“The name of [the] infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without any reservation. Perhaps, in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional that you have learned about God, perhaps even that word itself. For if you know that God means depth, you know much about Him. You cannot then call yourself an atheist or unbeliever. For you cannot think or say: Life has no depth! Life itself is shallow. Being itself is surface only. If you could say this in complete seriousness, you would be an atheist; but otherwise you are not. He who knows about depth knows about God” (Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations: 57).

“Prayer in personal worship may be expressed in various ways….One may contemplate God, moving beyond words and thoughts to communion of one’s spirit with the Spirit of God” (PC[USA] Book of Order W-5.4002).

++++++

Earlier this week I stopped by the grocery store to pick up a package of romaine hearts. None of them seemed fresh. It was the 15th, and each one I picked up was stamped “use by 7/14.” I kept looking, though, and way underneath the stack were some marked “use by 7/21.” I wasn’t satisfied, wanting something still fresher. I was still searching when I heard a deep voice behind me. Another guy shopping was trying to save me some trouble. “They’re all the 14th,” he lamented. “You’d do better getting this” (pointing to a loose bunch of leaf lettuce). “Thanks,” I replied, “but I did find some good till the 21st.” “I should have dug deeper,” he said.

Sometimes we all have to dig deeper.

We have to when we’re angry with or hurt by someone, and we have to go way down inside ourselves in order to keep silent, refusing to let our heated or wounded emotions rule us and make a bad situation worse.

We need to dig deeper when we must find the courage to speak up for a person or a group of persons being ridiculed, marginalized, robbed of voice.

We mine the depths of our hearts when we are asked to take on a task we know will be incredibly difficult, like becoming a caregiver, but it’s the right thing to do.

We have to dig deeper when our prayers seem pointless, and/or we have no idea what to say, to a place beyond words, where the Spirit’s sighs are the only sound.

And in the depths*, we find something fresh and new (2 Corinthians 7:14).

© 2014 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

*In Orthodox tradition this spiritual practice or way of doing theology is called apophasis, seeking and encountering the mystery of God beyond words and images. See, for example, http://theorthodoxlife.wordpress.com/2012/03/24/what-is-apophatic-theology/

When the SCOTUS Hobby Lobby decision came out earlier this week, I said to my wife that it sounded a great deal like the 16th century principle of cuius regio, eius religio (“whose the realm, his the religion”), an agreement reached in 1555 in which the religion of a ruler within a territory of the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) determined that of the ruled. Only Catholicism and Lutheranism were legal. Calvinism and any Anabaptist spin on Christian faith were outlawed. Those who practiced anything but the two legal religions were considered heretics and subject to execution. Should someone wish to follow one’s conscience rather than the dictates of the state, he or she could leave the territory with his or her possessions.

Now along comes Hobby Lobby and other “closely-held” companies, in which the owner’s religion trumps a woman’s right to insurance that covers certain contraceptives. Even if the woman does not share the owner’s viewpoint, her conscience and what she may do with her life are effectively held hostage to the CEO’s faith. If she wants her company’s insurance carrier to pay for an IUD, which may be prohibitively expensive at minimum wage, then she can either somehow pay for it herself or leave and find new employment where the religion of the one doesn’t trump the right of conscience of the many. This situation is exactly the same as cuius regio. Just change “territory of the HRE” to “corporation.” What’s next? Having all employees of closely-held for-profits sign statements of faith?

I am really, really tired of seeing “religious freedom” used as an excuse for selfish, oppressive, unjust practices which would make Jesus weep. Here is One who in fact sought to free people–especially the vulnerable, common folk–from the demands of a religion and its leaders that sought to control every detail of their lives. He said, in the lectionary reading for this Sunday: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). The demands of those now using “religious freedom” to push all kinds of hateful, oppressive agendas, indeed to lay the groundwork for a theocracy, are diametrically opposed to the gentle, lowly care of Jesus. If this is what a “Christian” is, then those who of us who indeed seek to follow the humble, loving Lord need to find a new name for our faith. 

Religion has become a cruel idol, before which some demand we bow or else. Paul Tillich, in a late 1940s sermon entitled “The Yoke of Religion,” warned of the danger of what has in fact come to pass in 2014, but also of the possibility if we truly follow Christ: “We are all permanently in danger of abusing Jesus by stating that He is the founder of a new religion, and the bringer of another, more refined, and more enslaving law. And so we see in all Christian Churches the toiling and laboring of people who are called Christians, serious Christians, under innumerable laws which they cannot fulfill, from which they flee, to which they return, or which they replace by other laws. This is the yoke from which Jesus wants to liberate us. He is more than a priest or a prophet or a religious genius. These all subject us to religion. He frees us from religion. They all make new religious laws; He overcomes the religious law.”

God help us and make us truly free!

© 2014 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

“Sometimes I wonder about my life. I lead a small life – well, valuable, but small – and sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it, or because I haven’t been brave? So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, when shouldn’t it be the other way around? I don’t really want an answer. I just want to send this cosmic question out into the void. So good night, dear void” (Meg Ryan as Kathleen Kelly, You’ve Got Mail).

“Better is a dinner of vegetables where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it” (Proverbs 15:17).

On any day in the fall of 520 BCE, the average citizen of Jerusalem could look around and see…boring, inadequate, disappointing structures and little evidence of progress. Nothing like the golden age and magnificent edifices he or she had dreamed of in exile in Babylon. Not much of a homecoming. Those who had chosen to return when Cyrus gave the order were sometimes in conflict over land and ownership with the people who had not been carried off by the Babylonians. The latter had claimed abandoned parcels, since their owners were hundreds of miles away, and who knew if they would ever return? The temple project languished; 18 years after the return, there was still no central gathering place for worship, community life, and civic matters. The prophet Haggai especially urged the high priest and the Persian-appointed governor to ramp up progress on the building, promising God’s blessing if they did.

Haggai’s colleague Zechariah sought to reassure those who despised what he termed “the day of small things” (Zechariah 4:8). Better times were ahead! The governor, Zerubbabel, was going to oversee personally the laying of the foundation of the new temple; the prophet saw a “plummet” (to ensure straight walls) in the official’s hand, signifying his personal, on-site investment in the project.

I think Zechariah gave in to the complainers too quickly. Yes, at this remove, it’s easy to criticize. He probably needed to say something to get the arm-chair quarterback grumblers off his back and give some pastoral comfort to those who were genuinely distressed. But I wish he had pointed out that even the meager, the miserable, the marginal, and the misshapen can be and are the signs and vessels, the harbingers and heralds of the presence and action of God. Sometimes it is especially small things that point us to the divine. 

We may want to live large and don’t do so because of lack of opportunity or gifts or because we lack the ambition or the willingness to risk that it might take to gain the celebrity, acclaim or riches we crave. But what if we choose to delight in small things and reject the big and flashy and spectacular? Suppose we have resources, but live below our means, pay off the credit card every month, dwell in a modest home? What if we enjoy the color of a bird, the sound of a word, the antics of a pet, a quiet evening at home with our spouse? Suppose we got our noses out of our phones and paid attention to the details of the world around us? Isn’t God in the routine, the ordinary, the silent, the everyday? There is nothing so quotidian and tiny that it cannot be shot through with the goodness and presence of the divine. It is in such things that God communicates to us his rich and abundant grace.

The prophet we call “Second Zechariah” (Zechariah 9-14), maybe two hundred years later, got it right. At the very end of the book, he wrote: “On that day there shall be inscribed on the bells of the horses, ‘Holy to the Lord.’ And the cooking pots in the house of the Lord shall be as holy as the bowls in front of the altar; and every cooking pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be sacred to the Lord of hosts, so that all who sacrifice may come and use them to boil the flesh of the sacrifice” (Zechariah 14:20-21). Cooking pots. Horses’ bells. Small, ordinary things, holy to the Lord.

Every day is a sacrament.

© 2014 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

“…[R]acism in America is not merely a belief system but a heritage…” (writer Ta-Nehisi Coates).

In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities…. And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”).

Last Saturday, and then again at the beginning of this week, my wife and I watched “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” I knew nothing about it when I put it on our Netflix queue, other than it was a great movie based on the true story of an African-American butler who had been with the White House through eight administrations.

The very next day, Sunday, after seeing the film, I taught one segment of a six-week Lenten course on the minor prophets, dealing with Zephaniah and Obadiah. The latter condemns the Edomites (descendants of Esau) for their failure to come to the aid of their relatives in Judah when that nation was overrun by the Babylonians in 587 BCE and the Temple destroyed. Not only did the Edomites not do anything to prevent the suffering of their neighbors, they cheered on the enemy, joined in looting, and turned over refugees to the Babylonian forces.

The film was difficult to watch the first time, given what I discovered was its subject matter. But it was especially hard to see it again after reflecting with my church school class on Obadiah’s call to be a neighbor to those who are suffering. That’s because the movie is about the Civil Rights movement from the late ‘50s through the Reagan presidency and the conflict between father and son against the backdrop of those turbulent times.

As the archival and acted footage of demonstrations, arrests, and brutality played on the screen, I thought about those days and growing up in a virulently racist household and community in south Georgia. I remember the “white” and “colored” water fountains in the JC Penny store and other literal signs of systemic racism. But mostly I recall my dad’s hatred of anyone black, and indeed, anyone different in any way.

Daddy was only two generations removed from a South Carolina plantation where our family had owned slaves, and his father had taught him well, as my great-grandfather had done for his son. My dad used the n-word exclusively to refer to black people, which by the way, he did not actually consider to be people. When Martin Luther King, Jr.’s face appeared on the cover of a Presbyterian magazine, Daddy promptly and angrily cancelled the subscription.  No black woman was ever legitimately married, according to him; all black children were therefore bastards. And no black man deserved to be treated as anything but a servant boy, no matter what his status or age. Christianity was a white man’s religion, Daddy claimed, which the n—–s had rejected.

I did little or nothing to counter these beliefs. What could I do? I was a boy, totally dependent on my father for everything. When I made some attempt to speak up, such as objecting that black people were human beings or that it was OK for a band to be of mixed race, I got a royal dressing down. Eventually, when I grew up, Daddy and I simply did not talk about religion, politics, race or really much of anything.  He went to his grave having only moderated a little.

I call myself a progressive, but really what have I done to undo the legacy of my father and those like him? I voted for Obama. My wife and I called my sister’s son down one time for making a racist comment about the president. I’m troubled by Stand Your Ground laws that result in the deaths of young black men like Jordan Davis in Florida. I’m cordial with my African-American ministerial colleagues. But how substantive is any of that?

The movie and Obadiah brought to the surface such memories and thoughts. And I’m not sure now what to do with them.

But there are still plenty of days left in Lent.

© 2014 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

“Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:15-17).

There seems to be an epidemic of carelessness these days about most everything, whether speech or behavior or assistance, from people who should know and do better. For example, a national news channel had a story about the Dalai Lama. The caption? “Diving intervention.” It was supposed to say “divine intervention,” but nobody noticed. Probably too busy checking Facebook.

Here’s another. I recently switched plans with my cable company. Fifteen minutes after I got off the phone, my Internet was gone, and one of my email addresses had been “disassociated” from my account. The problem? A “coding error” by “customer service,” reminding me of similar headaches with a bank account back in the day, when someone who either didn’t know what he was doing or didn’t care also entered the wrong code. It took a great deal of effort to fix the banking problem. Fortunately, my cable company’s tech people were on the ball and got me back up and running almost as soon as the problem was discovered.

Still more: ordination exams in my denomination rife with grammatical, spelling, and usage errors; documents sent by an insurance company to a national rather than local office, causing delays in the completion of projects and in payment to contractors; business people concerned with trivia and distracted by personal matters while neglecting weighty matters and making big mistakes; and of course, the usual inattentive and reckless driving seen everywhere on local streets and highways.

Isn’t Lent a time for us to say “no” to such carelessness? Think about that word. When we are careless, you and I say “I could care less” how our sloppy, distracted, unfocused work or our poor behavior affect others or reflect on you and me or the organization we represent with the public. Why not adopt as a Lenten discipline caring more, whether about the tone of our voices, the thoughtfulness of our speech, the detail of our work or the attention paid to the needs of our neighbors? 

Who knows? Someone may be so touched and helped by our work and example that he or she regards our carefulness as diving divine intervention.

© 2014 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

When my dad died a few years ago, I got a good many of his clothes, since we were the same size. Among them was a fleece jacket I wrote about after a trip to Alaska in 2011 (http://theconnection08.wordpress.com/2011/06/17/alaska-2-daddys-jacket/).

Another piece of outerwear was a Members Only down parka. Again, like the fleece, nothing fancy or expensive. Just something he bought at Belk’s or Wal-Mart. When I found it in his closet, I asked myself what a man living in southwest Georgia, where we sometimes had to have air conditioning at Christmas, would need with a down parka. Daddy never went any farther north than Kentucky. But this was of a weight suitable for very cold snowy weather with near or below zero wind chills.

I got it out the other day when the Arctic vortex plunged the temps here to single digits, and the wind was so strong it was difficult to drive to a meeting out of town, so buffeted was my SUV. It kept me warm and cozy, though it shed like crazy on my black turtleneck.

I’ve had it now since 2010, and this is the first time I’ve worn it more than a few minutes. So again, what would a man in the deep South, almost to Florida, need with a down parka?

Being prepared.

Daddy always brought three hats and four jackets (I’m only slightly exaggerating) and three or four pair of shoes with him when he and Mama visited my wife and me in the various places we have lived, even though they were only going to be with us for a couple of days and they came in moderate weather. I guess he wanted to be ready in case the weather changed unexpectedly. So he had a parka on the off chance that the temp in Georgia plunged to Arctic lows.

It’s not a bad idea to be prepared, and not merely for the weather. As a funeral director reminded my congregation earlier this week in a dinner program, tomorrow is promised to no one. Or as Don Henley once put it, “In a New York minute, everything can change.”  All of us need to live as those prepared to die, and that includes not just making sure relationships are right with God, our families, and our neighbors, but having plans in place for the fate that befalls us all. A last will and testament drawn up and filed. Instructions given on wishes about healthcare and resuscitation and the disposition of our bodies (burial? cremation? donation?). A durable power of attorney written and witnessed. Bank accounts and deeds properly worded. Beneficiaries named for IRAs and insurance policies.

Because we never know when the cold wind will blow.

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved. 

I recently finished rereading Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman (1966), a book I had kept in storage for a number of years. In the novel, Percy introduces his character Will Barrett, a confused, searching 25 year-old from the Mississippi Delta.

Barrett has bouts of amnesia and all sorts of adventures, ending up finally in New Mexico at a dude ranch, where he has gone in search of his fiancee’s brother Sutter Vaught. Upon reaching the ranch, Barrett sits down at mid-afternoon and sniffs the soil, comparing the place to his home. Percy describes the scene:

The silence was disjunct. It ran concurrently with one and did not flow from the past. Each passing second was packaged in cottony silence. It had no antecedents…. Even in the Southern wilderness there is ever the sense of someone close by, watching…. Here one was not watched. There was no one. The silence hushed everything up, the small trees were separated by a geometry of silence.

“A geometry of silence.” I have pondered that phrase for days now. I like the sound of the words together, but what could Percy mean? I even looked up “geometry” in the dictionary, seeking some definition beyond the field of mathematics.

I decided that the author intended to describe an arrangement of objects, ideas and/or events placed in such a way as to create awe and a radical sense of the present in which one is utterly alone, but also filled with possibility. The silence of the New Mexico desert was qualitatively different from that encountered elsewhere. Because of it, in it, Barrett became disconnected from all that had gone before and could entertain new possibilities, accountable only to himself.  Such silence was both delight and terror, gift and demand. All the young man’s doubts and fears and muddled musings were “hushed…up.”

Advent also envelops us in a geometry of silence. It invites us to entertain new possibilities for life as we repent. The flow from the past—the guilt, the regret, the missed opportunities—need not and will not overwhelm us. And in our weariness, we can once again know hushed wonder as we nestle in the “cottony silence” of the good news brought by angels.

“How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved. 

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