You made us light. You made us for love. Nothing can change that. Sometimes we lose touch with who we are. Sometimes we forget why we’re here. Teach us simply to open. Scrape away the layers of anger, doubt, and bitterness so that our light can shine before others. Amen.
I didn’t know it at the time, but looking back I can see that my childhood was filled with stories of what I would now call “mystical experiences,” that is, encounters with God. I sat on mom’s lap as she read from my Children’s Story Bible about God’s search for Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. I remember illustrations of Abraham’s meeting with the three strangers under the Oaks of Mamre. I was fascinated and frightened by the mysterious angel who wrestled through the night with Jacob on the banks of the River Jabbok. Equally scary but in a different way was Moses’ encounter with God on Sinai. I remember the visions of the prophets: Isaiah’s throne; Ezekiel’s vision of wheels within wheels was something out of a Marvel comic book, and his vision of the valley of dry bones was spooky. Then there was Jesus’ vision of the Holy Spirit at his baptism. Peter, James, and John climb with Jesus to a mountaintop where Jesus is transfigured before their eyes. Paul encounters the risen Christ on the Road to Damascus. “Mystical” in the religious context has come to mean a direct experience of ultimate reality.
I don’t explicitly talk about mysticism very often because it’s famously difficult to do. God is, as the hymn says, “beyond all knowledge and all thought.” From a mystical standpoint, God is “unspeakable.” Simply saying the word “God” is already missing God. “God” is a placeholder for that which is by definition incomprehensible. Nevertheless, inadequate though it is, language is a tool we use to point toward a direct experience of–you pick your expression–God, Jesus, Holy Spirit, Higher Power, the Divine, Ultimate Reality, Awakening, Buddha Nature, Allah, HaShem. The names are many.
Another reason I don’t explicitly talk about mysticism is the term carries with it all kinds of unhelpful baggage. People expect bright lights and heavenly voices and strange sensations. When these don’t manifest, they imagine either that it’s all just a bunch of hooey or that they are lacking the special whatever-it-is that one needs to have a mystical experience. Neither of these conclusions is true. It’s not a bunch of hooey. Have you ever had an “Aha” moment? Have you ever been moved to tears? These and other everyday experiences of “breakthrough” are what mystics consider “divine encounters.” And everyone has them or has the capacity to recognize them. So you are a mystic! Some breakthroughs are big and life-altering. More often they’re small and go unrecognized.
Church is a community gathered around the intention to recognize, name, and ever more deeply live out of these unspeakable mystical encounters.
Unspeakable God our words fail us. We go about our ordinary lives mostly unaware of your presence. Then suddenly you shine through, and we are dumbstruck. We’re embarrassed by our confusion, but you respond with love. This is how it is. This is our confession: you come to us, share our common lot, and invite us to join the people of your new age. Our trembling hearts answer “Yes.” So let it be.
Prayer of Dedication
Holy God, we dedicate our lives and our offerings to your glory. Amen.
Handling anger is difficult to do well. Buddhism, for example, identifies anger (along with greed and ignorance) as one of the “three poisons.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “everyone who becomes angry with his brother is liable to judgment.” Anger is a human emotion. We feel it, often before we’re consciously aware of it. Anger “overcomes” us, floods our neurotransmitters, narrows our vision, sets our hearts racing, “boils” in our guts. It activates the “fight or flight” response in the most primitive parts of our brain. Anger can be incredibly destructive whether we express it outwardly in hurtful words and actions or turn it inward where it manifests as depression, bitterness, and physical ailments. So how do we handle it?
Although I doubt they intended to, my family taught me that anger was scary and shameful. They didn’t teach me this explicitly. Like all children, I learned my lessons on anger by watching my caregivers (who, in turn, learned how to handle anger from their caregivers.) We were a Dutch immigrant family that tended toward emotional reserve. As an adult I can see that there was a lot of anger under the surface. I’m grateful I didn’t witness any physical violence or verbal abuse. Instead rage seethed underneath and manifested as physical absence, cutting remarks, alcoholism, infidelity, lying, and other passive-agressive behaviors. This disconnect between how we as a family presented ourselves publicly as happy and healthy and the chaos churning behind closed doors created its own challenges for me as I became an adult.
As an adult I’m still very much learning how best to handle my anger. For me, meeting the reality of anger begins and ends with awareness. It was a huge shift for me simply to admit that I’m incredibly angry . . . for all kinds of reasons. These days most of my anger is in the form of “moral outrage.” I anger myself when I notice my own failings as a Christian. I notice loving churches that have so much to offer their communities “hiding their light under a bushel” while mean, vengeful, and bigoted Christians spread their message far and wide and I get very, very angry. Mostly I’m exhausted by the moral outrages of our current politics, but when our government puts children in cages or when 26 first-graders are gunned down in their classroom and politicians cry “2nd amendment” or when I notice the casual, day-to-day violence and racism that implicate all of us who vote, pay taxes, and work for the improvement of our communities, my anger flares up, and I say something.
Just creating the psychic space where anger can come into view increases the likelihood that I can engage it productively. It’s become a joke around our house when I’m moping and acting out of sorts for my wife to say to me, “Now Todd, use your words.” Just saying “I’m angry” opens the door for conversation that can create the conditions whereby anger, which is simply a form of psychic energy, can be directed toward fixing a situation that is not as good as it could be.
Anger arises in the context of love. Mr. Rogers put it this way, “It’s the people we love the most who can make us feel the gladdest and the maddest! Love and anger are such a puzzle!” Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself” is the context for his teaching on anger. This week at First Congregational Church of Granby we will stand close enough to the flame of anger to benefit from its warmth and energy yet at a respectful enough distance that none gets burned.
We quiet our minds and open our hearts to you. We await an encounter. Our ears alert to an authentic word of life. We recognize the fragility of existence. Life and death are of extreme importance. Time passes quickly and opportunity is lost, so we strive to awaken. We fear dropping our defenses, but the danger is really only a danger to our ego, our pride is threatened, or narrow sense of self, our old, tired stories: I’m alone, no one will help me, all is lost. We step past all of these fears.
The only thing lost is scarcity thinking. The only thing lost is self-pity. The only thing lost is the sweet drug of defeat. Instead of indulging our whining, you invite us, even command us to get up and get busy building your kingdom. With the slightest breeze you breathe us to life.
Every moment you draw close. You call us away from our chattering minds. You call us out from our greed, anger, and ignorance. You invite us to expand our hearts and broaden our vision. Too often we’re stuck in doubt, confusion, and fear. Teach us to drop our nets. Teach us to drop our self-concern. Teach us to drop our self-defeating stories of the way things are. Teach us to drop our self-fulfilling prophecies of the way things always will be.
When I was a kid, we had our own slang. Now that I have kids of my own I find myself in the role of deciphering the distinctive, sometimes confusing languages of their tribes. “Salty” is a term my youngest, Olivia, likes to use. From context clues I gather it means something like “annoyed,” as in “I was salty with my professor because she gave a list of assignments for the week on Monday but then added more on Wednesday.” “Salty” can also be used in the context of disagreeing with something someone said in class, a friend forgetting a birthday, someone undeserving getting recognition. When Olivia uses it, “salty” isn’t particularly angry, resentful, or mean, but I think that has more to do with Olivia, who is a naturally happy and loving person, than with the term itself, which, according to the Urban Dictionary, is more along the lines of “angry, bitter, resentful.” For Olivia, “salty” is along the lines of “feisty.”
“Salty” as a term for angry, upset, “suddenly enraged,” is actually throwback slang first used in 1938 and associated, not surprisingly, with sailors, who had a reputation for gruff, rowdy, and drunken behavior.
The other common use of “salt” as an adjective comes from our Scripture text for this Sunday. In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt should become insipid, by what shall it be made salty?” From this famous text we get the phrase “salt of the earth.” I hear people use this term to describe folks who are humble, have moral integrity, and are generally considered “good people,” “pillars of the community,” whose goodness often goes unrecognized. While I think there’s some of that meaning in the text, it certainly doesn’t capture all of it.
To get the rest of the meaning, we need to look at the rest of the sentence: “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt becomes insipid, by what shall it be made salty? It is no longer of any use except to scatter outside for people to tread upon.” “Insipid” means “dull, boring, flavorless, weak, vapid, spiritless.” Yes, “salt of the earth” has to do with humility, moral integrity, and all of those things we tend to like as Christians. But I hear Jesus giving a sharp, dare I say, “salty” warning to his followers against dullness, irrelevance, blandness, a kind of false humility that is really just acquiescence to the status quo. It’s a form of spiritual laziness that views the church’s role as being “chaplains to power,” reassuring the wealthy and spiritually satisfied that everything is “OK.”
I am super grateful that my children are faithful Christians and dedicated churchgoers. I don’t attribute that to any special example that their parents set, other than that while they were living at home, we brought them to church every week. If you asked them, my guess is that they would agree with many young people that the church is too often “insipid, boring, and irrelevant.” And, by the way, it has little to do with whether a band is used in worship or video clips or anything like that–though these things can help. The reason my children are still engaged is that church provided the context in which they could build authentic relationships with “salty” Christians, that is, feisty Christians who had some flavor, some fire, who were not satisfied with the status quo but who risked their personal comfort to stand up against injustice, who viewed the church not as a social club where “we take care of our own,” but as a social movement whose purpose is to change the world.