On and off my rocker

My Rocking Chair

My Amish Rocker

“WHY, in a world filled with yelling and screaming, would you ‘PREACH’? Are you off your rocker?”

I can’t help it. I’m a preacher. I have to preach. But it’s the time in the rocking chair that matters most, times when I sit in Jacob Miller’s Amish rocker preparing for Sunday that I love the most. Jacob made the rocker just for me in his Amish shop in Millersburg, Ohio on a farm that spoke volumes about peace and love.

I approach the pulpit in fear and trembling, knowing that it is sacred space where people expect to hear a different kind of word, its sacredness only as real as the humanity that walks into it. The requirements of preaching result in a daily discipline: a fresh cup of strong coffee with the Scriptures in one hand the newspaper in the other.

We live in a crazy world where religion is a source of great sorrow as well as a source of joy. Religion divides and religion unites. It opens us up to the Other, or it walls us off. It broadens us or narrows us.  It increases our circulation or it constricts our arteries.

Not long ago American Christians seemed to take for granted that Christianity and our country were simply flip sides of the same coin (a curious blending of the Judeo-Christian idea of an “elect” people and the national misappropriation of Jesus’ “city set upon a hill”  as a light to the other nations). That bogus idea is dead, but the news is still reaching our ears, like the news of the town crier in Frederich Nietzsche’s The Gay Science:

Have you heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly, “I seek God! I seek God!” As many of those who do not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter…Whither is God,” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I.   All of us are murderers…. God is dead.  God remains dead. And we have killed him….

– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882), Section 126.

That god is already dead, but the message is still reaching our ears. The death of this god “clears the decks for the God of the Bible,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a letter from a prison cell July 18, 1944 before his execution by the Third Reich:

Christians range themselves with God in his suffering; that is what distinguishes them….  As Jesus asked in Gethsemane, “Could ye not watch with me one hour?” That is the exact opposite of what the religious man expects from God. Man is challenged to participate in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world. He must therefore plunge himself into the life of a godless world, without attempting to gloss over its ungodliness with a veneer of religion or try to transfigure it. He must live a ‘Worldly” life and so participate in the suffering of God. He may live a worldly life as one emancipated from all false religions and obligations. To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to cultivate some particular form of asceticism (as a sinner, a penitent or a saint), but to he a man. It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

I’m no Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But his words and life frame the way I look at the world. To whatever extent the sermons and commentaries that appear here reflect Bonhoeffer’s spirit, I am grateful to him and to others who have shaped my ministry: Ted Campbell, Paul Louis Lehmann, Lewis Briner, William Sloan Coffin, Jack Stotts, William Stringfellow, James Cone, Sebastian Moore, and a host of others. When my attempts fail to keep faith with their examples, they reflect my shortcomings and foibles. If and when any of them manages to speak a Word through my human frailty, it is because I have stood on their shoulders on the watchtower, grasped again by the Spirit of the Living God.

“I will take my stand to watch, and station myself on the tower, and look forth to see what G-d will say to me, and what G-d will answer concerning my complaint. And the LORD answered me, ‘Write the vision; make it plain…so those who run may read it. For still the vision awaits its time….'” (Habakkuk 2:1-3a)

Jacob Miller’s Amish rocker is my watchtower. A cup of coffee, Habakkuk, and the morning newspaper. Thank you, Jacob, for the place to be on your rocker when I’m about to go off mine!

8 thoughts on “On and off my rocker

    • Jacob Miller built the chair to fit my dimensions. He was a kind and gentle man. Maybe it rubs off? Thanks, Mona. Don’t know whether you’ve seen or heard Elie Weisel’s request to the Mormons re: proxy baptisms. Check out the commentary I posted later this morning. It includes an early post on American Exceptionalism.

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      • Reminds me of a phrase, if I remember correctly: Be in the world, but not of the world… And my addition is : whatever else do not think yourself above the world.

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      • I haven’t replied before because I’m struggling to remember the name of the book — re sometime in the 15th century, when a maid baptized a Jewish baby who was subsequently removed from his Jewish family and raised Catholic. The closest I could come to accuracy on that can be found at this link. http://exmormon.org/phorum/read.php?2,418345 titled “Catholics baptize live Jews, Mormons baptize dead Jews.”

        The cynical part of me wants to perceive this as a power grab. Another part of me remembers when I was still a child and thought like a chile, believing it was my Christian duty to convert anyone I could to the Christian church — more specifically, probably, the Lutheran Church. I wasn’t very courageous about it, so people were spared being annoyed by me. The point, however, is that I believed deep down that it was what God wanted. I was a “True Believer.” Fortunately I developed beyond that simplistic moral state — I think, anyway. But I can identify with people who are truly convinced they are “doing good” when they try to convert people to their way of thinking, whether it be related to gay marriage, birth control, war, or social justice. The problem lies in the sense of demand, control, the need to impose one’s beliefs on others — notice I said “impose” which is quite different from “convince through mutual argument.”

        Relationship to the Mormon baptism thing? or to the Catholics of the 15th century? If we want to counteract such egregious practices, our defense must begin with understanding the genuineness of the feelings of “others.” Attacking it head on will probably only strengthen their resolve.

        But we’re not talking here about trying to change their resolve. We’re talking about the magnificent freedom we have in our country to maintain our own beliefs and practices as long as they don’t impinge on the beliefs of others. Aye, there’s the rub. Just as anti-war protestors (of whom I’d be a part if I were brave) can expect a reaction against their actions, so the Mormons must expect reactions against their so-called baptism of Jews. There’s no law against it, but there is the option of people working together to label the behavior reprehensible. I suppose the goal is shame — not such a nice practice either, but a powerful weapon.

        And they will still believe they are being moral.

        But maybe the victims will find comfort and aid from the community — and maybe enough of us together can change the behavior if not the beliefs.

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