Faith in Doubt

Annunciation, by He Qi (2001)

One of my favorite things about our crew at St. James Mission is the theological diversity among those present and the willingness they all have to explore the tough questions of faith and reality.

This week’s Bible study happened to fall on March 25th, which is the Feast of the Annunciation.  It comes every year, exactly nine months before Christmas.  (I guess that means Jesus wasn’t a premie!)

We reflected on Luke 1:26-38, which can be read by clicking here.

What the people of our community noticed most was Mary’s faith in accepting the angel’s invitation.  Some people remarked that they long for that kind of faith.  They want to respond to God in that same kind of instinctual and immediate way.

The next logical question to explore has to do with the definition of faith itself.  What does it mean to “believe in God”?  One woman was honest (and brave) enough to admit that she had trouble accepting the idea that Jesus was literally born of a virgin (i.e. without a biological father contributing his portion of the DNA), but that she too wanted to share in Mary’s faith.  This is a bold thing to say in the middle of worship.  I was elated to hear someone speak so openly about doubt.  What’s even better is that I believe this person, in her honest doubt, was able to draw out certain truths from this text that would have otherwise remained unspoken.  Truthfully, I think this text readily lends itself to a definition of faith that transcends an acceptance of certain facts and cuts deep into our souls.

If faith is simply a matter of acknowledging established church doctrine, then Mary herself fails the test immediately.  We read that she too was ‘perplexed’ and we see that she began by questioning the angel’s proclamation: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  If doubt truly is the opposite of faith, then it’s helpful to know that we who doubt stand with the Blessed Virgin herself in the company of the faithless.

However, I believe that true faith is something that encompasses doubt and welcomes it as a partner in the journey.  Mary is unafraid to show her cognitive noncompliance with the royal decree of heaven.  Even in the presence of an angel, she has the cojones to shake her fist at the sky.  And the ironic thing is that her challenge of the divine edict did not disqualify her from participating in God’s plan, but confirmed her place in it.

Deep in Mary’s heart, with all its doubt and perplexity, there lived (and still lives, I think) a profound openness toward God.  Her open-mindedness prepared her to accept that truth which reaches beyond mere fact.  It is in the incarnation of that mystery that she takes up her calling as the Theotokos, the God-bearer.

If we say that we too want to share in the faith of Mary, I think it is her openness toward God, not the mere acceptance of church doctrine, that we should pray for.

You Always Have the Poor With You

Since I have been on vacation this week, I was not present at our Thursday night Bible study as usual.  Because of this, my musings on this week’s gospel text are my own, and not enriched by the insights of our community at St. James Mission.

Our text this week is taken from John 12:1-8.

First of all, you should know that I love my job as Community Chaplain.  Even though the position does not (yet) come with a paycheck, it has its own dividends that cannot be quantified.  However, even in the best of jobs, there comes a time when one could use a vacation.

For the past few weeks, I’ve noticed that my capacity for Rogerian “unconditional positive regard” has been stretched to its limit.  At times, I have abandoned my usual non-directive stance in favor of speaking my mind.  One case that stands out concerns a friend who expressed a desire to enter rehab and then refused to go after I made the referral and followed up with him every day for a week.  Instead of letting it go, I gave him the cursory lecture on how alcoholism at his stage is fatal if left untreated.  Maybe it was tough love, maybe it was me giving voice to my own frustration.  Either way, I think I heard Carl Rogers spinning in his grave just then.

“You always have the poor with you”.  These words of Christ have stuck in my mind all week.  I hate how often they are used by Christians who want to excuse themselves from working for social justice.  Nevertheless, I felt the power of these words in a new way as I slammed up against the walls and limitations of my own finite love.

My friends Adria and Bob like to remind me that ministry in the margins cannot be based on the never-ending chasm of need that opens up before me.  If my success depends on someone else’s ability to change, I’m going to be a very unhappy person.  One day at a time, I am learning how to measure my success by my faithfulness to the one who has called me to love and serve the “least of these” in his name.  Contrary to the opinion of some Christians, this awareness does not excuse me from engaging with the poor.  Instead, it puts the fight against poverty and injustice into perspective.  We are not called to care for the poor in order to make a perfect society.  Neither are we called to admire them for their nobility.  We are called to love the poor because they are Christ.

As I head back into my regular routine this week, I pray for the eyes of my heart to be opened, that I might see my Savior in these dirty streets.  I pray that, like Mary of Bethany, my offering would reach beyond the social problems that surround me and touch the sacred heart of Christ.  To be clear, I fully intend to stay engaged with those who dwell in the margins of our society.  Indeed, I can do no other, since the one who said, “You always have the poor with you,” has also said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  But what I want is for my engagement in the margins to be a means through which I see Jesus more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly, day by day.

God is not afraid to get shit on his hands

Hi everyone!

I try to post at least once per week, but I’m sorry for having gone so long.  Unlike my philosophy students, I will not bore you with a litany of excuses.

At last week’s Bible study, we read Jesus’ warnings about repentance and his parable of the fig tree in Luke 13:1-9.

This is kind of a harsh passage, where Jesus seems to be advocating what Bob Ekblad calls ‘Turn or Burn’ theology.  He says, “Unless you repent, you will all perish”.  Likewise, the parable of the fig tree, understood allegorically, is often interpreted as Jesus saving us from his mean, nasty Father.  Personally, I cannot accept this interpretation as an accurate presentation of the God I believe in.

Our crew at St. James Mission helped me to gain a much deeper understanding of this text during our time together last Thursday.  Many people opened up and shared honestly about their own stories of addiction and recovery.  What they saw in this passage, in the words of an old slogan, is that “God loves us right where we are, but loves us too much to let us stay that way.”

The passage opens with Jesus’ conversation with the people about suffering.  Like so many in our society, the people of Jesus’ time were keen to blame victims for their own troubles.  If God is both just and sovereign, they argue, then all suffering must be somehow deserved.  (For a critique of this theology from the Hebrew Scriptures themselves, check out the book of Job.)

Jesus indicates that those who suffer are no more deserving than those who don’t.  Then he tells the parable of the fig tree.  To frame the parable with a question, one could ask, “Is God more like the land owner or the gardener?”

The image of God that Jesus sets forth is not that of a deity who stands aloof and points the finger when things go wrong.  When God’s children fail to live in the way they were intended to live, God does not sit back on heaven’s throne and plan the next flood (or fire, or earthquake).  Instead, according to Jesus’ parable, that’s the point when God gets involved.  God is like the gardener, who is not afraid to get his hands dirty in the midst of the fig tree’s fruitlessness.

Compare this image of God with the one that St. John the Baptist puts forth in Luke 3:9: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  By using such similar imagery, maybe Jesus was deliberately trying to correct an error in John’s theology?

According to Jesus, the gardener is willing to dig into the soil of our lives.  At one point, he says, “Let me put manure on it.”  While this, of course, was a basic agricultural practice of the time, I like to interpret it like this:

God is not afraid to get shit on his hands.

I use such harsh language intentionally.  God is not frightened by those parts of our lives that make us feel ashamed.  When we have failed to live up to the standards of society, church, or ourselves, God is not to be found in a corner, weeping.  Neither is God positioned behind the bench of eternity’s courtroom, preparing to pass sentence on heinous offenders.  God, according to Jesus, is rolling up the shirtsleeves and getting the tools out of the shed.

There is work to be done.  And God is not prepared to give up on this fig tree just yet.  Neither is God prepared to give up on you.

Temptation

This is my reflection on tonight’s Bible study at St. James Mission.  Our text was Luke 4:1-13.

Have you ever noticed that movie villains are way more interesting than heroes?

Darth Vader is a much more complex character than the whiny Luke Skywalker.  A full century after her first appearance, the Wicked Witch of the West (‘Elphaba’ to those who know) got her own novel and Broadway musical.

I can think of several reasons why we feel more drawn to these characters than we do to the ‘good guys’.  Rather than exploring all of them, I’d like to focus on one in particular:

Evil is more obvious than good.

Especially when we go through times of crisis, it’s very easy to look only at what’s wrong with the world.  Human beings have a tendency to ‘awful-ize’  their lives.  It seems that this tendency affects the way in which we Christians interpret our Scriptures.

During tonight’s Bible study on the Temptation of Jesus in Luke’s gospel, we spent a great deal of time asking questions about Satan.  Is the devil real?  Do the nations of the earth really belong to him?  Does our cultural image of the devil come from the Bible or somewhere else?  And so on…

At one point in our discussion, someone noticed how the text says that Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit” as he entered this time of testing.  It’s interesting how God will meet us in the midst of stressful situations and will spiritually empower us to make it through in one piece.

Just recently, there was an inmate in one of our local prisons who had refused to eat for an extended period of time.  His physical health had deteriorated to the point where he was near death.  The court had ordered that the inmate be force-fed, but the medical staff was loathe to do so.

One of the nurses, who happened to be a Christian, felt an urge to talk to this inmate (who had a reputation for violence) about the liberating power of forgiving others.  Forgiveness “is about letting go of another person’s throat”, as Wm. Paul Young wrote.

As it turns out, that was exactly what this inmate needed to hear.  A short time later, he started to eat again and has already regained sixty pounds.  In this situation of crisis, the hospital staff was caught between a rock and a hard place.  They could violate their ethics and override the conscience of a hunger-striking inmate, or they could stand by, watch the inmate die, and face the wrath of the criminal justice system.  The presence of evil in this catch-22 was obvious.  Yet even in the midst of crisis, God was quietly at work through one Spirit-filled person who was willing to reach out in the name of love.

When we read the story of Jesus being tested in the wilderness, it’s easy to notice how the devil looms large.  Satan does and says a lot of things in an attempt to distract Jesus and undermine the Father’s work in his life.  But Jesus, full of God’s Holy Spirit, is able to meet that chaos with the right words at the right time.

As Bishop Gene Robinson is fond of saying, “Sometimes God calms the storm, and sometimes God calms his child.”

Transfiguration

Here is my collection of themes from tonight’s Bible study at St. James Mission:

Our text was the story of the Transfiguration, Luke 9:28-43a.

Mountaintop experiences can be intimidating.  I spent several years attending churches where dramatic stories of religious conversion were highly valued.  One had to be careful about attending services where time was given for individual testimonies of faith.  These services had a tendency to degenerate into amateur preach-offs worthy of American Idol.

These churches seemed to believe in a connection between one’s spiritual credibility and the intensity of one’s mystical experiences.  Is this connection justified?

I think most of us are unable to relate to a spiritual experience as profound as the Transfiguration.  The average person’s meeting with God tends to take a less dramatic form.  Some of us may have “A-ha!” moments where a spiritual truth will hit home in a new way.  Others of us might be able to relate to John Wesley, who felt his heart being “strangely warmed” by God’s presence.  Then again, many of us have not had any mystical experience at all.  Does that make us less worthy than those who see visions or hear voices?

When I look at Jesus’ disciples in this story, I feel compelled to answer in the negative.  This dramatic encounter, which involves shining lights, visions of ancient heroes, and voices from the sky, is not restricted  to the ultra-worthy.  Nor does the disciples’ witnessing the Transfiguration seem to have turned them  into saints overnight.  In this passage, they fall asleep, speak without thinking, and utterly fail in their attempt to heal a sick child.

Jesus says to them, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?”  As harsh as this statement sounds, it highlights the truth that dramatic mystical experiences are not necessarily related to real faith.

Real faith is found in our response to God’s presence in our lives (regardless of how that presence manifests itself).  In the story of the Transfiguration, that response takes two forms.  First, the disciples are told to listen to Jesus.  In order to listen, one must pay attention.  Things like prayer, meditation, the Bible, church, and the sacraments are all effective tools for helping us pay attention, but they are not the only tools God uses.  What helps you pay attention to God in your life?

Second, Jesus leads the disciples down the mountain and back into the real world, where a father waits with his sick child.  It seems that Peter would rather stay on the mountaintop and build a monument, but Jesus is more interested in the work that needs to be done.  In our community, there are scores of people who are homeless, hungry, and hurting.  If we want our experiences on the mountaintop to mean anything, we must take them with us into the valley of the shadow of death.  Any spirituality that doesn’t matter out on the street is a spirituality that doesn’t matter at all.

“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.  As they pass through the valley of weeping, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools.”  -Psalm 84:6-7

Catching People

 

Finally, I enter the blogosphere!  I convinced myself the other day that if Dorothy Day were writing now, she might have blogged rather than printed.  Let’s face it: it’s cheaper.

So, my plan is to keep a record of my search for God in the margins of society.  Sometimes (like tonight) I’ll be reflecting on our Thursday night Bible study at St. James Mission.  For you sermon writers out there, our Bible study is based on the texts in Revised Common Lectionary that will appear on the following Sunday.

When I’m not doing that, I’ll be trying to make sense of the time I spend on the streets as a Community Chaplain.  Confidentiality will be maintained.

If anyone cares to read or comment, that would be awesome.  If anyone lives locally (Utica, NY) and wants to show up at our Bible study, that would be even more awesome.  We meet Thursdays, 6pm, at First Presbyterian Church (1605 Genesee Street).

At tonight’s Bible study, we read Luke 5:1-11. Click here to read the passage.

People were drawn to the enigmatic image of “catching people” that Jesus presents to Simon at the end of the passage.

One person commented on the fact that the fishermen in this story used nets instead of poles.  “The whole community of fish gets caught, not just one.”  This flies in the face of our society, in which spirituality has been privatized.  We’ve been conditioned to think of ourselves as individuals, not as communal beings.

Someone else noticed that a fish caught on a pole gets to choose whether or not to take the bait, but a fish caught in a net has no choice whatsoever.  This too is a countercultural idea in a consumerist society where choice is so valued.

Another person pointed out that a fisherman, when using a net, does not discriminate between fish.  The fisherman can’t say, “You’re too sickly.  You’re the wrong kind of fish.  You’re a tuna.”  In the same way, God doesn’t discriminate between people as they’re being “caught” in the net of Jesus.  Male or female, black or white, straight or gay, religious or irreligious, all people are embraced by the net.

God’s activity, according to this passage, is something that whole communities get “caught up in”, not something that individuals choose for themselves.  Where then can we look to find examples of God at work in the life of a community?

One man remembered the way that the gay community rallied around one another during the height of the AIDS crisis in America.

Someone else mentioned a news article about Haiti after the earthquake.  The report indicated that the streets of the city turned into one big church at night, with Catholics and Protestants worshiping together until two in the morning.

A third person told a story about a group of factory workers somewhere in Latin America.  The owners of the factory owed the workers about six million dollars in unpaid wages.  As it turned out, the factory building itself was worth about the same amount.  In lieu of pay, the workers took control of the factory and turned it into a labor cooperative.  The oppressive management had been replaced by the workers themselves in a new spirit of justice and equality.