Monday, March 15, 2010

Doubt-Full Faith: By Anonymous

This is a true testimony from someone at Old First. I asked if I could post it, because I think it documents that real transformation can happen in our lives, and it suggests what real transformation is like.

“That which does not kill you makes you strong.” I hate hearing that when I’m going through difficult times, and yet I think it’s true that overcoming adversity leaves us stronger than before. Similarly, exercise creates tiny tears in our muscles that, when healed, leave the muscles stronger.

So why have I been thinking that my faith is supposed to start out and always remain strong, without those pesky doubts sneaking in? I’m finally beginning to see that questioning my faith, and working my way through the doubts, leaves me with a stronger foundation, a surer faith.

For three years, ever since I found God again, I’ve been convinced that I’m not a good enough Christian because I so frequently have doubts. I also have a lot of trouble with the concept of prayer – I don’t know how to do it properly, I don’t remember to do it often enough, I don’t do it long enough. I get distracted and find myself thinking about all sorts of things, so that my prayers, rather than really ending, just sort of fade out. And I’ve been convinced that I’ll never learn how to do it. So what kind of Christian does that make me?

I never quite give up, though, and it’s finally paying off. During my recent experiences with recurring depression, I have wondered how a kind and loving God could allow me to suffer like this, and have at times been convinced that I’m not going to make it through to the other side.

I’m finally seeing some improvement that I think is going to continue – I see that as a reminder that I haven’t been alone in this, that God has been through it with me. He may not always work as fast as I think he should, but somehow things always work out in the end.

I can’t remember how many times in my life I’ve been convinced that some situation was hopeless, or dreaded facing something because I was sure it was just too awful to contemplate. I’ve been wrong every time. The next time I feel that way, I remind myself that nothing has ever been quite as bad as I feared it would be. Rather than taking comfort from that thought, though, I always answer myself by saying “Yeah, yeah – but this is the time it will finally be true.”

But this week I realized that I’m looking at my current unemployment differently. It’s been upsetting, and I really don’t know how things are going to turn out in the end. But, for perhaps the first time ever with such a serious situation, I have no doubt that things will indeed work out.

I have no idea how, but I know they will. Somewhere along the line, while I was busy doubting, the foundation of faith has gotten much stronger than I realized.

And somewhere along the line, I also seem to have opened myself to prayer. Last night I started out with my usual spiritual mumbling, got distracted, dragged my mind back to praying . . . .

And then I seemed to settle into the prayer, and was able to express myself more eloquently than I’ve been able to while praying. After some time I started to recite the Apostles’ Creed, as I often do. But this time was different – as I spoke the familiar words, I was nearly overwhelmed by the feeling of my heart swelling, a physical sensation that made it hard to even breathe for a brief moment. I have never felt so at peace, so sure that my prayers were being heard.

I’d like to think that I’ll never doubt again, and never feel awkward about praying. I know better than that, though. But perhaps I’ll move on to new and different doubts, giving me a chance to move on to a new and different faith. And if I lose the sense of ease I felt about praying last night? Well, at least I can pray to recapture it!

Monday, March 08, 2010

March 7, Lent 2, guest sermon

On Luke 13:1-9, preached by seminary intern Rachel Daley

Did you hear about the Galileans? The ones who came to offer sacrifices, and whom Pilate had put to death? He spilled their blood so that it mingled with their sacrifices. What did they do to get into trouble? What was Pilate’s agenda? We don’t know the particulars of this incident, but we know the type. Such violence can be politically expedient. Coercive power is needed to enforce laws, to thwart criminals, and to maintain order and justice. We are familiar with the abuses of such power which is too often used to silence dissidents, sow uncertainty and fear, or tighten the grip of a corrupt ruler.

Someone mentions the incident to Jesus, asking for a bit of political commentary, maybe a theological account of this sobering piece of news. What is Jesus to do? Philosophize about the right use of violence? Incite the crowd to righteous anger against the Roman prefect who has committed yet another injustice? Call down God’s judgment on irresponsible rulers? Offer comfort to a people badly shaken by Pilate’s violent whims? Assure them that the dead have passed on to a better world? These would be valid responses to the problems of violence. They are the impulses that give rise to ethics, political activism, prophetic critique, lament, and hope in a more just world. Each of these is part of the Christian calling and witness.

Jesus doesn’t say or do these things. He teaches about something else- an attitude that is costlier than righteous anger.

While called to respond to an act of political violence, Jesus lifts up an example of destruction that is outside of human control. Eighteen Jerusalemites were killed when a tower collapsed on them. Violence is deliberate and gruesome, but it is also accidental and indiscriminate. There is an element of violence in the world that is outside of human control. We try to control and limit destruction. Today this incident would be followed by an investigation into the practices of building inspectors, a suit against irresponsible contractors, and push for reform in building codes. The inevitable fact is that we make our lives within buildings that age and wear; we make our lives on plates that shift, war, and crash.

Are the victims worse sinners than everyone else? No! - Jesus says. We would probably say the same. The Galileans were victims of an unjust use of power. The Jerusalemites at Siloam were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is not true that suffering happens to the worst sinners while the righteous remain unscathed. The world is not mechanized. Violence and death are not distributed as punishment for sin. Jesus rejects the unvoiced suspicion that good things happen to good people and bad things to bad.

It is hard to live in a chaotic and unordered world. There is always bad news of the outbreak of war, the escalation of conflict, another report about the disastrous effects of climate change. It is hard to understand undeserved suffering. There is a lingering temptation to order and to mechanize. Do we ever interpret our safety as a sign of the superiority of our own way of life? Do we assume that wellbeing is evidence of God’s tacit approval? I feel secure because I live in well-constructed buildings. I live among decent people. My leaders are not perfect, but our government does not allow violence against innocent citizens. I don’t get mixed up with the wrong sort of people. I protect myself and my family. Self-satisfied security protects us from the demands of violence; it’s something that happens to other people, in another neighborhood, on another continent.

We know the woes of our troubled planet, but there is a tendency to locate such problems outside of ourselves. We philosophize and theologize, protest and complain, ignore and grow apathetic. In such action and inaction, we fail to address a fundamental truth. The truth is that the sin of the world is in us too. Sin is not something other people do. You can’t dismiss sin as a problem of those without education or good values. Sin is not limited to tyrants, corrupt politicians, and greedy executives. We can’t respond from a position of comfortable privilege or moral superiority.

Jesus won’t allow his followers to make this question of violence and death abstract - it is always personal. Suffering, corruptibility, and death are in us. The ache of the poor, the sick, and the fearful is our ache. The seeds of greed and selfishness that prompt war and violence are in me, in you. We share in the violence of the oppressor and the suffering of the oppressed. We are bound to those who have perished. We are bound in our common humanity; by the flesh and the weakness we share, by the inevitability that we will meet the same end. We are all equal in the face of death, equal in our need to repent of our part in evil.

The parable of the fig tree is a challenge to the comfortable. The tree has stood for several years and yet it bears no fruit. The axe is at the foot of the tree, but the gardener speaks up - Wait. Wait one more year. I will tend and nurture the tree, I will make one final experiment before cutting it down. It is warning. The barren tree still stands, but it has not escaped judgment.

It is tempting to grow comfortable while we are allowed to stand. That we do not see the end, does not mean that it is not coming. That we don’t yet feel the impacts of our lifestyle on the environment, does not mean we will be safe forever. That war begins in a distant land does not mean that it will always so far away. Prosperity and security give us no advantage before God. Rather we will be called to give an account of how we have acquired and dispatched such gifts.

Jesus has one word for the self-satisfied, the despairing, the indignant: Repent. Unless you repent, you will perish just as they did. Jesus takes these events as a call to redirect the heart and life toward the purposes of God. We don’t need to abandon our rage and sorrow, but we do surrender them to a God whose anger and lament over violence is more fervent and more faithful than our own. Repentance means to make confession of our part of violence and our complicity in violent structures. We confess the things we have done and left undone. We confess that we have been unjust and indifferent while pursuing our own security in a violent world. Repentance is the category through which we interpret and respond to painful events. Repentance itself is painful as we realize that sin and death cut to the core of our being.

Jesus expects that the fig tree will bear fruit. John the Baptist preached about the fruits of repentance. The crowds asked him what he meant and he said- Anyone who has two coasts must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise. Then he told the tax collectors not to collect more than the amount prescribed, and told soldiers not to extort money through threats or accusations. The fruits of repentance are to be just and fair, and to give to the one in need.

John the Baptist does not tell the people to take up an ideology, does not launch a campaign under a grandiose slogan like World Peace or End Poverty. Those are worthy efforts, but they are not repentance. They keep the issues abstract and allow us to circumvent the problem of our own sinfulness. Repentance is a turn from selfishness to ethical concern for neighbors. The fruit of repentance is in ethical patterns of assistance, honesty, equity, in the prudent and moderate use of material possessions. The logic of these small acts is that repentance must be personal and physical, because sin and suffering are personal and physical.

I think it’s really hard to get this right. Jesus warns us against getting too comfortable. Do we then live in fear, expecting violence and judgment at every turn? Jesus reminds us of our sin. Are we then plagued with sorrow about our part in suffering? Jesus us tells us to repent. Do we then shoulder responsibility for every pain and sorrow? Must we earn God’s favor through the sincerity of our confessions or through many good deeds? No, this mandate would twist Christ’s message into its opposite. Christ’s work is a free movement of God’s love toward humans.

Have we forgotten where Jesus is? Have we forgotten where he is going? He is on the road. Some time ago he set his face to go to Jerusalem. He has embarked on a path that leads to violent death. In taking this journey, he has already put on the suffering of the Galileans and the Jerusalemites. He has taken up the sin of the crowds, the abuses of unjust power, the ache of a turbulent, crashing world. He himself will die at Pilate’s hands, even while bearing the sin of those who put him to death. He carries your sin, your suffering and the hurts of a world that are too great for you to bear. A word of fear and guilt has nothing to do with this good news. Christ’s teaching is sobering, but it is given by him who takes sin and suffering upon himself, and so it is not without hope. His message exhorts us to watchfulness, but never to despair.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Guest Homily: Ash Wednesday

By Rachel Daley, our seminary intern

Winter is the quietest of all seasons. Large summer barbecues give way to quiet evenings at home with only our closer friends. The cold makes things quiet. Carefree youth may venture out for the occasional snowball fight, but the sensible will pass their time in the warmth indoors. The snow makes things quiet too, muffling the noises of a hectic world. The earth clothes itself in subdued grays, whites, browns, pale blue - shedding, for now, its blazing greens, reds, and yellows.

My grandfather, a Canadian, might suggest that winter makes us stronger. When he remembers the hardships his family faced, he tells me that they survived because of the strength of his mother, my great-grandmother, Kate Pike. To explain the source of her unyielding determination, my grandfather will say, “Well, she was a Newfoundlander, you see.”

Newfoundland is a large island in the North Atlantic Ocean known for long, brutal winters. My great-grandmother came from a place where winter was not peace and tranquility. Winter was a battle against ice fogs, freezing rain, and of course for the many who were fishermen, rough seas. After such adversity, Kate Pike was not to be undone when life proved difficult.

Though I don’t always like winter, I’ve come to think that it is a necessary part of life. However, that view may represent the sensibilities of my Canadian ancestors and you are free to disagree. Preferences of weather and climate aside, we certainly do need times of quiet and solitude. Nor can entirely escape the dark, quiet times, times when we struggle for our very survival.

As Christians we have set aside a season for silence and self-examination. We call it Lent, and like winter, it can be a difficult time. We’re something like the Newfoundlanders, perhaps, made strong through centuries of cold, dark struggle.

Like the chill of winter that keeps us inside, Lent is a season to shut the door to the world, to tend to our souls, to pray from the secret recesses of our hearts. We withdraw from religious displays and the ostentation of the streets to be alone with our Father. We seek out solitude and refuge from our noisy, demanding world. To those who would pray rightly Jesus commands, “Go into your room. Shut the door.” Examine your private room, turn over its contents, cleanse the heart of all invasions and interruptions. Pray secretly, earnestly, with single-minded striving for God your Father.

Lent is not like the beginning of winter when we are more inclined to relish the falling snowflakes. Those were busy days of sparkle and holiday cheer. We greet Lent in the middle of winter, as the fresh, shimmery snow turns to dirty slush. Where I grew up in the Midwest, days and weeks and months will pass without a trace of sunshine. By mid-February, the collective consciousness grows cranky; the winter blues set in. The days take on the monotony of the cloudy, grey skies above us, we long for warm air and bare feet, everyone is living at the edge of their skin. Lent coincides not with our December eagerness for snow angels and igloos, but with our tired February spirits that yearn for the day we will step outdoors without a winter coat.

Lent is a time when we remember the weakness of our own bodies. We meditate on the dust from which we were formed. Traditionally it has been a time for fasting or for doing without some luxury we enjoy. We fast so that by denying the body, God might feed the soul.

Now try explaining that logic to my childhood friend Amanda Wilwert. She complained that Lent did nothing except increase the general irritability of her household as her parents stayed clear of soda and chocolate. Certainly the fasting Jesus describes seems out-of-sync with today’s world. Christ would teach us that the path toward spiritual growth does not bypass our physical bodies - their discipline or their weakness. We give up the earthly things that rule us so that hearts may hunger for God alone. In the frayed nerves and noisy stomachs that a lack of food, caffeine, or sunlight might induce, we begin to realize how desperately we need God to sustain us.

This season reminds us that our bodies are ash, lifeless without the breath of God’s nostrils. We remember our limitations and our dependence, and, yet strangely perhaps, these limits are a comfort to us. We are dust, dependent on God in all ways, even for our very righteousness. We seek to do what is right, but when we do good with the right hand, the left hand knows and we congratulate ourselves. Jesus commands us to a righteousness that is not concerned with itself, so habitual as to be unaware of itself.

True righteousness gives for the sake of the one in need, prays out of need and for communion with God, fasts to glorify God alone. Of such goodness we are not capable, even our best efforts are imperfect and stained with sin. Repentance comes not so much in striving, but in weakness. Repentance takes root as we abandon the pretense that we will ever deserve God’s grace.

Even so, there is so much grace. Christ promises that in the cold, silence of winter, God will make your heart new. In struggle, in doubt, and in hunger, God will feed and comfort you, will meet you with the force of a sharp, winter wind. Let your heart draw near to God in repentance, that in this Lenten season God may plant the fruits of gratitude and righteousness.