Archive for November, 2015

Gods, Epicurus, and the WarmthAll Earth Sunday – Last Sunday before Advent

November 22, 2015

For Beloved Community

Vernon K. Rempel, 2015
Bible Reading

John 1:1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through the Word, and without the Word not one thing came into being. What has come into being in the Word was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
In the beginning

What a lovely creation where

 in the beginning was the Word,

  the Celtic “Sound”, the primal chord,

   the first guitarist strumming the first 

    “E” chord on the down beat.
And then it all unfolds.

 As David Whyte says 

  “all the birds and creatures of the world/

  are unutterably themselves.”
It all unfolds: volcanic islands,

 mini-continents pushing against

  the larger landmass and raising the Colorado plateau.
And it is raised in such an even manner

 that water then arrives and carves down through it

  and the layers are exposed

   in sedimentary beauty.
It all unfolds, creation does,

 and when, in the course of human events,

  human consciousness emerges,

   it is like the twinkle of first starlight

    on the deepening blue of the eastern horizon.
Heart and soul wink into thought.

 Hopes and dreams are born.

  And with them, the shadows:

   fear, dread, abandonment,

    and with them violence.
But hope and dreams and something more,

 the great river of love that flows and flows,

  exposing the beauty in the sediments

   of heart and soul,
until one can only stand amazed in the presence

 of the love in the face and hands of another,

  the love that wants to sing in our hearts

   like the kettle sings when the tea is ready.
In the beginning was the Word, the sound, the strum,

 and the flow begins.

  For this may we be truly grateful.

   The beauty of creation is unutterably itself.


How may we honor it,

 and honor each other,

  each individual, and each community and nation

   intended as an expression 

    of the great flow of love.


Violence scores the earth again and again

 with its fire-marks, its tearing down of

  even that which is carefully built.
The ancient gods were so often violent gods.

 In the beginning was not the “Word”

  but the battle, strife for power and survival.
In Mesopotamian mythos, by some accounts,

 Tiamat, water goddess, begins creation peacefully,

  through a sacred marriage

   between salt water and fresh water.
But in the Babylonian stories,

 soon there are off-spring who kill their father,

  and then Tiamat does battle with them,

   and brings forth dragons with poison for blood.

In the Sumerian stories,

 a goddess is raped. She gives birth

  to the goddess of war and fertility.

In the Greek creation story,

 there was first chaos. Then night and the place

  of death emerged.

   The love was born.
There was offspring from gods mating

 and soon there was a pantheon,

  and then great bloody struggles.

In the Bible,

 God creates light and darkness 

  out of the tohu wa-bohu or “formless void.”
Then there are families.

 Cain kills Abel.

  God frees slaves from Egypt,

   a story of great courage,

    but also great violence.
And God commands the slaughter of cities

 in Canaan.
Religions of judgment and violence,

 of sin and retribution arise.

  Terrible armies are raised in the names of gods.
Creation is in so many ways

 a roiling mess of becoming.


But now there are those who 

 begin to critique the violence

  the posturing around heaven and hell,

   the threats and tribalism.
The Hebrew prophets begin to speak.

 Isaiah says “Comfort, comfort, O my people”

  which is a word we will attend to

   in the coming weeks of Advent.
Isaiah paints a picture of a servant leader so gentle,

 one who will not break even a bruised reed,

  nor blow out even a sputtering candle wick.
The adoration of strength and the practice of violence

 is interrogated, and and another practice,

  a mysterious practice of deep peace,

   is offered instead as the way of God.
Among the Greeks,

 Epicurus develops a philosophy

  that rejects the notion that reality

   is controlled by violent

    and judgmental gods.
He develops the theory of the atom.

 He suggests that all reality is simply atoms.

As Daniel Delattre writes about Epicurus: “Everything that occurs is the result of the atoms colliding, rebounding, and becoming entangled with one another, with no purpose or plan behind their motions.”
This may seem like a return to chaos.

 But it also sets aside judgment and hell,

  and divine commands to kill.
It opens the world for the clarity of science,

 for the beauty of what … called “The music of the spheres.”
When Marilyn and I were in Flagstaff

 a few weeks ago, we visited the Lowell Observatory.

  There, through telescopes, we saw the spheres.
We saw the sun, with its prominences and flares.

 We saw the locations of the planets inside constellations.

  We saw the Andromeda galaxy,

   star-cluster neighbor to the Milky Way.
All these bodies were also colliding, rebounding,

 becoming entangles. Old stars going 

  to red giants or black holes.

   New stars born in nebulae.
Beauty and clarity, free of the overlay

 of religion that fights to narrow everything down

  to who is right and wrong.

   Science at its best.
The gentleness of Isaiah’s servant leader.

 The clarity of science.
The Roman poet Lucretius was influenced by Epicurus,

 and wrote the poem “On the nature of things.”

  Stephen Greenblatt in his book Swerve

   writes that the re-discovery of Lucretius’

    poem launched the Renaissance.

(see article excerpt below and also the link to the full New Yorker article)
So the message is:

 Leave the crazy Gods. Everything is atoms.

  And from Isaiah, God is gentle.


The Warmth

But now these insights must marinate

 and deepen in the human soul and consciousness.
Psychoanalysis arrives.

 Carl Jung teaches us that we live 

  in a matrix of metaphors.
Coyotes are tricksters who come change our lives.

 (see last week’s meditation)
The ocean is an ocean

 but it also teaches us about the vastness

  of our inner selves.
Quantum mechanics arrives.

 Now we learn that the entire universe

  is wired for connection.

   All particles affect all particles.

    Space is not simply empty

     but is bubbling with motion and effect.
We learn that there may be universes.

 We learn the fuller implications of 

  infinity, first described by Anaximander of Miletus.
Now infinity is out there in the curving universe,

 and also in our heads – we now understand

  that our brains have as many synaptic connections

   as there are atoms in the universe.
And we understand the infinity of love.

 God becomes one who creates in infinities,

  not in limited tribal sets.
Do you want beauty? Look to Andromeda.

 Or count the cells in your body

  and number their processes.
If we have to have it a certain way

 in our limited vision, our limited religions

  and national plans,
God may well say to us, as to Job,

 “Where were you when I set the foundations of the earth?”
And so a sense of deep warmth begins to emerge.

 It is said that Andrei Sakharov,

  the great Russian physicist

   in his last years, said of the vastness of space,

    “It is warm.”
We begin to sense that space, the universe,

 the former cold emptiness both out there,

  and in our hearts,

   is warm, warm with the infinities

    of creation, warm with the love

     that we sense in the midst of it all.
Mystics began to sense this more and more.

Theresa of Avila wrote in the 1500s:

“May today there be peace within. 
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be. 
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith. 
May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you. 
May you be content knowing you are a child of God. 
Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love. 
It is there for each and every one of us.” 

― Teresa of Ávila
This wisdom grows and grows and shows up in many places.

 It will continue to teach us peace.
If the universe is warm, then

 no one only understands violence.

  If the universe is warm,

   the nothing is ever lost.

    No one is ever lost.
And we become dedicated to finding ways

 to address violence. We invent non-lethal weapons

  that stop but do not kill – http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/06/02/non-lethal-force
We develop “moral imagination” that

 moves us to find ways beyond the binaries

  of “us and them” and “kill or be killed.”

(See John Paul Lederach’s book The Moral Imagination.)
We live into a spirituality that knows 

 not merely by words or doctrine

  but by experience that love is stronger than hate,


and that the world is not on the brink of destruction

 but rather is the place of God’s joyful creation.
In the end, it is as in the beginning,

 the Universe speaks with the Word of love,

  the sound of love, the first E-chord strum

   and the great flow begins.
May we love and honor that flow in our lives.

 May this be our Thanksgiving and our gratitude.

Epicurus -The New Yorker article excerpt:

November 16, 2015 “The Invisible Library:” by John Seabrook


(from the article)

(my summary: Leave the crazy Gods. Everything is atoms.)

—Epicurus also posited that the world is made of atoms—the atomos (indivisible) elements of matter. “Epicurus says we are in an atomistic system,” [Daniel] Delattre, papyrologist, explained. “Everything that occurs is the result of the atoms colliding, rebounding, and becoming entangled with one another, with no purpose or plan behind their motions.” For Delattre, Epicureanism encompasses physics and ethics, a complete world view that he both studies and emulates. As he gets older, he told me, he finds it comforting to think that “when we die there is a dissolution of the aggregate, and the atoms come together to make a new thing. And so we have nothing to fear from death; there is no punishment, no Hell—we simply cease to exist.” There are gods, “but they are very quiet and very happy and don’t interfere with human activities.” Epicurus influenced the first-century-B.C. Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, who wrote “On the Nature of Things,” the epic poem that was rediscovered in a monastic library in 1417 by Poggio Bracciolini, a find that Stephen Greenblatt, in his 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern,” credits as being a founding document of the Renaissance.

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Blue Coyote WildernessWeeks before Advent (Common Time)

November 15, 2015

For Beloved Community

Vernon K. Rempel, 2015
Bible Reading

Genesis 12:1-3, excerpt

Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…. and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

Wilderness, Abram, and Sarai

In the course of this meditation

 I will open time for you to write and reflect

  about wilderness in your life.
In all the great stories,

 God calls us out of our places of establishment,

  beyond our ways of comfort and routine

   for the sake of new creation


for the sake of the great and exhilarating project

 of life, the great river of life,

  the song and blue sky and grand earth

   and faces and tables set before us

    of life.
“I have come to give you life, and to give it abundantly”

to paraphrase John 10:10

 where Jesus speaks with the voice of the creator,

  who pours out the song of love into creation

   day and night, to the ends of the earth.

   (Psalm 19:1-4)
In all the great stories, 

 God calls us to the wilderness

  for the sake of new life.
But it is the wilderness.

 Jesus was tempted to turn stones into bread,

  here was so hungry.
Abram and Sarai were invited to go

 into the unknown, into uncertainty:

“Go from your … house, to the land that I will show you.”

 “…will show you.”
First go. No hotel reservation in place,

 no Google maps marking the minutes

  until arrival at your destination.
There is not destination. There is only the 

 invitation, the compelling invitation,

  actually more of a command,

   to go. And I will show you the place.
It is not always easy to choose the wilderness.

 The Holy Spirit finally came to me

  as a dream about a blue coyote.

   More on that in a moment.
What has been the wilderness in your experience?

 When have you left for the unknown,

  ~~whether in a move from place to place

  ~~or into or out of a relationship

  ~~or because of illness or injury

  ~~or following a longing of the heart

  ~~or change of employment

  ~~because of loss or death

  ~~because of something new arriving

  ~~because of adoption or birth
What wilderness moments are you holding

 from your experience or perhaps right now?
I invite you to take a few moments to reflect

 and to write about wilderness, if you wish.

(questions printed in worship outline)

Novelty and routine

Going into a wilderness is not easy.
Going into whatever wilderness

 we are called to 


or whatever wilderness 

 we find ourselves going into

  for whatever reason

   life has thrown at us – 

 “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”
Wilderness of killings in Paris

 how do we find our way to love?
Another movement to address and reform racism

 on our campuses.

  Souls finally having enough again

   of indignity, the veiled threat.

Responding with passion and grace,

 at best, “a gentle angry people”

  as the hymn goes.
Entering the wilderness is not easy.
Even if we do prepare, 

 we will never be prepared enough.

  The true wildernesses of our lives

   do not yield so easily to our plans.
On the one hand, we have astonishing

 abilities to deal with whatever comes our way.

  Our brains are wired

   for novelty, for the ability to address change.
We evolved to be hunters

 and builders of homes and 

  shapers of whatever we had on hand

   into nourishment and sustenance.
Our brains are so good at dealing

 with novelty, that marketers

  can exploit it with annoying effectiveness.
The neuroscientist Russell Poldrack writes “The brain is built to ignore the old and focus on the new. Marketers clearly understand this: If you watch closely, you will notice that heavily-played television ads will change ever so slightly after being on the air for a few weeks. When this change is detected by the brain, our attention is drawn to the ad, oftentimes without us even realizing it.”

 Russell Poldrack “Multi-tasking: the brain seeks novelty” in The Huffington Post November 11, 2011 – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/russell-poldrack/multitasking-the-brain-se_b_334674.html
“Sometimes without us realizing it.”

 That’s the annoying part.

  How often do we find our attention

   caught by some bright ad?
But it is also marvelous.

 That’s the joy of video games, of sports,

  of playing jazz.
We don’t know what’s coming,

 and we love to try to respond to it.
That’s the one hand.
On the other hand, it can be terrifying.

 We often sense harm and even death

  in what comes at us.
Science writer Winifred Gallagher writes about the tug-of-war between our need for survival, which relies on safety and stability, and our desire to thrive, which engenders stimulation, exploration, and innovation.

 Maria Popova, Brain Pickings blog “Why we like the new and shiny” – https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/01/24/winifred-gallagher-new/

 (Gallagher a new book, by the way, on her journey of spirituality Working on God. She became a science writer and thought she was done with faith. And then faith started showing up in her writing. SFGate – http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/The-New-Agnostics-Winifred-Gallagher-grew-up-2938072.php)
As much as our brains our wired for novelty,

 we are also creatures of deep routine.

  It’s how we keep track and get ready.
I put the same stuff in the same pockets every morning.

 Left front – wallet, coin purse, pocket knife.

  Right front – keys, card case.

   Then ready for the novelty of the day.
Routine and novelty in constant search for balance.
The experience of wilderness

 is to have our lives overturned.

  It is meta-novelty, big novelty,

   often once in a life-time.
In the midst of it, we seek routine. 

 But our lives have been transformed.

Blue Coyote

And so I now bring us to the birth of this new church,

 and my own story of wilderness.
I thank you in advance for listening to my story.

 It is very personal, but I hope there are deep

  echoes for all our stories.
And I will keep it brief. A fuller telling

 will undoubtedly be coming in print sometime.
In 2009, I had been pastor at 

 First Mennonite Church of Denver for 13 years. 

  This was one year longer than any other pastor

   had ever been in office in that congregation.
So in the emotional and spiritual system

 of the congregation, already the days were growing long.
At the time, a friend invited me to 

 a series of retreats based on the work of Parker Palmer,

  called Courage and Renewal retreats.
One of Palmer’s books was the reason

 I became a pastor rather than professor years ago.
So I thought I would give it a try,

 even though I thought my routine was fine.

  Maybe a little enrichment would be nice.
Unfortunately for the naiveté of my heart,

 enrichment was not what the Holy Spirit 

  was preparing for me.
As I moved through the silence,

 and very kind conversation

  of the retreats
I found my heart opening toward something

 which I did not understand.
I thought at first it was a new project,

 to write a book or something like that.

  I even made myself the subject of 

   an intense deep-listening process

    called clearness committee

     all on the subject of writing.
Then I was invited to go spend

 a week with Courage and Renewal leaders

  and Parker Palmer.
His subject was “See how they love each other.”

At the same time, our conference minister

 Herm Weaver, was bringing the disgraced

  pentecostal minister Ted Haggard

   into Mennonite pastoral circles.
I met Ted, and now there was a new thought.

 What if I started a new church in Littleton?
Soon, I sat down for coffee with Ted,

 and I asked him what I thought was an

  obvious question, 

   since he was famous for church growth.
“Ted, how do you make a church grow?”
His answer blew my mind immediately,

 and more and more as weeks passed:

“The leaders have to love each other.”
It was love, it was love that I came to call

 “delighted love”. Not just everyday useful love,

  but love that takes deep delight.
That is the heart of great community,

 great relationship, great spirituality.
I went back and soon found myself telling

 First Mennonite “I love you.”
I started a new love service called Blues Prayers.

 I started a weekly practice of Courage and Renewal

  called the Thursday Circle.
Both of these were go become proto-types

 of a new congregation. But I did know it.
This went on for 3 and 1/2 years.

 All was well.

  But something was shifting.
I made myself very busy in work and music.

 But something was shifting.
On one morning last January,

 I had two dreams.

  One was of extreme anxiety because

   I was leaving First Mennonite.
The second was of extreme grief

 because I was leaving the people of First Mennonite.
I held these dreams for a month,

 talking with Marilyn, and with Herm

  (our conference minister).
Then one morning in February,

 I had a dream so vivid,

  it remains stronger than 

   many of my waking memories.
In the dream,

 I was standing on the porch of a white frame house

  out on the vastness of southwestern scrub prairie.
I turned to go back into the house,

 but now there was a large dog-like creature

  brushing against my legs.
It was a blue coyote with an odd swirling face,

 as if the features were all in motion.
I have since paid attention to this,

 and the blue coyote is a constant

  symbol of the trickster

   in stories from the southwest

    and native cultures.
There was even a blue coyote 

 children’s book at the Grand Canyon,

  when we visited there a couple of

   weeks ago.
Trickster – Holy Spirit – Blue coyote.

 Carl Jung has more to say on this as well.

“You may say a coyote is nothing but a coyote, but then along comes one that is Dr. Coyote, a super-animal who has mana and spiritual powers.”

The coyote insistently brushed against my legs

 and it became clear that it 

  did not want me to reenter the house.
I wondered if it was a threat, but it did not seem to be.

 Just insistence. Just shepherding me

  from moving back into the house.
For whatever reason,

 I finally reached down and scritched

  the head of the coyote
and said in Spanish “mi Cristo es tu Cristo”

 At this, the coyote trotted off into the scrub and brush

  of the prairie.
And I woke up, knowing that my work at 

 First Mennonite was done

  and it was time to get 

   on with the dream of a new church.
It seems to me that the coyote’s odd face

 was an image of the God who will not be captured

  or named – “I am who I am”
It seems to me that 

 the Holy Spirit had to paint me 

  a very vivid picture in order to get me to move.
And why I spoke Spanish is a mystery.

 But now a couple from Mexico City

  may become part of the outreach 

   of this new congregation.
I will be inviting us to help host and provide

 for them as they seek to work among

  Hispanic youth in Denver.
There it is in some outline.

 And I thank you for your listening.

  Again, I hope it has echoes for your stories.
I wanted to tell it to help better show

 the origins of this congregation.
I still don’t know where all this leads.

 I wake up each day astonished,

  not without fear, but also simply

   astonished at what has come to pass.
I know that the purpose of this new thing

 is to respond as wholeheartedly as possible

  to an invitation of the Holy Spirit.
My prayer is that like Abraham and Sarah,

 we as a new people may become 

  a blessing for many,

   even as our continue to walk together

    into the place that God will show us.

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