need God to get at me
externally right now

because I'm floundering
(Aha! There's the fish!
I didn't even plan that.)

You should really intervene now, God.

Friday, May 13, 2011

John 15:5

I reach for you like a weary flower stretching out its roots
searching far and wide through the dirt
to find light and richness and beauty;
and it takes me a while, most cunning God,
to see what I've already found in my hungry rummaging:
I've found the Dirt: messy, gets-under-your-nails,
all-surrounding, life-sustaining Dirt.
So I soak in Holy Dirt to satisfy my weariness;
I savor the earthiness of you,
and determine to hold on to faith
that the muddiness is good and holy
and that this green growth (my life) is enough
without the kaleidoscopic brilliance of a bloom for today.
Take my life, O Holy Dirt,
be kind and generous in feeding this flower
that I might be green and growing to your glory.

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Friday, May 6, 2011

Psalm 51:12

Say, o my spirit, that the joy of the goodness of God
is more than enough to keep you generous in love.

Believe, o my soul, that the possibilities of the Divine
are more than enough to sustain you through the turmoil.

Rise up, o my spirit, with peace from the Fiery Spirit
that is more than enough to give you courage in life.

Testify, o my soul, that the deliciousness of the Most Holy
is more than enough to erase your trudging and begrudging.

Sing out, o my spirit, that your salving by the Broken Healer
is more than enough to set your troubled heart a-dancing.

Be reassured, o my soul, that the eternal freedom of Grace
is more than enough for you to live with open heart and hand.

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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

More Prompts for Prayer-Writers

Friends and readers,

If you would like to continue the prayer-writing journey that you began with Writing to God: 40 Days of Praying with My Pen, or if you haven't used Writing to God yet but you're interested in an engaging spiritual discipline for your prayer life, I'm offering to email weekly prayer-writing prompts to any & all who would like to receive a creative nudge to write prayers each week!

Prayer-writing prompts will be emailed every Friday (most Fridays, I'll post an original prayer here on my blog too), and you're always welcome to share your own prayers or thoughts by commenting on the blog!

To sign up, go to rachelhackenberg.com and send me an email via the "Contact" page! I look forward to continuing the prayer-writing journey with you.


Sunday, May 1, 2011

I Spy A Scar (John 20:19-29)

I love that on this first Sunday after Easter -- after all of the fanfare and the music and the beauty and the hope and the incredible "Wow!" of resurrection -- one week later the lectionary gives us the story of Thomas, gives us the space of a story within which we can say to Jesus and to one another: "That whole Easter thing is still true, right?"

Because one week after the celebration of Easter, life seems basically unchanged. The disciples still have reason to be afraid, and frankly so do we: one week after Easter, there are still threats and bombings and wars and worries, still inequality and power and fierce p
rotection of the status quo, still corruption and hatred and sickness and hunger ... and maybe that's why we often think that Easter is mainly about life after death, because life before death doesn't seem to have been improved much by Easter's resurrection.

So the story of Thomas lets us ask, "Is it really true?"

And in a great twist of faith, the proof that Easter is true isn't in the fanfare or the
music or the beauty or the feeling of hope or the incredible "Wow!" of resurrection. The proof is in the scars.

The proof is in the still-tender and scabbed-over places where wounds once cut deep. The proof to Thomas that Jesus was alive again, the proof to us that Easter resurrection has actually changed life, the proof that God still lives and carries on amidst our fears and outbursts, is in the odd-looking marks that are left over from those moments when we've bled and wept and doubled over with pain, when we've fought and protested and changed. The proof is in the scars, the healed wounds.

(Which, in many ways, seems both more tangible and entirely less palatable to believe than the happy-happy-resurrection of Easter.)

I spent this past weekend in a place filled with scars, a place created by scars: the shore. You know, a beach is created by more scars than we could ever count. Each shell in the sand bears
the marks and healed wounds of a sea creature's life that has been tossed aside or left behind or attacked or eaten, pounded by the tides, eroded by the salt water, picked over by the seagulls, and finally abandoned -- full of scars -- on the beach.

In a few decades or centuries or millennia, the broken-up shells that show the scars of a sea creature's life will crumble into still smaller pieces, eroded and changed by the forces of nature, intermixed with the remnants of stone and sea glass and crystallized salt, piled high as the sand that we walk on ... a whole beach full of scars that hint of what life once was and remind us of the life that still is, even amidst the changes and wounds.

There is still life, and there is still more life to come, and we know it because we see and feel the scars.

Thomas gets a bad rap as a doubter, I think; the Gospel of John says that Jesus showed his scars to the other disciples, too, it's just that Thomas wasn't there the first time. After the disciples saw Jesus with fresh scabs on his hands and sides, they went to Thomas and said, "We saw his scars, it's gonna be okay!" To which Thomas replied, "I don't know, the world still looks pretty dismal from what I can see. I don't quite know how to believe that it's going to be okay."

It's like when someone tries to reassure you at a time when you have a
wound that is still sore and tender, by saying to you, "It's gonna be okay." Which doesn't sit well with you, because you're not really sure that it is going to be okay.

But the next time that the disciples are together and Jesus appears again, Thomas is there too, and this time Thomas sees the scars and touches the healed-over wounds that are the proof of life.

And Jesus doesn't say to him, "It's gonna be okay" or "It's all better now." Jesus simply says, "Peace to you. Peace. There is still life. Do not be afraid."

Jesus says to us, "Peace to you. There is life. Do not be afraid."

And the scars of shells and of sand and of sea life whisper to us, "Peace to you. There is life. Do not be afraid."

And the scars of our own lives give the same testimony: "Peace to you. There is life. Do not be afraid."

I spy a scar: the nicks and marks and bumps and bruises and worn-down places of a sea shell. The scar reminds us that there is still life. There is still God's life, still God living. Still this life, still this day. And the proof of life -- the truth of life -- is in the scars.

Be at peace.