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The following is an excerpt from a sermon on the Christmas story in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, by Frederick Buechner (New York, N.Y.: Harper Collins Publishers, 2007, pp.23-24).
Buechner begins by describing the first scene of Enrico Fellini’s 1960 film, La Dolce Vita, in which a helicopter carries a life-size statue of Jesus over the outskirts of Rome toward its destination at the Vatican.
Children running in the street, construction workers and girls on rooftops in bikinis all see the statue, wave and shout, “Ehi, è Gesù!”
Nobody laughed during that moment because there was something about that face, for a few seconds there on the screen, that made them be silent—the face hovering there in the sky and the outspread arms.
For a moment, not very long to be sure, there was no sound, as if the face were their face somehow, their secret face that they had never seen before but that they knew belonged to them, or the face that they had never seen before but that they knew, if only for a moment, they belonged to.
I think that is much of what the Christian faith is. It is for a moment, just for a little while, seeing the face and being still, that is all….
Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in a stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of humankind.
If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too.
And this means that we are never safe, that there is no place where we can hide from God, no place where we are safe from his power to break in two and recreate the human heart, because it is just where he seems most helpless that he is most strong, and just where we least expect him that he come most fully.
For those who believe in God, it means, this birth, that God himself is never safe from us, and maybe that is the dark side of Christmas, the terror of the silence. He comes in such a way that we can always turn him down, as we could crack the baby’s skull like an eggshell or nail him up when he gets to big for that.
God comes to us in the hungry people we do not have to feed, comes to us in the lonely people we do not have to comfort, comes to us in all the desperate human need of people everywhere that we are always free to turn our backs upon.
It means that God puts himself at our mercy not only in the sense of the suffering that we can cause him by our blindness and coldness and cruelty, but the suffering we can cause him simply by suffering ourselves.
Because that is the way love works, and when someone we love suffers, we suffer with him, and we would not have it otherwise because the suffering and the love are one, just as it is with God’s love for us.
And so it is.
In a recent post on Quaker Pagan Reflections, the blog he shares with his helpmate Cat, Peter Bishop of Mt. Toby (MA) Friends Meeting has given me a phrase which I believe speaks to the heart of Quaker faith and practice.
Peter writes about “how difficult it is to express in words what worshiping in silence means to us,” even across the perceived barriers within Quakerism itself:
I see [some] Friends…using Christian language and Biblical reference points to anchor themselves in the deep, spiritual dimensions of their practice. It works for them—works so well, in fact, that if they were asked to give up the particularity of Christian myth, they would feel robbed of their voice, unable to speak about their religious experience at all.
That same Christian language is deeply alienating to [other] Friends, who often come to Quakerism as refugees from Christian churches of the kind Jesus was talking about when he said,
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” (Matthew 23:13 NIV)
Talking to one another across this kind of theological divide is hard. It is hard enough that many liberal Friends shy away from talking at all about what happens in worship, afraid of giving offense or of being offended, afraid of being shut down or told to shut up. We worship together in the deep intimacy of silence, but…often we rely on mind-reading when really we need to be talking.
Peter continues by describing the situation in New England Yearly Meeting.
As part of both Friends General Conference and Friends United Meeting, NEYM includes a wide spectrum from the very liberal to the evangelical. In past years, I used to describe us as “teetering on the brink of schism,” but this past year we seemed to push through to a place of greater unity.
The phrase that came out of the 2011 Sessions was “listening in tongues,” and it describes the way liberals and evangelicals can try to hear into one another’s language, metaphors, and mythology, getting down to the root experience of worship that we all share.
There is the key phrase: listening in tongues.
Peter describes clearly the dilemma of all people of benevolent faith in this pluralistic modern world. The first Friends all “spoke Christian”—though in bold and idiosyncratic ways—because all the Europeans of their day shared the common Christian mythos. Now, knowing that people across the world express such faith in many religious and non-religious languages, we long to affirm and embrace them all, yet we often do not know how to hear or to be heard across the boundaries of our differing belief systems.
I experience this dilemma in my own meeting, as well as in the larger non-Quaker world. The predominant mode of public expression both in meeting and among my many friends and colleagues is liberal humanism. Even if individual faith and practice arise for some from private religious experience, these dear folks do as Peter describes so well. They never speak publicly in religious language. They rarely describe whatever faith sustains them in private.
I share this shyness, yet increasingly it leaves me uncomfortable. My discomfort has to do with the disconnect between the way I experience my faith and practice personally and the carefully non-religious language of my meeting and my friends. I am universalist in my beliefs, yet I am also one of those Peter describes as “using Christian language and Biblical reference points to anchor themselves in the deep, spiritual dimensions of their practice.”
My father was a Lutheran minister, my mother, the daughter of a Lutheran minister. They were both 1950s liberals. In their parenting they witnessed to a welcoming God who knows no boundaries between people, not a jealous God who imposes orthodoxies. It was therefore easy and natural for Christianity to become my “native language” of faith and practice.
By the time I reached seminary in 1972, though, I was wrestling with Peter’s dilemma. Along with my teachers and fellow students, I was seeing more deeply into the personal and communal realities to which Christian theology and practice at its best can point. Even so, I stumbled over this religion’s perceived exclusion of the non-Christian people whom I had come to know and affirm in college.
More immediately crucial for me, inner truth was finally compelling me to come out as a homosexual man. At that time the Lutheran church did not yet welcome such people into the ministry. After one term I left seminary, found a gay-friendly community in which to live and work, and gradually learned to integrate this essential dimension of myself into my personal and public life. Without intending to, though, in the process of coming out of the gay closet I hid Christianity away in a closet of its own. My faith in God went with me, but for several decades I could not in good conscience use the religious language of my birth.
What brought me back to that language, some years after my becoming a convinced Friend, was the leading to reclaim the religious awareness of my childhood. Not the belief system, but the experience. Doing so revealed to me that the Jesus of my childhood—Jeshua, the historical man of Galilee—is still my master and teacher.
I know privately what such religious metaphors represent for me. I do not mean “master and teacher” in the doctrinally defined Christian sense, nor do I mean it in the mundane sense of a historical “wise man” whose teachings I follow. In the way my brain uses its imaginative powers to symbolize and personify transformative inner experience, it is as if I know Jesus as a person who is still present, teaching me.
Here is Peter’s dilemma on the most intimate level. How do I speak with either orthodox Christians or refugees from Christendom or non-Christians or non-religious people, without their learned associations with “Christian language and Biblical reference points” getting in the way of hearing what I actually long to share with them? How do I hear them past my own assumptions about the deeper meaning of their various languages?
Some years ago on this blog I wrote:
I have come to understand that no religious language, whether in scripture, in doctrine, in written or spoken ministry, or in personal testimony, describes the ultimate Reality in any objective way. Rather, at its best such language can only describe the human experience of interaction with that Reality.
This is not because the Real is unknowable, but because human language is limited. Even at its most articulate, the human brain is not able to abstract its intimate experience into concepts and symbols which are at once fully nuanced and also wholly unambiguous to others.
How can we share with each other our common experience of this one Reality, and yet allow that our individual relationships with it are idiosyncratic and, in their inmost core, inexpressible?
This challenge remains at the heart of my efforts to live my faith with others and to help them give voice to their own faiths. How do we teach each other—how do we allow ourselves to be taught—the blessed talent of “listening in tongues”?
and that not merely perhaps, because of the tendency in His children to word-worship, false logic, and corruption of truth,
but because He would not have them oppressed by words,
seeing that words, being human, therefore but partially capable, could not absolutely contain or express what the Lord meant,
and that even He must depend for being understood upon the spirit of His disciple.
Seeing it could not give life, the letter should not be throned with power to kill.
George MacDonald: an anthology,
edited by C.S. Lewis (entry 178)
It’s been a bittersweet year for us here in Jacksonville.
In April, my mother could still walk with a walker, feed herself and converse with relative normality. Due to Alzheimer’s, she has declined in rapid stages since then.
She no longer remembers how to walk or do self-care, and she rarely speaks—perhaps a few words, if she just speaks before trying to think out what she wants to say. She sleeps much of the time.
One rainy afternoon, watching the St. John’s River, she said to my brother and me: “Someday we’ll all remember sitting together on this day.”
My sister and her husband came from Pensacola in November. Mom was speaking much less, yet we had several sweet visits.
My sister told Mom that hearing the hymn “Beautiful Savior” was the first thing she remembers from childhood. She sang all the verses, and Mom watched her intently.
Jim’s sister stayed with us for Thanksgiving. We brought Mom to the house so she could watch Chef Jim in the kitchen. I fed Mom, and, though she wasn’t speaking, she was clearly enjoying the dinner.
Jim’s sister said how much she had wanted to visit. Mom looked her in the eye and said, “Thank you.”
The sweet side of the bittersweet, then, is that Mom still recognizes us. When we speak to her and hold her hand, she gives us very clear eye contact and smiles.
We have never believed that mortality is a punishment—painful as it is. In some ways, the heart of the salvation God brings to us is this news:
“I am taking on your mortality so that you will know it is not a punishment. I love you and will carry the burden along with you.”
And so it is.
I have for several years been practicing a rather threadbare, in some ways malnourished religion—more by necessity than choice, though the choices are obvious to me.
I wrote that first sentence on Wednesday, March 31st of this year, shortly after I received confirmation that I could move my mother from hospital, where she had come through the crisis of a major systemic infection, into a new skilled nursing facility (SNF), where staff were better equipped than in her old one to care for her at her suddenly more advanced stage of Alzheimer’s dementia.
Monday of that week, staff at her previous SNF had told me, to their own dismay, that they could not manage her new occasional combativeness and escape-seeking behavior. As I wrote at the time, through those next two horrifying days of searching, my practice was reduced to the bare discipline of stopping myself, over and over again, to say, “Keep me in your living present.”
Five months later, approaching my sixtieth birthday, I could say that this sentence—deceptively simple and ambiguous—almost sums up my whole faith and practice:
Keep me in your living present.
Two weeks ago, I read Chris Hedges’ review of a book by Bart D. Ehrman called God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer in the Spring 2008 issue of Harvard Divinity Bulletin (78-82). Because Hedges articulates so well an understanding which has matured in my own awareness, I will be quoting him here at some length.
Evil is not a problem. Evil is a mystery. Bart Ehrman in his book God’s Problem cannot reconcile a belief in God with this mystery and the cold reality of the morally neutral universe we inhabit…. [He] remains trapped within the simpleminded belief that religious faith, to have legitimacy, means there has to be something logical and ultimately just about human existence….
There is strong desire on the part of many in the human species to believe that human suffering and deprivation is ultimately meaningful, that it has a purpose, that our lives make sense…. (78)
This powerful human desire, however, should not be confused with the reality of the transcendent. God answered Moses’ request for revelation with the words: “I AM WHO I AM.” This phrase is probably more accurately translated “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.”
God is not a being. God is an experience. God is a verb, not a noun. God comes to us in the profound flashes of insight that cut through the darkness, in the hope that permits human beings to cope with inevitable pain, despair, and suffering. God comes in the healing solidarity of love and self-sacrifice. But God and the vagaries of human existence, including suffering, are beyond our capacity to explain or understand. (80)
I am grateful that, sometime in my thirties, I began to see the fallaciousness of this human expectation, this self-injuring enterprise we attempt of testing God against the so-called “problem of evil.”
Put simply: we suffer because we know we are mortal. We suffer because we are able to cling in memory to past pains and losses, and we are able to fear in imagination those yet to come.
Yet mortality itself—including its pain and loss, but also its awe and joy—is not a punishment. It is simply a fact.
The salutary response to suffering is not to resist those memories or fears but simply to experience them, to take note of them—and then to remain in the present. The present is the only place where we can act for ourselves and for each other.
And the present is where the something more enters into human consciousness.
Hedges writes of the various unqualifiable, transcendent forces which enter into human life: “love, beauty, alienation, loneliness, suffering, good, evil, and the reality of death.” Then he writes of what I have very clumsily called the something more.
God—and different cultures have given God many names and many attributes—is that which works upon us and through us to find meaning and relevance in a morally neutral universe.
Religion is our finite, flawed, and imperfect expression of the infinite. The experience of transcendence, the struggle to acknowledge the infinite, need not even be attributed to an external being called God. The belief in a personal God can, in fact, be antireligious. Religion is about the human need for the sacred. God is, as Thomas Aquinas writes, the power that allows us to be ourselves. God is a search, a way to frame the questions. God is a call to reverence. (80)
THAT which works upon us and through us. Yes.
Hedges cautions us that
God is a human concept that arises from this impulse and the reality of the transcendent. Our idea of God includes human prejudice, tribal and national self-exaltation, morally indefensible edicts, naked bigotry, and absurd formulas to get God to work on our behalf….
Ehrman correctly challenges these very imperfect and flawed human descriptions of God and the vain attempts to make sense of suffering. But he mistakes the characteristics human beings have invented for God with the reality of God…. These are inadequate attempts by human beings to explain why we suffer. But the inherent flaws in these numerous explanations do not finally invalidate God. They only expose those who write and think about God as human. (80)
The title of Hedge’s review is “A Hollow Agnosticism.” For several decades after I dropped out of Lutheran seminary, if I had to put a label on my faith and practice, I said agnostic. This is not a true label.
Look at that contrast in Aquinas: religion as “the human need for the sacred” versus God as “the power that allows us to be ourselves.”
I’ve written previously (see my “Weeds” series) about James Carse’s reclaiming of the term “religion.” Religion is the mystery which binds a community gathered by a shared seeking after the sacred, not the believe systems used by some to draw boundaries around what one ought or ought not to consider sacred.
I now understand that my supposed agnosticism was about not knowing which belief system I could or should confess, not about questioning the reality of God.
THAT I do know.
I share with the Hebrews the awareness that the experience of YHWH is at once too personal and too complexly beyond the reach of human concept to name. I share with the first Quakers that awareness which they feared conventional Christianity had forgotten: THAT cannot be contained in a name or a liturgy or a theology.
When my heart and mind are in distress from caring for and grieving over my mother, my father, my family and friends, my work, my beautiful, suffering world, when I manage to stop and to center down and to listen, I do not get solutions.
I get the present moment.
Last Sunday, Mom was back in hospital following another mini-stroke and a recurrence of the systemic infection. Angry, fighting the nurses, insisting upon leaving. Mid-afternoon, when I first arrived in her room, for the first time in my experience she did not recognize who I am.
Knowing what I know about Alzheimer’s, I simply said “That’s okay” and sat with her, allowing silence.
“This isn’t a pleasant experience, is it?” I said.
“No, it’s not,” she replied, still glaring.
“We can get rid of that!” she said with annoyance, pointing to the huge old Zenith TV mounted on the wall near the ceiling.
“Okay. What else do you want to get rid of?”
“That.” She pointed to the nursing supply cabinet on the wall. “And that,” pointing to the nurse’s whiteboard.
“What do you want to keep?”
“The cross,” said this ancient Lutheran, indicating the crucifix in this Roman Catholic hospital room.
Several times she repeated these statements about “getting rid of” things in the room. Eventually, I came to suspect that in imagination she was sorting and jettisoning her own things.
I retold for her the story from four years ago, when she systematically divided up her life’s accumulation of furniture and effects among her children and step-children, in the process of leaving her home. She smiled at the memory of having been able to direct this gifting herself.
I told her of my own recent inclination to purge our numerous storage spaces of stuff we brought to this city ten years ago and have not looked at since.
She nodded, but then she said, “It’s dangerous just to get rid of things. You have to look at each one first and remember what you enjoyed about it.”
I marveled in silence, seeing once more the well-remembered wisdom of this woman, which is so much deeper than the dementia.
Several times during this strange conversation, she asked me, “Are you happy with the new?”
“New what?” I wondered the first time, but I simply said, “Yes.” The second time I said, “I’m not sure yet.”
By now Mom was profoundly peaceful. It felt as if we were in a gathered meeting for worship. For long moments we just smiled, eye to eye.
“It’s good to know where we’re going.”
“Yes.” I didn’t ask or interpret.
“This is nice.”
“Well, it’s been a good visit. I’ll see you when you come again.”
Keep me in your living present.
And so it is.