Via Negativa: Our Hunger for Hope

By: Rev. Candace Chellew-Hodge, JUBILEE! Minister

We talked about poor, put-upon Job a few weeks ago when we explored our hunger for security. Job lost everything – his children, his livelihood, everything that gave him earthly security – in a bet between God and a “satan” or adversary who wanted to prove to God that humans only love the Holy for the security the Holy provides to those who are righteous.

What Job discovers, and what we’re invited to learn, is that God makes no bargains with us – that God is an unfathomable, mysterious force in this world – and our choice to love that capricious, free moving spirit is just as mysterious and confounding as God herself.

In this passage (Job 42:1-6, 10-17), God has already spoken from the whirlwind, recounting to Job all the wonders and mysteries of everything that God has created and has told Job until you understand the mysteries of creation you will never completely understand God.

Job says to God:  ‘I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
“Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you declare to me.”
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.’

“I have uttered what I did not understand.” Isn’t that just the whole of humanity’s problem, anyway? As a rule, humanity constantly prattles on about things it doesn’t understand. Despite advances in science – there is still much we don’t understand, but it doesn’t stop us from talking about it. In other areas – politics, human nature, the weather – on and on we talk, trying to show ourselves and the world that we know what we’re talking about. But in reality, we know very little, if anything at all, about the mysteries of this world we live in.

When knowledge fails us – this is where hope steps in to fill the void. Job tells God, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” This is what hope does for us, Jubilants. It invites us to stop listening to all the talking heads around us, the ignorant Eeyores who speak only of gloom and doom and instead, open up our eyes and begin to see the Holy – and the hope – all around us.

Hope is not found in the yammering on of theologians and preachers – not even this preacher. Hope is found in the hope of a flower pushing its way through the frozen ground to herald the arrival of spring.  Hope is found in the melting and transforming caterpillar who will one day spring forth from its cocoon as a gorgeous butterfly. Hope is found in the regeneration of damaged cells as the miraculous human body heals itself from wounds and sickness. Hope is found in the smile of a stranger when you’re having a really terrible, awful, bad day. Hope is found in the deep breath … and the exhale of carbon dioxide that is transformed again to oxygen by the living, breathing, holy creation that we have the privilege to live, and breathe and be holy in.

Hope opens our eyes to the possibilities we may have never considered. Hope opens our eyes to see the mundane around us as suddenly infused with the Holy. Hope moves us away from using our ears and our words to try to make sense of the world around us, and instead brings the world into sharp, wordless and wonderful focus, opening our eyes to the Holy that moves, in, through and around us. Hope is knowing that there is more going on here than we will ever know or understand.

“Never lose hope,” the Sufi poet Rumi writes (in My Dear Friend).

“And if all the roads,
end up in dead ends,
you’ll be shown the secret paths,
no one will comprehend.”

You will be shown the secret paths – not told about them – shown them. But, you’ll never see those paths with your mouth open and your eyes closed. Open your eyes, Jubilants, so you can see those secret paths that hope opens to us in every moment.

Breathe deeply.

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Via Negativa: Our Hunger for Fame

By: Rev. Candace Chellew-Hodge

In our Jesus story (Mark 10:35-45), we find our guy approached by two of his disciples, James and John. They’ve got a request for their boss.  “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

You can almost hear Jesus sigh in exasperation in this passage before he gives them both barrels: “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the rest of the disciples hear this, they get mad at James and John – but not because they had the audacity to ask Jesus for places of fame in his ministry – but because they didn’t think of it first!

You see, these disciples had very different ideas of what life would be like as part of Jesus’ ministry. They had stars in their eyes when they left their fishing boats and followed this enigmatic teacher and prophet.  They truly believed that Jesus was the Messiah that their scriptures predicted would overthrow the Roman empire and lead the Hebrew people to their ultimate goal – that new Jerusalem where God’s peace and justice would rule.

They saw themselves as holy warriors – the men who would ride at the head of God’s great revolution on earth. If there had been a Hebrew version of Rolling Stone magazine, these guys would have fervently coveted the cover. They wanted fame and fortune as Jesus’ right – and left-hand men – the guys who would be remembered for helping the Messiah bring eternal peace and justice to the world! Now, that’s some fame and glory worth striving for, they thought.

What they got must have disappointed them. Day after day, slogging through the hot, dusty streets of whatever backwater town Jesus had picked that day or week to walk through. Meeting the dregs of society – the lepers, the prostitutes, the sick, the lame, the deaf. All those needy, dirty people clawing at them, seeking them out. This was not what they had bargained for. They weren’t surrounded by beautiful groupies or loved by everyone they met – they were spending time with the hated outcasts, and being hated for their efforts.

James and John decided to do something about it. If they could get Jesus to appoint them as his generals, perhaps they could get this real revolution going. Poor Jesus. To be so deeply misunderstood by the people closest to him must have been painful. To have to teach these men that it’s not fame and fortune that they signed up for but for rejection and death must have been difficult for him.

But, it was difficult for the disciples, too, and it continues to be difficult for us. There are plenty of men and women who have become very rich superstars using Jesus’ name in this world – but the ones we truly remember – and the ones we truly revere are the ones who suffered for their fame. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, the Buddha, Muhammed – all the great famous prophets are the ones who used their fame to serve the interest of others – not the just their own interests.

Don’t be known for getting your face on the cover of the Rolling Stone, Jesus says, instead, be known for how you serve.

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them,” Jesus tells his hapless disciples.

“But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Don’t seek fame and recognition so you can enrich yourself, seek it so you may enrich the world. Don’t be the pious monk, Jesus tells us. Instead, lead from behind – be the lame goat.

Breathe deeply.

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Via Negativa: Our Hunger for Security

By: Rev. Candace Chellew-Hodge

In our Jesus story (Mark 10:17-31), we find our guy preparing to go on a journey. As he’s leaving, he’s approached by a man searching frantically for security. He wants eternal life and he’s heard this Jesus guy is one who can tell him how to get it. Now, what follows in this passage has been watered down over the ages, because this really is one of the hard teachings of Jesus – not just for the 1% of the wealthiest among us, but to all of us who are attached to our worldly possessions.

The guy tells Jesus he’s got all his moral ducks in a row. He’s not a murderer, or an adulterer, or a thief, or a liar and he loves his momma and daddy. That’s great, Jesus tells him, but he still lacks one thing: “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, then come, follow me.”

Oh, as people who may be living paycheck to paycheck, we love this passage and the following one where Jesus says it’s harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven. We love it because finally, the rich get their comeuppance. They’ve amassed great wealth, often at the expense of people like ourselves, and Jesus says to the filthy rich guy, unless you give it all up – and give it all up to the poor at that – then you’ll never be able to secure yourself to heaven.

And, oh, those disciples! Peter takes this opportunity for some brownie points and says, “Look, Jesus, we’ve given up everything to follow you.” Jesus isn’t so quick to praise their sacrifice, though. He stops him and says, “Sure you did, but that’s nothing to brag about, Pete, because giving up everything means you give up any right to feel superior to even this rich guy. Instead, your decision to give up everything for me simply means you have to dedicate your life to serving everyone – even that rich guy.”

This is why – even if we’re not the rich guy – we aren’t let off the hook by this passage. Some commentators, in their attempts to avoid this passage for themselves, point out that Jesus only ever asked this one guy to sell everything and give it to the poor. He didn’t even ask his disciples to do that! So, they reason, Jesus isn’t asking ALL of us to do that, or he’d make it a general, across-the-board rule. Okay, that’s fair enough.

But, what he does ask this poor little rich guy to do is give up the one worldly thing he cannot give up. Jesus asks this man for the one earthly treasure he refuses to relinquish – his wealth.

For those of us who don’t have earthly wealth, this is not the time to breathe a sigh of relief. Instead, it’s a moment where we must think about what it is we are unwilling to give up to secure ourselves to heaven.

What earthly burdens are you unable to fasten up? What is it that you value more than the Holy? What is it in your life that you would refuse to give up even if you knew it was preventing you from being fully with, and fully available to the Holy? I suspect it’s different for each of us, but whatever it is, it is at the base of our sense of security.

For the rich man it was his money, for us, it could also be money, it could be time, it could be a fear that if Jesus asks for one thing, he’ll ask for it all, and we’re afraid of what that looks like. Perhaps it truly looks like selling everything we own and giving it to the poor. If that doesn’t make you immediately insecure – to give away all the worldly comforts you’ve managed to cobble together in this life, then that means you’re probably already without those worldly comforts.

That’s the heart of this request, Jubilants. Jesus is telling us that the only true way to secure ourselves to heaven is to give up anything on this earth that makes us feel secure.

Breathe deeply.

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Via Negativa: The Hunger for the Presence of the Holy

By: Rev. Candace Chellew-Hodge

In our reading from the Hebrew scriptures (Exodus 40:34-38), the book of Exodus describes the Tent of Meeting where God dwelled with the Israelites as they traveled. When God’s presence descended on the temple, no one could enter. The Israelites had to stay wherever they were until the cloud of God’s presence lifted. God’s presence meant that the Israelites were stuck. They could not make any progress on their journey while God occupied the Tent of Meeting.

If our lives are God’s temple, then God works in exactly the same way. When the presence of God fills us, it’s wonderful. When we are feeling God with us, we are happy, joyful, full of peace and love. However, we are like the Israelites. We cannot continue on our journey until we feel that absence of God.

Think back to the last time you felt God’s absence in your life. How did you feel? Restless? Panicked? Joyless? Afraid? Ready to make a change? Ready to do anything to get that feeling of God’s presence back? It is in that feeling of God’s absence, that dark night of the soul, that we make our most progress along our spiritual journey.

It was during my time when I got lost from my mother in the store that my faith was tested. My mother had taught me how to live if I ever found myself absent from her presence. Go to safety. Find someone who can help you. Rely on the knowledge I have given you and you will find your way home. It was in my mother’s absence that my faith, and my knowledge, was challenged – and rewarded. I followed her instructions and found my way home.

God has instructed us in our faith. We are equipped for those dark nights of the soul when we have wandered away from God. When the world distracts us and we turn around and find we’ve gone far away from God’s presence, we are not truly lost. We only need to stop and remember what God has taught us along the way. Go to safety. Find community. Seek out people who can help you find God’s presence again.

However, when we deeply feel the absence of the Holy in our lives, the temptation is to give in to the belief that there is no God. It’s understandable that many of us give up our belief in God’s existence in these times of darkness and hunger. We begin to wonder if God is anywhere or if we’ve just invented this idea of the Holy in our own heads.

In C.S. Lewis’ series of books on the fantasyland known as Narnia, there is a character in The Silver Chair named Puddleglum. He is the sort who always expects the worst to happen. He’s on a quest through the mysterious “Underland” with his friends when they are captured by the wicked queen. She knows they are part of kingdom run by the gentle and generous Aslan the lion, where the sun always shines.

In an attempt to gain the loyalty of the children she has them sit around a campfire and chant, “There is no sun, there is no Aslan.” One by one the children give in to the chant, but Puddleglum rebels. He stamps out the fire and says:

“Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one … We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why … I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.”

This is the deep lesson of God’s absence, Jubilants. Even in the times when we don’t feel like the Holy is with us, we still must live as if God is present. We must live as if God is real – even when the Holy seems unreal.

When I lost my mother in the store, I didn’t sit and question whether or not my mother really existed at all just because I could not see or feel her in that moment. I knew that mother existed – I had seen her, felt her presence and been with her the moments before her absence. When we have truly experienced God’s presence, we are no longer afraid of God’s absence, because we know that we would rather live as child of the Holy, even if there isn’t any Holy – because it’s simply a better world to live in.

In those times of absence, we rely on our faith – our deep, inner knowledge – that the Holy is real and will return. Until that happens, we must live as if God is real and use the knowledge and skills we have learned in our relationship with God to survive those moments of absence.  By relying on the knowledge that God is never truly far away though you may keenly feel God’s absence in the present, keeps us from giving in to the chant that there is no sun because we know, even in the darkness, the light will soon break through – time after time.

Breathe deeply.

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Via Negativa: Our Hunger for Authenticity

In our Jesus story (Mark 9:38-50), we find our guy still in Capernaum healing and teaching. In my Bible, the subheading on this passage is “Temptations to Sin,” and while Jesus talks of literal things like stumbling blocks and cutting off limbs if they offend you lest you end up in hell, I think his message goes deeper – and right to the heart of living authentically.  In truth, the “stumbling blocks” he’s talking about here is hatred – hatred for others and most of all hatred for ourselves.

It seems fairly easy to spot hatred when we see it in others. People who picket gay pride marches with their bullhorns and offensive signs are easy to spot. Those who harass others or spread lies and rumors about others are fairly easy to spot, as well. But, it can be hard to spot our own self-hatred – that ire for ourselves that makes us stumble, and, yes, leads us into sin because we end up denying who we really are, because we think we cannot possibly love who God has created us to be.

Gay and lesbian people go through this – and sadly, many in this community commit suicide rather than face the truth that God created them good and has blessed them as who they are. Instead, they believe the lies of the world, and far too many churches, that they are flawed in some way and need to change to be acceptable to society and to God.

It is not the sexual orientation of someone, or any other trait we may seek to reject because the world tells us it’s bad, that makes us stumble. No, it is the world’s rejection that makes us stumble. Jesus isn’t saying to literally cut off our own arm if we’re offended by it. No, Jesus is telling us to reject the rejection. Cut off that arm of society that holds us back from embracing who we are meant to be. If the church offends who you really are, cut it off. If society offends who you really are, cut it off. If your family, you friends, your enemies, offend you, and seeks to cut you off from who God has created you to be, Jesus says get rid of them – get them out of your life.

Don’t go to churches that won’t accept you as you are. Don’t work for people who can’t accept who you really are. Don’t hang out with people who can’t accept you as you are, whether they’re family, friends, peers, or even your enemies. This is not to say that we can’t build bridges and relationships hoping to foster education, compassion and understanding across differences – because whether or not we like each other, we are still part of the same choir singing this song of creation. We are a piece of the whole, and as such, we must find a way to work together.

What Jesus is saying is this: “Don’t let anyone get between you and who God has created you to be.” We have all been salted with fire, Jesus says, which means, we have all faced the temptation to be someone we’re not. It is those experiences of denying our true selves, those moments when we didn’t live with authenticity and integrity – indeed, those times when sinned by not living into who we were created to be, that have seasoned us to become who we really are.

To be ourselves, Jesus says, we must be salty – and not just of tongue. We may not think much of salt these days – and many of us avoid it for health reasons – but in Jesus’ day, salt was important. It was currency and some people were even paid in salt. In a time before refrigeration, salt was used as a preservative – so salt was important for people to be able to eat and to stay alive.

So, when Jesus tells us to have salt in ourselves, he is telling us that it is only by living as we were created to live that we will truly find life. That salt is our true selves, and when we lose our salt – we die.

Breathe deeply.

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