Essential Christianity

The Gospel reading for this Sunday, the tenth after Pentecost (Proper 14), presents this preacher with a choice: either yield to the attractions of piety thereby feeding the spiritual longing of the Biblically and theologically undereducated or challenge a congregation in a way that, while it may not be alarming to some, will no doubt be deeply discomfiting to others. The pericope is a familiar one even to Sunday School dropouts – Matthew’s account on Jesus walking on the water: Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”  Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” Preachers have struggled throughout the post-critical era to reconcile the essential character of kerygma as a dramatically enhanced form of proclamation shaped to indicate a truth greater than the story it tells and the reality of Divinely ordered natural law in order to present believers with a credible way of asserting Jesus’ lordship over nature while honoring contemporary scientific sensibilities. They haven’t always been successful, focusing on metaphorical comparisons that are readily translatable into modern spiritual practice – Peter was fine until he took his eyes off Jesus, humans were never intended to be water-walkers but with God all things are possible, etc. I find that such attempts do not serve the Faith well in that they tend to maintain a gap between the essential elements of Christian living and the requirements of contemporary credulity. So, I need to say that nothing that I believe and nothing that I do depends in any way on the historicity of this passage. In fact, I think it is fair to say that I maintain a lively and vibrant commitment to Christian thought and practice that in no way depends on Jesus’ ability to walk on the surface of water. I am not saying it didn’t happen – for all I know, it could be an accurate eyewitness account of actual events (although nothing in my study of New Testament thought would lead me to believe that’s true). I can certainly concede that the possibility exists that the Jesus of history was a water-walker, however, I insist that such a possibility in no way enhances or informs my faith. In my understanding of Christianity, it simply doesn’t matter. I must confess that there are other elements of the Gospel accounts that don’t matter to me, either. The biological virginity of Mary in no way affects my believing, nor does the idea of Divine insemination of a human. While such stories were common in the first century world (Zeus, after all, was well known for his interspecies indiscretions as were other gods in the ancient world) I find that while they may offer seasonal charm and enhance the piety of some, they simply place the integrity of Christian believing outside the realm of contemporary intellectual tolerance. Yes, some would argue that the requirement of faith is the acceptance of those assertions that we can neither understand nor verify, but I would argue that there is abundant material in the Gospel accounts that, as it may not be currently verifiable, requires a not insignificant leap, especially if one is considering wagering a life on the embrace of a spiritual discipline. As an example, the miraculous multiplication of foodstuffs is not an essential element of my believing, but the healing of sick, the blind and the lame is. Science has demonstrated over and over again that humans are generators of energy,...

Highway 61

Highway 61 was where Robert Johnson reportedly sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his exceptional ability to play guitar. With respect to Mr. Dylan, a slightly different take: Click here! Share this:Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to share on Google+ (Opens in new...

Three Windows

  My office has five windows that look out on the world, each one giving me a different view. The window furthest to the north allows me to see who is walking down the path to my door, the window to its left provides a view of the parking lot. A window in the center opens to a large blue spruce where I get to enjoy the branch-to-branch flitting of wrens and finches. The window further left frames a tall cottonwood which I fear is struggling for life as it claims the daily attention of a flicker and a downy woodpecker, each of whom find daily nourishment under it’s bark. The window at the southern most extreme of the room gives view to two magnificent apple trees, pink and fragrant in spring, drooping with heavy yield in autumn. Since the area around my office is fairly small, I am, in truth getting different views of the same thing no matter which window I use. I have used the windows in my office as an example in therapy, suggesting to clients that we get to choose the lens through which we look at the world. Insistent voices urge particular views upon us, demanding that we see humanity as irredeemable, or the world as teetering on the cusp of annihilation. Each day brings a new barrage of urgent calls to look: look at your diet, look at your blood pressure, look at how old your car is, look at the weeds in your lawn, look, look, look… Of course, we choose where we look, and it goes without saying that we decide what we’re looking for. Some folks keep their eye on the mirror, others keep their eye on the Dow. Some look for advantage, others for position. Like many others, I keep looking for that which is true, enduring, noble, ideal and I’m anxious to find the windows that afford me the best views. Trinity Sunday has, in recent years, taken second place to the more marketable and less theologically challenging celebration of Pentecost. While the Church used to count its weeks for at least half a year as Sundays after Whitsun (it was the custom of folks to wear white on Trinity Sunday), we now mark the Sundays in the latter half of the year by their distance from the Sunday preceding Trinity Sunday. Most folks have come to believe that the concept of the Trinity is too difficult for moderns to manage intellectually, at least in it’s originally crafted form by the talking heads of the Nicene and Lateran Councils. Just trying to sort out the subtleties of hypostases, co-equality, and consubstantiality seems daunting in a world that has difficulty attending to anything more complex than a Twitter feed. As a result, most people give up and slough off pat explanations in the “I’m a mother, a daughter, and a sister” vein. While I do not claim any particular insight beyond that which has been attempted in the past by minds wiser than my own, I tend to focus my thinking in terms of windows. There are many windows that allow us a view of things worth seeing. The three facets of Trinitarian thinking are simply windows that make sense to me. I would not suggest for an instant that they are the only ways that ultimates can be seen; simply that they provide a clear view that I can comprehend. The first and most obvious is the nature of creation itself – the cosmos breathes truth and insight about that which is ultimate, and St. Paul insisted that simply to look at the window of the universe is to know something about the Divine. For many, the life, teaching and self-sacrifice of a first century Jew is another authentic window into that which is the highest and best of human existence. Moments of astonishing connectivity and empowerment within the context of relationships offer yet a third window with astonishing views. Theological shorthand labels them Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. Three windows, different views, same reality. It should be noted, though, that unlike the strivings or aspirations of some spiritually or religiously minded people, each of these windows share some things in common. First, they all take place in time. Each of these views of ultimacy are found within the confines of human experience. Second, they all are accessible though human perception – none of them demand the development of extra-sensory skills to be experienced. Third, all are earth-bound, or incarnational. While there may be other windows that provide a clearer view of cosmic ultimacy for aliens on other worlds that SETI keeps searching for,...

Stirred, but not shaken

The Third Sunday of Advent reminds me of my wife’s split pea soup (arguably the best split pea soup in the world). Thick, rich, and filled with little bits of ham, carrot, onion and other earth jewels as well as the split peas themselves, it both evokes and provides comfort and warmth. Because there is so much in it beyond the velvet-y broth, the ladle has to be plunged deep into the pot to access the best bits. Of all the collects of the Church’s year, this Sunday’s (3 Advent) is the most kinesthetic, at least in my mind. More than its plea for assistance (which almost all collects share), this prayer discusses not only desired result, but the agency through which that result can be achieved. Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen. God’s power, it asserts, like my wife’s split pea soup, is best stirred. The prayer creates a visual image for me, as though there were layers of power available to the Divine resembling layers of a summer frappe. The really strong stuff, it would seem, the most powerful stuff, is deep down. My imagination likens these levels of Divine power to cleaning agents: household soaps might be fine for ordinary kitchen grime, but industrial oil spills require much stronger solvents. The prayer posits a couple of difficult possibilities: first, that sin exists at all, second that if there is such a thing, its “sore hindrance” is not easily eradicated. Ours is a world that is increasingly free of sin. Admittedly, people still behave badly, but it is usually because they are dysfunctional or in need of medication or they haven’t actualized their true selves or they’re chakras are out of alignment, or…. The New Testament word for sin is hamartia. An archery term, it means aiming for a mark, but missing the target. There could be lots of reasons for missing the mark – poor aim, insufficient strength to draw the bow, faulty eyesight, warped or unbalanced arrows – but whatever the reason, the reality is that hamartia indicates a lack of alignment with the best path. That’s my best understanding of sin – being out of true with the Divine: God points one way, we look another. It may be willfulness or selfishness or ignorance that makes us focus elsewhere, but whatever the cause, it results in a loss of synchronicity with that which is true and real. I make no apologies for the fact that my perception of what is most true and real for me is embodied in the life of Jesus. I am also aware that my own actions are all too frequently out of synch with that perfect life.  The “target” analogy has limitations, though. One could be led to believe that toxic thoughts and actions just happen –something unintentional, a mistake, an unfortunate occurrence. I wish I could see my own sins that way, but at my worst, my deviation from true is an act of knowing will, a thought or behavior that feeds a hideously voracious intention. While I’d like to say that I was just misunderstood or maladjusted, I’m afraid that something much darker pulls me off center. I’ve found that the intensity of that darkness is something over which I have little control, and that I often need help to get me back on track: something strong, something greater than my own will. I take some comfort in the realization that I am in good company. “I do not understand my own actions,” writes Paul in his letter to the fledgling church at Rome. “I do not do the thing I want, but the very thing I hate.” I’m with you, Paul (at least on this one — I’d like to have word with you, tho, about your attitude toward women). While there may be others in the world who require no deliverance from themselves (remember Pogo?), I’m afraid I’m very much in need of the strongest, deepest agency that can be stirred up. Share this:Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to share on Google+ (Opens in new...

Good Evolves

Early in our marriage, my wife and I played host to a large number of folks from various nations in Africa. For some reason I never fully understood, Africans flocked to us in the same way that lint gravitates to Velcro. One of our guests, a Kenyan, once shared a piece of advice that seemed useless at the time of its offering. “When you are charged by a rhinoceros,” he said, “stand still! Don’t try to run away. Wait until the rhino is about five feet away, then take one step to the side. The rhino is so big that it can’t turn quickly and it decelerates slowly. By the time the rhino slows down enough to turn around, it will be a hundred yards away and you will have had ample opportunity to escape.” Well, uh…thanks, I guess. The current frantic response in the United States to the imperfect implementation of the Affordable Health Care Act is predictably characteristic of the impatience generated by age of the quick fix. The assumption by consumers is that all things presented to us should be immediately satisfying and efficacious. I suspect that we, no longer a nation of experimenters and tinkerers, have lost tolerance for the process of becoming. The Obama Administration, for all its faults, is redirecting a rhinoceros. I’m not surprised that it isn’t fast, it isn’t elegant, and it isn’t comfortable. Our response, may, however be indicative of another disquieting reality – good, like everything else, evolves. The outpouring of respect, admiration, and grief at Nelson Mandela’s death is surprising only in its stark contrast to attitudes that attended his life 50 years ago by the dominant culture in which he lived. While his commitment to ideals and values may have been admired by those outside his country (and, likely, many inside), it took half a century for South Africa to grow into Nelson Mandela. It certainly wasn’t an international first – it took the United States more than a hundred years to grow into distaste for slavery and we’re still working on growing into a universal attitude of tolerance and acceptance for those among us who don’t emulate the look or tastes of the dominant culture. The Second Sunday of Advent focuses on the quirky life and message of a crazy man. John the Baptist, embraced by his followers as the fulfillment of Israel’s messianic hope, was a first class whacko by any standards. He set himself apart from his dominant culture not only in value and ideals, but as well in dress and diet, if the gospel accounts are to be believed. His message was abrasive, confrontational, offensive – There’s something fundamentally wrong with you. You’ve got to change. Certainly not a song that’s destined to top the charts. And yet, from my perspective, it’s a lesson that doesn’t stand as a time- or culture-specific taunt, but one that we need to grow into age by age. It’s certainly a challenge that we need to hear again in a nation shaped by its addiction to comfort and consumption. And while the hearing may be hard and the response may be slow, we still have the power to grow into the good that awaits embrace. Share this:Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to share on Google+ (Opens in new...

Getting Ready

Sunday sees the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the church’s year. The first paper door of many an Advent calendar will be opened, the first of four candles will be lit, decorations removed from tissue paper and hung, drab winter will sparkle once more. Folks will get ready — either by steeling themselves for the onslaught of holiday insanity or making space for the arrival of something ancient, something yet new. The lections for the day speak of preparedness: Isaiah looking to the day when God will not only certain the sovereignty of Israel and institute justice, but will instruct the nations in righteousness — that is, in how to have a correct relationship with the Divine. In days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths. (Isaiah 2:1-3) The Gospel lesson, however, extends a more sobering tone, an almost ominous warning not of unification and centrality, but of division and separation: Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.  (Matthew 36:41-44) While others might see in this passage a foretelling of some unseen day when the observant will be taken to a place of either protection or reward, I see something quite different: a simple reinforcement of a near daily experience. As fortune favors the prepared, so the ready heart — waiting expectantly — will be the first to see that which others, attention focused elsewhere, will miss. One will see it, a companion may not. One of my favorite movie lines appeared in an unlikely bit of Christmas fluff. Judy the Elf, speaking to an incredulous Scott Calvin says, “Most people have it wrong — seeing isn’t believing; believing is seeing.” And believing, I look and yet am still surprised when I see. The Son of Man comes at the most unexpected times in remarkable places, but frequently to the one who has readied the fertile heart. Share this:Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to share on Google+ (Opens in new...