The Way of Eloquence. John Shuck. First Presbyterian Church. Elizabethton, Tennessee. December 27th, 2009. Luke 2:41-52. Surah 19:16-34. Surah 55:1-4. Today we are finishing our reading of the Qur’an cover to cover. Beginning in January we are going ...
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"Qur'an and Jive" - 5 new articles

  1. The Way of Eloquence--A Sermon
  2. Say "Yes" To What Is Within: A Sermon
  3. May You Have A Successful Ramadan!
  4. Created from Water: A Sermon
  5. Let There Be Light!
  6. More Recent Articles

The Way of Eloquence--A Sermon

The Way of Eloquence
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

December 27th, 2009
Luke 2:41-52
Surah 19:16-34
Surah 55:1-4

Today we are finishing our reading of the Qur’an cover to cover. Beginning in January we are going to read the Bhagavad Gita cover to cover in 2010. The Qur’an is the scripture central to the Muslim tradition. The Bhagavad Gita is of central importance to the Hindu tradition. What I find interesting in exploring other faith traditions is that if I allow myself to come to them with a Beginner’s Mind or an open mind, I find that there are many points of contact between faiths.

We share many symbols that are deeper than the meaning each faith attaches to them. The life of Krishna and life of Christ are similar in many ways. The Qur’an has a high reverence for Jesus. Today we are reflecting upon a story of the infant Jesus in the Qur’an.

These religious texts, whether they be the Bible, the Qur’an or the Bhagavad Gita are rather mature. The common symbols and archetypes much earlier than what we find in these established religious texts. For instance the precocious divine child is an archetype found in all of the religious texts yet is more primal than any of them.

Exploring other faith traditions enables us to see the larger archetypes and symbols at work in the stories that are common to us. I hope that becoming familiar with the sacred texts and traditions of others will enable us to understand our neighbor, perhaps be more sympathetic to them, and to discover and strengthen bonds of commonality.

Today, stories of the child Jesus take center stage.

When I was a child I remember being disappointed that the Bible said very little about Jesus as a child. We have him as a baby, then when he is twelve and in the temple and that is it. It wasn’t until I was in college that I discovered the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. That shouldn’t be confused with the Gospel of Thomas, which is a sayings gospel of Jesus. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas tells stories about Jesus when he was a child, before reaching the age of twelve.

Here are a few stories from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas:

This child Jesus, when five years old, was playing in the ford of a mountain stream; and He collected the flowing waters into pools, and made them clear immediately, and by a word alone He made them obey Him. And having made some soft clay, He fashioned out of it twelve sparrows. And it was the Sabbath when He did these things. And there were also many other children playing with Him. And a certain Jew, seeing what Jesus was doing, playing on the Sabbath, went off immediately, and said to his father Joseph: Behold, thy son is at the stream, and has taken clay, and made of it twelve birds, and has profaned the Sabbath. And Joseph, coming to the place and seeing, cried out to Him, saying: Wherefore doest thou on the Sabbath what it is not lawful to do? And Jesus clapped His hands, and cried out to the sparrows, and said to them: Off you go! And the sparrows flew, and went off crying. And the Jews seeing this were amazed, and went away and reported to their chief men what they had seen Jesus doing.

He was "being reported" at an early age!

And another:

After that He was again passing through the village; and a boy ran up against Him, and struck His shoulder. And Jesus was angry, and said to him: Thou shalt not go back the way thou camest. And immediately he fell down dead. And some who saw what had taken place, said: Whence was this child begotten, that every word of his is certainly accomplished? And the parents of the dead boy went away to Joseph, and blamed him, saying: Since thou hast such a child, it is impossible for thee to live with us in the village; or else teach him to bless, and not to curse:4 for he is killing our children.

Jesus is dangerous. But helpful:

A few days after, a young man was splitting wood in the corner,11 and the axe came down and cut the sole of his foot in two, and he died from loss of blood. And there was a great commotion, and people ran together, and the child Jesus ran there too. And He pressed through the crowd, and laid hold of the young man's wounded foot, and he was cured immediately. And He said to the young man: Rise up now, split the wood, and remember me. And the crowd seeing what had happened, adored the child, saying: Truly the Spirit of God dwells in this child.

And handy to have around in the carpenter's shop:

And His father was a carpenter, and at that time made ploughs and yokes. And a certain rich man ordered him to make him a couch. And one of what is called the cross pieces being too short, they did not know what to do. The child Jesus said to His father Joseph: Put down the two pieces of wood, and make them even in the middle. And Joseph did as the child said to him. And Jesus stood at the other end, and took hold of the shorter piece of wood, and stretched it, and made it equal to the other. And His father Joseph saw it, and wondered, and embraced the child, and blessed Him, saying: Blessed am I, because God has given me this child.

And smart!

And Joseph, seeing that the child was vigorous in mind and body, again resolved that He should not remain ignorant of the letters, and took Him away, and handed Him over to another teacher. And the teacher said to Joseph: I shall first teach him the Greek letters, and then the Hebrew....And Jesus said to him: If thou art really a teacher, and art well acquainted with the letters, tell me the power of the Alpha, and I will tell thee the power of the Beta. And the teacher was enraged at this, and struck Him on the head. And the child, being in pain, cursed him; and immediately he swooned away, and fell to the ground on his face. And the child returned to Joseph's house; and Joseph was grieved, and gave orders to His mother, saying: Do not let him go outside of the door, because those that make him angry die.

A power every child wishes to possess! And finally:

And after this the infant of one of Joseph's neighbours fell sick and died, and its mother wept sore. And Jesus heard that there was great lamentation and commotion, and ran in haste, and found the child dead, and touched his breast, and said: I say to thee, child, be not dead, but live, and be with thy mother. And directly it looked up and laughed. And He said to the woman: Take it, and give it milk, and remember me. And seeing this, the crowd that was standing by wondered, and said: Truly this child was either God or an angel of God, for every word of his is a certain fact. And Jesus went out thence, playing with the other children.

Jesus is the precocious child. These stories don’t tell us much about Jesus, I suppose, but they do tell us about our fascination with The Child Archteype. These stories as well as the one in Luke and in the Qur’an feature the eloquent or wise child. Jesus, speaking with wisdom and authority astounds the scholars.

Where does this eloquence or wisdom come from? According to the stories it is not from learning. It is not human wisdom. It is from God. It is a gift. Its source is Divine Creativity. There is a mythology of innocence at work here. We think of a child’s purity before being corrupted by learning and by living. The wise child who teaches adults reflects our desire for innocence.

We think of the newborn is closer to God. You might have heard the story of the five year old girl who looks into the crib of her newborn baby sister and asks her:

Tell me about God. I forgot.

We often say that prejudice is not innate but learned. Also, true enough. The precocious or eloquent child celebrates the innocence--the goodness--of children before the corruption of culture. The shadow of this kind of thinking is that you can end up with a devaluation of education in favor of superstition. We see this in religious leaders who put down education in favor of charisma, being caught up in the spirit and so forth.

The child archetype has its shadow. It can lead us to become childish as well as childlike. How can we draw from the child archetype and use it as a constructive aspect of our personality?

Caroline Myss (Mace) has some instructive ideas regarding the child archetype. I don’t know much about Caroline Myss. She has written some popular books and appears on the Oprah show frequently. I am neither recommending her or not recommending her. I did find this helpful. These are some of her thoughts on the child archetype. She writes:

The mature personality of the Child archetype nurtures that part of us that yearns to be lighthearted and innocent, expecting the wonders of tomorrow, regardless of age. This part of our nature contributes greatly to our ability to sense playfulness in our lives, balancing the seriousness of adult responsibilities. The balanced Child is a delight to be around because the energy that flows from this part of our personality is positively infectious and brings out the best in others, as well as in us.

Subsets of this archetype include the wounded child, orphaned child, eternal child, magical or innocent child, and needy child. We all have within us a child. It is an archetype or a personality blueprint that we work from usually unconsciously. We can be aware of this archetype by being conscious of our dreams, of telling the stories of our childhood, by connecting with the values we learned. Particularly it is important to pay attention to what is "shaming" as well as what makes for “good little boys and girls.”

It might be odd for me to talk about this today, because it could be right on the surface. At Christmas many of us reconnect with family. The rule of thumb here is that your family remembers you as you were not as you are. Not only as you were but as you were in their eyes. So you can be 40 but go back home and you are ten again. These can be humorous episodes or painful but they can be learning.

What is it that pushes our buttons?
What keeps us from growing up?
What sense of childlikeness have I lost in a desire to keep the hurt child protected?
Do I never let the child out—that is the playfulness, spontaneity, creativity—because if I do she or he might be hurt?
Do I not trust because I may end up being orphaned or abandoned?
Is there unfinished business, needs not met by my parents that I want others to meet?

I know we make a lot of fun about the inner child and the pseudo-psycho self-help industry that surrounds it, but actually it is a good thing to do this child work. Doing the important, and sometimes painful childhood work, can save some wear and tear on current relationships.

When Jesus said,

“Unless you become like a child, you won’t enter the kingdom of God,” what was he talking about? The assumption here is that he wanted his followers to be childlike not childish.

The Apostle Paul said,

“When I was a child I thought like a child, reasoned like a child, spoke like a child. When I became an adult I put away childish things.”

Fundamentalisms of all kinds are childish. They come from the needy child who desires authority. Give me all the answers. Give me the magic book. Give me a savior. You don’t have to grow up. You don’t have to take responsibility and think for yourself. You just have to obey. That is what children do in authoritarian households. They obey. That may be fine when you are five. But not when you are 25 or 45 or 75.

Even societies can get stuck in childish ways. Jesus in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is a scary individual. He has all the power of divinity but none of its maturity. He is a terror to the neighbors. “Teach him to bless and not curse. He’s killing our children!”

Because he is the divine child he is supposedly innocent and pure. That is a dangerous combination. Power and innocence or more accurately power and perception of innocence.

Think of the United States and its citizens. We are the city on the hill. Manifest destiny. God's chosen. Pure and innocent. All of our forays into other countries are for benevolent causes. Our history is one of goodness and mercy. We have a childish self-perception. Even when we are faced with facts of our non-innocence, we cannot see them for the over-arching shadow of the myth of innocence.

The challenge of the via creativa the way of creativity, the way of eloquence, is to move from childishness to childlikeness.

At the beginning of the sermon I mentioned the importance of the Beginner’s Mind. Zen teacher Shunryo Suzuki-Roshi said:

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."

So part of the childlikeness that we want to move toward is to be teachable. To approach life with awe, wonder, openness, and possibility. To do this we use our imagination, our creativity, our confidence, our skills, and our eloquence.

Eloquence is to speak truthfully in such a way that evokes beauty. The eloquent uplifts as well as informs. Sometimes that speech seems childlike in its simplicity, such as the parables of Jesus or a Zen koan, but actually comes from a long history of living.

May we discover eloquence in all of our speech.

I will let the Qur’an have the last word:

The all-Merciful!
He taught the Qur’an,
He created humankind,
He taught them eloquence.

Say "Yes" To What Is Within: A Sermon

Here is the text of today's sermon. This weekend marks the beginning of Ramadan.

Say “Yes” To What Is Within!
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
August 23rd, 2009

O believers, the fast is ordained upon you, as it was ordained upon those who came before you—perhaps you will fear God—for a number of days. Whoever is sick among you or on a journey, then a number of other days. Upon those who can bear it, a penance: the feeding of a poor person. He who willingly proffers good, this would be better for him. To fast is better for you, if only you knew. The month of Ramadan is the one in which the Qur’an was sent down—right Guidance to mankind, and clear signs of Guidance and Distinction of truth from false-hood. Those among you who witness it, let him fast therein.
Surah al-Baqarah 2:182-5

Christ passed by a group of people who hurled insults at him, and he responded with blessings. He passed by another group who insulted him, and he responded likewise. One of his disciples asked, “Why is that the more they insult you, the more you bless them, as if inviting this upon yourself?” Christ said, “A Person can bring forth only what is within him.”
Tarif Khalidi, ed. The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature (London: Cambridge, 2001), p. 106.

Yesterday marked the first day of Ramadan. This is a month of fasting and worship for our Muslim sisters and brothers. For thirty days Muslims will fast during daylight hours. After the sun sets they will eat and socialize.

It is believed that during the month of Ramadan, on the 27th day of this month to be precise, that Muhammad received his first revelations. It is also during this month that God determines the course of the world for the coming year.

When I first heard that I had a visual of God in his study with his yearly planner, charts, newsprint, and markers as he plans the universe for the next year. A couple of hurricanes, maybe a pandemic, some pretty sunsets, and a bumper corn crop.

Or maybe God is She on the beach with her doodle pad wondering if she ought to so something nice and provide world peace this year or at least universal health care.

I thought it was fun to think of God using the month of Ramadan as a planning period for world events. With our modern consciousness the idea of gods and goddesses or even God with a big G planning things seems rather, well, antiquated. Things seem to take care of themselves.

The major consequence of modern science for religion was to put God in the unemployment line. The universe handles itself and there was nothing left for God to do. Nevertheless, it is fun to think of God out there planning things. I guess it provides some sort of comfort. Somebody has planned this mess. Perhaps that idea makes the mess bearable. Whether we find it all believable or not, religion is a tribute to human imagination.

During Ramadan, observers may spend more time than they usually do praying or reading the Qur’an. Or maybe they just feel guilt for not praying or reading the Qur’an as much as they think they should. This period of fasting is similar to Lent for Christians in that it is a time of spiritual and personal renewal. Observers are to avoid telling lies, being greedy, and gossip. Instead, they are to be kind, do well to the less fortunate, and so forth.

The idea is to be conscious about doing good and to avoid being mean. It would seem to be a swell idea to do good and avoid being mean all the time of course. But setting a time a part helps us to remember.

Here is an explanation of Ramadan from a woman in the United Kingdom. Her name is Arfana and she lives in Wrexham in the UK:

Ramadan is the holy month for Muslims all over the world and it's a very important month. We fast for 30 days - we can't eat after sunrise and then all day until after sunset. Prayers are most important at this time. It's a spiritual journey more than anything.

It is difficult not eating during the day especially in the UK as it's not a Muslim country and you still have to go about your day to day life, like going to work where your colleagues might be sitting having fish and chips for dinner! Whereas in a Muslim country all the shops would be closed during the day and it's easier, but it's still a challenging thing to do.

I work in Wrexham and my colleagues are fascinated by Ramadan! They ask lots of questions and think it must be a difficult thing to do, for anybody.

In Wrexham we all get together on Friday, which is a holy day, and break the fast together at the Mosque. Generally people in their own homes would invite each other round to break the fast together. It's a tradition to invite people to your house and break the fast together.

At the end of Ramadan comes Eid, which is a celebration of Ramadan, and it's when we all have a big feast.

Every year Ramadan starts 10 days earlier so it starts at a different time every year. Obviously it's harder when it's during the summer as the days are longer. We've had fasting over Christmas too which has been interesting.

Fasting is only observed by healthy individuals. They have to be of an age that they know what they're doing. Pregnant women or people who are unwell or on medication don't fast and children have to reach a certain age before they can fast.

Notice that in her explanation of Ramadan, she included no theological speculation. There was no mention of God. No reference to God planning the upcoming world events or Muhammad receiving the Qur’an. I am not saying she doesn’t believe in that. Whether the theology is important or not, she doesn’t mention it. What is important from what she says is what is done--30 days of fasting and all the perils and challenges associated with that. Then come the evening meals, celebrations, and socializing culminating with the big feast at the end of Ramadan. That is the important stuff.

Ramadan is a month long celebration of tradition and human connection. There is perhaps a theological mist behind it, but the real value is the party. If God is to be found, it is in the interaction. God is in the feast and in the fast.

One of the most important sayings of Jesus, or perhaps I should say a saying of Jesus that resonates with me is found in the Gospel of Luke. In response to the question of when folks should expect the kingdom of God, Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is within you.” It could also be translated, “The kingdom of God is among you.”

I don’t know for sure whether that statement originated with Jesus or was placed on his lips by creative storytellers. Whatever the case, it represents a huge step in the evolution of God. In this one sentence of Jesus, God made a monumental shift. God, or the kingdom of God, is within you. This is in opposition to an external authority or reality out there in time or in space, or even outside of time and space.

Leo Tolstoy was so moved by that saying of Jesus that he wrote his famous, radical, too-true-for-us-to-handle book, and titled it The Kingdom of God is Within You. It is a book about Christian pacifism. His book was banned in his home country of Russia. In it he claimed that all war and violence was against the will of Christ. If humanity was going to survive it would require us to take Christ’s message, "turn the other cheek," to heart and to live it. The kingdom of God is realized as people of conscience refuse to cooperate with all forms of violence and oppression.

Peace arises from within the individual, that is, the Christ within.

A new book I recommend is Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God. It is a fascinating book that traces the development of the concept of God as human consciousness changes. He shows how “God” has evolved throughout our religious past and into the present day. This is a very important book regarding how we think about God and how we use God to control our surroundings including other people.

You can tell a lot about a person by the God they believe in. For example a God…

• who desires you to kill in his name,
• who sends the unbelievers to hell,
• who makes you recite a list of 160 commandments before breakfast,
• who sends tornadoes to Minneapolis as punishment on the Lutherans for welcoming gays,
• who says Jesus was tortured on the cross because you are really, really bad,

is not God or reality at all. It does say a lot about those who invent that God and evangelize for that God.

We are no better than the God we invent for ourselves.

The kingdom of God is within you.

Just in case there might be one person who has not heard this Cherokee fable, I will share it with all of you.

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.

He said, "My son, the battle is between two "wolves" inside us all.

One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith."

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather:

"Which wolf wins?"

The old Cherokee replied, "The one you feed."

The kingdom of God is within you. What wolf--what God—will we feed?

Religious celebrations, like Ramadan, give us an opportunity to be conscious about the God we feed.

Even for those of us who are not Muslim, yet out of respect for Muslims, Ramadan can be a month of observance. This is a good thirty day period to learn about the Muslim faith, to make connections with our Muslim neighbors, to search for common ground, and to do things that make for peace. An act as simple as taking a moment of silent meditation and offering it as a gift to our Muslim sisters and brothers is a gift of peacefulness.

Compassion, creativity, joy, peacefulness--the kingdom of God--is within us and among us.

That for me is a God I can believe in.

May You Have A Successful Ramadan!

Tomorrow marks the beginning of Ramadan.

It is during this month that Muslims fast. It is called the Fast of Ramadan and lasts the entire month. Ramadan is a time when Muslims concentrate on their faith and spend less time on the concerns of their everyday lives. It is a time of worship and contemplation.

During the Fast of Ramadan strict restraints are placed on the daily lives of Muslims. They are not allowed to eat or drink during the daylight hours. Smoking and sexual relations are also forbidden during fasting. At the end of the day the fast is broken with prayer and a meal called the iftar. In the evening following the iftar it is customary for Muslims to go out visiting family and friends. The fast is resumed the next morning.

According to the Holy Quran:

One may eat and drink at any time during the night "until you can plainly distinguish a white thread from a black thread by the daylight: then keep the fast until night."

The good that is acquired through the fast can be destroyed by five things -
  • the telling of a lie
  • slander
  • denouncing someone behind his back
  • a false oath
  • greed or covetousness
These are considered offensive at all times, but are most offensive during the Fast of Ramadan.
This sounds like a good idea for anyone regardless of one's religion.

Do good and avoid being mean.

Best wishes to all my Muslim friends for a successful Ramadan!

Created from Water: A Sermon

Here is today's sermon on the theme of water. I shared some things learned on my study leave. It is also Qur'an Sunday (we have been reading the Qur'an cover to cover in 2009). I chose a reading from Surah 25 that states that God created humankind from water.

Created from Water
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
July 26th, 2009
John 4:7-14

Water may not be something we think about on a day to day basis. We turn on the faucet. We flush the toilet. We wash our clothes in a machine as well as our dishes. We turn on the shower. Water appears. That wasn’t the case, of course, for those who lived when the Gospel of John was written. Nor is it the case for many in the world today.

Our story from John’s gospel features a woman among many women who went daily to draw water from a common well. Fresh water was not taken for granted. Gathering water took time and labor. Water was not plentiful or easy to access. We know the value of water amidst its scarcity.

This is a poem from Wendell Berry entitled, “Water.”
I was born in a drought year. That summer
my mother waited in the house, enclosed
in the sun and the dry ceaseless wind,
for the men to come back in the evenings,
bringing water from a distant spring.
Veins of leaves ran dry, roots shrank.
And all my life I have dreaded the return
of that year, sure that it still is
somewhere, like a dead enemy’s soul.
Fear of dust in my mouth is always with me,
and I am the faithful husband of the rain,
I love the water of wells and springs
and the taste of roofs in the water of cisterns.
I am a dry man whose thirst is praise
of clouds, and whose mind is something of a cup.
My sweetness is to wake in the night
after days of dry heat, hearing the rain.
--Wendell Berry, “Water”
It is not surprising that in the Bible and in the Qur’an water is both a metaphor for the spiritual life and a material reality. The Bible begins with water. Water is so important that God controls it:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so.
In this ancient cosmology, the sky or the dome kept the waters above it and the waters on the flat earth. When it rained, they thought that the portals were being opened in the dome to allow the water to fall.

In the Qur’an, God also separates the waters. In this case it is the salt water from the fresh water. In our reading from Surah 25:
…It is He Who merged the two seas,
This one fresh and sweet water,
That one salty and bitter.
Between them He erected a barrier, an impassable boundary.
It is She Who, from water, created humankind,
Conferring on them kinship, of blood and marriage.
Your Lord is Ever-Powerful.
In the Qur’an human beings are created from water. Human beings are created from dust and clay in the Bible and from water in the Qur’an.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus offers “living water.”
“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
Later in the Gospel of John, Jesus cries out to the crowds:
“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’”
Lest there be any doubt, from our ancient texts, water is sacred. Water is the symbol for life. Wetness is spiritual. The opposite is dryness, lifelessness, deadness. This dryness is the abode of the unclean spirits. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus said that when an unclean spirit leaves a human being:
“it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting-place, but it finds none.”
That is a memorable image for spiritual death: an unclean spirit wandering through the waterless regions.

All four gospels bring Jesus on the scene with the water of baptism. His ministry begins with a ritual cleansing and the promise from the sky, “This is my son my beloved.”

There is a reason why water has spiritual significance, why it is used as a metaphor for joyful, conscious, celebratory, refreshing, life. The reason is that water has material significance. We can get along without shopping malls. We will survive without cars, computers, and churches. Human beings can live without oil, gas and coal. But we cannot live without water.

• Available fresh water is less than ½ of 1 percent of all the water on Earth.

• Seventy percent of our water use is for agriculture. The vast majority of that water is used to raise livestock (meat) and to produce biofuels.

• Eighty percent of the global population relies on ground-water supplies that are dangerously depleted, if not exhausted, as they are mined beyond natural replenishment. (Kostigen, p. 170)

• On top of that, our streams and rivers are increasingly polluted with toxins. We have created “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico from all the agricultural chemicals that have flowed down streams to the Mississippi and then into the gulf. P. 68 (50 Ways to Help Save the Earth, Rebecca Barnes'-Davies)

• The largest landfill in the world (90 percent of which is plastic) is in the Pacific Ocean. This garbage patch is between California and Hawaii and is twice the size of Texas. P. 68 (50 Ways)

Lack of access to fresh, clean, water could be the biggest threat to humanity in the coming years. It already is a threat for much of the world. One of every six people on Earth, that is one billion people, lack access to safe drinking water.

Journalist Thomas Kostigen has traveled to many places in the world including Mumbai, India, Linfen City China, and Borneo in Southeast Asia and has written about the environmental situation in these places. His latest book is You Are Here: Exposing the Vital Link Between What We Do and What That Does to Our Planet. He writes about water:
Most residents of the developing world get by on a little more than five gallons of water per day; the average global citizen uses about thirteen gallons per day; all the while, water use in Western Europe and the United States ranges between 50 and 170 gallons per person per day. Think we can get by on using a little less and putting a little more into the hands of people who need it? P. 169
When we hear or read this information there is a tendency to become numb to it. We may feel both a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. We feel helpless in that we don’t think we as individuals can do anything to change forces seemingly beyond our control. We feel hopeless in that the problems are so vast we wonder how can we possibly solve them.

We don’t need to be immobilized by either.

I spent the last two weeks at two conferences. The first was Presbyterians for Restoring Creation and the second was Creation Spirituality Communities with Matthew Fox. From both of these conferences I took away this truth.

Everyone is now an environmentalist.

Being green isn’t just for hippies and tree huggers. The creativity, concern, and compassion for Earth and all of its creatures are becoming part of our consciousness.

People are not only becoming aware of the issues but are thinking creatively about how to address them. We are recognizing that we are interconnected. We are realizing that everything we consume affects people around the globe and vice versa. Our little steps, using a little less water and eating less meat, have huge impacts.

We are far from helpless. We are after all human beings. We are the consciousness of the Universe. It took 14 billion years for us to get here. We aren’t going to throw that away. We have done some pretty incredible things and made amazing discoveries. As we awaken from our slumber, we will discover that the creativity of the universe is within us. We are survivors. It is in our genes. Each of us is here because our ancestors learned to adapt. Helpless? Hardly.

Nor should we be hopeless. Matthew Fox reminded us to remember our ancestors. We appeared on the scene about 100,000 years ago in Africa, our home. We nearly went extinct, but we didn’t. Just as human beings began to emigrate from Africa to Central Asia and to Europe we ran into the ice age. Talk about climate change.

There were no manuals available to deal with it. No books for our ancestors with titles such as Securing Your Financial Portfolio During the Coming Ice Age Crisis. There were no internet sites offering 101 Ways to Hunt and Kill a Woolly Mammoth. They had to figure it out for themselves. Somehow they did. They learned to adapt.

Here we are again. We are certainly facing crises we have never faced before. But with our tools--our awareness, creativity, and inherited wisdom--we will manage. Our descendants could enjoy hundreds of thousands perhaps millions of years of life.

But we need to step up and not zone out.

One way to be conscious is to celebrate the sacredness of water. Water is spiritual. Let us drink of the spring that gushes up to eternal life. When we drink, when we eat our green things, when we bathe, when we wade in the water, we are engaging in a sacred and holy act.

Let us celebrate the wetness of it. Let us each honor with our mind, spirit, and body the pure, clean, dripping, life-giving goodness of H20. The Qur’an reminds us that we are created from water. It is life, our sacred treasure.

As we eat, as we drink, let us honor and be grateful for this gift.

Let us imagine a world in which there is enough fresh, clean water for all.

Because as we imagine we make it so.


Let There Be Light!

We have been reading the Qur'an cover to cover and this month we are reading Surahs 19-24. We chose some prayers and readings from the Sufi tradition. The sermon was based on loosely on the theme of Light as a symbol for the via positiva, the way of celebration, awe, and wonder. Sometimes you just have to accept joy and say it's good.

After the benediction, Katrina and the Waves danced us out of the church.

Let There Be Light
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

We are in the season of summer. The days are longer. It is a season of Light. Light could be the most popular symbol for Divinity. In the Gospel of John, the Cosmic Christ is the Light that shines in the darkness. And the darkness did not overcome it.

In the Qur’an, Allah (which is simply the Arabic word for God) is the Light.

The Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree (which in English means light or enlightenment). The Enlightenment is a name we have given to a period in Western intellectual history for the light of reason overcoming the darkness of superstition.

I am not sure if there is any wisdom tradition that doesn’t make use of Light as a symbol for awakening, insight, and joy.

In the Hebrew scriptures, the first sentence placed on the lips of God was, “Let there be Light.”

As I was re-reading Matthew Fox’s 95 theses for the reformation of the church, he referenced physicist David Bohm, who said that matter is frozen light.

All matter, including human matter, is light. You could think of it theologically in that all matter, all flesh, all nature, all stuff, is frozen Divine Light. Not only do we have it in us, it is us.

We use the term Light as a symbol for creativity. It is a symbol for joy. It is a symbol for healing. It is a symbol for awe, wonder, and celebration.

This first week of summer invites us to celebrate Light. This is the via positiva, the way of looking at life, and saying, “It is good.”

We do need to bask in the Light. To let the Light soak in us.

When we moved from upstate New York to Montana about nine years ago, I had forgotten about how Light it is out in the high and dry desert. Upstate New York is beautiful. East Tennessee is beautiful. Lots of trees, lots of green, lots of rain that makes it so. So here in the East, in the land of the trees, there are many overcast days.

But I remember those first several weeks when we had moved back to Montana how light it was. I have this same experience when I return for a summer visit. The sun shines most of the time. There are few clouds. According to Montana’s state song, “the skies are always blue.”

I remember for several days spreading my arms and saying, “Give me that sun.” I wanted the Light, not so much the heat, but the light to sink into my bones.

We have had some beautiful bright light days here recently. Good days to soak it up (with the proper application of sunscreen of course).

My theme for this morning’s sermon is soak it up. Soak up the Light.

It’s time to feel good.

Now I know that we need permission.
We ask ourselves how can we feel good when we have so many disappointments?
How can we feel good when there is so much to do?
How can we feel good when there is so much suffering in the world, in our community, in our families, in our own lives?
How can I feel good when my friend is in pain?

There is so much darkness, isn’t it a sin to celebrate the Light?

If we waited until there was no more darkness, suffering and sin, we would never feel good. There is a time for everything writes the poet in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

Today is as good a time as any to laugh and to dance.

That Light of laughter—that dancing Light is necessary to make all the other stuff worth it.

It is a sacred act to take delight in the beauty around us and in the beauty within us. There is beauty within you, don’t ever forget that. You are God’s beauty, God’s Light.

We do weep with those who weep. There is a time for that. There is a time in the midst of the weeping to notice beauty—beauty that is surrounded and illuminated by Light.

Taking notice of the beauty is the highest act of worship.

Over the weekend my Lovely and I watched a wonderful film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The film is based on a wild idea. Benjamin Button was born in 1918. But he was born old. He had age in his baby body, but his mind was that of a baby. As he grows, his body grows younger. He ages backwards.

I won’t give away the plot or the story if you haven’t seen it. It is a good film. It is a via positiva film. Throughout the film we get the sadness about change, but within the reality of impermanence, the joy of the characters is found in accepting what comes, the strangeness, the unpredictability of life itself.

Benjamin at one point says:
Along the way you bump into people who make a dent on your life. Some people get struck by lightning. Some are born to sit by a river. Some have an ear for music. Some are artists. Some swim the English Channel. Some know buttons. Some know Shakespeare. Some are mothers. And some people can dance.
And at another point, as an old man, or actually a young man as the case is, he has become younger even as he has lived a long time, he offers this advice:
For what it's worth: it's never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There's no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you're proud of. If you find that you're not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a great film that may inspire us to take notice of the Divine Light in all of life.

In the midst of it all, in the midst of a constantly changing existence, we could do well to give ourselves permission to enjoy it.

I suppose we also need permission to allow ourselves to be joyful. This has to do with that nagging feeling of guilt or unworthiness that puts very nasty and very wrong thoughts into our heads that we don’t deserve joy.

It could be that we need the Divine Light of forgiveness. The Light accepts us as we are. There is no reason to beat up on ourselves. No reason to deny joy. The Light has accepted you.

The world needs people who recognize the Divine Light within themselves. If no one gave themselves permission to be joyful, at least for one day—there would be no joy at all. Sometimes we just need to say, “Forget the rules (and who made them anyway?) I’m going to happy.”

I love this quote from Marianne Williamson:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.
Your playing small doesn't serve the world.
There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us, it's in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Soak up the Light today.

When you go out for lunch…
If you hike with us on Roan Mountain…
If you visit with relatives and friends…
If you mow the lawn…
If you go to the store…
If you fix supper…

Soak it up!

Notice how difficult all those things would be without Light!

Our lives are bathed in Light.

You are the Light.

Let it shine!

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