Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Path of Discipleship - Wonder, Wisdom and Scripture

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7 NRSV).  As mentioned previously, I see the fear of the Lord as a matter of awe and reverence as opposed to quaking in your boots fright.  It is the wonder and awe at understanding that the God we worship is beyond understanding.  God is bigger than our comprehension which implies that God’s grace and God’s love are beyond our comprehension.  In this Christmas season, we celebrate that in Jesus the incomprehensible God chose to walk among us in a comprehensible way, which is itself a source of awe and wonder.

                Within Christianity we have a resource to grow in understanding and wisdom, one that is under-used in some traditions and ill-used in others: scripture.  In every congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America you will find this phrase.  “This congregation accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.”  Our pastors are expected to have a passion for the Bible and its study, including learning biblical Hebrew and Greek to encounter the texts in their original languages.

                In other words, the Bible is a critical book for the church, central to our self-understanding.  We call it inspired.  We call it holy.  Our worship is centered on it and informed by it.

                The Bible is an essential book for Christians and the church, but it is not a magic book.  I see the Bible as a source of divine wisdom, but we also have to approach it with the God-given wisdom to see and understand its limitations and its problems.  In our modern society, the most glaring issue is that the authors of our biblical texts, while divinely inspired, were also shaped by their time and culture.  There are a host of traditions that our current culture would call into question which the authors seem to accept as a divinely-ordained order of things:  slavery as part of the social order, women as essentially inferior to men, disease and illness as divine retribution, for example.  If we want the message to be relevant, we need to acknowledge that there are parts of Bible that get it wrong.  Even though Exodus 21 allows for a servant to declare, “I love my master” and be permanently bound to him, we should be able to declare that slavery has always been wrong.  Even though that same chapter invites a master to give his slave a wife as a gift, we should be able to declare that seeing women as property to be traded, gifted or used has always been wrong.  We can acknowledge that such ideas were socially acceptable thousands of years ago, but we should not let such passages allow us to continue to objectify people.

                The Bible was also never intended as a science textbook.  I wonder if ancient creation myths were an attempt at pre-science, trying to explain the way things are based on what was observed.  However, Genesis 1 describes life in a snow globe universe, with water outside the dome of the sky (Why is the sky blue?).  In Genesis 7:11, “the windows of the heavens were opened” as part of the great flood story (the snow globe fills with water).  These stories may well have been based on even more ancient tales, but they are metaphors, meant to express something about who God is, who we are and our relationship to one another.  Even though I don’t believe they are historical, I don’t think they should be dismissed as unimportant.  Rather, like a beautiful work of art, we should meditate on them, look at them from many angles and look for the divine spark within them.

                I understand that for some, what I am describing is a slippery slope.  If you doubt the history of one narrative, what does that say about the historicity of the story of the Exodus or the gospel stories?  First, we need to have the humility to acknowledge that we cannot prove much about the accuracy of any story in the Bible.  While later generations of believers developed traditions and commented on the stories and characters, there are very few contemporary resources that confirm the stories or characters.  One of issues with Jesus choosing common people to be his disciples is that no one was paying attention to common people.  We can confirm the existence of a Herod, Pontius Pilate or Caiaphus the high priest, all leaders at the time, but it is much harder to find records of Simon and Andrew who enter the story as common fishermen.

                We don’t need to be able to prove the history in order for the stories to be important.  We don’t need our stories to be without doubt in order to learn from them.  In fact, a modern desire for proof can keep us from embracing the meaning and importance of the stories themselves.  Jesus chooses common people not because he was trying to make the history difficult but as a way of showing that God is concerned with those whom history forgets.  The author of Genesis 1 was not trying to write a scientific paper, but rather to point to a God through whom all things have come into being, a universe created with intention and declared, “Good!”

                The path of discipleship is not a path of proof but a path of trust.  The scriptures are part of the walk.  Through them the path is given shape and direction.  There is awe and wonder in our scriptural stories.  I hope every Christian takes the time to explore them with wisdom and humility.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Path of Discipleship - Awe is not Faith

Christian mystics such as Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena warned of something they called, “the consolations of prayer.”  Especially as you begin the practice of contemplative prayer, you might find intense feelings of calm, joy and well-being.  The novice practitioner assumes that these feelings are a regular part of the practice and so begins to pray with the expectation of experiencing those feelings, or consolations.  As you continue to practice, you will find that such feelings don’t happen every time or may have been the early by-product of allowing yourself to slow down and breathe deeply.  The mystics advise that to truly seek God in prayer, one must look for God beyond the consolations of prayer, enduring times where God seems distant and prayer is difficult.

                I see a similar issue in current forms of worship.  In my last post I wrote about worship that manufactures feeling, using music, lighting and other techniques to make one feel a certain way.  In many Lutheran circles, the desired feeling is often one of comfort.  We choose music and worship styles that soothe and do not challenge.  In other traditions, the goal is to inspire a sense of awe, wonder and mystery.  In both cases I have spoken with worshipers who don’t think that worship is authentic if the feeling is absent.

                There is confusion around feeling and faith.  As I wrote early on, I see a sense of awe and wonder as a virtue to be cultivated, a feeling that pulls us from naval-gazing to a connection with the glory of God, the immensity of creation, the vastness that is outside of us.  Awe is a feeling that can orient us toward God, but awe is not a relational faith in God.   As United Church of Christ pastor Lillian Daniels writes, “Any idiot can find God in a sunset.”  That is, most people have moments where they feel awe and wonder, standing at the edge of Grand Canyon, stargazing on a clear night, watching the sunset over the ocean.  These are moments that cause us to breathe deeply and forget everything else, moments that pull us beyond ourselves and the concerns of the day.  Awe is a powerful feeling, but it is also fleeting.  The sun sets and the ocean becomes dark.  The sun rises and the starlight fades.  We step away from the edge of the canyon.

Awe can push us towards faith.  Awe can strengthen and deepen existing faith.  But awe itself is not faith but a feeling.  I suspect that when someone says that she finds God in a sunset what she really means is that she experiences awe at the sunset.  Likewise, when someone tells me he finds God in nature, he really means he has a feeling of awe in nature.  It is a good feeling.  I have it too and enjoy it, but it isn’t faith.  The nature of faith is too large to cover in this post, but suffice it to say that enjoying the scent of a delicious meal is very different from sitting down and eating it.

To be clear, it is my hope that people feel awe and wonder.  I think it is a very good thing if only for the fact that it puts things into perspective.  I am an advocate for finding wonder in the everyday and the ordinary.  Yet the feeling of awe is not the endpoint but a starting place for faith.  If we can experience awe in the present moment, marveling at the miracle of each second, the complicated cycles that happen with every breath and heartbeat, we are put in a much better place to marvel at the good news that the God who is beyond our understanding wants to be in relationship with us, wants to extend the wonder of life into eternity, joins us in our humanity not as a blazing superhero (Transfiguration aside) but as one of us. 

We are also put in a much better place to marvel at the miracle that is our neighbor.  Even the neighbor you may not enjoy is a wonder to behold, a wonder of breath and heartbeat and life.  Jesus drew attention to those who were forgotten.  Jesus could have begun his ministry with the Roman leadership, the imperial court, wealth and power.  Instead he invited fisherfolk to walk with him.  He could have focused on the religious elite.  Instead he drew attention to the unclean and unworthy.  He saw each person as precious, marvelous and wonderful.  When we find wonder in the present moment, the simple miracles that happen all around us, we are walking the path with Jesus.

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Path of Discipleship - Awe and Wonder Continued

Take three deep breaths and remember that you are alive.   It’s a simple practice, variations of which can be found in several religious traditions.  That breath, that second, the infinitesimal moment of life is a gift of a gracious God.  And yet how often those moments pass without notice, our eyes fixed on screens, our minds transfixed by shiny objects while life, real life is happening all around us.

                One of my concerns about the church in the modern era is that our experiences of awe are often artificial.  The feeling of wonder may be real, but it has been manipulated into being from the outside.  I suspect this began a few centuries ago when Christians stepped into large cathedral sanctuaries filled with the overwhelming sounds of choirs and pipe organs.  The stained glass windows separated holy space from common space as the liturgy filled the room.  The spaces were designed to evoke wonder.  For a couple of hours, worshipers were transported from the common life of toil into an image of the Reign of God. 

                While this pattern certainly was inspiring it strengthened the understanding that divine awe and wonder should be found inside the building, not in the common spaces of life.  Meanwhile the church was learning how to manufacture wonder, a tradition that continues to this day.  I regularly receive worship supply catalogs and have noticed how in the past decades they have more and more supplies that I normally have associated with theatrical productions:  stage lights and spotlights, sound systems and headset microphones just like the motivational speakers use.  I’m not against adopting modern technology.  The stained glass window was the original PowerPoint slide.  The whole Reformation movement was founded on the innovation of the printing press.  Although the embrace has often been tentative, the church has eventually accepted new types of instrumentation and presentation.  Yet the purpose of the theater is to manipulate, to make you feel empathy for pretend characters, to make you feel excited by false battles, to make you weep at pretend death.  The more we embrace the theatrical; the more we embrace the manipulative and the more difficult we make it to find wonder outside of the stage lights and spotlights.

                My goal in writing this is not to declare some worship practices as right and some wrong, nor do I think we need to abandon grand displays of worship.  My goal is to encourage wonder as a daily virtue rather than a special occasion only found in places designed to create wonder.  The awesome aspect of the Christian story is that our God of wonders, who formed the universe with a word and knows the whereabouts of every subatomic particle, has been made known to us in ordinary humanity.  The incarnation of Jesus points to a God who makes the ordinary extraordinary and makes the common wonderful.
              If you truly pay attention to the world around us you will see that the universe itself is a constant source of wonder.  If you consider the vastness of space, the simple fact that we are something and not nothing is a source of wonder;  that we are not just dust carried along the flows of an expanding universe.   If you look through a microscope and see how a drop of pond water is filled with life; if you pick up a beach rock and consider how you are holding millions of years of history, these are opportunities for wonder.  You are discovering the wonder about which the psalmist wrote:

                “The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”  (Psalm 19:1)

                In my next article, I will write about the intersection of wonder and faith.  For now, I encourage you to gaze up at the night sky and watch the transition from night to day as the sun rises.  Pay attention to the variety of life around you, life that flies and crawls and swims all around you.  There is awe and wonder right where you are, all of it praising the living God.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Path of Discipleship - An Introduction to Awe and Wonder

In my first post, I described how I would talk about discipleship in terms of a collection of virtues.  The traditional (and not-so-traditional) practices of discipleship encourage and grow those virtues, helping us grow as people of faith.  When I was considering where to begin, I thought about awe/wisdom/wonder as a starting point. 

The author of Proverbs writes, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  Many people bristle at the first noun, “fear.”  One of the most common questions I receive about Luther’s Small Catechism is his use of that word in talking about the 10 commandments.  His definitions all begin with, “We are to fear and love God…”  Why should we have to fear God?

This question comes from the church’s more recent emphasis on the love of God in Christ.  We are always talking about love; God’s love; God loves you; for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.  I frequently talk about the love of God from the pulpit because I believe that this love is a constant, a constant first made known to us in baptism; the constant that makes the life of discipleship possible.  Because we are sustained by the love of God in Christ, we are set free to live as disciples, to risk, to try, to fail and try again.

So why talk about fear?  The confusing thing about a focus on love is that it tends to put God on equal terms with us.  We act familiar with God as a constant friend and companion.  This is a valid way to talk about God, but it limits our understanding of who God is as well as the amazing nature of that love.  When I hear the word, “fear” in a theological sense, I tend to think about it in terms of reverence or awe.  I have sat at many campfires, amazed at the beauty of light in the darkness, warmth on a cool autumn evening, transfixed by the flit and flicker.  Yet as welcoming as that fire may seem, I also know how important it is to treat it with respect, how easy it is for fire to burn out of control, how dangerous it is to get too close.

The ancient Hebrews had the understanding that “you cannot look upon the face of God and live.”  You would be consumed by the glory of God.  It wasn’t that God was waiting to strike people down, but that God was simply too awesome for simple humanity to handle.  This glory was the reason that ritual became such an essential part of worship.  Any chemist in a lab can tell you that it is best to handle dangerous materials by having protocols in place, rules that walk the fine line between risk and safety.  Rituals are the repeated actions that allow for safe approach toward the glory of God.  It’s not that I think that the church will literally be struck by lightning if we sing the Hymn of Praise before the Kyrie.  Rather, I believe that our rituals of worship continue the tradition of approaching God with a sense of respect and awe.   I also believe that we can change our rituals so long as we preserve the sense of awe out of which they grew.

A healthy sense of awe makes the love of God an amazing proposition.  The God who formed the universe, the God who embraces infinity and yet knows the spin of every quark, the God of hurricane and subtle breeze is deeply in love of with you.  The God who is boundless chooses to be bounded in relationship to you.  The God who is formless chooses to be formed in the person of Jesus so that you can be drawn into a deeper relationship with God, so that you might see an example of what it means to love, the depth of that love, and the truth in that love.

                The next couple of posts will look more deeply at developing a sense of awe, wonder and respect for God.  A fundamental  place to develop the virtue of awe and wonder is in the universe that God has made.  We look at the scriptural stories of miracles as moments of wonder, and yet we are constantly surrounded by a creation that is wonderful.  As the theologian Richard Rohr puts it, “The first Bible is the Bible of nature. It was written at least 13.8 billion years ago, at the moment that we call the Big Bang, long before the Bible of words.”  You are not wrong to feel close to God in a sunset.  You are not wrong to feel close to God in walk in the woods.  Pay attention to all the wonder that happens around you and know that God is at work.