Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - A Never-Ending Path

This article marks a full-year that I have been writing on the topic of the path of discipleship.  It seems like a fitting time to move on to another project, not that 52 weeks tells the whole story of being a disciple.  Volumes of book have been written on this topic and many more volumes are to come.  This is not because there are brand new ideas.  Often what strikes someone as new and exciting is a variation on something that is ancient.  As the author of Ecclesiastes writes, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

                My hope in writing this series has been that you, as the reader, will take the next step, trying these practices and seeking to grow in the virtues.  There is never moment where we can say, “Now, I’ve got it.  Now, I understand.”  Discipleship is a continuous path.  It is the way that, as Christians, we deal with what happens in life. 

                Moreover, our God chooses to be elusive, larger than we can comprehend and always a bit out of reach.  When we think we understand the depths of who God is, it turns out that God is much deeper.  Martin Luther spoke of the masks of God.  When we think we have identified who God really is, it turns out to be only a mask, often of our own creation.  As Saint Augustine wrote, “If you think you understand it, it is not God you are talking about.”

                This idea brings me back to beginning, that virtue of awe and wonder at the nature of God.  As I write this, we are once again approaching Christmas, that festival where we consider what it means to have a God who became as one of us in Jesus, the mystery of the fully human and fully divine one.  Declaring Jesus to be fully human and fully divine sounds definitive and yet, if this idea is taken seriously, it will not take long to realize it makes no sense.  Yet this is who we proclaim Jesus to be.  It is why Christmas matters; why Good Friday matters; why Easter matters.

                I can give you no better advice than to sit with that mystery.  You might poke and pull at it like some Gordian knot.  You might walk away from it in frustration.  I would advise you to treat the mystery like walking into a modern art piece.  You know it means something but that something eludes you, so you walk around it and take it in, appreciating the pieces that you can understanding and wondering at the moments that you can’t.  Meditate on it and let it stir up that feeling of awe and wonder that comes with encountering the holy.

                Then let me close with a final note of good news.  It is all right that we do not understand everything about God and Jesus because, from the midst of mystery, God has made us a promise.  We are loved, not because we are great or wise or perfectly good.  We are loved because God is love itself.  This cannot be taken away and our lack of understanding, our failure to be perfect disciples, or our periodic self-centeredness, cannot remove it.  You are loved because God is love.  This reality sets you free to follow the path of discipleship imperfectly but joyfully.  Keep walking, my friends.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - On Reading the Bible

For many people, the Bible is a difficult book to approach.  They are afraid that they are not up to task.  After all, clergy, including me, may make references to the ancient Greek and Hebrew languages or life in ancient Israel.  We may suggest ideas like you cannot really understand the Genesis creation text without knowledge of the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation story; you cannot fully understand Paul without some knowledge of Platonic thought.  People may well walk away with the sense that this text will be too involved.  It is great that there are some professional people here to study and explain the text because I will never have the time.

                This is one of the dangers of critical study of the Bible.  In the effort to read the Bible in its context in history, it becomes easy to forget that the scriptures are words of faith.  In the effort to acknowledge the very human part of authorship, it is easy to forget the divine inspiration behind the words.
                Here are some thoughts on biblical reading and practice. 

1.        You will not understand everything, and that is okay.  I don’t understand everything even with some Greek and Hebrew in my pocket.  Not understanding is an opportunity to learn, to deepen and to grow.  Not understanding is an acknowledgement of the mystery in, with and under the text. 

2.       You will not like everything you read, and that is okay.  The Bible provides multiple answers to the questions we ask of it.  The relationship to our neighbor described in the Parable of the Good Samaritan is quite different than Israel’s relationship to its neighbors in Joshua.  Our relationship to God can be one of love, respect, fear, loyalty or passionate longing (take a look at Song of Songs).  Faith is a gift.  Faith is a choice.  Faith is a task.  You’ve probably grown up in a tradition that said only one of those is right, yet all can be found in the text.

3.       The Bible is boring.  Some of it is.  The book of Exodus starts out with the exciting Sunday school stories of escaping Egypt and crossing the Red Sea.  Eventually it settles into God giving a long description of how the holy tabernacle should be made and then a long description of Israel making the tabernacle to God’s specifications.  Some of it is boring, but it can become interesting to wonder why rambling genealogies were not edited out; why the cattle counts of Numbers deserve to be holy scripture.  Some of it is boring, but all of it is important.

4.       The Bible is not boring.  Most of it isn’t.  You are going to find parts that are exciting, enchanting, inspiring, challenging and troubling.  Pay attention to those reactions.  They can be a sign of God’s Word speaking through the words.

According to the Confessions of St. Augustine, the ancient bishop was converted while sitting in a garden.  From a neighboring home he heard a child chanting, “Take up and read,” over and over again.  He saw this as sign, found a volume of Paul’s letters and was inspired by the text of the book of Romans.  So let me offer you the same admonition and pray you also find inspiration in the Bible.  Take up and read!

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally

The author William Faulkner once said, “Facts and truth really don’t have much to do with each other.”  His comment reminds us that, while our favorite stories might be based on actual events, they are often manipulated in retrospect with moments added or omitted to deepen the meaning or the moral.  Some stories of the Bible are like this.  Archeological evidence, things like pottery samples and settlement studies, suggests that the great exodus from Egypt to the promised land of Israel may have more of a trickle over years than a massive wave.  While there may have been historical kings like David and Solomon, there is little evidence that they were as powerful as the Bible suggests.  Even the book of Acts, with its stories of people falling dead at the feet of the disciples feels exaggerated for effect.  And yet there is a truth behind and within these stories, a reflection about hope for who God is and how God has made us. 

                One of the biggest barriers to faith I have encountered is the assumption that to be a Christian one must take the Bible to be 100% historically accurate, despite evidence to the contrary.  A college professor of mine who was not a big fan of religion spoke of the need for Christians to “check their brains at the church door.”  This was frustrating because I grew up with a faith that welcomed questions and encouraged exploration.  Later, in seminary, I was trained to seek the deeper truths behind the text, no longer asking, “Did this happen?” but the more ancient question, “What does this mean?”

                In Lutheran circles, especially more conservative Lutheran circles, this attitude will be argued against by noting that Martin Luther was a literalist.  While this statement does not tell the whole story of Luther’s relationship with the Bible, it is true that Luther treated the text as historical fact, that the events happened as the Bible testifies.

                However, there are two kinds of literalism, sometimes divided into cultural literalism and intentional literalism.  Cultural literalism existed for the first sixteen centuries or so of the church.  In that time, although there might be a few who raised questions, there was very little evidence in conflict with the biblical world view.  The earth was flat.  The sun traveled across the sky.  There could well have been a flood of water that covered the entirety of the earth.  Humanity may well have started with two people in a sacred garden.  There was also no concept of genetics; most people assumed that everything needed for the next generations was found in the male “seed.”  There was no concept of geology; the possibility that the world might be millions of years old instead of a few thousand.  There was a small sense of astronomy, but no one had ever seen the Earth from outer space or flown through the sky where the curvature of the planet becomes clear.

                But even as the Reformation was spreading across Europe, Nicholas Copernicus was writing On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, a book that would challenge the earth-centered view of the universe, calling into question one of the basic assumptions of the biblical creation stories.  Within a few centuries, as the influence of the scientific method increased, even more of the biblical world-view would come under scrutiny.  This leads to the other kind of literalism, intentional literalism.  Literalism of this form is an acceptance of the biblical narrative and world-view in spite of evidence to the contrary.  At an extreme, this view has created a small group of “Flat-Earthers.”  More commonly, it creates conflict around things like the age of the earth, creation and evolution.

                What is at stake is something deeper.  It is the idea that if one part of the Bible is not accurate, then the whole book can be called into question, most importantly including the stories of Jesus.  If the biblical stories of the creation and the flood and the exodus are not factual, then what of the healings and walking on water and resurrection?

                As someone who is not a literalist, I do not have an easy answer other than going back to the ancient question mentioned before, “What does this mean?”  I cannot prove that any of the Bible is factual, but I would assert that the Bible is true.  The texts have something to say to us today; good news and challenges; promises and life.  The Bible does not ask us to prove that the creation or the exodus or the resurrection happened.  Instead, the Bible challenges to live as though they happened, to live as though we had been created by a loving God; to live as though we had been set free; to live as though we had been raised.  In this lifetime, we can never prove that these stories are factual, but we can live knowing that they are true.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - The Study of Life

Some of the themes of this article will echo what I wrote near the beginning of this series, writing about the virtue of awe and wonder.  It is a holy practice to learn about creation.  It is not a coincidence that historically, much science was done under the auspices of the Christian faith.  For example, Gregor Mendel, who is sometimes credited as the founder of modern genetics was an Augustinian friar experimenting with pea plants at his monastery.  Other priests and Christian leaders have been naturalists, physicists and astronomers. 

                This is not to deny the conflict that grew as the scientific world-view began to question the assumptions of the biblical world-view; a conflict that was expanded with Darwin in the 1800s and continues to this day; a conflict created by the confusion of fact and truth (something I will write about next week).  Mendel’s science was “safe,” not raising difficult questions of scriptural inerrancy.  In spite of this conflict, it is important to remember the history within Christianity of exploring and marveling at the beauty of creation.  The theologian Richard Rohr describes the natural creation as “our first Bible.”

                The current age of easy access to information should encourage this kind of study.  Every time I turn on my computer, there is a picture of a new place on the startup screen, sometimes natural; sometimes made by human hands.  Each one fills me with curiosity, wondering at how unique rock formations happen over millions of years; wondering at how human beings came to reside in inhospitable places; wondering at the vast differences in the artwork of different cultures, often shaped by the vast differences among many landscapes.

                Echoing my last entry, pursing such questions is holy work.  Learning about how we are different is often also learning about how we are the same.  Gaining more understanding of a different culture helps us grow in our understanding of our own.  It can also remind us that we are strange and unique to someone else.  The things we think are rude to discuss are common topics in other places.  The way we in the northeastern U.S. rush around celebrating the importance of productivity is not the standard for the world.  We can discover that there are other ways we can choose to be; that our particular culture is not ordained by God.

                Studying life and studying lives is an ancient practice.  In the early church, there was a large emphasis on learning about the various saints.  The Reformation movement deemphasized the role of saints.  No longer were Protestant Christians supposed to pray to saints for intercession.  Yet Martin Luther encouraged learning about the saints as lives to emulate.  He cited the story of Saint Christopher, bearing the weight of Christ while walking across a difficult river as a story to teach us about Christian life.  (Note, he did not think this was a literal story, but more a teaching fable).   Although Lutherans did not venerate Mary, Luther celebrated Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a model of obedience and faithfulness to God’s call.  As we pay attention to lives, old and new, we might be inspired to take our own walk of faith more intentionally. 

          I will close this writing with a quote from one of my favorite saints, Therese of Lisieux: "Miss no sing opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love."  (You can read more about Therese here: Therese of Lisieux - Wikipedia)  The act of studying and learning, as with all acts of discipleship, is about finding small ways to turn to God in love.  In studying creation, we deepen our love for the Creator.  In learning about other people and cultures, we deepen our love for the neighbor.  This is holy work!

Thursday, November 1, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Study as a Discipline

I come from a family that loves to learn.  My father was a professor of biology.  My mother holds degrees in botany, library science and accounting.  Growing up, I remember that both of my parents were always reading something and encouraged my brother and me to do the same.

                The world is fascinating.  People are fascinating.  The myriad of stories in the world is fascinating.  So for me, studying and learning is a joyful discipline.  One of the greatest ways that we can honor God is to use the mental faculties that we have been given.  It is a holy action to learn and grow.  It is a holy discipline to study, even when that study might lead to doubt or difficult questions.

                Often when Christians talk about studying, they are drawn to Bible study.  It makes sense that Christians would seek a deeper relationship with scripture.  Unfortunately, many Christians avoid such study thinking it to be too difficult; leaving it for the professional scholars and linguists to boil the text down into preaching nuggets.  It is a great irony that Luther’s work in making scripture accessible led to a tradition of dusty, family Bibles sequestered on shelves.

                I am going to write more about biblical studies in a couple of weeks.  In this article, I want to suggest a Christian virtue of curiosity.  In the past, study has been used as a means to create boundaries for the faithful, learning traditions and proper theological understandings.  We need to allow curiosity to expand our understanding of God and faith, not ignoring or abandoning older teachings, but viewing them in the light of new knowledge and new points of view.  We live in a society where we might frequently encounter people of different cultures and religions in ways that our ancestors did not.  That reality need not drive us to isolate ourselves in fear, but might draw us out in curiosity.  We live in a society that is shaped by the work of scientists who have expanded our understanding of the world.  We need not reject science in order to cling to our holy stories.  We can read our stories in the light of science, allowing such knowledge to expand our understanding and interpretation.

                Religion that lacks curiosity turns into fundamentalism at its worst and foolishness at its best.  In order to maintain a literal view of scripture texts written centuries ago, one has to ignore or deny centuries of human growth.  It should not be a surprise that someone writing 2000 years ago might have a more limited understanding of the earth, the universe and the nature of life.  This does not remove the divine inspiration that led to the writing of scripture.  It simply acknowledges the human element of writing, that authors are always limited by their time, place and life experiences.

                It is a joy and challenge to explore and learn.  When we encounter something new, a new idea or a new tradition, we are changed.  We expand our range of view.  We challenge our own assumptions.  This is holy work!  We proclaim a God who is both eternal and infinite.  There is no limit to who God is and likewise there is no limit to what we can learn about this universe that God has made.

                Study and learn about the world.  Study and learn this joyful theology.  Study and learn.  It is holy work.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - When the Answer is "No"

                I know a number of people who maintain some sort of prayer journal or prayer list.  Every time they meet someone who expresses a concern or desire for prayer, they write it in the book.  Over time, I think this becomes their version of fulfilling Paul’s exhortation to pray without ceasing.  They will go through the list, page after page, in prayer.  You know that if you are in the book, prayers are being extended for you.  You know when this person says, “I’ll be praying for you,” that there is weight behind it, often keeping you in prayer until you say “Stop.”

                I have mentioned other communities and people who measure the power of prayer by numbers.  They feel that if thousands of people are praying for an outcome, then God has to be affected.  God cannot ignore the sheer volume of many and frequent prayers.

                Yet for all those who are dedicated to intercessory prayer in many forms, sometimes the answer is “No.”  Sometimes, in spite of our best wishes, thoughts and prayers, treatments don’t work, peace does not abound and famine continues.

                In her book on the history of the Christian prosperity movement, Blessed, author and historian Kate Bowler points to how traditions steeped in the power of positive thinking or “Name it and claim it” philosophies can struggle with this reality.  She tells the story of a member of such a congregation who was diagnosed with brain cancer.  Initially people lifted her up strongly in prayer and supported her.  Over time, as reports did not approve, her supporters in the congregation drifted away from her.  Her continued illness did not match up with a theology that expected God’s blessings and health for the faithful.  Either she had done something to deserve this illness or the bedrock idea of their faith was not secure.

                In some ways the Bible gives the church a mixed message on the power of prayer.  On the one hand, a number of the Psalms are written from the perspective of someone who has “cried to Lord” and had a positive outcome.  James talks about the power of the prayers of the faithful.  On the other hand, when asked to provide instruction in prayer, Jesus offers the Christian standard of the Lord’s Prayer which involves praying for basic needs and that God’s will be done.  It is a prayer that reconciles us to God’s will in the world rather than inspiring us to change or affect that will.  We pray to be part of God’s solution; God’s answer to cries for peace, healing and grief.

                I think it is important that we lift up others in prayer.  This action is a starting point that shines a divine light on our relationships.  In such prayer, I am connected to the one I am concerned about through God’s presence, the One who is the source of love.  Yet years of watching people struggle through illness, illnesses that are often the natural part of aging, inform me that not everyone I pray for will get better.  You cannot pray away our mortality.  Years of listening to the anger toward God expressed by people who feel like prayer has failed, who cannot understand why their addicted child overdosed or why a random tragedy took their loved one away, have challenged me to see that prayer is not an if/then conditional.  The belief that, “If you pray hard enough, things will get better,” sets people up for disappointment.

                I pray as a means to remind myself and the person for whom I am praying of God’s loving presence in all the moments of life, both joyful and tragic.  In the same breath that I pray for the health of a loved one, I also pray for their comfort in the midst of illness.  In prayers that question seemingly needless tragedy, I also pray that God’s love might support those who are left in the wake of such tragedy. 

                Sometimes the answer to prayer is, “No.”  But as Christians we can take comfort and celebrate that ultimately God’s answer is, “Yes.”  The No’s of life are temporary.  The final Yes is forever.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Answers to Prayer

As mentioned in previous articles, much of my personal focus in prayer is about deepening my relationship with God.  I wish to cultivate an attitude of prayer that sustains me throughout the day, whether I am preaching or doing chores or sitting in an intentional time of prayer.  I don’t spend as much time as I used to asking for God’s action or attention.  I spend most of the time seeking to sit in that loving presence.

                Yet there are a number of different traditions around prayer that do involve seeking answers to problems and concerns.  People might think of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount.  “Ask and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. ”(Matthew 7:7-8)  Another example is Abraham arguing with God about the demise of Sodom in Genesis 18.  Abraham questions God about the justice of destroying the good along with the evil in wiping out the whole city.  He gets God to agree to spare the city for the sake of fifty righteous people and eventually talks God down to ten.

                What, then, should be our expectations of the power of prayer?  Here I think we enter the realm of the anecdote.  I have heard stories of people who have seen God’s intervention in response to their prayer or the prayers of others.  I have heard stories of people who struggle when it seems that the answer to their prayer is, “No,” or “Not yet.”  There does not seem to be a definite rule where the answer to prayer comes as the one praying expects.

                Prayer should not be a matter of sending our wish list to God, assuming that we have some sort of power over God.  While Jesus does say, “Ask and it will be given to you,” he also seems to indicate in the Lord’s Prayer that a deeper faith might limit the things that we are asking for.  In Lord’s Prayer we don’t pray for healing or better relationships or world peace.  We pray that God’s will be done.  We pray for bread for the day (to have enough, not more than enough).  We pray for forgiveness and the avoidance of temptation.

                I would suggest that the Lord’s Prayer and Jesus’ other teaching on prayer are about challenging us to become God’s intervention in the world.  We pray for world peace so that we might be people who seek peace in the world.  We pray for an end to hunger so that we might work God’s will and share so that none would be hungry.  We pray for healing and reconciliation so that we might be a source of healing and reconciliation for the world.

                I do not write this to take away anyone’s hope in the miraculous.  However, it has been my experience that often the miraculous involves the miracle of other people open to being part of God’s miracle.  When we embrace our part in God’s will and our role in God’s kingdom, miracles happen.  The hungry are fed; the sick are healed; the poor receive good news. 

                In prayer God changes the world by changing who we are.  Every encounter with the love of God has an effect and we are not the same people as before.  Prayer helps us grow into our role as the children of God; as saints of God.  Prayer takes us into the depths of God’s love and sends us as God’s good news for the world.