Posts Tagged ‘faith’

“When we die, I don’t think God is going to ask us how He created the earth, but He will ask us what we did with what He created.” – Richard Cizik

“Speaking of Faith” with Krista Tippett has become my new favorite podcast. It’s a weekly broadcast of American Public Media. I was listening to an older broadcast today on “The Evolution of American Evangelicalism” featuring an interview with Richard Cizik, former Vice President of the National Association of Evangelicals.

In 2006 Richard caused quite an uproar for expressing his concerns over climate change and torture, which many evangelicals believed drew attention away from issues like abortion and gay marriage. Last year Richard resigned from his position after 28 years with the organization following further controversy after voicing support for civil unions on NPR.

Had there been more evangelicals like Richard speaking up several years ago I probably would not have been so quick to distance myself from them. Surprisingly, the controversy over his comments drew out the support of many like-minded Christians. Several years later, a new breed of evangelicals, like Brian McLaren, are voicing similar concerns about broader social issues that don’t line up neatly with the GOP platform. It’s past time the church separate itself from one particular political party and examine closely for itself the teachings of Jesus, which remain radical even in today’s culture.

I haven’t given up on reading the Bible. It’s just not the only thing I read anymore. It’s been a lifelong challenge to study the Bible and bang my head against the pages until I see something I didn’t see before. It’s never been more challenging to wrestle with those words than it is now. I see life differently. Everything is not as black and white as we’ve been lead to believe. Life is full of nuance and mystery that refuses to be explained away easily. Science has taught us so much, but so much remains a mystery. It’s the stuff of religion, romance, imagination, and fate.

I’m reading the Gospel lesson for tomorrow curious as to what approach a preacher friend would take on it but also scratching my head and wondering what, if anything, this means to me. Go ahead and read it if you like, Mark 5:21-43. I’ll wait…

So if you’d like to think that Jesus was just a prophet, a revolutionary figure, a reformer, or even a charlatan, here comes these passages that declare without pretense that he was more than what you take him for. We can debate whether these things happened literally or were the embellishments of people writing to make a theological statement, but we would miss the point of what these passages are supposed to teach us about who Jesus was and who we are.

There are plenty of people making money selling the latest greatest whatever in religion. Miracle handkerchiefs, annointed oil, holy water, seeds of faith, multi-millon dollar sanctuaries, fantastic programs, mega-star personalities, and on and on. In this passage both Jairus and the woman believed that touching Jesus was enough to heal. Touch is a powerful human experience in and of itself without any special magic.

In college I learned what to do and what not to do when it comes to caring for the ill and dying. In what was supposed to be a practical how-to of pastoral care, the only thing I remember from that class was the professor said when making pastoral visits to the sick 1) never sit on the bed, 2) read a scripture, 3) have prayer, and 4) never stay more than a few minutes. Seriously. While I was job shadowing a hospice chaplain the next semester, I learned that he broke every rule. He told me how important it was to touch people, especially the dying. So many terminally ill and shut ins, go days and weeks without anyone touching them in a meaningful and compassionate way. I watched him sit on the bedside and hold hands, rub shoulders, kiss foreheads, even cry and pray with people, and we almost always stayed until the time was right to leave.

There was nothing magical, super spiritual, or clinically effective about what he did, but it made such a difference in those lives. I never saw one of them jump out of bed miraculously healed either. They all died. Everyone of them, but I like to think their spirits were healed, which was so much more effective than a ceremonial pastoral blessing.

Before we write sermons and build churches around the “touch of Jesus,” he said in the passage that it wasn’t touching him that made them whole. Lots of people were touching him and pushing him around, but none of them were miraculously healed. He told the woman who touched him that it was her faith that made her whole. When Jairus found out his daughter had died, Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid; only believe.”

I don’t know how to adequately describe faith. It’s not about “believing” the right things. It’s about hope and trust in what can be. I readily admit that there are people in my life who have much more faith than I do. I’m a skeptic by default. I reason everything out and try to figure things out for myself, but there are people I know who just hope against hope for no other reason than it’s all they have. I need people like that around me, because all too often we encounter situations and crises that are beyond our ability to cope with or fix. We have to make a choice. Either we resign ourselves to be victims of circumstance, lie down, and take it, or we declare with every ounce of our being that we refuse to accept reality as it’s presented to us. We hold onto faith.

The law of odds says that more times than not miracles are rare. If they happened routinely, they wouldn’t be considered miraculous. It’s the exception for a devestating illness to suddenly disappear… for young girls on death’s door to get up and walk. Even for those who experience miraculous turns of fate, they too eventually died. All of them. It doesn’t mean that they didn’t have faith.

I’ve never been so angry as to visit terminally ill people who were visited by a faith healer or a preacher selling indulgences. It makes my blood boil to think of the people who’ve been told, “if you only had faith, God would heal you.” I’ve buried plenty of men and women of great faith. Life happens and so does death. No snake oil salesmen can change that.

I take away from these encounters with Jesus that there is something in us that we have the abilitiy to tap into that allows us to transcend our circumstances. There is divinity in us. It’s in our cosmic DNA. There are traces of timelessness in us that defies death, disease, and adversity. I do believe that people can discover faith that enables them to tap into the incredible potential of our bodies to heal themselves, but more importantly they can realize that they are more than flesh and blood and bones. They are spirit, and death and disease can never kill them.

50.

People who look
for the secret of long life
wind up dead.

Their bodies are the focus of their lives
and the source of their death,
because they think a healthy body
is all there is to life.

Lao Tzu used to say
a man who truly understood life
could walk through the jungle
without fear
or across a battlefield
without armor, totally unarmed.
Wild animals and weapons couldn’t kill him.

I know, I know:
what the hell does that mean?
“Well, he couldn’t be killed,”
Lao Tzu said,
“because his body
wasn’t where he kept his death.”

~ Tao Te Ching, adapted by Ron Hogan

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all! I know the holiday carries a different significance for everyone or none at all. The day is important to me not for the legends of “chasing the snakes out of Ireland” or the privilege of pinching random people without prosecution. St. Patrick’s Day reminds me of the man himself and all the reasons why Celtic Christianity has kept me from abandoning the faith altogether.

I’ve written many posts about my affinity for Celtic Christianity, one such overall post is A Generous View of Life. I respect most that St. Patrick himself did not return to Ireland to enforce his way upon others. He did not banish all of the local traditions and split the people into groups of insiders/outsiders. He actually adapted many of the local customs, even pagan customs, to use them as an means of teaching Christian values. More so, he did not teach a dogmatic absolute theology. Rather he chose to live and model those values as an example before others. He focused more on being incarnational and missional rather than dogmatic and confrontational. By living your faith and modeling it before others, sermonizing becomes unnecessary.

I also appreciate that Celtic Christians were “people driven by ideas.” They were open rather than closed. They left themselves open to others. They left their faith open to mystery. Both principles are often pandered to but hard to find.

In case you’re still wondering, there were no snakes in Ireland to start with. Consider yourself pinched.

I just finished reading Frank Schaeffer‘s memoirs Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back. I knew of Frank and his father Francis Schaeffer but arrived on the evangelical scene after the rise of the religious right was in full swing. I could not put this book down for a week. It details the childhood and adolescence of Frank in the Schaeffer home of L’Abri in Switzerland where he grew up and the rise of his family in the evangelical community. It is brutally honest, eye-opening, at times laugh out loud funny, and heart breaking.

I enjoyed the book most for being a personal story of someone else on a similar journey as my own, for the same reasons I enjoy de-conversion.com. It is incredibly helpful and psychologically healthy to know that I am not alone in my questions and struggles with faith, doubt, and reason. While all of us end up on different ends of the theological spectrum between devotion and atheism, we share a common journey, common experiences, and a common voice.

I appreciate most from Frank’s book his acknowledgement that this is his life’s story as he sees it now. He recognizes that all our perspectives are skewed knowingly or unknowingly and always written or told from the vantage point of the moment. He says asking the question “who are you?” is insufficient. The necessary question to follow that is “when?” He realizes that as individuals we are in a state of flux throughout our lives and likely to be very different from even ourselves at various times in our lives.

Near the end of the book Frank discloses that he is plugging away at faith, in part, through his conversion to the Greek Orthodox Church mostly because he says, “the Orthodox idea of a slow journey to God, wherein no one is altogether instantly ‘saved’ or ‘lost’ and nothing is completely resolved in this life (and perhaps not in the next), mirrors the reality of how life works, at least as I’ve experienced it.” That makes a lot of sense to me, and while I vascilate daily between belief and unbelief, mystery and reason, life is, if nothing else, a journey on which I am trying to grow and learn and become all that I can while I can. This book is a welcome stepping stone along the way.

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C
Luke 14:25-33

Just when you think you’ve found a way to read the Bible that doesn’t make you pull your hair out or throw it out the window, your journey comes to an abrupt halt in front of a monolithic roadblock like this one. Where is Brian McClaren when you need him? Will somebody from the “kinder, gentler Christianity” movement please stand up and do something with this thing? Anybody from the Jesus Seminar around? Dear God! This thing is heavy! What the bleep?

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.”

“anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

“any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.”

Ok, before everyone rushes out to get their hammer and chisel and start rounding off the edges of this thing, let me tell you that it won’t help. Save your energy. Everyone makes a mad dash to point out that Jesus didn’t really mean you have to hate your momma. It was just a figure of speech, sort of a theological “shock and awe.” This is obvious from Matthew’s version, “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me,” but ‘hello!’ this is not any easier to swallow.

Jesus is saying that if we’re going to follow Him we have to love Him more than our parents, our family, even our own lives. So before we all get too comfortable with this Jesus we’ve been touting on our blogs, you had better get in the Gospels and find out just which Jesus we’re talking about. Sure, it’s an easy thing to be in love with the Mr. Rogers version of Jesus, the flannel board version, the Santa Claus version, the social activist version, the Dr. Phil version, but what about the real version? Will the real Jesus please stand up?

That’s really what studying the Bible is about isn’t it? Trying to discover the authentic Jesus to enable us to live an authentic faith. The problem with a passage like this is that it demands a response. You cannot ignore it. You cannot move it. What do you do with it? You cannot explain it away. This isn’t a story about walking on water, raising the dead, or healing the blind. By all measures of scholarship this is the historical Jesus, raising the stakes for all of us in this merry band of “Christians” on the journey with Him to Jerusalem.

Some people apparently got the idea that hanging with Jesus was all about dinner parties, free hillside buffets, magic shows, witty debates, and adventure. No doubt many of those traveling with Him nearer to Jerusalem had the mentality of those that waved the palm branches and shouted “Hosanna!” when He walked into town. They thought He was launching a revolution to overthrow the Romans. Not quite.

Jesus would have been a lousy pastor today. We spend all our time trying to draw a crowd and keep it. He spent more of His time sending them away. Maybe this is like in Batman Returns when Bruce Wayne disperses his dinner party by faking a drunken rant in order to save them from the bad guys there to kill him. No, not hardly. This is an invitation to follow Him but at your own risk.

Often times in history the most devout fall into the extremism of belief, which almost always ends in “kill or be killed.” In the movie Syriana George Clooney’s character noted, “you can’t bomb this out of them.” We’ve seen modern reinterpretations of calls to arms, which usually entail fund-raising, letter writing, screaming from the top of your lungs wearing a plywood plackard, and in some cases guns, but when Jesus launched a revolution he went on neither offense nor defense. He went to Jerusalem as a lamb to the slaughter, silent before his shearers. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” It’s a revolution alright, but you don’t pick up your sword. You lay it down.

Less we get too comfortable with Jesus and rank Him among the other great spiritual teachers of history, He makes these outrageous claims, and we struggle to rationalize them. Just who does this guy think He is? Are we really prepared to follow Him? Do we have what it takes? Evangelicals spend all their energy telling people how easy it is to be “saved.” Then once you’re in, they spend the rest of your life telling you how many hoops you have to jump through to be a Christian. I’ve said for years that we’ve got to rewrite the brochures and the infomercials, because the church has no concept of “truth in advertising.”

I’m driving down the expressway and see the latest sermon series plastered on a billboard with cute graphics and catchy slogans, and I’ve got to shake my head. Is this what the gospel has become… a marketing campaign? Watered down, politically correct, culturally compatible, spoon fed mush? It may build big churches and big egos, but it’s a half gospel from a false Messiah. It’s an easy thing to be a “Christian” in America. Try doing it in Iran or China or Sudan. It’s not just about persecution. It’s about living an authentic faith in poverty. The prosperity gospel doesn’t go down so easy on an empty stomach.

I don’t know what to do with a passage like this. I don’t know what to do with a man like this. Sometimes I feel like turning around and walking off like the rich young ruler who went away sad. Other times I think myself committed, then we get to Jerusalem and before the day’s over I’ve denied Him three times. Geez.

All I know to do is in every small decision, every word, every action to choose to act on the side of love, to try to be selfless, to refuse to be owned by things and be swayed by the fickle winds of the culture. Maybe in some small way I can be subversive. Maybe, just maybe, for a moment I can follow Jesus.

If you’ve read my recent post Reading the Bible again for the first time, you would know that beginning this week I’ll be posting a weekly article on my study of the Gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary.

It’s been a while since I did any systematic study of a passage. I’ve enjoyed getting my feet wet again but have to go about it in a new way. I’m not preparing to write sermons. This isn’t a congregation. I’m trying to discover the impact of the text, reading through a new set of lenses, in hope of hearing what it says first of all to me personally and also to the broader faith community.

I don’t want this weekly post to be a mini-sermon, though you’re welcome to it if you need one, nor do I want to write a running commentary. I think I may include my personal commentary or behind the scenes work as a comment to the post for those die hard enough to want to read it.

It’s occured to me that you cannot have an honest dialouge about matters of faith and your journey deeper or farther away without first wrestling with scripture one on one. It’s easy to knock out theological lightweights and counter paper thin doctrinal diatribes, but it’s another matter altogether to wrestle with the angel until he blesses you, or in this case hear the text again for the first time.

You’re welcome to join the conversation any time. I always appreciate your feedback and comments, but as with everything on this blog it is a personal exercise in sanity that you are invited to eavesdrop on at your own peril.

I’m in love with words and dusty books,
the taste of deep red wine and salty ocean air,
drunk on a lonely tune and a sunset sky.

You might say that I am a romantic, in the classical sense. I go weak in the knees for ideas. I love nuance, symbolism, and possibilities. This makes me especially vulnerable to the seductive language of scripture.

Perhaps you’ve heard the expression “in love with the idea of being in love.” Dorothy Boyd’s description of her feelings for Jerry McGuire describe my affair with Christianity well, “I love him! I love him for the man he wants to be. And I love him for the man he almost is.” One of my favorite bloggers Real Live Preacher expressed this idea succinctly in a recent post:

Christianity has already shrunk in my lifetime from being the shining center of all truth and purpose to something less than that. Even looking at things from the inside, even willing to give the benefit of every doubt, Christianity seems like a bumbling, prosaic movement which is, as often as not, violent, anti-intellectual, and xenophobic.

But I love Christianity so much. Or at least I love what it could be. I want to hug it. I want to throw my arms around the beautiful language of salvation and redemption. I want to curl up in the warmth of my faith community, the people I love so deeply in this world. Truly they are like family to me. I feel I could get drunk on our ancient symbols, myths and stories, the ones that speak in luscious tones vibrating through a million voices across the centuries.

With time and disappointment love can change and devotion can wane, but for all that I have learned and all that I question about my faith I just cannot bring myself to walk away completely. In The Painted Veil Mother Superior said:

“I fell in love when I was 17… with God. A foolish girl with romantic notions about the life of a religious, but my love was passionate. Over the years my feelings have changed. He’s disappointed me. Ignored me. We’ve settled into a life of peaceful indifference. The old husband and wife who sit side by side on the sofa, but rarely speak. He knows I’ll never leave Him. This is my duty. But when love and duty are one, then grace is within you.”

I don’t stay from a sense of obligation or from fear of divine retribution. I think I stay because it’s familiar. These words I’ve heard so many times bring comfort when few others have. For all that I know there is more that I don’t know. I no longer look at the Bible as a rubik’s cube waiting to be solved. It has become more like a painting to me. One that requires long gazes from an open mind to appreciate. Every time I return I see something new in something old. Faith is not having all the right answers to spiritual questions. Faith is loving the idea of what could be, and the test of faith is in making small choices that bring those possibilities to life.

A Hobbit's TaleTrying to describe the personal journey that I’ve been on for the last four years is like trying to nail jello to the wall.  I’ve gone through a thorough detox from vocational and institutional Christianity, plunged headlong into the “dark night of the soul,” and am slowly emerging with my head above unchartered waters. Bilbo’s story could well be my own, “There and Back Again: A Hobbit’s Tale,” yet the place to which I’ve returned is different and familiar all the same.

For those of you that don’t know I spent roughly 10 years in pastoral ministry, or I could say that I spent 10 years in pastoral ministry roughly. I broke from full-time ministry to become self-employed in healthcare marketing, a job I still have five years later. For 18 months I tried to be bi-vocational while building this new business, but aside from preaching on Sundays, my job didn’t lend itself to be compatible with pastoral ministry.

My departure from full-time ministry was against the grain of the church-growth mentality. I was capable and expected to move on to bigger churches to continue my “ministry.” Not only did I demote myself to a smaller pastorate, but I also went “secular.” There was a lapse of 9 months before I began the bi-vocational pastorate, leaving many to circulate rumors that my last church drove me from the ministry. Beginning with leaving full-time ministry I began to contemplate ways to reinvent the wheel. I had a deep gnawing awareness that something was wrong with the way we did church. I slowly began to peel back the layers of tradition trying to find something of an authentic spirituality worth practicing.

My earliest attempts at deconstruction focused too much on models and methods. I began to see small-group/cell-driven churches as a panacea. I even started a prototype group of potential leaders with the intention of duplicating into a small network of cells that would eventually begin corporate gatherings. One of the families went back into a traditional ministry role, leaving myself and a good friend of mine to discover that the root of our problems went much deeper than having the wrong model.

The reality we came to face was that we who had spent years in the ministry were completed isolated from normal people on the outside of the four walls of the church. You cannot reach people if you’re not with people. As we began to rethink our approach to reaching people, we became acutely aware of our own hidden agendas to “win friends and influence people.” There’s a powerful quote from the movie Big Kahuna with Kevin Spacey and Danny Devito that describes this well:

It doesn’t matter whether you’re selling Jesus or Buddha or civil rights or ‘How to Make Money in Real Estate With No Money Down.’ That doesn’t make you a human being; it makes you a marketing rep. If you want to talk to somebody honestly, as a human being, ask him about his kids. Find out what his dreams are – just to find out, for no other reason. Because as soon as you lay your hands on a conversation to steer it, it’s not a conversation anymore; it’s a pitch. And you’re not a human being; you’re a marketing rep.

This realization has forever changed the way I interact with people and what I think of evangelism. I want to know people and value them for who they are and what they can teach me through their stories regardless of whether they agree with me or not.

It was about this time that I began trying to focus on being incarnational and became sympathetic to Celtic Christianity, in particular Celtic Daily Prayer of the Northumbria Community. I appreciate their focus on incarnation, prayer, contemplation, and service. It was a different, gentler form of Christianity that touched me deeply and sort of nourished me back to wholeness as a person, leaving one last link in my life to Christianity.

Aside from serving twice as an interim pastor for a few months following my bi-vocational pastorate, my wife and I quit going to church altogether. We felt no guilt whatsoever. We actually felt relieved and much happier. We didn’t disavow church for all time, but we were too well acquainted with the churches, parishoners, and pulpit personalities in our area to want to attend any of them. It was not long before a year had passed without darkening the door of a sanctuary.

In the process of deconstructing tradition and trying to be an honest broker of my motivations and convictions I became obsessed with trying to find answers to questions. Every answer yielded only more questions but better questions. It was not long before every truth I tried to stand on felt like mush beneath my feet. I found the most compelling answers not in theology but in the realm of science and reasoning. In particular my study of astrophysics and eventually quantum mechanics opened my eyes to a whole new way of seeing the world and my place in it. The Matrix is a definitive movie of our time for expressing the dynamic shift in worldviews taking place.

When your eyes are opened to see the world in a new way, there is a mixture of emotions ranging from anger for being hoodwinked to wide-eyed wonder in a new way of engaging life. Perhaps mainly for comfort I continued to come back to Celtic Daily Prayer and continually tried to rethink my way through all that I had been taught about God, the world, and who I am. I sort of came to a place where I was prepared to leave behind everything I had professed to believe in and go my own way. I realized that if I was willing to forsake it all, before I did I might as well try to start with a blank slate trying to reconstruct some semblance of a real world, liveable faith that worked for me. Demythologizing became a pathway out of the dark night of the soul for me. I began to find far more power and truth in looking through the lens of metaphor and symbolism than I ever did through literalism.

I suppose I’ve become theologically liberal. Although I never thought that was possible, I’m completely comfortable in my own skin for the first time in a long time. In no way do I consider to have to come to the end of my journey. I’m not dead yet. I find myself in a familiar place again. We’ve been visiting a few churches and found a church and a pastor with whom I can identify. I don’t have to agree with everything to find value in something. So I find myself retracing old steps but going in a new direction with a new way of seeing the road ahead. So I say with humility that I’ve been “there,” and I’ve come “back again.” There’s nothing to say I won’t end up “there” again before the journey’s over, but I’m sure it would not be the same as last I found it. I’ve discovered that I haven’t been wandering aimlessly in circles after all. I’m winding up A Spiral Staircase and though each turn around feels familiar I hope I’m gaining ground.

From The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong:

I remembered a Jesuit telling us once during a retreat that faith was not really an intellectual assent but an act of will. Christians could accept their essentially incredible tradition only by making a deliberate choice to believe. You could not prove or disprove these doctrines, but you could consciously decide to take them on trust. They might even turn out to be true. But somewhere along the line, I had given up. I could no longer summon up the emotional or spiritual energy to make that choice. I felt tired out, drained, and slightly repelled by it all. I was finished with God; and God – if he existed at all – had long ago finished with me.

For years faith for me was an “intellectual assent” held loosely together by the “infallibility” of scripture and a willful ignorance of an alternative. Once I stopped suppressing my questions and exposed myself to the world of possibilities, faith would have to be a choice made against the grain of reason or abandoned altogether. I’m standing now somewhere near the crossroads trying to find a middle ground between self-induced delusion and apostasy. Karen Armstrong has become a new found friend on this road to find the middle way.

We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.

“Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” William Wordsworth

I’ve been reading The Man Called Cash, the authorized biography of Johnny Cash by Steve Turner, and have been enjoying it immensely. I read that he was criticized for spending so much time with prisoners. He responded that he thought there were three different kinds of Christians: “there’s preaching Christians, church-playing Christians, and there’s practicing Christians. I’m trying very hard to be a practicing Christian.” May we all keep trying.