Why do we have faith? Why do we read the Bible? Why are we Christian? If I were to informally poll a group of Christians, I would guess that among the top answers to these questions would be something like this: “It gives me certainty about life,” or “the Bible gives me answers to life’s toughest questions,” or even “I’m a Christian because it gives me the assurance that I will go to heaven when I die.” Now these may or may not be your answers. There’s hundreds of ways we can answer questions like these. These answers are no less as unique as the people we ask. But, we all know that answers such as the ones I include here are at least fairly common in our circles of faith.
Lately, I’ve begun a personal research project that seeks to look at questions like these in what I hope are new ways. I’m not the first to do this-I’m reading books and articles by folks who, like me, are left unsatisfied by the simple answers we give for important questions about faith. Over the last 6 months of ministry in a local church, I’ve encountered too many people for whom simple answers cannot carry the freight for the questions they have about faith and life. Recently, I was having a conversation with a friend from another town and I told them about this project I’ve been undertaking. Their answer was simply, “Well you should just have more faith.” Now before I write my friend off for being insensitive, we should at least recognize that this has been the traditional answer offered to people who dared to question the legitimacy of a faith grounded on the shallow foundation of simple answers. It’s really a circular argument. Have more faith? I’m struggling with the nature of faith-how am I supposed to just “have” more faith when I’m not really sure about it in the first place?
What if we have faith, not for answers, but rather for questions? Think about it for a minute. What if the purpose of faith was to form us into the people who could, or even would, ask the tough questions of life. You see, I wonder if our simplistic approaches to faith give the freedom for people to offer simple answers in light of the difficult and complex situations of life. Think about the asinine answers offered by some “so-called” Christians for why something like Hurricane Katrina or 9/11 would happen. More closer to home, think about all of the times others, with well-meaning and loving intent, offered simplistic answers in light of events that shook our lives. Things like, “everything happens for a reason,” or “remember that God has a plan for everything” can be more damaging than we would ever intend. Think about how many times we ourselves have done this to others.
You see, I’m beginning to wonder if a truly faithful faith (redundancy is intended here) would give us credence to not only question, but also to live into the questions we have. Instead of searching for an answer to everything, as is the compulsion of all modern people, what if the purpose of our faith was to question together the complexities of life and faith? And maybe, just maybe, our faith is most faithfully lived out as we not only accept those who dare to question, but join in and give voice to our own questions together as a community.
Here’s a good video from Phyllis Tickle. She makes the case that we’re in the middle of a “Great Emergence” in Christianity where Protestantism, as we know it at least, is changing forever. It’s very insightful and she offers great historical background to strengthen her case.
For me, it speaks to where I see faith and religion heading and where I want to help guide it in my role as a minister. There are options for smaller segments or you can watch the whole thing. Enjoy!
As I write this, I’m sitting at my desk at the church during a break between the gauntlet of Christmas Eve services. We have 3 services throughout the course of the day. I spent yesterday trying to finish the last-minute shopping and cleaning (I shamefully left my wife to finish the cleaning portion while I spent my day at the church today). My family will be in town tomorrow afternoon and we’ll celebrate an unorthodox Christmas together. The season has come and will soon be gone just as fast as it came. Lights will come down and the music of the season will soon leave my car radio and the shopping malls for another year. Being a pastor, I have found the joy and burden of having more than enough sweets to spare.
In the quiet moments that have been few and far between this season, I’ve found myself wondering what does any of this matter? I mean really, in the grand scheme of things what does Christmas even matter? If we reduce it to a day where we can recieve and give gifts, then fine. Let it be that. Most pastors can probably admit to the struggle of participating in the tug-of-war between the Holy Day and Holiday Season. But it’s not just about materialism we struggle against. If we’re all truly honest, I think we can admit that doubt over the true meaning of the season is very much alive and well. And it’s not a matter of the secular vs. the holy-it’s more a battle over whether we really know what’s actually “holy” about this day in the first place.
I was sitting at dinner with my wife the other night, and she raised a very good question. “I think the whole ‘God did a great thing on Christmas’ is good, but what about Mary and Joseph,” she asked. “What about them,” I responded. She said, “Well they sure did a big thing-having the child and keeping him safe, leaving Bethlehem to go to Egypt and then back to Nazareth. I don’t think they get enough credit sometimes. They kept him alive against all odds.”
And then it occured to me. We celebrate Christmas as though it were this one-time event. It’s a yearly ritual where we recall something great that God did long ago and far away. But what if it’s not supposed to be that way? What if there’s more to the story than we realize?
Christmas is when hope is born anew. Mary and Joseph knew than meets the eye. They truly did something extraordinary to see that Hope would be protected no matter what. What do we do at Christmas to do the same? Is this simply a ritual we do where we tell an ancient story in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the rest of our Christmas duties? Or, is this our opportunity to look to something truly extraordinary-larger than even our own lives-and say, “Yes, this is the true hope of life as we know it!” There is so much in our everyday lives that tell us this can’t be so. But Christmas, of all the seasons, is our chance to look and point to something greater than our everyday lives, and declare that in spite of everything else around us, hope is alive.
And we carry this hope beyond just this day. We carry it to the far regions of our lives with courage. There will be a lot in life that will try to extinguish this hope. But we carry it anyways. After all, once we’ve experienced this hope of Christmas-the hope of God-how can we not be changed by it?
Advent 4: Matthew 1:18-25 (follow link for Scripture)
Have you ever wondered why Joseph was such a silent man? We don’t know that much about him. We know Jesus has a father who at least helps name him, take him to synagogue, and observe Jewish ritual early in his life. But we never hear much out of Joseph, do we? However, what we don’t hear from Joseph, we can see in his action. We’re told by Matthew that Joseph is encountered by God 3 times in a dream (Matt. 1:20-24; 2:13-14, 19-21) and each time Joseph obeys the word from God.
But you know, there’s something else in our text that just doesn’t make sense. “Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace…” (Matt 1:19). Wait a minute! What??? It doesn’t take us long to read what little is said of Joseph to see that he is indeed a righteous man who knew and observed his Jewish law. Joseph observed the law that after 8 days you were to circumcise a child and name them (Luke 2:21). He took his family every year to the Temple in Jerusalem for the Passover even though it was many miles from Nazareth (Luke 2:41). He observed the bar mitzvah ritual when Jesus was 12 by taking him to the Temple (Luke 2:42).
So if this man, who didn’t say much, knew his Scripture and tradition so well, how do we explain Matthew 1:19. “What’s to explain,” you ask? Joseph was a “righteous” man who knew his Scripture and religious tradition. Surely he had read Deuteronomy 22??? You know, the text that tells us that if a virgin becomes pregnant by lying with another man then you are to take her in the street and stone her to death. We have to carefully read vv. 19 and 20 to see that there was indeed a time between when Joseph knew about Mary’s pregnancy and resolved to dismiss her quietly and when he learned the whole story. In other words, Joseph had already made up his mind not to adhere to the law of Deuteronomy before he was ever encountered by an angel of God. This “righteous” man decided to break the law in the name of love and mercy before he ever knew he was a part of the greatest plan God had ever hatched.
May it be, this Christmas, that we look to Joseph as our example for the season. May we look at people through the lenses of love and mercy and not legalities that would seek to destroy them. May we be open to the urgings and voice of God that we might be the people changed by Christmas in such a way that we love and accept others in spite of our strongest inclinations. May it be that we seek to know the character of the God found in Scripture rather than cherry-picking particular verses with malicious intent to hurt another. And who knew, ‘ol silent Joseph would be the one to truly point us to the crib of the babe who would love and show mercy to all of us in spite of everything else.
Advent 3: Matthew 11:2-11 (follow link to find Scripture for this week)
I love a good action hero. You know the kind of hero I’m referring to. The strong person both of action and conviction who rails against whatever the institutional evil of the world might be. As a culture we just love this type of hero. Prophets are these types of heroes who seek to shake up the status quo and bring down barriers that keep people out. We love these kinds of heros so much that we long to be among the disenfranchised just so we can claim to be on the side of the hero. In short, we just love a good hero who comes in with guns blazing and rights the wrongs of the world.
John the Baptist would be a biblical example of such a hero. He’s a man who wears animal skin, doesn’t shave, and eats honey and locusts. I sometimes imagine John the Baptist being the Chuck Norris of the Gospels. He’s daring enough to call the religious leaders of the day a “brood of vipers” as he “warns them of the wrath to come” (Matthew 3:7). He speaks of one who “baptizes with fire” and whose “winnowing fork will clear the threshing floor” (Matthew 3:11-12). Yeah, John’s my kind of hero in the Bible-a “take no prisoners” kind of guy.
But in our text for this week we come across a peculiar passage. Our hero we love, the one who spits in the eye of the religious establishment, is now in prison. We know that he has friends come to see him. But they’re not coming to help hatch a plan to bust out of the big house. They’re not coming to help conspire on how to kill Herod and overthrow the powers of evil that put him in jail. No, they’re sent from that jail with specific instructions: go ask Jesus if he’s really the one we’ve been waiting on.
That’s no way for our hero to be, is it? We like heros who know the answers. We like heros who take charge and make right all that’s wrong. We don’t like heros who are unsure of themselves. This doesn’t fit our mold of what a hero should look like. Bring back that guy who calls religious leaders ugly names and lives in the wilderness. We can do without this unsure and instrospective John.
Every year Christmas comes and goes and marks yet another year of our lives. In the Church we all too often make the mistake of assuming that the world knows the story and think our role is to redicule materialism as a means of telling this story more clearly. That’s not entirely wrong. But Matthew lets us in on another need of the season in our passage for today. Our hero, John, is our hero because he asks the question that should be asked every year. Maybe Advent isn’t about simply proclaiming “good new of great joy” every year. Maybe it’s about be willing to be vulnerable enough to ask, “is this really ‘good news?'” And, “if this is good news then how do we know it?” Too often we in the church act as though we have been let into the treasure chest that contains all the answers about faith. We seek to hoard them and share only as we see fit.
The truth is, anyone who professes to have an active faith life finds they often have more questions than answers. So maybe John is still our hero of the story. Maybe Advent is a time when we need a hero to do something as simple and profound as give us permission to ask the hard questions of faith without fear of being ridiculed for doing so? Maybe John asks the most important questions of Advent? Maybe we won’t be able to truly appreciate the baby in the manger until we know we can bring everything we have to this child-even those questions of faith that haunt us.
We’re in the 2nd week of Advent. This season is quickly passing us by. For those of us in the church, we can assume that we’re all at least packed and ready to go to Bethlehem for our annual visit. Maybe some of us have even begun the journey. It’s a familiar visit. It’s one that promises “silent nights” and manger scenes with snow-laced barns and halos over the holy family’s heads. Yes, it’s a wonder how quickly this visit comes every year. We find ourselves scurrying around to get ourselves together for the journey. It seems to come sooner and sooner with each passing year.
On this second leg of our trip to Bethlehem we’re called to make a pit stop in the desert. There we have to meet a strange preacher with an even stranger message. We might think, “Oh no, not another preacher!” Maybe we can just stay on the bus and not do this part of the journey? We’re so tired of hearing preachers. So many have showed us that preaching is prime ground for manipulation and wealth accumulation. We joke about how poor preachers are but the truth is, everyone knows we get tax breaks for being preachers. It’s really not all that bad to be a preacher and make a living in the grand scheme of things. So forgive us if we’re not too enthused about stopping to hear another preacher with another tired message.
John, we’re told, is a preacher who’s a little different than many we’ve probably encountered before. He wears animals skins for clothing. He eats honey and locusts. He doesn’t shave and preaches like one who doesn’t care if he offends the whole world. At least we can go hear this strange preacher, maybe just once, if for nothing else than to see the spectacle.
And what exactly does John have to say to us as we make our way to Bethlehem? “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.” Well, what if I’m in the church? What if I’ve made this journey before? Doesn’t that mean we’ve covered that item? I knew this would be a waste of time. Yet another preacher with yet another tired message. Really?
My wife is currently participating in a small group study called Advent Conspiracy. She’s taught many of the mind-blowing lessons of that study of how much money we, as a society, spend at Christmas and for all the wrong reasons. Maybe John’s message of repentance has nothing to do with “the sweet by and by” as we in the church have painted it. Maybe it actually has something to do with right now. Maybe this is a more relevant message than we give it credit for?
I have a good friend who preached a sermon last Ash Wednesday and used an illustration that’s just stuck with me. He talked about how he learned to do roofing on a college ministry mission trip. The interesting thing about roofing, he noted, was that quality roofing means you sometimes have to peal the shingles off to the roof’s original state. This way you’re not just patching the job by placing another shingle awkwardly on top of others. Instead, you’re fixing the problem by taking the roof back to its original life and the rebuilding it.
I think that might be what John means in his message of repentance. It’s a hard message to hear on our way to Bethlehem. But it’s even harder when we’re weighed down with the baggage of unfulfilled fantasies of happiness from presents and materials. Maybe John is telling us to live our lives by simpler means. Maybe we really should just focus on living lives of love and generosity for others. After all, at the end of the day, our stuff and ambitions are only smokescreens of a life of want and desire-lives that do not really exist. No, we’re both harshly and lovingly reminded in Advent that all we really have is God.
How many of us, when we expect persons between the ages of 20-35 to come to our churches, expect them to be fluent in the Christian life before they get there? How often do we simply assume that everyone has at least been raised in the church and thereby are able to catch on to very odd stuff we do on Sunday mornings? I’m not sure we in the church really understand what a leap of faith it is for a young person to come to church these days. For instance, eighteen percent of college students have never attended church before in their lives, but we too easily expect they will know exactly what to do when they step over the threshold of our sanctuary. They are supposed to know the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed. They need to know what words like the “narthex” mean. They have to know exactly how they are supposed to take communion, or if they are welcome to the table at all. And then they are supposed to know and interpret the many unwritten social cues to which our churches adhere.
It’s important to meet people where they are. Theologian Howard Thurman wrote about his relationship with his landlady. “you have to meet people at the level of the ashtray,” he writes. There was tension between Thurman and his landlady and Thurman wasn’t sure what to do about it. Then he noticed how his landlady dumped out the lobby ashtrays each time there was a butt in it. She was fastidious about it, and so Thurman began to pay attention to those ashtrays. When he walked through the apartment lobby, each time a wayward butt was left in a tray, he took a moment to dump the ashes. Because he took the time to notice something that the landlady cared about, because he began to work with her, their relationship mended and strengthened.
Churches today rack their brains on how to “attract” people my age (20s and 30s). We attempt to program our way into their lives through all sorts of cliche methods of trying to coax them into our buildings. “It’s Free Keychain Sunday this week! All persons between the ages of 20-35 get a free keychain when they turn in their worship bulletins at the door.” “Maybe we should sing songs that sound like stuff they listen to on the radio,” we wonder. “Maybe that will get them here?” Meanwhile our churches grow more and more gray each and every Sunday. At the same time, we’re told that our generation (20-35) is now the largest generation in the American population. So where’s the disconnect?
Maybe, we could take a nod from Dr. Thurman and just seek to meet people at whatever “ashtray” they find themselves caring about these days? It could be issues of justice. Maybe young people around your church want to see a community that’s more mission-minded; one that is visible where the community’s heartbeat can be found? Maybe young people around your church long for a community that’s representative of the amazing tapestry of human life found in the diversity of the community that worships together-one that is both skin and soul-deep? Maybe young people around your church long to have a place to bring their deep questions of faith-a place that won’t judge them for having legitimate questions and won’t belittle them with simplistic answers?
You see, maybe young folks are looking for more than just a church they can join as a club similar to the Rotary or Kiwanis. Maybe, just maybe, they’re looking for a beloved community where all of God’s children find a place to exist and thrive while sharing the load of caring for the many “ashtrays” of life.