Sunday, June 18, 2017

Sermon: Bread Pudding

Scrumptious_strawberry_bread_puddingSermon: Bread Pudding

Text: Matthew 9:35-10:8
Lectionary: Year A, Proper 6

Introduction

Last Sunday I brought bread pudding to a picnic we had at Blind Slough. And a few people asked for the recipe. I jokingly said that maybe I could begin the sermon today by giving it out. And then it was suggested that there could be a sermon found in bread pudding.

So first, challenge accepted. And second, it fit in quite well with the text, theme, and some of the direction I was already working with.

You are more than welcome to follow along with the recipe sheet you might have picked up on the way in, and take notes on it as we explore how bread pudding can illustrate the gospel.

Formulas

Recipes are a kind of formula: by measuring the ingredients and combining them using the directions provided, they are supposed to offer a way to reproduce consistent results every time. But as anyone who has cooked knows, that might be the theory, but practice is often quite different.

And there are what seems like infinite variations on a single dish; and any of them can be quite different from another. In this day of Google searching, a recipe search can turn up hundreds of variations. Here’s a hint: the top results are often not very good, in spite of what the posted reviews might say. They appear at the top because they pay to be there. (I have suggestions for good sites the ones I use. See me later, if you're interested.)

How can you know if a recipe is good, if online reviews can’t be relied upon? Well, one option is to try each one until you find one that is good. Better is to figure out which sources can be trusted, and why, and favor them. And best would be to actually get the recipe for something you’ve tried and enjoyed.

The bread pudding recipe that I use is of the last kind: when Elise and I were in New Orleans, we attended a cooking demonstration by a well-regarded chef, who demo’ed and explained what he was doing.

Now the interesting thing is that he also has a published cookbook, and the recipe for bread pudding in the book is significantly different than the one he demo’ed. There is a much higher quantity of eggs and less bread in the cookbook version. It is much more like other bread pudding recipes I found.

So there are a few things to highlight. First, there can be multiple formulas to achieve a desired end goal. Second, some may be better than others. Third, even when the source is identical, for whatever reason, the formula might have variations.

Gospel Formulas

In modern, Western Christianity, the gospel is often reduced to one formula. Jesus died, he was buried, he was resurrected. He died to pay for the sins of the world. He is now in heaven and will someday return to judge the world. To be saved from eternal damnation and instead receive eternal life, a person needs to repent and accept forgiveness and believe in Jesus Christ.

This isn’t entirely wrong and each elements is true, taken alone. The gospels do contain many words (about a third) on the final week and especially the crucifixion. But we must not forget that there is another two-thirds of the gospel accounts dealing with Jesus’ life in his world. And here is where I think the common formulations of the gospel are at best insufficient, and at worst, may even be misguided.

Relating back to what I said about recipe formulas: the source is identical — it is the gospel accounts and Jesus himself. And the intended result is the good news that leads to salvation. But what did Jesus mean by salvation? Certainly, eternal life in a future age can be a part of it, but is that all?

What Is the Gospel?

In Matthew we read earlier:

9:35 Jesus traveled among all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, announcing the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. 36 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, "The size of the harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. 38 Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest."

And in selecting the Twelve,
10:1 He called his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits to throw them out and to heal every disease and every sickness.
And in sending them out,
  10:7 As you go, make this announcement: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.' 8a Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with skin diseases, and throw out demons.
There are a few things to note in this selection. First, the phrase “good news” can be translated “gospel”

and comes from the Greek, euangelion, from which the English evangelism is also derived. Second, Jesus speaks of proclaiming the gospel before he is crucified and resurrected. Third, the commissioning does not include a directive to preach and teach. Fourth, what Jesus does command is to heal all manner of afflictions, diseases, and free people from oppression. Fifth, the gospel is a concrete response to compassion toward immediate needs.

A final point that I noticed is the progression in the kind of signs that accompany the arrival of the kingdom of heaven. At the top, Jesus is said to heal every disease and sickness. When the Twelve are selected, in addition they are given authority of unclean spirits. When they are actually sent out, Jesus adds that they are to raise the dead. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. In another gospel, John (14:12), Jesus says that his disciples will do do greater works than he. Perhaps Matthew’s progression is an echo of that.

I think the key point is how all of these things have a common theme. Disease, oppression, unclean spirits, and death — they are all reasons to ostracize, divide, and separate people from one another. The diseased are quarantined; social classes maintain separations and invite suspicions; unclean spirits separate those who consider themselves upright and normal from those that appear otherwise; and death is the ultimate separator, tearing apart families and friends.

What I understand the gospel to be, according to Jesus’ example found in Matthew 9 and 10, is to restore relationships and to lift up all as equally valuable and worthy in God’s eyes. Salvation is primarily about returning

to and belonging to community, and this community must precede any idea of eternity and life eternal. Salvation is about recovering what it means for each person to be fully human, fully accepted, without fear of being judged and rejected.

Believing Vs. Being

Christians emphasize faith as a key to salvation. Here again, it is important to ask what is meant by “faith.” For many, faith equates to belief and believing — belief that Jesus is the Christ and Savior, and believing that this confession leads to a person’s salvation from hell and into heaven.

Faith is a transaction between a person and God, wherein God offers benefits in exchange for allegiance. But this again, is a limited understanding at best, and I dare say even misguided. This transactional approach to faith emphasizes the individual and diminishes or even dismisses community.

If the gospel is about restoration to and building of community, as I discussed a few minutes ago, then faith cannot be just a transaction. It must be something more that involves the entire community.

It is no accident that churches are sometimes referred to as “communities of faith.” Faith is not just a one-time transaction between an individual and God, but a life that actively trusts in the love of God to help the kingdom of heaven break into this present world.

Faith must go beyond mere belief and must become being.

I could read and study all the bread pudding recipes I can find. I can figure out, through theories of chemistry and physics, which ones will likely produce the best results and why. Understanding all that can be helpful and satisfying. But only to a degree. It ultimately doesn’t do me much good beyond being able to talk about it, and it certainly won’t do any good at a church potlucks. Can you imagine me arriving with a stack of papers to a potluck and explaining why I didn’t bring an actual dish, but I did bring explanations and theories about how you could bake a better bread pudding?

Unfortunately, I think the gospel has too often been presented in this way. Christians explain, often in the general and abstract, how bad sin is and how Jesus came to solve that problem. But what the people around want is for their diseases, oppressions, hurts, and brokenness to be healed. They want someone to listen, and someone to offer concrete, helping hands. They aren’t looking for someone to merely tell them about Jesus. They want someone to be Jesus to them.

Jesus saw the great needs of the people around him. He was moved to compassion. He didn’t then offer them a metaphysical, theological, theoretical idea that God would someday vindicate them and restore all things. No, Jesus asked his disciples to pray that workers would be found, and then they became those workers. Jesus commissioned them to do the things he did, and even more. He sent them out

to make an immediate difference in the world, to begin the formation of a new kind of society.

Context and Adjustments

Bread pudding was originally developed as a way to reuse old, stale bread. In many ways, the traditional presentation of the gospel could be said to be old and stale. The bread is still bread, and Jesus is still Jesus. But maybe there are new ways to present the old story, and to become part of its ongoing story, today.

There are some parts of the bread pudding recipe that I think cannot be altered without damaging the result; for example, the ratio of bread to liquid. Likewise, there are elements of the gospel that cannot be altered — Jesus’ love and compassion, and how that moved him to action.

But there are many ways in which the recipe can be adapted and altered to fit the intended context. In summer, you might use peaches or pineapples and a piña colada mix instead of milk. In the fall you might go with more warm spices. In winter you might use cranberries. Some people like nuts; others detest them, and so you might adjust depending on your audience.

A savory bread pudding is another matter entirely, yet still shares key frameworks. The sugar and vanilla would be omitted, you'd definitely add salt, and you might add broth or substitute some of the milk. But you would still have the basic components in their proper ratios to achieve the same consistency prior to baking.

Likewise the gospel-in-action can appear different from one context to another. Once you are clear on the essential framework, you have great freedom to experiment with many of the details. You might emphasize some things over some others. The key is community and relationships. What needs are specific to your interactions within this community? How will you adapt the gospel to meet those needs?

And just because an element is quite traditional and has always been there as far as you can recall doesn’t always mean it is always necessary. For those of you who were at the picnic last Sunday, you may have heard me realize that I had totally forgotten to include butter. Every bread pudding recipe that I looked at includes butter. But for those that had some without butter, did you notice that it was absent? Even I didn’t realize it was missing until I started going over the ingredients in my mind.

The point here is that we should not make the gospel more complicated than it needs to be. We should be willing to ask hard questions about reasons and priorities of all aspects of our faith, to determine if they are in line with the gospel of Jesus Christ, and how they contribute to the goal of building a gospel community.

Conclusion

As I bring this time to a close, one of my hopes is that the gospel will forever be tied in your minds with bread pudding.

But more importantly, the following points:

  1. The gospel is more than just a formula on how to go about getting saved.
  2. The gospel is about restoring and healing all manner of brokenness, disease, oppression, and even death; to bring people into community where they can be fully themselves.
  3. The gospel must make a difference in the present world. It is a breaking-in of the kingdom of heaven into this world.
  4. The gospel framework — Jesus, his love and compassion — remains consistent through all time, but how the gospel works must be specific to meet the unique needs and challenges of each time and place.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Recipe: Bread Pudding

After making this many, many times over the past 12+ months, I think I've finally converged on what is important to maintain and what can be flexible and adaptable. The following results in a bread pudding where the texture of bread becomes very homegenous and uniform, not very "eggy", firm but still very moist and tender, and not cloyingly sweet. It's a combination that I like and have received numerous compliments.

Adapted from a cooking demonstration and recipe provided by New Orleans School of Cooking. 
Bread Pudding
Pudding Base
  • 1 20 oz. loaf, stale white bread, broken into small pieces
  • 4 cups milk (any kind) - may substitute with other liquids such as juice
  • 2 cups granulated sugar - can reduce by up to half
  • (optional) Up to 8 Tbsp. Melted butter
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1-2 tsp. Vanilla extract
  • (optional) Cinnamon, nutmeg, and other complementary spices

Add-Ins
  • 1-2 cups of frozen, fresh, or reconstituted dried fruit
  • Up to 1 cup of nuts

Instructions
  1. Combine all pudding base ingredients in large bowl. The consistency should be like that of wet oatmeal. Let sit to soak and further dissolve and combine ingredients for at least 30 minutes, and up to several hours. 
  2. Mix any add-ins into pudding base just prior to baking. Pour batter into large (9x13 or larger) baking dish.
  3. Place uncovered into oven set at 350-375ºF. Preheating is not necessary. Bake 75 minutes, or until top is browned in spots and crispy. 

Notes
  • Basic (inexpensive) white bread works just fine. Any kind of bread without seeds, grains, and nuts should also work fine. Unless you’re going for specific texture and/or flavor that they bring to bread. You really want bread that dissolves into a paste when combined with milk. To test, take a fresh slice, tear it up into a bowl, add a tablespoon of milk, and mash it around with a fork. If it turns into a paste, you’re good to go.
  • I’ve looked at a dozen different recipes for bread pudding. Most use way more eggs than this recipe. They also seem to have a higher ratio of liquid to bread. I think what is happening is that the greater egg count is used to “set” all that liquid that is being used. The result is a more “eggy” custard. If you want a more “eggy” taste, by all means use more eggs. But I think that gets closer to a French toast casserole or an omelette, rather than a bread pudding.
  • I’ve read both sides of the “should bread be stale and dry” argument. I’m going with using fully staled, dry bread, as much as possible. You can speed up staling by toasting bread pieces in the oven. Or stick them in a paper bag and let them dry out over several days. 
  • I accidentally omitted using any butter one time, and discovered it didn’t affect the result noticeably. I think it was a little less “rich” in flavor, but no one missed it. So yes, you can cut down on the fat and calories (I mean, there’s still plenty of sugar) by reducing or omitting the butter.
  • I prefer using a bag (12-16 oz.) of frozen fruit. It works really well. Don’t thaw it — add them frozen to the batter right before baking.
  • If using dried fruit, you will want to reconstitute them. You can do that by heating a small amount of liquid (water, juice, liquor) and then soaking the dried fruit in the hot liquid. 
  • If using nuts they are better if you have time to toast them beforehand. 
  • Don’t overdo spices. You’re not going for fall pie flavors. Or maybe you are? Just a touch to give a hint of something there.
  • I think the critical piece is that the batter have a consistency of wet oatmeal. This tells you that the solid to liquid ratio is correct and you will have a bread pudding rather than either a soupy mess or a dry, rubbery mass. 

Thursday, February 02, 2017

When you say, "Do not fear"

Copyright: eakachaileesin / 123RF Stock Photo
During times of turmoil, uncertainty, and real and perceived threats, people feel afraid and express their fears. Christians often respond by reminding those in fear that Jesus said, "Do not fear" (or some similar line). While technically biblical and theologically correct, this well-meaning saying misses the praxis of Christianity and has a number of problems.

First, it can be condescending and dismissive. It can show a lack of empathy and and compassion. Too often the statement is made strictly because of biblical and theological concerns. There is no attempt made to understand, listen, and enter into the fears and concerns being expressed. The statement is made from a position of safety and power. Too often the ones making the statement really don't have anything to fear (or have much less to fear) because they aren't directly affected; they have the means to weather the storm.

Second, it can be shaming. Sometimes the statement is made with the implicit accusation that "fear is a sin" (because it goes against Jesus' command). It may be accompanied by statements such as "if you trust God, you don't have to fear" with the implicit corollary, if you do fear, then you aren't trusting God. So not only can "do not fear" be a source of shame, it can lead to even greater fear by introducing doubts about their fidelity to God.

Third, it ignores reality. As already mentioned, it is easy to say "do not fear" by someone who has relatively little to fear. It ignores the reality of those who are afraid. It ignores the reality and truth of experience of a group of people in order to maintain some kind of abstract theological orthodoxy. It ignores the very real pain and emotions of people by telling them that those are not valid. It is offering alternative-facts and trying to get them to accept it.

If you're going to say, "Do not fear," then it needs to be preceded by and accompanied by action. It needs to come from a position of empathy and compassion. It needs to come after entering into the hurts, pains, and fears of those experiencing them. Jesus was able to say, "Do not fear," because he became human and was part of the community that was experiencing the very things that led to fear.

But Jesus also did not leave things with just words. He took action. When assailed by a storm, Jesus took action to calm it (Matthew 8, 14). When a father was afraid for his girl's life, Jesus restored it (Mark 5). Christian communities are good at offering words, but too often actions are lacking. The Epistle of James has a few things to say about the failure to follow through. Once Christian communities take the time to listen and understand, they must take concrete steps to address and confront the sources of fear. It may mean risking comfort and security. It may mean going against popular opinion and against established traditions. Are there individual Christians and communities that are willing to come alongside the fearful and walk with them in their fight? If not, you might as well drop "Christian" from your name.

When you say, "Do not fear," it had better be more than just a theological exercise in orthodoxy.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Immigration EO and PTSD

Copyright: siamphotos / 123RF Stock Photo
This weekend's (January 28-29, 2017) stories in the aftermath of the Executive Order issued and signed by President Trump, placing (ostensibly) temporary restrictions on non-citizens from certain parts of the world from entering the United States has awoken anxieties and fears that I've personally experienced. Even though Japan is not one of the restricted nations, and I don't have any cause to believe I would be a target of the EO, the experience is all too familiar.

During my high school years, I attended a boarding school. During my first year there, I was a victim of theft, having a number of valuables stolen from my dorm room. Among them was my passport. I reported the theft to the police, filled out a report, contacted the Japanese Consulate and had my passport reissued. And I thought that was the end of it.

Would I be surprised and dismayed. Because I became the victim of identity theft, long before it became common parlance. The thief (high school student) apparently had gang ties, and my passport ended up in the hands of an international terrorist group (again, long before this was a popular concern). 

Even though I had a replacement passport and valid visa, from that point on and for many years, I was taken to secondary screening every time I had to re-enter the United States. The process could take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour. There is not feeling quite like that, when you know you've done nothing wrong, you know you've followed all the proper procedures, you know you have all the right documentation, yet one person can determine the entire fate of your life in those few minutes. There is nothing like anxiety and fear that arises from that. I came to dread traveling itself, because of this.

In my case, the final episode occurred in 1990 when I obtained my permanent residency visa at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and traveled to Los Angeles. I figured that because I had gone through all the background checks, health checks, and held the permit, I shouldn't experience any major problems. But that was not the case. 

The INS (remember, this is before Dept. of Homeland Security's consolidation of agencies, forming CBP and ICE) agent rejected the visa and sent me to secondary. There I waited. Different nightmare scenarios flashed through my mind. After quite some time INS officers and a LAPD detective entered. There they questioned me - what was I doing, where am I going, and then asked about ties to extremist and terrorist groups. This was the first time I understood why all the previous times I had difficulties on entry. The responses and my demeanor apparently satisfied them, because the detective told me that he could not believe I could ever have been or be a terrorist. Then he explained briefly that a passport with my name was on a red flag list, associated with a Japanese terrorist group. He said he would make sure things would get properly cleared and cleaned up. INS issued me Permanent Resident status, and for twenty-five years now, I haven't had a problem.

But reading about the EO yesterday and how it has already effected so much havoc at ports of entry and with people and families, I feel like I'm having to push away those past feelings of anxiety and fear. I do believe I have some PTSD (or something similar) associated with those past experiences. I've been able to slowly allow myself to be okay with travel, but I feel like I might not be okay again after hearing afresh the experiences that I've personally known. 

I know what it feels like to face the prospect of your life being completely upended by a decision of one person. I know what it feels like to have to consider returning to a country in which you hold citizenship, but is not your home. I know what it feels like to face being torn away from family and friends on the other side of that agent. 

If you don't know what this feels like, maybe it's time you shut up and listen and learn empathy.  

Monday, November 14, 2016

Maintaining Momentum Beyond Fear and Anger

possible able

This past week has been whirlwind of emotions for many of us who have been frightened by Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric, certain of his supporters, and the aftermath of him becoming President-Elect. At least some of us had opened the possibility that he might actually govern differently than he campaigned. But his early picks of advisors for the transition and staff once he is inaugurated have pretty much dashed that hope.

So where do we go from here?

The field of psychology and study of history shows that fear and anger, while strong short-term motivators, are terrible for long-term momentum. Fear and anger are strong emotions that cannot be maintained. Our psyches become normalized to the new realities and the body chemistries generated by these strong emotions are harmful long-term. We should not, must not, rely on fear and anger to carry us through.

So what can we do?

We need to turn our current strong emotions into habits of action. We need to cultivate and work on actions that become a part of our regular lives: actions that welcome the stranger, actions that show compassion and respect, actions that look for ways to reduce bigotry and bullying, actions that foster empathy and love. We need to find ways to make a habit of going out of our comfort zones to make connections with people outside of our normal circles.

We need to find ways to keep informed via reliable sources. And we need make it a habit to give to organizations whose purpose is to fight hate and promote equality.

We have to turn our current negative, but very strong, emotions into positive habits that lead to change. Otherwise what Trump and his rhetoric have ushered in will become the new normal.

Personally, I do a few things to follow my own advice, and what I wrote above comes from my own experience:

  • I am a volunteer victims advocate for the local domestic violence and sexual assault advocacy organization. It helps me keep grounded with real people who work with the issue and with victims of violence and abuses of power.
  • I work with substance abuse issues in our community. This helps me see that issues don’t have easy, black-and-white answers or solutions. This helps me see that people are complex beings, and that I cannot impose solutions onto anyone.
  • I donate to Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Their regular e-mail and print newsletters keep me abreast of religious liberty issues as they apply not just to a segment of Christians, but to all people or all religions and the non-religious.
  • I just donated to Southern Poverty Law Center. I believe that the work they do in fighting acts of hate and raising awareness of instances of hate and hate crimes is especially vital going forward.

You might find some of these that work for you. And there are plenty of other ways to cultivate positive habits to combat fear and hate, and change the world for the better. My exhortation to you is that you find at least one or two ways.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Nothing and Everything Changed

America, two days following the 2016 national elections, hasn't really changed that much in most practical ways; yet, in another sense, everything has changed. The latter didn't hit me until this afternoon while I was out walking about our small town. It's a single town on a small island in Alaska, accessible only by air and boat. So the people who reside here are pretty much the same, year in, and year out. So really, Tuesday hasn't changed a thing in this town.

Yet, there was something different inside of me. See, I am non-white and an immigrant - fitting two of the categories (of many) which have been marginalized and attacked during the election campaign. I've lived in the U.S. for many years and in this town for the past ten. And even yesterday, as I was walking about town, I didn't really feel that different.

But today, something changed. Not the environment, the town, the people who I encountered and with whom I interacted. But something in my psyche, my emotional health, and psychological well-being. I felt suspicion and uneasiness. I was on higher alert for threats and dangers.

Intellectually, I know that the chance that something has changed so much in this town that I would actually be a target and victim is probably infinitesimally low. Yet the election of Donald Trump and the tacit approval of the rhetoric that goes along with that has attacked my psyche and emotions. And if that can happen to me -- who I acknowledge as fairly privileged in many ways, has never been overtly been a target of racism or hate, and in many ways never will be -- how much more fearful are those who actually have been victims and targets?

Even if you aren't a racist or bigot, your celebration of Trump hurts. Even if you really do love immigrants and would never do anything to harm them, your refusal to strongly denounce hateful talk is damaging. Even though (giving the benefit of doubt) that most Trump supporters really do care about people around them, your silence speaks volumes about what you value and what you don't. 

Your admonition to us to "stop whining" tells us what we're feeling doesn't matter. Your admonition to us to "learn that we can't always have our way" is telling us that our concerns are invalid. When you tell us to "suck it up" and place the "nation first," it's telling us that diversity is only of value when it conforms to traditional Evangelical Christian, white European, cis-gender views. Or to put it another way, diversity is only valued as a token.

There is a palpable fear being experienced by those who have been devalued by Donald Trump, his campaign, and some of his outspoken supporters. I hope that President Trump will have the strength, courage, and discipline to reject measures and policies that devalue and dehumanize any number of groups of people. I hope that Congress and the judiciary will act as real checks and balances, if President Trump oversteps.

When you say you care about those who aren't quite like you; when you say that you want to protect and help the marginalized; when you say that you don't hate immigrants and people whose religion aren't yours -- we need you to actually vocalize that loudly and to act strongly to support what you claim. We need you to actually go outside your comfort zones; to listen to people who are terrified, to people who are physically ill from what has happened; to denounce any kind of hate and dehumanization. Because if you don't, even if you say you're not a racist or bigot, your silence communicates something very different. We need to know we can trust what you say.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Move Forward and Rebuild

Lectionary Year C, Proper 27
OT Reading: Haggai 1:15b-2:9

Sermon at First Presbyterian Church, Petersburg, Alaska on November 6, 2016.

Introduction

When we look around and observe the world around us, it’s difficult not to see the many problems, troubles, conflicts, divisions, and plain ugliness that seem omnipresent. There seem to be no easy solutions; and sometimes we wonder if there are any solutions at all. In the more pessimistic recesses of our minds, we think that maybe the world has gone so off track that it is on an irreversible downward trend into utter chaos and wreckage.

Many, faced with such a dark and uncertain future, understandably look to the past — when things seemed to be better, when things seemed more certain, when things and people seemed to be in their proper places, when there seemed to be order and predictability. And the temptation to try to recreate the past grows strong.

Old Photos

Nostalgia

There is a term for this which you’ve probably guessed; it is nostalgia. Alan R. Hirsch describes nostalgia as a yearning for an idealized past — “a longing for a sanitized impression of the past, what in psychoanalysis is referred to as a screen memory — not a true recreation of the past, but rather a combination of many different memories, all integrated together, and in the process all negative emotions filtered out.” (http://elitedaily.com/life/science-behind-nostalgia-love-much/673184/)

That sounds negative, but studies have found that nostalgia can help people cope with negative life events, depression, and even eases facing death.

Here are a few paragraphs in a New York Times article from 2013:

Nostalgia does have its painful side — it’s a bittersweet emotion — but the net effect is to make life seem more meaningful and death less frightening. When people speak wistfully of the past, they typically become more optimistic and inspired about the future.

“Nostalgia serves a crucial existential function,” Dr. Routledge says. “It brings to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives. Some of our research shows that people who regularly engage in nostalgia are better at coping with concerns about death.”

“Nostalgia helps us deal with transitions,” Dr. Hepper says. “The young adults are just moving away from home and or starting their first jobs, so they fall back on memories of family Christmases, pets and friends in school.”

(http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/09/science/what-is-nostalgia-good-for-quite-a-bit-research-shows.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0)

Scientific American reports “situations that trigger negative emotions, feelings of loneliness, and perceptions of meaninglessness cause people to become nostalgic.” (https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/mind-guest-blog/the-rehabilitation-of-an-old-emotion-a-new-science-of-nostalgia/)

Dr. Hal McDonald, in Psychology Today (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/time-travelling-apollo/201606/the-two-faces-nostalgia) describes two kinds of nostalgia. The first is restorative nostalgia, in which the person tries to recreate (or restore) the past into the present. The second is reflective nostalgia, in which the person savors the experience without trying to recreate it.

He writes:

These two types of nostalgia represent fundamentally different attitudes toward the past, and it is this difference that largely determines whether our memories of those happy days of yore will evoke feelings of joy or of sadness…

Restorative nostalgia is really a kind of homesickness—a homesickness for the past—more akin to the original pathological definition of nostalgia than to our current view of the term…

Reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, accepts the fact that the past is, in fact, past, and rather than trying to recreate a special past experience, savors the emotions evoked by its recollection.  This acknowledgment of the irretrievability of our autobiographical past provides an aesthetic distance that allows us to enjoy a memory in the same way that we enjoy a movie or a good book.

As you might guess, the latter, reflective nostalgia, is a more healthy response than the former, which tries to recreate (in vain) an idealized past.

Back from Exile

This brings us to the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon. Or at least a few of them. The prophet Jeremiah, early in the exile, had written and told them:

5 “Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. 6 Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! 7 And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:5-7 NLT)

Many had settled in Babylon and felt no need to return to their ancestral lands and face inevitable hardships there.

Cyrus had decreed that the Jews could return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple there. But the work had not really begun. The people went and worked on their individual homes and fields. The prophets had prophesied that their return would result in blessings (c.f. Ezekiel), but the people only saw reminders of destruction, desolation, and daily experienced difficulties.

Nearly twenty years had passed. And now the prophet Haggai rose to declare to the people that the current sad state of affairs was due to their neglect in rebuilding the Temple.

Not the Prosperity Gospel

At this point it should be said that Haggai could be used to support a prosperity gospel: i.e., that God blesses those who contribute toward his demands, and curses those who neglect him.

But it is important to note that the ancient temple is not equivalent to the present day churches or denominations. Neither should the temple be limited to spiritual and religious facets of individual and societal life.

The ancient temple was the center of religious, spiritual, social, and economic life. It was the hub of community and connections. A healthy temple meant healthy society and community. It was the place of celebrations. It was where relationships between human and deity, and between humans were restored and strengthened.

I think it can be difficult for Westerners, particularly Americans, to understand how the temple could be the center of so much of community. We value individualism, we tend to strictly segregate different spheres of our lives, and religion is certainly in a decline. But at least from anecdotal, personal experience that I’ve had in Japan large temples and shrines still form a major part of the economy through tourism and festivals; they are still focus of major celebrations and places where families and community come together; where life’s petitions, dreams, and goals are offered up.

When Haggai claims that the peoples’ neglect of the temple was the cause of their life problems, we can see how that can be reasonable logic. Haggai’s accusation is that the people were so concerned about their individual survival and comfort that they had neglected the well-being of the community. It is not the prosperity gospel, at least not in the present-day sense of the phrase in which God blesses individuals in a quid pro quo fashion. Rather it is a declaration that when the community looks after everyone in the community, God can multiple the sum of their efforts for the good of the entire community.

What is Wealth?

Stanley Hauerwas, at Duke University, drawing from Millbank and Pabst, theologians and philosophers, to describe wealth in terms of

goods that can be shared together such as intimacy, trust, beauty. The goods that should determine how we live are embedded in the practices of honour and reciprocity which are developed over time through the habits sustained by a tradition. The formation of such traditions depends on the existence of people of wisdom who can provide the judgments necessary for responding to new challenges while remaining faithful to the past.

People who so live do not think their first task in life is to become more wealthy or powerful as individuals. Rather wealth is best thought of as what we share in common, such as parks, or practices to which all have access, such as medicine. In other words, the post-liberal strategy is exactly the opposite of the liberal assumption that assumes that social practices of mutual assistance should be eliminated, while at the same time encouraging our desires for wealth and prestige. The liberal desire for the well-being of the individual not only ignores the goods built on gift relations, but in effect destroys the habits that make such relations possible.

(http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2016/11/02/4567512.htm)

Exhortation Heeded, But Things Don’t Look Good

The people heed Haggai’s words and begin the process of temple reconstruction. About two months later, Haggai offers a new word, the passage that was read this morning.

It appears that the people have been hard at work, but progress is slow. And what they have to show for it isn’t much. It is also possible that among the people are some elderly Jews who remember the first temple. Whether it is they, or the younger generation recalling the stories of old about the first temple, what they see before them is sorely lacking. They are discouraged. If their well-being and future rely upon God accepting the results of their construction, it doesn’t look very good. They have good reason to be concerned.

Suffering from Restorative Nostalgia

The people are suffering from the first, bad kind of nostalgia: restorative nostalgia. They want to recreate the new temple to resemble the first in its physical and religious grandeur. That’s, after all, what Ezekiel appears to have prophesied.

This kind of nostalgia can cause harm in many ways. It can halt progress — because the new can’t possibly be as good as the old, why bother? People can get stuck in the past. It can lead to feelings of depression and discouragement.

Or it can cause people to turn against each other — I know how it’s supposed to look like, so why can’t you just obey my instructions? Or, I know better than you, I’m the expert, so your opinions and ideas are worthless. Or, are you trying to sabotage the project with your less-than-perfect plans? People become divided, one group against another.

God Invites Reflective Nostalgia

Through Haggai, God offers a word of reflective nostalgia — the good kind of nostalgia. Haggai reminds the people of God’s faithfulness in their lives. The past cannot be recreated; but the past offers reminders that can strengthen and encourage the people to move forward.

God says, “I am with you.” He declares, “My spirit remains among you, just as I promised when you came out of Egypt. So do not be afraid.”

It is an invitation to remember how God has been with them, all the way from their beginnings in Egypt. It is an invitation to reflect on the power and strength of God to sustain and deliver.

It is a declaration that God does not dwell in the past but he is always a part of the present. God cannot be summoned by recreating the past. The people must move forward to where God is taking them.

God Is Found Where His People Work

God is already among them. The temple isn’t where God resides. God is where the people are doing the work of restoring God’s glory by their efforts to rebuild, restore, and heal community.

The returned exiles seemed to think God couldn’t come and bless them until the temple was complete and functional; and that the degree of blessing depended on the physical magnificence of the structure. What they heard was that their very efforts were where God could be present and manifest his glory.

Haggai exhorts the people to do the work. As long as they are doing the work of building community to reflect God’s image, God will be with them and bless them. Other nations will hear and wonder. They will be curious and come. And peace will be the result.

Fantasy or Reality?

Does this sound too good to be true? Is Haggai describing a fantasy?

I think the key point to remember is that the work we do for God is not to secure blessings for ourselves, or for our families, or for our church, but to bless the whole world. When Abram was first called by God, the blessings offered to him were so that the entire world would be blessed through him. I believe that is still God’s desire and his purpose for the church.

I think for far too long the church has been preoccupied with her own security and place in the world. Like the returned exiles during their first twenty years, the church is too often concerned about accounting and finances, membership rolls, and her pursuit of temporal influence and power. Too often the church neglects the people and community just outside her, sometimes literal, walls.

I believe the words of Haggai are still relevant for the church today. We need to rebuild the temple — no, not necessarily the physical church or congregations — but the image of God that we who claim to be followers of Christ represent to the world. The church must rebuild the picture of God that those outside her metaphorical walls see inside.

Is that impossible? Is that too hard? Has the image been so destroyed that it can’t be rebuilt? Is the destruction and desolation too much to bear?

Haggai’s words should still ring true for us today. God is with us. Just as he rescued Israel from Egypt, brought the exiles back from Babylon, helped them rebuild the second temple, gave us his perfect image in Jesus Christ, and sustained the church through two millennia, his Spirit remains to strengthen and lead us today. “Do not be afraid,” God commands.

Rebuild God’s Temple Today

We can rebuild God’s temple in our world today. We can restore the image of Jesus Christ that has been destroyed by religionists. We do it through our love, compassion, and faithfulness to the people of this community. We do it through our efforts to foster harmony and peace among peoples, especially among those with whom we disagree. We do it through our attitudes and actions that value people and relationships first.

We were placed on this earth to bless others. We were saved by Christ so that we would know his purpose and be given the power and strength to do this difficult but rewarding work. We have been given the ministry of reconciliation, of rebuilding people and relationships that have been broken. Let us come together and work together to restore the image and glory of God in his temple, the church, us.