3.10.2015

[Simmering sermon] I once was blind, but now I'm blinded

In some of the old hymnals, there's a song called "Stepping in the Light" (I've always found the title humorous and have joked, "Well, if I'm going to step in something I'd rather step in light"). My congregation's most senior members love to sing it at our weekly potluck luncheon. Here's the chorus:

How beautiful to walk in the steps of the Savior,
Stepping in the light, stepping in the light,
How beautiful to walk in the steps of the Savior,
Led in paths of light.


It has a very light and peppy feel, and I visualize skipping or dancing, something like what Dorothy and friends did as they sang "Follow the Yellow Brick Road."

It's interesting: there are lots of songs and hymns that have as their context a "before and after" picture of finding faith in Christ. Hank Williams' song "I Saw the Light" proclaims, "Now I'm so happy, no sorrow in sight; praise the Lord, I saw the light." Of course, there is the most well-known of all, "Amazing Grace." "I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see." 

The interesting thing about this is that whenever the biblical narrative describes human encounters with God—i.e., seeing the light—it actually often results not in happiness or tranquility but in "fear and trembling." Moses' encounter with God found him being asked to do something he didn't want to do (Exodus 4:13). Isaiah's encounter left him crying out, "Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips..." (Isaiah 6:5). The tax collector in Jesus' parable beat his breast and pleaded for mercy when he found his way to prayer (Luke 18:13). Paul's encounter made him totally lose his appetite and left him blinded for a time (Acts 9:9). I thought blindness was the "before" condition?

What happens when we come into God's light, find God's salvation, and open ourselves to God's Spirit? Spiritually speaking, what if it's not so much going from blindness to sight but from unknown blindness to known blindness?

The New Testament lectionary texts for this week include some familiar passages: "For it is by grace you have been saved..." (Ephesians 2:8), and, "For God so loved the world..." (John 3:16). As is usually the case, the most well-known passages are often the most misinterpreted.

For example, the Ephesians passage says that grace is the prerequisite of salvation, and faith is the conduit. Most evangelical preaching gets that backwards.

John 3:16, too, is far too often preached without reference to context. It should be at least notable that the most oft-used verse today for preaching to those outside religious circles was originally spoken to someone very much IN religious circles (Nicodemus). But besides that, the encounter has many other fascinating yet unexplored themes. The lectionary designates 3:14-21, which includes a mention of John's characteristic theme of light. 
This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (John 3:19-21)
Behind Each Hope, Lies a Doubt from Flickr via Wylio
© 2009 Cristian V., Flickr | CC-BY-ND
Here, light is credited with doing what light does best: helping us see. It shows us what we may not see without it. In cases where there are undesirable things present, it "exposes." I'm reminded of a meme I once saw circulating around Facebook: "Those who turn on the light can't be blamed for the mess it exposes."

This is particularly powerful when paired with the imagery of rebirth earlier in the John 3 conversation. Jesus tells Nicodemus, "You must be born again" (John 3:7). I don't think we take this metaphor seriously enough. Think about the condition of a newborn or very young child. Helpless. Unlearned. Trying to move without help. Experimenting with many unfamiliar things. Fascinated with the new.

Yet, some of the most self-assured, authoritative, I-know-the-answers people I have known are those who have adopted the identity of a born-again Christian.

All the imagery in John—birth and light—is describing quite a different experience. Finding God is an experience of being "exposed," of having to lay bare all that which we would prefer to keep hidden. We are "seen plainly" in God's light, and none of us measure up. Coming to faith in Christ is supposed to be an experience of learning to see the world as God sees it—in God's light—and it looks so different from that viewpoint that it's as if we're having to learn how to walk and talk all over again. With our own prejudices and expectations stripped away, we fumble at best. The problem is that, too often, Christianity is presented as merely a confessional belief system instead of a beautiful yet traumatic reordering of our life. As it did with Nicodemus, it should leave us saying, "How can this be?" (John 3:9)

As I considered in a post several years ago, we take too much credit. Am I reduced to humility when I think I have a special revelation from God, or do I flaunt it and revel in new-found self-vindication? We don't see light; light allows us to see.1 We don't know God; God allows us to know.

Later in John's gospel, Jesus heals a blind man. When he is questioned about Jesus, he famously says, "Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” Able to see he was, but imagine the journey he had ahead of him. He had been born blind. So everything he had ever heard of—every object, every person, every place—had looked a certain way in his mind's eye, but upon "seeing the light," he would have begun the long, arduous journey of having to recontextualize everything.

A journey that surely requires much patience, humility, and stumbling around. 

1 I'll give credit to Peter Rollins for this quote. I first heard it from him, but I don't think it's original to him.

3.02.2015

[Simmering sermon] "Only A Fool"

On their 1997 album "Threads," Geoff Moore and the Distance have a song called "Only a Fool." It tells two parabolic stories: one of a man who quit a well-paying and upwardly mobile job to work with disadvantaged kids, and another of a beauty queen who could have made a career with her looks and charisma but gave it up in similar fashion. They are both described as "taking the job only a fool could do."

The last chorus says:

Show me the big in the small
Show me the wonder of my call
Even when no one else approves
I'll take the job for only a fool

This song came to mind as I read the epistle reading for this coming Sunday. From Paul's first letter to the Corinthians: 
"For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God...Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe...For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength." (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)
Does this world need more fools, or less? It depends on what you're talking about.

Such passages are sometimes used to justify a false narrative of persecution or to shield any belief or action from critique. Similar to the passage in which Jesus warns his followers that they may be hated for preaching his message (Luke 6:22), Paul warns that those who promote the gospel may be considered foolish. But neither of these passages should be used to justify anything that is called foolish or engenders hatred. We have to get it in the right order. The passages teach that those who faithfully follow Christ may be hated or considered foolish, not that anytime you are hated or considered foolish, you are following Christ.

An extreme or all-too-easy example is the Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church, who quite often feel vindicated in their preaching of hate because of such biblical passages. But perhaps harder to see is the way in which the "fools to the world" narrative is used to justify Christian endeavors that are quite the opposite of the self-sacrificial, "losing your life" calling of Jesus. Christians have been known to use political power and money to fight culture wars, secure a place of privilege for their worldview, and disenfranchise those to whom they object. The ensuing criticism is expected and thus used for self-vindication. This is not what we're talking about. The prophetic tradition of the Bible has harsh words for those who forget which side of privilege and the power structure they're on.

Foolishness for the gospel is not self-aggrandizing or power-seeking. Foolishness for the gospel was seen in Mother Theresa, who begged and pleaded to go to a despised and forsaken place to minister on the streets and be a "saint of darkness." Foolishness for the gospel was seen in Saint Francis of Assisi who abandoned a life of luxury to take the message of Christ to ordinary people forgotten by the very rich and powerful church of his day. Foolishness for the gospel is seen in Redeemer Lutheran Church of Minneapolis who decided to stay in a struggling neighborhood when other churches had moved out to the suburbs. Foolishness for the gospel is seen in Northern Lighthouse Ministries on the edge of Lincoln, NE, a congregation that intentionally welcomes (actually, goes and gets) prisoners, ex-prisoners, and the homeless into their worship and ministry.1 Foolishness for the gospel was seen in Kayla Mueller, the American humanitarian worker in Syria who was killed by ISIS. We've learned through her letters that she had a deep faith in Christ and that her love of God and neighbor had taken her to this dangerous place to serve.

Foolishness for the gospel is relinquishing self-preservation (or even church preservation?) to be a part of God's bigger story. It is giving up whatever obstacle there may be within us to extending God's love, grace, and forgiveness to the other...particularly those from whom rationality might tell us to steer clear.

1 Credit to Elizabeth Turman-Bryant whose work on "radically hospitable churches" introduced me to this ministry.

2.06.2015

Praying By Giving Up on Prayer

prayer at night from Flickr via Wylio
© 2009 mrehan, Flickr | CC-BY-SA
I've long struggled with traditional understandings of prayer.

Especially in terms of the things or people we "pray for." All you have to do is listen carefully and then think through the implications, and you may see my problem.

Most of our talk about "the power of prayer" actually places a lot of the power in our hands: If enough people pray hard enough, God will act. Intervention requires action on our part; if we fail to act, a disaster may occur unabated.

Think about it. Some of us hear it all the time. So and so was sick, needed a job, etc. They amassed a huge network of pray-ers and, if and when things work out favorably, we say that "God answers prayer" or "prayer works."

I've never understood this. To me, the implication is that God sits, hands folded, waiting for enough people to pray, and if we finally manage to get God's attention, God will act.

We wouldn't say it that way, but that's what the language implies to me. It makes me think of flipping a car over. If enough people get on the right side and coordinate their efforts, it can be done.

Many churches, especially internationally, have prayer services for healing. People have been miraculously healed because they...were with the right people at the right place and the right time? Maybe it happens. I'm not really in a place to deny their experience. I can't explain it, which I guess is the point of miracles. But personally, I just can't get on board. I hate to say it, because I don't want to be mean, but it honestly strikes me as Christian voodoo.

I once had someone tell me that she worried she and her friends had once "prayed for the wrong thing." There was a crisis, they all prayed fervently for a certain outcome, and their desired outcome came about. But now they question it all. "Did we pray for the wrong thing?"

That one really twisted my brain into knots. So what you're telling me is that God is willing to do the wrong thing or answer a prayer in a way that goes against God's will if enough people are praying for it?

If my above critique is not connecting with you, don't worry about it. If you see no problem with traditional understandings of prayer, and if they bring you hope, I actually have no interest in stripping you of it. But this is a post for me and others like me. I think some of the traditional understandings of prayer paint a theologically problematic picture of God. If you don't agree, that's fine, and you can proceed in your prayer life with my blessing. But I personally need something else.

At the very least, our theology of prayer must return the power and initiative to its rightful place.

In 1960, Catherine Marshall wrote a piece in Guideposts called "The Prayer of Relinquishment." She basically suggests that we're praying all wrong. She tells stories of people, including herself, frantically praying for something in the midst of a crisis, but then realizing that the way in which they were praying may have actually been hindering things.
One afternoon I read the story of a missionary who had been an invalid for eight years. Constantly she had prayed that God would make her well, so that she might do his work. Finally, worn out with futile petition, she prayed, "All right. I give up. If you want me to be an invalid, that’s your business. Anyway, I want you even more than I want health. You decide." In two weeks the woman was out of bed, completely well.
Understand: I'm always skeptical of these stories, and even if true, they potentially set the rest of us up for disappointment when we don't get the miracle. But beneath all that, Marshall is onto something. The Prayer of Relinquishment is, "I give up. You decide." The old school evangelicals might call this "letting go and letting God." There's genius to this.

As Marshall puts it, "A demanding spirit, with self-will as its rudder, blocks prayer."

In other words, whenever we pray as if the outcome depends on our prayer, we're actually blocking God out.

Part of why the Prayer of Relinquishment is effective is because it relates to our stress response. There's a reason that contemplative authors have spoken of and practiced prayer in a way that involved the body as much as the spirit and mind. Think of being in water. When you're tense, you sink. When you relax, you float. Marshall's key insight is the fact that our prayers may at times be the religious equivalent of clenched fists. We have to "give up" on this kind of prayer to be open to real prayer.

The effect of our stress response on our body and mind is well documented. Physically, our muscles tighten, our digestion slows down and our immune system is compromised. We can literally keep ourselves sick. Emotionally and mentally, we get less sleep, we make rash decisions, and are more irritable. But it's not just us. The stress response has a negative effect on those around us, keeping them tense and more focused on abating the stress than being well.

Perhaps this is a lot of what "letting go and letting God" is all about. God hard-wired us this way. We can actually find great solace and relief when we come to a place of relinquishment. "OK fine, God." Or, perhaps, "I can't control or fix this." We must not see this as synonymous with acceptance or passively saying, "I'm OK with any outcome." What if one's child is deathly ill? What if one has been falsely accused of a crime? We're not talking about acceptance. We're talking about peace. We can't be open to "the peace that passes all understanding" (Philippians 4:7) if we believe the outcome of prayer depends on us. Jesus told the weary to come to him (Matthew 11:28) for rest. Any theology of prayer that is not restful is probably off base.

Certainly, when we're facing a crisis, the prayer of "please, fix this" is natural and understandable. I'm not suggesting that we suppress our "in-the-moment" thoughts and prayers (the biblical authors didn't). But, if it remains long-term, it's a posture that produces adverse affects.

I am not totally on board with Catherine Marshall's article, but it's a step in the right direction. It brings us closer to where I think we need to be with prayer.

I'd like to ask why prayer has to be an activity I engage in rather than a description of how I engage in all activities. Is prayer a thing, or the way in which I do all things? What if I'm supposed to pray through God rather to God?

This is not a new idea. The apostle Paul actually spoke of prayer as something God engages in with us, rather than just being a recipient. "We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans...the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God" (Romans 8:26-27).

In a guest post on this blog, Joe Kutter reflected on prayer in terms of "priesthood" and the need that we have, when we find ourselves in a difficult situation, for someone to come alongside us. Not necessarily to "pray for us" but to pray with us, voicing our concerns and suffering to God, something that is very powerful. "The priest is the one who represents the neighbor to God and God to the neighbor...When Floyd visited me in that hospital room, he became a priest to me. He spoke my need to God and he was God’s reminder of grace to me."

This is closer to something that makes sense to me. Because, let's face it, even those who claim to believe that God will fix things will still call 911 in an emergency or take their broken down car to a mechanic rather than praying over it.

As a pastor, I've seen some people experience healing and restoration and some people not, and it has never made sense to attribute the outcomes to who was praying how.

But it has been my experience that when people are sick, depressed, stressed, or a host of other things when life is beating them up, they need people to come alongside them, take their hand and say, "Let's approach the throne of God together."

It may be disconcerting not to have certainty about what the outcome will be. But it's downright terrifying to think that I and my friends have to come up with the right prayer.

Luckily, I don't think we do.