Signs of Grace

This morning, on my walk to work, a cool Spring breeze was blowing on my face.  Bird songs filled the air.  All of a sudden loud chirp dominated the music, like the voice of a soloist rising above the softer voices of the choir.  I looked up above me and saw a cardinal, all dressed up in the red mating feathers of Spring, not more than six or seven feet above my head.  I stopped and looked straight up at the bird, bright red against the light green buds of the tree.  Something changed in my heart.  As I walked on, the words and tune of an old hymn played in my mind.

This is my Father’s world,
And to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings
The music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world:
I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas–
His hand the wonders wrought.

This is my Father’s world:
The birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white,
Declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world:
He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass,
He speaks to me everywhere.

This is my Father’s world:
O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the Ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world:
Why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King: let the heavens ring!
God reigns; let earth be glad!

(Maltbie D. Babcock, 1901)

Humming the tune in my mind, I walked down Grace Street toward my office.  I saw a rabbit, some ten feet from the sidewalk, sitting warily as I passed.  The cardinal, the rabbit, are signs of grace.  And this old song was for me a wonderful expression of my response to that grace.

I know that for some the image of God as Father is extremely problematic.  And for that reason it makes it hard for them to sing this hymn.  Too often Christians have used the image of God as Father to reinforce patriarchal domination.  We in the church, calling God “Father,” have assumed that God is a man, using this assumption to imply that men should rule over women, that men are stronger than women, that men are superior in all sorts of ways to women. This is all nonsense.  God is not male and female.  God transcends our gender divisions.  And as Christians, we should be working for justice, not reinforcing structures of oppression.  Unfortunately, patriarchal Christianity pollutes the metaphor of God as father, making it hard to appreciate old hymns like the one that came into my mind this morning.

But there is something deeply true in its words.   If we are open to the music sung by the natural world in which we live, we can be lifted into the arms of the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.”  This “One” is beyond our limited concepts of human relations, not in some impersonal way, but in a “trans-personal” way.  And when “the wrong seems oft so strong,” this hymn points us to One who is, in a way that transcends even this metaphor, our loving parent.

Too often, Christianity has told us to look away from the world in which we live.  This hymn reminds us that the world around us God’s creation.  It sings of God’s creative love and power.  Islam teaches that the everything in the world, including plants and animals, are muslim.  That is, they submit to God.  And for that reason, they are signs of God for those who would but understand them.  This is a teaching that Christians, like me, could benefit from listening to.  After all, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it”(Psalm 24:1), and “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 10:1).  There are songs being sung, signs on display, that point to our God.

I am deeply disturbed by the wrong I see all around me, and I have reflected on it in recent posts.  But this morning, I stop to thank and praise God for the signs of grace I encounter as I walk down the sidewalk, for the songs of love that I hear, for the birds, the squirrels, the rabbit, the breeze.  My brothers and sisters in God’s family.  Praise be to God, the one to whom we all submit.

Easter Darkness

A few weeks ago, we celebrated Easter.  But in the Christian church the season of Easter continues for fifty days, until the church celebrates Pentecost.  So we are still in the season of Easter.  A time of celebration of life.  A time of joy!  A time to come together with friends and family.  But in a previous post, I mentioned that I have been thinking a lot recently about darkness, the darkness of doubt and depression.  Like all holidays, for those who struggle with depression or doubt, Easter can be a time of struggle as well as joy.  Like a cloud, depression sheds its dark shadow on even this most holy of days.  As I reflect upon the season of Easter, I grasp onto the hope if offers.  But, if I am honest, for me even Easter is a time of questioning and doubt.  “In raising Jesus from the death, God won the victory over death.” That’s the message. But do I really believe it? Can I really believe it?  As I travel through life, time seems to move quickly toward my own death?  More importantly, death is alive and well in the world.A recent bombing in Brussels, making front page news around the world, left more than 30 people dead and over 100 injured.  This is indeed horrible.  But consider the even more horrendous things that happen in our world every day.  The New York Times reports that in four and a half years of civil war in Syria, more than 200,000 people have been killed.  If I do the math, I discover that this conflict, which is far from over, has taken the lives of 120 people every day!  Most of these people, I am willing to guess, were innocent people who simply wanted to live in peace.  And now they’re dead.   Closer to home, there were over 500 homicides in Chicago in 2015.  That is more each month than were killed in the Brussels attack.

Even the Earth as a whole seems headed toward death.  Overwhelming evidence points to the fact that the climate of the earth is changing radically, and that much of the change is caused by human actions.  But as most other American’s, I continue to live my life as if I can go on living the way I do.  And in fact, in the short time that I have left to live, climate change may not impact my own life much at all.  But in other parts of the world, poorer parts of the world, people are already suffering and dying from the impact changing weather patterns.  Individual animals and whole species are dying.  Even human communities are dying as they anticipate rising sea levels that will destroy their homes.  And in the future, changes promise to bring suffering, and even death, closer to home.

So what can I make of the Easter message?  “Jesus is risen!” “He is reason, indeed!”  Indeed?  Really?  If Jesus won the victory over death, why is there so much of it troubling our world?  As I sit in the pew, or reflect in front of my computer, the skeptic in me raises questions.  Did Jesus really rise?  Does God really care about this world?  Has death, in fact, lost its sting?  Yes, Easter can be a day of darkness as well as light.

Barbara Brown Taylor, in her wonderful book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, reflects upon her experience in a cave with two friends.  These experienced cavers acted as her guides, but allowed her to experience the total darkness one encounters deep in a cave.  Afterwards, as she reflected on her experience, Taylor reminds us that historians tell us that the stable in which Jesus was born was probably a cave.  And it was in a cave that God raised Jesus from the dead.  Taylor writres, “As many years as I have been listening to Easter sermons, I have never heard anyone talk about that part.  Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light.  But it did not happen that way.  If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air.  Sitting deep in the heart of Organ Cave, I let this sink in:  new life starts in the dark.  Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.”

We live in dark times.  It is not difficult for some of us to feel discouraged and depressed, to doubt whether God cares for us, whether God cares for the world at all.  Life seems very dark indeed.  But perhaps there is an Easter message for those in darkness as well.  With Barbara Brown Taylor, let us let it sink in:  perhaps this, this darkness, is where new life, where hope begins.  Perhaps God is at work, even in the darkness.  Maybe there are wonders that only those who have grown accustomed to the darkness can see.  May God enable all of us to trust that love is at work, in our minds, in our hearts, in our families, in our world, even when it feels dark and cold.

Hallelujah!  Jesus is risen!

I Doubt It!

When I was in college, I had a friend with whom I would share my doubts.  We were both members of an evangelical campus group, but we also had skeptical minds.  My skepticism emerged particularly when I read the works of Christian apologists claiming to demonstrate the rationality of Christian faith.  While some of my friends were encouraged by such arguments, my reaction tended to be “I doubt it.”  It wasn’t that I wasn’t a Christian.  It was just that I didn’t find the arguments convincing.  My Christian friends accepted the arguments, it seemed to me, because they reinforced their beliefs, not because the arguments were good arguments.  And so, when Brian and I would sit and talk together, I’d suggest that someday I’d write a book called, “I doubt it,” critiquing the ideas and arguments of Christian apologists.

It’s been over 30 years since my college days, and I haven’t written that book.  But I’ve done a lot of thinking about doubt. and the discouragement and depression that can sometimes come with it.  Through those years, God hasn’t let me go.  I’m still a Christian, and I’m still a skeptic.  My inner life doesn’t tend to be very peaceful.  My mind raises lots of questions, especially about God, about the kinds of things that happen in the world, about the church, about all sorts of things that make me wonder about my faith.  For good or for bad, my mind usually doesn’t come up with answers.  Just troubling questions.  In various ways, things that Christians say or do or believe don’t seem to make sense, or are just plain wrong.  Things in the world don’t seem to suggest that God is in control, or that God even cares.  Christians have used the Bible to support slavery, war, racism, violence against women and children, and all sorts of evil things.  Sometimes churches seem to do more to support structures of evil than to promote justice and peace, shalom.  All kinds of things make me skeptical of this faith I call my own.  Can I really believe this?  Do I really want to identify myself with that?

In short, I’ve been thinking about darkness, doubt, and skepticism for a long time.  I’ve read books about the nature of skepticism and how to overcome it.  I’ve read apologists and Christian philosophers.  Sometimes, I’ve wondered if sin is the problem.  If I could just overcome my favorite sins, I’d no longer doubt.  Recently, I’ve been reading several books on living with experiential darkness, doubt and depression.  And I think I’ve found some insights.  One particularly helpful idea came to me from Addison Hodges Hart’s little book, Knowing Darkness: On Skepticism, Melancholy, Friendship and God.  Hart suggests that skepticism is not the opposite of faith, that it need not be viewed as the enemy of faith.  Skepticism helps one remember the limitations of human reason and knowledge.  It challenges one not to settle for easy answers.  It holds out for truth.  “Skepticism,” he writes, “within the context of Christian faith is, I believe, a good thing. . . . It is a faith open to questioning God, examining his ways, complaining to him, and even expressing exasperation at his silence.  It is a faith that admits sorrow and sadness and mental darkness, one that places melancholy before God in a place of legitimacy, as well as a sense of humor. . . . this is the kind of faith we find in the Bible itself” (page 23). What these words have helped me see is that skepticism is part of my faith, not opposed to it.  Perhaps I am a person for whom faith without doubt is impossible. Doubting (what Hart prefers to call skepticism) is an aspect of “how I do faith.”

And I don’t believe this is because of my sin.  Yes, I am a sinner.  I am well aware of that.  But doubt is not a punishment for sin, nor it is just the natural outcome of sin.  Certainty is not a reward I can expect once I get my life totally together.  No, skepticism is a gift from God, a gift that can be used in many ways, to build up the body of Christ, to help discover truth, and to understand and love others.  Skepticism reminds us that our limited ideas and concepts are never adequate to understand the God they point to.  And while I sometimes find myself in the dark, whether intellectually or emotionally, I am coming to believe that God is still there, walking with me whether I am aware of the divine presence or not.  “Though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”  Sometimes my mind yells out to God, “I doubt it;”  sometimes my heart protests, “Where are you?  I feel so cold!”  Even in those times, I will look up at the street sign and remind myself, whether I feel it or not, that I am walking on Grace Street!

Drawing Circles Around God

Why is it that, as Christians, we like to draw circles around God? When I was a senior in high school, I had a fairly typical evangelical experience with God. I started thinking of my relationship with God in personal terms, as one of friendship. I got involved in a high school-age Bible study group and then, when I went to college, in an evangelical fellowship group. It was a great time of spiritual growth. My Christian friends and I felt God’s presence in our lives in ways that we hadn’t in the traditional church, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant. While the churches were filled with “nominal Christians,” we were “real Christians.” If someone had asked us if we were “born again,” we would have known exactly what they meant and said, “Yes.” To be born again set us apart from others who went to church and did religious things, but weren’t really Christians.

Several years later my wife and I were working for an evangelical campus ministry organization. Our task was to guide Christian student leaders in fellowship groups on various campuses. I remember discussing the religious faith of faculty members, basically asking, “Is he/she a real Christian?” At one small liberal arts college, for example, there was a professor in the Religion Department who had taught at an evangelical Christian college. He left his previous position (perhaps he had been forced to leave) due to doctrinal differences. He was a universalist. He didn’t believe God would send anyone to hell. He could talk the evangelical lingo better than anyone else on campus, but was he a real Christian? Similarly, I remember thinking about a Roman Catholic sister who encouraged a group on one of the Catholic campuses where we had contacts. Was she a real Christian?

I see it in my life even now, too. I am excited by new ministries and experimental ongregations doing new things, or ancient things in new ways, to interface with today’s culture, reaching people with the story of Jesus. It is so easy to say, “Look! See the Spirit at work! That is where God is, not in dying denominational churches.” But as an elder in my denomination, I sit on a committee that shares the struggles of small, rural congregations. Yes, they are struggling. They are losing the younger people in their communities, sometimes to “more evangelical” or more “contemporary” churches, sometimes to secular culture. They struggle to balance the budget and overcome personality conflicts. Sometimes it is hard for them to simply keep the doors open. But I have also come to see that a small, “dying” congregation is made up of brothers and sisters in Christ, who have been faithful through the years, being salt and light in their towns and villages. They are sinners like us all, susceptible to power fights and personality conflicts. But they are often prayer warriors, praying for God’s work around the world. They give faithfully to offerings to provide help to the poor. They send men and women, money and supplies, to help in times of disaster. They work for good in their villages and towns. But, finding it difficult to accept the rapid changes in our world, they fear that the church is dying. So, they, too, are sometimes guilty of drawing a circle around God. “How can you worship God when the worship service becomes more like a concert?” they ask. “How can those young folks with tattoos and piercings be Christians?” “How can you get to know your pastor when you watch the sermons on a big screen?” Quite simply, they have a hard time seeing God at work “over there.”

There are many ways of drawing circles: traditional denominations divisions, doctrinal disputes, different tastes in worship style, political differences, differences about what kind of lifestyle is acceptable for Christians to live. It is so easy to say, “This is the way the church ought to be. This is what it means to be a real Christian. We are right. They are wrong. God is at work here. Not over there.”

Why are we so tempted to draw lines between those we believe are ”in” and those we believe are “out.” I think it has to do with our own sin, our own need to assure ourselves that God is at work where we are. Confronted with others ways, we want to justify our own. But Jesus challenges us to change our way of thinking, to change our way of acting, in the face of otherness. One day, an expert of the law asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded with a question of his own, “What is written in the Law? What is your interpretation?” The lawyer knew his stuff. He reached into the Law and quoted the two commandments that Jesus himself is said to have identified as central: We are to love God with everything we have, and love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus commended the lawyer for his answer. But then, Luke says, the lawyer wanted “to justify himself,” and went on to ask, “And who is my neighbor?” In short, where can I draw the line? Who do I have to love? Jesus answered with the parable of the Good Samaritan.

You probably know the story. But think again about what Jesus did. The lawyer wanted Jesus to draw a circle. He wanted Jesus to say, these are your neighbors, these are the one’s you are to love. Instead, Jesus obliterated the circle. Jesus told a story about a man who was clearly outside of the lawyer’s circle. Samaritans, after all, were racially mixed (not pure Jews!), believed the wrong things, practiced the wrong rituals, and worshiped in the wrong place. They were clearly unacceptable to God, or so thought the Jews. How could they be his neighbors? But Jesus told a story about a Samaritan man who reached from outside the circle to meet the needs of a man (probably a Jew) inside the circle. Two devout Jews on the other hand passed by. Which of the characters showed love? Which character did Jesus suggest would “inherit eternal life”? Not the devout Jews! Then, get this, Jesus says “Go and do likewise!” Go be like a Samaritan!! Love beyond the circle. Love all those God brings into your lives, especially those in need. Jesus refused to draw a circle to limit God’s love, and ours. Instead he tells us to go outside “the circle” with love. That’s what characterized his life, too. Jesus hung out with those “outside the circle.”

So why is it that we work so hard to draw a circle, to define who is in and who is out? Like the expert in the law, we draw circles around God to justify ourselves. We find security in believing that we are acting the right way, believing the right things, doing church the way God wants. But it’s false security. Real justification comes from Christ. And Jesus calls us to reach beyond our comfort zone, ignoring our various circles, and seeing God at work in all kinds of ways. I sometimes hear it suggested that the church is dying. God’s church is not dying. It is alive and well, as always , wherever two or three (sinful people) are gathered in the name of Christ. God is at work in small, struggling churches. God is at work in mega-churches we hear about on the news. God is at work outside the church as well. God is at work among people that we Christians draw circles to keep out. May God forgive us and open our eyes to see.

Slowing Down to Walk with Jesus

In my previous post I quoted from Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church.  This week I’ve been reading her more recent book, An Alter in the World.  It’s a great book.  I encourage you to read it.   If you are like me, Taylor will speak not just to your mind, but to your longing for something more.  Taylor discusses practices that help us discover God in the world.  She starts with these:  Waking up to God.  Paying attention. Wearing skin.  Walking the earth.  Apart from the first, these don’t sound like spiritual practices, do they?  But they are.  Taylor helps me see that simply paying reverent attention to the world in which I live, I encounter mystery. I begin to wake up to God right here, “in this place.”  Taylor encourages me to “take off my shoes,” both figuratively and literally, and feel the holy earth on which I live.  In short, Taylor reminds me of the presence of the divine in everyday life, if only I will open my eyes and pay attention!!

Taylor’s chapter on “The Practice of Walking the Earth,” got me thinking about walking.  Real walking, she makes clear, means paying attention, slowing down, feeling and listening to where we are.   We rush about, focusing on where we are coming from and where we are going to, seldom paying attention to the in between, where we are right now.  But Jesus walked—a lot.  I can remember musing about why Jesus lived when he did.  If Jesus is really God incarnate, God could have arranged this incredible incarnation to occur at any time.  Why would God appear in an age before the technology to get around, and the media to spread the word?  In the day of the internet, social networking and tweets, Jesus’ message could have “gone viral.”  Virtually, the whole world would know about Jesus in just one day!!  Much more efficient.

Jesus, however, lived in a time of walking.  Taylor writes,

“The four gospels are peppered with accounts of him walking into the countryside, walking by the Sea of Galilee, walking in the Temple, and even walking on water.  If Jesus had driven a car instead, it is difficult to imagine how that might have changed his impact.  Surely someone could have loaned him a fast horse.  Instead he walked everywhere he went, except for a short stint on a donkey at the end.  This gave him time to see things, like the milky eyes of the beggar sitting by the side of the road, or the round black eyes of sparrows sitting in their cages at the market.  If he had been moving more quickly—even to reach more people—these things might become a blur to him.  Because he was moving slowly, they came into focus for him, just as he came into focus for them.”

Maybe there is a reason why Jesus lived in a time of walking.  We need to start walking, too.  The world is full of sacraments, visible signs of God’s grace.  But to us they are a blur.  Taylor reminds us to slow down.  Following Jesus means taking the time to walk, both literally and figuratively, letting the things around us come into focus.  As we do, I believe we’ll see God’s grace, how incredible it is that God has placed us in bodies to walk this wonderful earth.  Our eyes will also be opened to the needs of those around us, and ways that God can use us here and now to help meet those needs.

Taylor observes a child, walking along with her parents.  “The child has only recently learned how to walk, so she still knows how.  She feels the heat radiating up from the sidewalk.  She hears the tapping of her shoes on the cement.  She sees the dime someone has dropped on the crosswalk, which she leans toward before being yanked up again.  The child is so exposed to the earth that even an acorn underfoot would topple her. . . . ”

May God help us learn to walk like children.

For more information on Barbara Brown Taylor, see http://www.barbarabrowntaylor.com/.

 

Faith Explorers Welcome

Recently, I was talking to my friend Jennifer.  Among other things, we started talking about religion.  Jennifer grew up in one Christian tradition and is married to a man who grew up in another.   A few years ago, they started a family, and like many couples, decided to get more serious about church.  Jennifer grew up Roman Catholic and her husband grew up Protestant, so they’ve found a local Episcopal congregation in which they feel comfortable.  I’m not sure how we got onto it, our conversation wandered to our beliefs, and questions, about God.  As long as I’ve known her, Jennifer has displayed an inquiring, questioning mind.  She thinks deeply about things.  The domain of religion and spirituality is no exception.  When it comes to God, she has lots of questions.  So, in the course of our conversation, she asked me an interesting questions:  “Is it right for a person who is not sure what she believes about God, or even who is pretty sure she does not accept a standard Christian view of God, to say the creeds during worship?”  A very interesting question.

Jennifer’s question took my mind back to a chapter in Barbara Brown Taylor’s wonderful memoir, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith.  In chapter 14, Taylor recalls her experiences in the months following her decision to leave the parish ministry and become a professor of religion.  For her entire life to that point she had lived and breathed in the world of church.  As she stepped into her new life, she discovered a different side of reality, a side she not paid attention to before.  She also began to explore her beliefs more honestly.  Suddenly, things she had preached about and taught became objects of questioning and sometimes doubt.  “Freed from defending the faith,” she writes, “I began to revisit what faith really meant to me and found that much of the old center did not hold.”  Her view of faith changed.  “I had arrived at an understanding of faith that had far more to do with trust than with certainty.  I trusted God to be God, even if I could not say who God was for sure.”

Taylor found herself wandering off her “old spiritual map.”  But in the process she discovered something else.  She discovered “people at the edge” of “the spiritual landscape.”  I love the way she describes these pioneers.  She writes,

“ . . . All we had to do was step outside the Church and walk to where the lights of the sanctuary did not pierce the darkness anymore.  All we had to do was lay down the books we could no longer read and listen to the howling that our favorite hymns no longer covered up.  There were no slate roofs or signs to the restrooms out there, no printed programs or friendly ushers.  There was just the unscripted encounter with the undomesticated God whose name was unpronounceable – that, and a bunch of flimsy tents lit up by lanterns inside, pitched by those who were either seeking such an encounter or huddling in their sleeping bags while they recovered from one.  These people at the edge kept the map from becoming redundant.”

Taylor’s words express my own wandering and wondering thoughts as a Christian.  Sometimes publicly, but sometimes just in my mind and heart, I wonder whether I can accept all of the doctrines and formulations of the church.  Sometimes I feel like one who is exploring the edges; sometimes I feel like one who is just plain lost.  Taylor’s honesty about her own exploration frees me and affirms me.  “According to the Bible,” she writes, “both the center and the edge are essential to the spiritual landscape. . . “  And a few pages later, “If my time in the wilderness taught me anything, it is that faith in God has both a center and an edge and that each is necessary for the soul’s health.”

I don’t know whether I helped Jennifer answer her question.  I suggested that when the congregation recites the creed, it is affirming the faith of the gathered church as a whole.  It is not so much a claim by each individual that he or she holds unwaveringly to the dogma of the creed, as an opportunity for God’s people as a community to affirm the “center” of their faith, the story that forms them as a community.   And so I encouraged her, as a part of the body of Christ, to recite the creeds with all of us, some of us at the center and others at the edge, in whom and through whom the Spirit is at work.  As Barbara Brown Taylor would remind us, the church needs the center, but it needs the edge as well.   In today’s world, I am convinced that the need to be open to the edges, to the explorers, is desperate.  It is as we welcome those at the edge that the church will survive into the future.

Leaving Church is a great book.  If you find yourself exploring, read it.  Since writing Leaving Church, Taylor has also published An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. Although I have not read it yet, Taylor’s brand new title, Learning to Walk in the Dark has got to be good.  What a perfect title for explorers.  Check out the Barbara Brown Taylor website at: http://www.barbarabrowntaylor.com/.