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.

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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!

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/.

No Entrance Exam

Several months ago, I had a conversation with a college student that left me distressed.  As a professor at a small Christian university, I have the privilege of talking to students about all kinds of things, including spirituality and religion. On this particular day, a student had made an appointment with me to discuss changing his major to religion.  The conversation, however, turned to much more important questions than what Sean should major in.  As we talked, Sean opened up to me about some deep concerns.  He had grown up in an evangelical Christian home.  His parents were very involved in a church.  Sean had gone through a period of doubting and rebellion, but in high school he got involved in a Bible study group that helped him reaffirm his Christian faith.  I could tell, though, that his time in college continued to be a time of questioning his faith.

Sean told me that he had become friends with another student who called herself a Christian, but who was a member of a church that many evangelical Christians would say is outside of the boundaries of historical Christian faith. I could tell that out of his conversations with his friend, Sean had developed a deep respect for her conviction and faith.  But it raised a question that was deeply troubling for him:  “What if she is right in what she believes and I am wrong?  Will I go to hell?  Lots of groups of Christians who claim to believe and teach the truth about God.  They don’t agree,”Sean worried aloud  to me. “What if my beliefs are the wrong ones?  What if I do not believe what I need to believe to get into heaven?”

I have thought about that conversation with Sean a number of times since.  In ruminating about it, I was reminded of a day, many years ago when I was visiting an independent Bible church.  I was reading their statement of beliefs.  I don’t remember the exact words, but I am pretty sure it said something like, “We believe that a person can (only?) be saved by believing in the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ for his sins.”  (I am pretty sure it didn’t say ‘his or her sins,’ but I suppose that is what they meant.  That statement struck me as wrong at the time, and it strikes me as wrong today.  The implication is that no one can be saved if he or she does not hold the correct doctrinal belief about Christ’s death.  Salvation, in short, depends on having the correct theology.  I would argue that this is unbiblical.  What is wrong about the statement is not the doctrinal theory of salvation that is referred to, although we could discuss that.  What is wrong about it is that it claims that one is saved by believing a particular doctrine, a particular formulation of Christian truth.  I can’t think of any passage in the Bible that suggests that heaven has an entrance exam in theology.  I know some, perhaps many, Christians will get upset when I say this, but I do not believe that anyone is saved by believing a particular doctrine or kept from being saved because they didn’t quite get their doctrinal beliefs in line.

Again, I remember many years ago reading an illustration of the nature of faith.  It went something like this: Imagine that you have fallen off a cliff and are hanging on for dear life to a shrub growing on the side of the rock.  A voice comes from below. “Let go of the branch.  I am on a ledge right below you.  I will catch you and keep you from falling.”  You hear a real voice.  You are not just imagining it or hoping there is someone there.  You can trust the voice and let go or keep holding on.  Trusting the voice takes faith.  Faith is not just hoping there is someone below and letting go.  It is responding to a real voice, trusting the person that is uttering the words of salvation. That’s something like what I remember about the illustration.  But take the illustration a bit further.  Just what does it mean to trust?  Does it mean having the right beliefs about who the person is? Not at all!  Faith is hearing a voice offering help and allowing the source of the voice to help you.  Imagine that I am the one holding on for dear life and it is my best friend who is calling out to me, but the wind is obscuring my friend’s voice and in my state of mind I don’t recognize the voice.  Imagine that I think it is a fireman or an emergency rescue person who has come to save me.  Nevertheless, I hear the voice and am confident that the person who is speaking with me is ready and able to rescue me.  So I let go.  What is my friend going to do when it becomes clear that I didn’t know it was her?  Let me go?  Push me off the ledge and send me to my doom?  Of course not.  Surely we will hug and laugh and rejoice that even though I was confused and mistaken, I put my life in her hands and she saved me!  And we’ll go back to our friends and family and party together because I am okay.

I didn’t have a very good answer for Sean as he sat in my office and shared his concerns.  I hope that the fact that I listened to his worries was a help in itself.  When students ask me questions or make comments, it is usually later on that I think of a response.  To be honest, that’s probably fine, because it’s the answers we find for ourselves that really help us answer our questions.  But I will say that Sean helped me think about my own faith, as students often do when they raise questions about such matters.  And the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that the God I believe in, the God I see in the Bible, the God who sent Jesus Christ into the world to save sinners, is not a God who gives an entry exam at the gates of heaven.  Jesus did say, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the father but by me.”  Just as there are some Christians who get upset when I say there is no entry exam for heaven, there will be others (both Christians and non-Christians) who will get upset when I suggest its true that Jesus is the only way to the Father.  But what Jesus didn’t say is also important.  He said, “no one comes to the Father but by me.”  He didn’t go on, “and if you don’t quite get my name right, if you get confused about who I am, I’m going to let you go.”  No, the God of Jesus Christ is a God of grace.  The voice of God is calling out to all of us on this planet.  There is a lot of yelling going on in our world that makes it very hard to hear the voice.  Maybe we should quit yelling so people can hear God’s voice more clearly.  There’s a lot of suffering and pain that make it very hard to think straight.  Maybe if we can relieve some of the pain of others, they will hear God’s voice to them.  There’s a lot of just plain selfishness that causes us to hear the voice say what we want to hear rather than what God wants us to hear.  Certainly, we can be more open to learning from others, realizing that we might just have it wrong sometimes. In the meantime, is God going to let us drop if we don’t quite get it right?  I really don’t think so. The God of Jesus is a God of grace who is waiting, longing to catch us.  The New Testament claims that this God became a human being, suffered the most horrendous death to make it possible for us to come back to him.  A God who loves us that much is not going to let anyone who trusts the divine voice slip from the ledge, no matter how confused.  And one last thing: it says in the Bible that whenever Jesus catches one of us who would otherwise fall on down to death, there is laughter and partying in heaven.

I truly hope Sean will come to understand that God will not push him into hell just because he doesn’t quite believe the right things.  I pray that Sean will grow to see the incredible love of the God who will hold him in grace and continue to believe in him,  even when Sean is not quite sure what he believes himself.