Thursday, April 23, 2015

God Does Not Play Battleship

This post is an expansion of an idea that was part of my Easter sermon this year.  I began by noting how often people speak about looking for a divine plan in their lives.  Everything happens for a reason and all of it is leading in the direction of God’s will.  Periodically I see ads for sites like Christian Mingle which promises to “Find God’s match for you.”  Have they discovered the divine algorithm that will lead to perfect pairings?  Is there a pi-type constant or an E=mc2 for romance?

                People find comfort in the idea of a divine plan working in the background of their lives, that they are doing what they are supposed to do and being where they are supposed to be.  It can be frightening to face life as a series of random collisions, intersections and choices without a clear destination.  There must be a plan; there must be a purpose.  If only we could figure what it could be.

                Several times, Albert Einstein was quoted as saying, “God does not play dice with the world.”  While I agree with his sentiment (and realize that it is a much more knowledgeable sentiment than my own) I would also add that, “God does not play Battleship with the world.”  I’m sure many of you played the game as children.  Each player has a 10x10 grid on which to place 5 ships of different sizes.  Then you take turns naming coordinates:  B5 – miss, C10 – miss, H7 – hit.  The player who sinks all the opponent’s boats first wins.

                It is as if people view life as a game of Battleship with God hiding the correct path.  We call out our coordinates: learn a trade – miss; take an art class – miss; learn to salsa dance – hit!  We hope that we are somewhere close to what to God intends but never know for certain if we should have taken the right turn at Albuquerque (miss!)
    In the past, if someone came to my office asking for advice about finding God’s special purpose for his or her life, I would talk around the issue.  In part, I knew that this was sacred territory and this person probably had a good deal invested in the idea that there was a plan just for him or her.  I also had to deal with the fact that as a Lutheran pastor we talk about a sense of call and many pastors will talk about being drawn to ministry, being called as a young person but only following the call after some misadventures. 

Yet at the same time, I find little in scripture or tradition (or experience for that matter) that points to the idea that everyone has a unique calling or destiny.  Certainly some of the big names, like Moses or David or Mary, get called to specific roles in the story.  Yet for the most part everyone else gets instruction in how to one might live.  What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)  In everything do to others as you would have them do to you. (Matthew 7:12)  Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. (Matthew 6:34)

I believe that the ideals of Christianity might discourage or preclude certain life decisions.  If it hurts others; if it takes advantage of others; if it denies the basic humanity of others, you probably shouldn’t do it.  Find another career path for the Walter White in you.

Over time I have come to realize that there is a plan for each of us, but it won’t tell you where to work or whom to marry.  It is a plan we hear every year as we listen to the gospel story and experience the path toward the cross and the joy of resurrection.  In this story is God’s plan that sets us free from a Battleship life, fearing that our decisions might pull us from some preordained proper direction or that our mistakes can never be undone.  Instead, God’s plan for each of us was to set us free. 

In the gospel story, Jesus offers us a way to approach the path of life, wherever that path may take us, a way that is shaped by compassion, peace and love.  It doesn’t tell us where to go but rather how to be along the way.  Be loving.  Be joyful.  Be at peace.  Be free and know that God is with you through it all.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Living Proof of Easter

Note:  This entry appeared in the Matters of Faith column of the Cape Cod Times the Saturday before Easter, 2015.

For the past few years, I’ve noticed that in the weeks before Easter the magazine racks in the grocery stores will have a number of Jesus-related covers and articles.  This year, CNN is running a series entitled Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact and Forgery.  The major theme of most of these articles and shows is about discovering the historical Jesus.  What can scholars tell us about Jesus and his world?  Can there be proof of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth?
                This is where things get tricky.  Many Christians look to the Bible as proof of Jesus’ story.  Yet the gospel texts are documents shaped by faith rather than impartial historical accounts.   As the Christian movement grew, and as the first generation of Christians began to pass away, a more uniform way of telling the story was needed.  But this did not happen in the immediate aftermath of the death and resurrection.  It is commonly believed that the gospel of Mark, probably the earliest gospel text, was written about three decades after the events it describes.  The growth of historical Jesus articles reflects the hope that the Jesus story can be confirmed by outside evidence.  If only a non-Christian contemporary of Jesus had told the story or if only the shroud of Turin could be 100% authenticated then we would know that the story of Jesus and all it implies is true.
                The reality is that there are not a great many references to Jesus in the historical record, especially by anyone who could be considered his contemporary.  The Roman historian Tacitus makes mention of his execution in a brief description of the Christian movement .  The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus also talks briefly about Jesus, his trial and death.  Yet there are no records outside of the gospel texts that talk about going to a party where water was turned to wine, seeing some guy walking on water or Jesus himself, raised from death.  Most modern scholars agree that there is enough evidence to say that there was a Jesus of Nazareth in the first century of the common era; that he was crucified by Pontius Pilate and died.  The rest of the gospel stories; teaching, miracles and resurrection, live in the realm of faith.  We cannot prove them but are challenged to live as though they were true.
                Perhaps someday someone will come up with irrevocable proof of the gospel story and it may well change the world as we know it, but until that time there will be no proof of the resurrection that you will read in an historical Jesus article or see on a television screen.  The proof of the resurrection is not to be found in ancient documents but rather in lives that are lived in response to that resurrection.
                To those of you who are atheist or agnostic who have read this far to see what kind of drivel pastors are writing these days, you have every right to call Christianity into question because we have bungled this up in a big way.  We Christians have confused faith with religious practice or memorized knowledge.  We have used our faith to segregate rather than unify.  We have used the good news as a bludgeon rather than a gift of love.  While there are many stories of Christians doing great good in the name of faith (e.g. St. Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr.), there are just as many if not more stories of crusades, inquisitions, cover-ups and general hypocrisy. 
So to those of you who are Christians reading this on the cusp of Easter, realize that you are the living proof of the resurrection.  If the resurrection is about being set free from guilt and shame, are we living lives that set others free and offer forgiveness?  If the resurrection is about abundant life, are we living lives of generosity that feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and give companionship to the lonely?  If the resurrection is about the reign of God coming near, are we living as ambassadors of a reign that is shaped by peace, justice, love and life?
Easter Sunday is a beautiful Sunday for the church.  The crowds come out.  Trumpets sound.  The scent of lilies overpowers.  Yet none of these is proof of a stone rolled away and an empty tomb. The proof of the resurrection happens as the crowds leave the trumpets and the lilies behind.  It happens as we go back and live the resurrection in our Monday-morning lives, our relationships and our community.  If you believe, then you are also called to be the living proof of Easter.