Friday, October 18, 2019

What if the Church...Cared More About the Path of Jesus than Beliefs About Jesus?

Image result for path of jesus classical artWhen someone walks out of your sermon in protest, you know you're doing your job.  When they argue with you in Bible study, you know you've gotten something right.  Because you're challenging their beliefs, making them think, calling them to step out of a smaller religion into a larger faith.  This is one of those times, when you may just walk out of this sermon--but I hope you don't do it without lingering in the doorway and hearing the whole thing.  Because it'll challenge you and help you to grow.  Today, I'm asking the question...

What if the church cared more about the path of Jesus than beliefs about Jesus?

That's a tough question, isn't it?

Because we've been led to understand that beliefs about Jesus are what faith is all about.  When somebody says, "Do you believe in Jesus?" what they're really asking is something like, "Do you believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?  Do you believe that Jesus was born of a virgin?  That all the miracles recorded in the Bible are factual?  That Jesus died as a propitiation for your sins, that he rose from the dead and now sits at the right hand of the Father?  Do you believe that Jesus will return one day--and if so, what brand of eschatology do you hold to?"  People want to use creeds or other denominational faith statements as a litmus test to determine who's in and who's out of the club.  But Jesus never intended it to be that way.

Jesus makes faith very simple, insisting we come to him with the faith of a child.  "Believe in me," he says--intending no doctrinal statements at all, but simply asking his children to trust him.

That's the kind of thing that'll make you want to storm out of the sanctuary, slamming the door so that everyone else listening to the sermon can know just how angry it makes you.  Because it just might rattle your cage to hear that Jesus cares far more about you trusting him than he cares about your theology.  

Theology is easy.  Trusting God is hard.  Anybody can learn theology through books and the internet.  Trusting God only comes when you're willing to jump into God's arms like a child surprising a poor parent in a swimming pool.  "Catch me, Daddy!" my kid screamed--and it was only then that I turned and saw them already in the air, heading for me.  It's that kind of childlike faith, knowing without a shred of doubt that Daddy is going to catch them, that Jesus wants from his followers.  And you can't get that from a theology book.

Living that way means you're going to trust Jesus enough to want to live the way he lived.  That means loving the unloveable, forgiving the unforgivable, touching the untouchable, welcoming the unwelcome.  It means embodying God's love and grace to a world that doesn't know it and doesn't necessarily deserve it.  It means giving up stereotypes, bigotry, and political agenda, to embrace the sacred Other Person and see God in them.

Yeah--theology is so much easier.  That's why the Church has so often preferred theology, over following the path of Jesus.  All you have to do is agree with the right propositional statements, and you're in!  Of course, when it's all about theology, love can go right out the window.  The results have been things like the Inquisition--you remember, when the church enforced its good theology by torturing people until they either rattled off the right doctrines or died resisting.  Theology happens when arrogant people try to figure God out, like fleas trying to figure out the dog they're on---no---like fleas trying to figure out the celluar makeup of dogs.  Theology is an exercise in the impossible.  

Am I saying that we shouldn't engage in theology?  No--I am cautioning that we should do so with a lot of humility  And I'm saying that we shouldn't let all the things that we KNOW ABOUT GOD overshadow the way we KNOW GOD.  And we shouldn't use theology as a litmus test to determine who's in and who's out.  Jesus never said, "They'll know you're my disciples because you're a premillenialist, or because you use the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to understand matters of religion."  No, he said, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:35).”

It's this love for one another that will show the world that you're on the path of Jesus--not the things you say you belive.  It's this love that'll make you get up and walk out of the sanctuary--not in protest--but so that you can go out and embrace the world.  

Sunday, October 6, 2019

What if the Church...Valued Doubt as Much as Faith?

"Don't question God," my Sunday school teacher told me when I was young.  Maybe you were told the same thing.  What they really mean is that you'll be a better robotic follower if you stop thinking so much.  Of course, they wouldn't quite put it that way.  But it's true that free thought threatens the status quo, and my Sunday school teacher felt threatened when I asked questions she couldn't answer from her Bible or her teacher's manual.  Asking good questions was mistranslated as "questioning God," which my teacher deemed a sin. Unfortunately, the church has spent thousands of years squashing good questions when those questions proved difficult.

Maurice A. Finocchiaro's article "400 Years Ago the Catholic Church Prohibited Copernicanism" is a good read, and deserves the few minutes it takes to follow the link, once you're done here.  In it, the author discusses Galileo's trouble with the Church when he taught Copernicus' view that the earth revolved around the sun, rather than the other way around.  In 1616, the Inquisition forced Galileo to retract his teaching.  In 1632, when he could not keep his questions quiet, Galileo published a book contrasting the Copernican and Ptolemaic views.  Finocchiaro writes:

This book was a reasonable, clever, and indirect attempt to circumvent the 1616 prohibitions. Unfortunately, Galileo did not succeed. The Inquisition summoned him to Rome, and the trial proceedings lasted from April to June 1633. He was found guilty of suspected heresy, for defending the earth’s motion, and thus denying the authority of Scripture.
“Suspected heresy” was not as serious a religious crime as “formal heresy,” and so his punishment was not death by being burned at the stake, but rather house arrest and the banning of the Dialogue.

I wish this were a rare view of the church's attempts to silence good questions from good people--but unfortunately, it's not.  Historically, the Church has thought that questions are a threat to faith, rather than viewing them as a means to grow in faith.  But what if the church valued doubt as much as faith?  What if the church valued good questions over good answers?

I know many good people today who describe themselves as "former Christians," who reached that point because they had some good questions that were wrong for them to ask.  They were told that they couldn't be good Christians if they inquired whether evolution could be true, whether it was okay to be gay, or whether God were more like The Force than a grandfather in the sky.  Since they couldn't turn off the questions in their head, and they were told they were bad Christians for questioning, they decided to throw in the towel, accept the moniker of "bad Christian" until they finally described themselves as "former Christian."  Then, as a result of their doubts, some were removed from positions within the church, or felt they had to remove themselves, lest they be removed.

Is this what Jesus would have done, when encountering people who doubt?  From his conversations with people like Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman at the Well, Zacchaeus, and others, I believe Jesus would have engaged in compassionate conversation, without forcing his views on anybody.  In the right timing, in the right way, Jesus would express his perspective, but Jesus also welcomed the questions and opinions of others.  One of his disciples, often called "Doubting Thomas" might have felt ashamed of his questions--but while Jesus expressed blessing for those who could believe without seeing, Jesus also accommodated Thomas' questions and met him where he was.

So today I ask, What if the church valued doubt as much as faith?  What if we understood that questions aren't so much a challenge to faith, as much as a means of growth?  If, at the end of a person's questioning, they come to conclusions that are different from yours, if you value their doubt then you're going to honor their journey.  You're going to realize that Jesus doesn't want cookie-cutter followers, but people who are strong enough to think for themselves and relate to him in their own way.  No two people are alike--and neither is their faith or even lack of faith.  But to judge somebody for where they are on their journey is something Jesus never did--and something we should never do.  

So, what if the church valued doubt as much as faith?  We'd probably have better conversations, better relationships, and more engaged church members.  We'd recognize that the Church is made up of both believers and doubters, and we'd embrace both with equal love.  And maybe, just maybe, we'd allow the audacious questions of doubting people to lead us to consider some truths we never believed possible.  Maybe we'll find out that the earth really does revolve around the sun.  Maybe we'll find out that science is right on a few other things, and that we don't have to run away from that.  Maybe the less the Church runs away from answers that come from good questions, they more relevant we'll be in today's society.  We'll look less like a dinosaur and more like an explorer.  We'll learn to ask good questions ourselves--and we'll find answers that will help us to grow.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

What if the Church...Embraced Paradox with Humility?

In the church, you CAN have your cake and eat it too.  I learned that in forty-odd years of potluck suppers.  When bringing food to a potluck, I've found it's best NOT to eat what I brought.  It's better to eat what others brought, and let others eat what I brought.  And when I want to have some of what I brought, the fact that I didn't have any at the meal probably means there will be leftovers for me to bring home.  And if you're in ministry, you're probably given leftovers of other people's cakes as well.

So you CAN have your cake, and other people's cakes, and eat them too.

For two thousand years, the church has embraced paradoxes like this.  Well, maybe not quite like this.  The church's paradoxes seem a little harder to wrangle.  Things like:

  • God is three, and God is also one.
  • The Church is Jewish, and the Church is Gentile.
  • Lose your life if you want to save it.
  • God is in Heaven, but God is here.
  • Heaven is far away, but Heaven is here.
  • Love the ones you hate; hate the ones you love.
  • The one who wants to be great must become a servant.
  • "Jesus is coming soon!"  But it's been 2,000 years.  "Yes, but He's coming soon!"
  • Jesus, the Prince of Peace, said, "I've come not to bring peace, but a sword."
  • Take a yoke upon you if you want to find rest.
  • God exalts the lowly and humbles the exalted.
  • Strength is found in weakness.
  • Salvation is through faith, not good works--but you'll know a saved person by their good works.

These are but a few of the paradoxes of the church.  Theologians have been battling each other over such paradoxes since the beginning.  When I say battling--I really mean warring.  As in killing each other.  Saul of Tarsus, who later became Saint Paul, started out as a persecuter of the church and a murderer of believers because of their doctrine.  Such zeal has come down through church history so that nearly every generation is marked by Christians killing Christians because of what they believe...when maybe they're both right.

So my question today is, "What if the church embraced paradox with humility?"

It's a very simple profound thing to be able to say to a hard question, "Y'know--I don't know."  Instead of thinking we need to answer every hard question, maybe it's better to say, "I'll share my ideas with you, and I'll receive some of the ideas you're sharing with me--and we can both go home with our own stuff and also some leftovers."

Because in the church, you can have your cake and eat it too.

When I was in drama class, we played a game called, "Yes, And..."  It's a simple game.  Each person in a group presents a preposterous statement.  The next participant's response may inwardly be "No--that's ridiculous," but the object of the game is to say, "Yes, and..." and then present the next step, which may either normalize things or be an equally preposterous statement.  An alternative way to play the game is for each participant to do a preposterous thing, and have the next player play off of that preposterous thing as if it's normal, or in a creative new way.  The object is to practice collaboration, and not competition.  The game may look like this, in a group of twelve participants:

  1. I was talkin with my Aunt Betty, who is a fish.  I love her so much!
  2. Yes, and she's married to a lighthouse keeper.
  3. Yes, and she has twelve children.
  4. Yes, and one of those children is an astronaut.
  5. Yes, and he took me on a trip to the moon.
  6. Yes, and I ate some of the moon, which is made of cheese.
  7. Yes, and I love cheese!
  8. Yes, and I'm lactose intolerant.
  9. Yes, I am, too--but my doctor says it can be cured by standing on my head.
  10. Yes, and I do that while I'm in Yoga class.
  11. Yes, and your Aunt Betty is my Yoga instructor.
  12. Yes, and I love Yoga so much!

This might sound like a nonsense game, but it encourages players to learn to cooperate rather than compete.  Instead of reacting to someone else's statement with an automatic, "No--that can't possibly be," this game encourages players to validate another person's story, and build upon it.  If you want to change the overall narrative, that's fine--redirect it without being confrontational.  But see how the story begins with love and ends with love?  This is what happens when we honor one another's story, one another's perspective.

In the beloved movie, Forrest Gump, the titular character addresses the paradoxical theological question of predestination versus free will.  He says, "I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floatin' around accidental-like on a breeze. But I, I think maybe it's both."  I love what he does there--he embraces paradox with humility.  He doesn't have to declare one wrong in order to make the other right.  In typical Gump fashion, he holds both to be true, and says, "Yes, And..."

No matter what church you attend, you're going to have people with different perspectives.  We spend a whole lot of time arguing over who has the best theology, the best way of "doing church," or "doing life."  What if we played a game of "Yes, And..."?  By doing so, we'd be more welcoming.  We'd run fewer people away from the church by our opinionated ideas.  By embracing paradox with humility, we'd learn to say, "Y'know, I don't know."  And perhaps, just perhaps, the church would learn to be a bit more real.