Life the hound
Comes at a bound
Either to rend me
Or to befriend me.
I cannot tell
The hound’s intent
Till he has sprung
At my bare hand
… With teeth or tongue.
Meanwhile I stand
And wait the event.
Life the hound
Comes at a bound
Either to rend me
Or to befriend me.
I cannot tell
The hound’s intent
Till he has sprung
At my bare hand
… With teeth or tongue.
Meanwhile I stand
And wait the event.
This week some of my now very large, sprawling extended family took part in its annual “Robb Regatta” off of Shelter Island, an island off the eastern tip of Long Island, New York. I regrettably couldn’t make it, but got to see some pictures. And, it’s quite a show really.
The patriarch of our family, my granddad, whom we’ve affectionately dubbed “Admiral John,” began the annual tradition some twenty years ago now. Small teams of two or three Robbs race out in Sunfish sailboats to a point somewhere in the Long Island Sound. The bells and whistles involve (or have involved in previous years) an official weigh-in, to the great horror of the female members of our family- this, in an effort to achieve an exactingly fair distribution of weights in the various boats. (The ritual almost single-handedly dissuaded a few of us aspiring female sailors from taking part when it first began.) This process was in turn followed by some vying by teams for the female participants, whose lower weights promised a competitive advantage to the lucky boat that got them- with the result that this hardened sailor has spent many a regatta serving as a ballast while clinging to the bow, bailing out water and “preparing to come about” every ten minutes.
Then there are the hats and the T-shirts, inscribed with our names and “Kemah Yacht Club.” “Kemah” is a Native American word meaning “face into the wind.” It is also the name of the historic sea captain’s house that my great grandfather bought in the 1930′s, which by now has seen many a Robb family reunion.
Following the race, there used to be an admiralty court at which competing interpretations of who won and who should be disqualified were argued before a presiding judge. (An inevitability, I suppose, when there are so many lawyers in the family- or lawyers, period.)
Winners of the race usually would find their names and the year of the “Robb Regatta” inscribed on a dust-covered plaque on a mantle in the living room sometime before the next summer’s regatta, and before the letter of summons appeared in our mailbox, sent out by Admiral John with the dates of the next race and the highlights from the year before.
I remember my husband’s first initiation into this rather intimidating process when he and I were first dating. He bravely endured the secret family vetting process. And the ribbing. And the competitive bravado surrounding this admittedly “WASP” (White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant) recreation of sailing. (I would guess that Sunfish qualify as the “redneck” version of yachting, however.) Somehow Paul survived, despite being conscripted rather reluctantly to serve as the dead-weight handicap for the team with the biggest competitive edge.
All in good fun, of course.
Remembering these moments this morning has me thinking about the importance of tradition- about why we as families of faith do certain things over and over again through the years. It is not just because we are creatures of habit, although I suppose we very much need habits, too, to form us. It is more fundamentally, I think, a matter of identity and belonging. We remind ourselves about where we come from and who we are- in my case, that “competition” is a bit in the bones of what it means to be a Robb. (And my husband will be the first to tell you I have an often irrepressible competitive streak.)
Baptism and Communion are ways to tell a story about ourselves that we can learn by heart. In the waters of baptism and in the wine and the bread we are made new creations in Christ and nourished by Christ’s freely given love offering for us and for the whole world. In these acts we remind ourselves and one another who we really are (as divinely loved and broken people) and that we belong to God and to God’s love affair with the world. In this sense, to the degree that these traditions identify us and help us find belonging in an often intimidating and cruel world, I suppose we’re not unlike a family of amateur sailors pointing their little boats into the sea, their faces into the wind.
Got a family tradition that you’d like to share? Leave it below and I’ll republish it!
In an op-ed piece for The New York Times, titled “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?,” Ross Douthat makes the observation that last week, as the Episcopal Church was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. “They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase,” he writes. Douthat goes on to make the case that such grim statistics spell doom for “liberal Christianity” in its present incarnation, if progressive, mainline churches do not find ways to reinvent themselves.
And, it is hard to argue with him. When the Presiding Bishop for the Episcopal Church rationalizes her church’s declining numbers with loopy non-sequiturs like this one- “that her communion’s members value the ‘stewardship of the earth’ too highly to reproduce themselves” (was she joking?!) – it is easy to see why the Episcopal Church is expiring.
Douthat is commendably quick to point out some of the weaknesses that beset conservative Christianity in this country, too, with the implication that the problem of church decline and cultural irrelevance is not just a “liberal” one. But he stops short of connecting the dots in tracing this wider trend and how it could more hopefully in-form the church, as evidenced by the title of his article. “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” is the wrong question, really. Because I suspect that my and younger generations are largely not thinking in terms of such labels. Most of us have come to view “conservative” and “liberal” as just code words for a host of implicit political beliefs that have functioned as add-ons to the Gospel– jaded remnants of religiously framed culture wars. If we’re leaving church in droves or finding church irrelevant, it is because these labels have failed us. We’ve seen through them and they have come up short.
Douthat is right to link a high view of Scripture and Christ with hope for the rebirth of the church. But perhaps where we can move now, in surveying a war-torn landscape riddled by our churches’ political wars, is into a new territory of thinking beyond old identifiers like denomination or political affiliation. Which is not to say that the Gospel is apolitical- only that former politically identifying marks, such as “conservative” and “liberal” need to fall by the wayside. To borrow a biblical allusion, they are like chaff that the wind blows away. There is no new life here. If “liberal” or “conservative” Christianity was once “redeemable,” it does not redeem lives. Only Christ does.
Maybe the question to ask, then, is not whether liberal Christianity can be saved, but rather, whether we in twenty-first century America can let God’s Living Word in its baffling, difficult, uncomfortable and perplexing breadth and depth and ongoing power, stand on its own, apart from our hang-ups, biases, prejudices, and allegiances.
“If any of you come to me…and don’t hate your father and your mother, your wife and your children, your brothers and your sisters- yes, and even your own life!- you can’t be my disciple.” – Luke 14:26
So much for “family values.” Maybe that’s because Jesus, as N.T. Wright reminds us in his commentary on Luke, taken from Wright’s wonderful series, The New Testament for Everyone, isn’t running for office here. Jesus, Wright explains, is more like “the leader of a great expedition, forging a way through a high and dangerous mountain pass to bring urgent medical aid to villages cut off from the rest of the world.” Jesus is preparing those who think they want to follow Him for the Spartan-like vow of allegiance that will be required of them. No competing value- not even those that come most naturally to us, like marriage and family, like life itself- can hold pride of place next to “Jesus is Lord.”
I must admit to some consternation here. How do we traverse those gray spaces between courageous obedience to Christ and sheer irresponsibility in our familial relationships? Isn’t it easy to excuse all kinds of morally problematic decision making with the claim that we’re on an important mission? Great oversights can often be excused in God’s name.
I remember once being introduced in a church service in Kenya with high praise for the fact that I had left my family at home in the States to come all the way to Kenya to be with the church there. Was it really a compliment? Maybe. Maybe not. I was getting a free trip to an exotic place and a break from my familial duties, afterall!
There are countless examples of missionaries who have more permanently left their families to answer the call of the Gospel in far-flung corners of the earth. They have given away their lives in often incredibly heroic ways. Just the other day my husband showed the movie, “The Mission,” to his class, the soundtrack for which almost always brings me to tears. It tells the true story of a group of Jesuit missionaries who ultimately sacrifice themselves for and along with the aboriginal Guarani people in South America, when Portuguese soldiers massacre their community.
Jesus seems to be saying that even the most praiseworthy things that give us meaning and a sense of groundedness in this life pale in comparison to God’s mission. That we have to be willing to give up any claim to their possession if we really want to follow Jesus. Where our allegiance is genuinely in line with a call from God, and where it is a rationale for escape from existing vocations as wives, husbands, partners, fathers, mothers, daughters and sons, is left for us to discern, I suppose, as a matter of conscience, with a level of fear and trembling.
This weekend our family’s Friday movie night featured Chicken Run, an animated comedy directed by Peter Lord and Nick Park which tells the story of one group of cooped-up chickens and their relentless thirst for freedom from their soulless, money-grubbing overlords, the Tweedys. The chickens’ ringleader is Ginger, an independent, no-nonsense hen constantly hatching (pun intended) often ludicrous plans for escape.
At one point in the movie, after numerous foiled attempts at freedom from the barbed wire boredom and merciless tedium of an existence devoted to nothing but the sheer production of eggs and more eggs, the hens begin to give up hope of ever escaping. The following scene shows Ginger trying to rouse her friends from their despair.
Ginger: Think, everyone, think. What haven’t we tried yet?
Hen 1: We haven’t tried not trying to escape.
Hen 2: Hmm. That might work.
Ginger: What about Edwina? [Edwina was axed after failing to produce eggs.] How many more empty nests will it take?
Hen 3: It wouldn’t be empty if she’d spent more time laying,
Hen 4: And less time escaping.
Ginger: So, laying eggs all your life, then getting plucked and roasted is good enough for you?
Hen: It’s a living.
Ginger: The problem is the fences aren’t just round the farm, they’re up here in your heads. There is a better place out there. Somewhere beyond that hill. It has wide-open spaces and lots of trees. And grass. Can you imagine that? Cool, green grass.
Hens: Who feeds us?
Ginger: We feed ourselves.
Hens: Where’s the farm?
Ginger: There is no farm.
Hens: Where does the farmer live?
Ginger: There is no farmer.
Hens: Is he on holiday?
Ginger: He isn’t anywhere. Don’t you get it? There’s no egg count, no farmers, no dogs and coops and keys, and no fences!…Freedo-o-o-om!
If an unquenchable thirst for freedom is part of what it means to be human, we’re also very much chickens about it. It’s easy to settle for just making a living, “working 9 to 5″ (as the old Dolly Parton song goes) and becoming personality-less cogs in a great, big, capitalist wheel. In a world in which production, efficiency and materialism run the show much like the Tweedys, we can quickly lose our imaginations. We can stop believing that the world beyond our coop is anything better or different or more life-giving. We can become afraid to dream of a world in which God is all in all. In which there are green pastures and still waters and a Good Shepherd whose rod leads us into perfect freedom.
Ginger’s diagnosis holds true for us, too: the problem is the fences aren’t just round the farm, they’re up here in your heads. We’ve lost our imaginations. We’ve lost our capacity to believe that there is a better place out there, somewhere beyond that hill, with wide-open spaces and lots of trees and grass.
Truman Capote once wrote that “love, having no geography, knows no bounds.”
Maybe the beginning of true freedom really is little more than learning to be loved by our Maker.
“Is There A Case for Foreign Missions?” That was the title of a speech delivered by the writer, Pearl Buck, for a packed gathering organized by the Presbyterian Church in November 1932. Buck, in summarizing four decades of experience as a missionary kid, wife and teacher in China, was grappling with the deeply problematic inheritance she had received- namely, the notion that Christian missionaries were righteous purveyors of civilization, charged with enlightening a backwards Chinese people.
Pearl bore witness to what she had seen: “I have seen the missionary narrow, uncharitable, unappreciative, ignorant. I have seen missionaries…so lacking in sympathy for the people they were supposed to be saving, so scornful of any civilization but their own, so harsh in their judgments upon one another, so coarse and insensitive among a sensitive and cultivated people, that my heart has fairly bled with shame. I can never have done with my apologies to the Chinese people that in the name of a gentle Christ we have sent such people to them.”
Years earlier, when Pearl had been asked to give a talk to missionary trainees in Nanjing, China, she had given advice that remains deeply relevant for the missional church in our time: “‘Don’t mistake a psychological complex for religious emotion or divine leadership…Don’t mistake a wish of your own for the will of God, nor hurt vanity…for a call of duty to persist in your own way.’”
Instead, Pearl advised her students, in the words of biographer Hilary Spurling, “to cultivate a sense of humor and proportion; to recognize the notion of a single, fixed, unalterable truth as superstitious absurdity; and never to be deluded into operating on anything less than an absolute equality: ‘We simply cannot express the Gospel with any force if we have hidden within us a sense of racial superiority…We are no better than anyone else, any of us.’”
We are no better than anyone else, any of us.
Pearl’s cautionary words here are a helpful antidote to the most subtle displays of religious chauvinism, whatever the “mission field” (be it a faraway land or right here at home). The whole “proud-to-be-a-Christian” mantra that can accompany more aggressive displays of evangelicalism in my own country is deeply suspicious. One need not be ashamed of one’s faith in order to recognize the slippery slope here.
In an article four years later, titled “Is There a Place for the Foreign Missionary?,” Pearl concluded that missionaries’ often summary dismissal of Chinese philosophy and culture made their position “untenable” (Spurling’s term): “More insidious in its pessimism is…the question of whether anyone has the right to impress upon another the forms of his own civilization, whether these forms are religious or not.”
Wise and prescient words from someone qualified to deliver them.
My hubby and fellow saint and sinner Paul Dover ran across this article from the BBC which brought tears to my eyes. It’s about a guy named Jeff Ragsdale who, finding himself alone in the aftermath of a devastating break-up, put up fliers around New York City with his number and a simple message: If anyone wants to talk about anything, call me. -Jeff, The Lonely Guy.
And, people called. From New York city and all around the world. Even from prison, with words of consolation and encouragement.
Soon, the influx of calls and texts had gone viral.
Strikingly, the one, unifying message in all these communications, Jeff recalls, was overwhelmingly one of forgiveness.
Jeff was so moved by the influx of support that he ended up writing a book about the experience, transcribing those many messages so that others might read them in their own forsaken times.
If Jeff’s story only reinforces the irrelevance of the church in speaking to people’s deepest needs for connection and belonging, it is also testimony to the way God works, connecting people in all sorts of mysteriously wonderful ways to bring about meaning and redemption in the senseless parts of our lives.
What might the church learn from Jeff’s story? I suspect a lot of things. That in a world in which people are more virtually connected than at any time in human history, people are deeply lonely and are aching for real connections. That a posture of humility, vulnerability and listening is the beginning of that connection. That the more invisible “church scattered” is more effective in serving God’s purposes today than the more visible “church gathered.” That God works for God’s purposes in the world whether or not God’s people join God in that mission.
That in Jesus, God gives the world God’s number.
These are a few of my takeaways. Maybe you’ll have more…
[My apologies for the placement of the wrong video earlier today because of some technical weirdness, which is also making it impossible to embed the Youtube version of the clip. If you go to the above hyperlink, you should be able to watch the video, however!]
I was practically lizzing yesterday (to borrow Elizabeth Lemon’s term in “30 Rockefeller”) when I heard this story from someone I ran into the other day. Apparently he had not set foot in a church for years when he visited one on a recent Sunday morning, with the hope that returning to church would help him recover from a bad smoking habit and depression over a broken leg- and maybe even help him find a mate.
That morning he had a fresh cast on and was sitting in the front row when, during the service, a little, old lady hollered to the preacher that she was sensing in the Spirit that the visitor in the front row with the cast on needed healing. The preacher, in the presence of some 60 or 70 worshipping onlookers, came over and firmly laid his hand on my friend’s forehead and said “You have been healed! Get up!”
My friend, who was a bit surprised and embarrassed by this treatment of first-time visitors, in addition to sporting a clumsy mold on his leg that would make it difficult to jump up as evidence of this miraculous healing, demurred. (Can anyone say “awkward”?) At which point, the preacher kept his sweaty hand on my sitting friend’s head over the course of the next twenty minutes as he thanked God in loud tones for my friend’s healing.
Some three weeks later, my friend got his cast off as the doctors had promised.
It was a miracle.
It was such a miracle that my friend has decided not to show himself in church ever since.
On other fronts…fellow saint and sinner Jarrett Roux Jackson has sent along these wonderful reflections from Tim Keller on why “compatibility” in marriage is a bit of a misnomer. Check them out: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/life/relationship/features/27749-you-never-marry-the-right-person
And, I’m still waiting to hear back from Emerging Evangelists about a conversation around women evangelists and their lack thereof, at least as evidenced by their woeful absence on Emerging Evangelists’ Facebook page.
In a couple days we’ll feature one final weird Jesus saying- the whole notion that to follow Jesus means “hating” one’s family. Weird? I’d say so.
Hope you’re enjoying your week!
Alan Hirsch’s latest book, The Permanent Revolution: Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st Century Church, co-authored with Tim Catchim, is on my must-read list.
Apparently, Hirsch’s main point, according to Hirsch’s Books and Culture reviewer, Gregory Metzger, is this: the five-fold model for ministry set out by the apostle Paul in Ephesians 4- “apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers (APEST)”- is intended for the church in all times and places. Hirsch conscripts this model to argue that the renewal of today’s church will depend on so-called “apostolic movements.”
Metzger, who is writing his own book on Peter Wagner and Wagner’s “Neo Apostolic Reformation”- I’ve shared my qualms about this particular movement, also known as “dominionism,” here- offers a critique that is constructively critical, even if not entirely convincing in places. Maybe this is because I am inclined to want to agree with Hirsch. I, too, share Hirsch’s vision for renewal of the church; and, I greatly admire his commitment to chipping away at layers of sediment (institutionalization, in other words) that over the centuries have handicapped the church from freely and obediently responding to the call of the Holy Spirit to God’s mission.
I do have some questions for Hirsch, and they are as follows: what do such “apostolic movements” look like? Are they known by an explicit adoption of this five-fold model of ministry? What, if anything, makes an “apostolic” movement different from a “missional” movement? If it is true that centuries of church institutionalization have privileged the “shepherd” (pastor) and “teacher” at the expense of “apostles,” “prophets” and “evangelists,” are there not dangers to now privileging apostles at the expense of the other roles? And, if the two-headed monster of authoritarianism and triumphalism found an easy home within an institutionalized church, who is to say that it won’t again rear its head, this time only under a different guise of “Neo Apostolic Reformation” or other such “reformations”?
Maybe one built-in protection here belongs to the inherent nature of “movement.” “Movement” requires a certain degree of flexibility, openness to the Holy Spirit, the flattening of traditional hierarchies and maybe even an eschewing of more mainstream channels of power. But the Reformation as a “movement,” I would argue, was a failure by Martin Luther’s own standards: it ultimately did not produce Martin Luther’s vision of a “priesthood of all believers,” or “holy intercessors” continuously unleashed to serve God and their world. The Reformation’s fast-moving currents eventually slowed into trickles, and what was once a fiery movement of the Spirit became captive to human monopolies on religious power.
Of course it would help that I read Hirsch’s book before unleashing a torrent of questions. But maybe some of you have already read his book and can enlighten me. Did any of you ask questions like mine? Did you find satisfying answers? What were they? I’m all ears.
Fellow saint and sinner Saskia de Vries, whom we recently spoke with about neuroscience and theology (see our four-part interview, The Brain on Faith) is also a preacher. She preached the below sermon to her congregation yesterday, and kindly agreed to share it with the rest of us. Her elaboration on the essence of biblical faith, which turns on two different translations of the Greek phrase pistou Christou (“faith in Christ” versus “faith of Christ”), is both a provocatively new and helpful way of framing what it really means “to believe” (in) Christ.
I would also add here, by way of stepping onto one of my many soapboxes, that Saskia has never gone to seminary.
Which begs the question: what would happen if we professionally trained clergy vacated the pulpit just a bit more often? In addition to empowering God’s people to be more of a “priesthood of all believers,” we might get a vacation, and, we’d learn something, too. But enough of my rants. Here’s Saskia…
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through the faith of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing. -Galatians 2:15-20 or 21
After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go,” and he goes, and to another “Come,” and he comes, and to my slave “Do this,” and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health. -Luke 7:1-10
Most of you know that I am a scientist, a neuroscientist to be specific. As you may imagine, when my colleagues discover I am also a Christian, it is not uncommon to get some awkward questions. “Do you really believe all those stories?” Or more specifically, “how can you be in a field that demands empirical rationality but then believe things without evidence? How can you just have faith?” I imagine many of you face similar questions in your day-to-day life – if not from your friends and colleagues, maybe even from yourself. What exactly do I believe? Did these things really happen the way the Bible says they did?
It might not help that there are lots of different voices telling us what we should believe. Magazine articles on “What are the beliefs required of Christians” or books on “What Presbyterians believe.” Both fundamentalists and ardent atheists inform me that I must believe every word of the Bible to be literally and inerrantly true in order to qualify as a true Christian. But I’ll tell you something. I don’t. Take for example the six days of creation … I don’t buy it. I mean, how could plants survive when they were created before the sun?
So then what is it that the Bible actually tells us to believe? In our scripture reading earlier, we heard Paul tell the Galatians that people are justified – or made righteous – not by the works of the law, but by faith in Christ. So this indicates we must believe IN Christ. But those of you who were reading along in the pew Bibles with a sharp eye might have noticed that there’s a footnote on that phrase that says “or the faith of Christ.” It turns out that the Greek phrase here, pistis Christou, is grammatically ambiguous. For centuries this has been translated as the subjective genitive, the faith OF Christ, where Christ is the one with the faith. It’s the way we talk of Paul’s letters – or the letters OF Paul – or Maggi’s sabbatical. However, at some point in the last 50/60 years, translators decided that this phrase was better translated as the objective genitive, faith IN Christ, where Christ is the object of our faith. After all, you believe IN things, not OF them.
This change in translation happened fairly recently, as in fact the idea of faith being belief in something is a relatively modern notion. A number of writers such as Karen Armstrong and Marcus Borg remind us that for much of Christian history, faith wasn’t about intellectual assent – believing things with your head. Instead, faith had a broader meaning. Faith involved fidelity or faithfulness, being committed to people or laws – in the way that we are faithful in marriage. Faith also involved trust, fiducia. We see this in Abraham’s faith as he followed God, trusting that he would indeed be given land that would be filled with his descendants. Even the word credo, “I believe,” from which we derive the word creed – our statements of faith – has the same root as that for heart, cardo, suggesting that in believing in Christ we aren’t thinking something about Christ but rather we are giving our heart to him.
These meanings for faith, however, lost precedence following the Enlightenment when faith took on the meaning of believing things with our heads regardless of, or even in spite of, evidence. Faith was not about trusting God or fidelity, but rather thinking the right thoughts. Faithfulness was defined not by commitment, but rather by how well you adhered to a list of statements. It is this definition that continues to dominate our discussions of faith today. And it was this concept of faith that spurred translators some 50/60 years ago to look at the phrase pistis Christou and deduce that it must mean “faith in Christ” rather than “faith of Christ.”
But the debate over this phrase continues to this day. There are numerous articles and books written about just these two words – are we justified by OUR belief IN Christ or are we justified by Christ’s faithfulness? Is it the objective genitive or the subjective genitive? This is the kind of phrase that keeps dead languages alive. There is another possibility, though, – as there usually is – which is that it is an adjectival genitive. That is, we are justified by our Christ-like faith. We are made righteous, we are made whole, by our faith that resembles the faith that Jesus taught and demonstrated for us.
So then what is that faith of Christ? Did Jesus himself ever ask us to believe anything? Did Jesus say anything about faith? Looking through the synoptic gospels, I found that most of the times that faith is mentioned is in passages like the Gospel reading we just heard from Luke: healing stories. This story of the centurion’s slave isn’t the only one – there are many others. There’s the woman who was bleeding for twelve years who touched the hem of Jesus’ robe. Jesus tells her “your faith has made you well.” There are the ten lepers that Jesus heals of their leprosy and then sends them to the priests to be declared clean. When one of the lepers, a Samaritan, comes back to Jesus to thank him, Jesus tells him “Rise and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” There is the Canaanite woman who asks Jesus to heal her demon-possessed daughter, begging for crumbs from the master’s table, to whom he says “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.”
The story we read, though, is perhaps the epitome of healing stories. A Roman centurion hears that Jesus is in town, and asks him to come heal his dying slave. It is, in fact, a group of Jewish elders that entreat Jesus on the centurion’s behalf. “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us,” they tell Jesus. So Jesus sets off to the centurion’s home, who upon hearing that Jesus is coming tells him NOT to come. “Do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy for you to come under my roof,” he says. Well that’s odd, don’t you think? Please, please, please work a miracle – alter dimensions of space and time to heal my dying slave – but oh, don’t trouble yourself. I’m worthy for you to heal my slave, but not to come to my house. What’s that about? The centurion gives a little speech about how he too is a man of authority – he tells one to go and he goes, he tells his slave to do this and his slave does it. He says jump, they ask how high. “Speak the word,” the centurion says, “and let my servant be healed.” Luke says that Jesus heard this and was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” Wow. Did you hear that? This Roman centurion is the paragon of faith. Out of all of the people that Jesus encounters – Jews and Gentiles, rabbis and disciples – this centurion is the prime example of faith.
But what is that faith? If we stick with faith as intellectual assent, as believing things with our heads, this just doesn’t make sense. Neither the centurion nor any of the other people who are healed by their faith recite the Apostle’s Creed or affirm substitutionary atonement. Where do they answer questions from the Catechism? Why isn’t Jesus quizzing them – what is the chief end of man? What is your sole comfort in life? Clearly this is absurd as these creeds and confessions developed long after the time of Jesus, but the question remains, how in the world was Jesus able to assess their beliefs without any statement of faith on their part?
Some suggest that the faith the people in these healing stories exhibit isn’t about believing specific things about Jesus, but it is more along the lines of trust. They believe and trust that Jesus can heal them. They are willing to be vulnerable before him, and they trust that he will heal and not hurt them. This centurion has even more trust than the others because he is confident that Jesus can heal his slave just by saying the word – without even showing up. While this trust in Jesus’ healing power is definitely part of the story, I don’t think it’s the full story. My sense is that when you have been sick and broken for many years, when you’ve seen every doctor and tried every remedy under the sun, you are willing to try just about anything. What do you have to lose? Jesus was not the only healer roaming around the Sea of Galilee in his day, and I suspect these people were willing to throw themselves at the mercy of any of those healers. Furthermore, this is not the only healing story where someone is healed from a distance. Not only are there other stories in the Bible where Jesus heals people from a distance, but there are also stories in the Talmud of a contemporary of Christ’s, Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa. He was one of the other healers in Galilee at that time, well known for his ability to perform miracles and to heal people through his prayers. There are, in fact, not one but two stories of Chanina healing the sons of prominent Rabbis from a distance – just like Jesus healed this centurion’s slave. So if the key to faith is trusting in Jesus’ ability to heal, especially from a distance, then how is this centurion’s faith different from that of the others who were similarly healed?
I don’t think it’s the distance that is special about this story. I think it’s something else that sets this Roman centurion apart. Here is a man of power and authority turning to a Jewish man to care for his slave – not for a powerful person, not for his son, but for his slave, a piece of property. Not only that (after all there is some economic incentive to keep your property alive and healthy) but we hear that this centurion is a friend to the Jews. “He loves our people,” the elders say. He’s not just a friend, but he even built their synagogue! Indeed, some commentaries note that the reason he prevents Jesus from coming to his house is because of Jewish laws about consorting with Gentiles. While it wasn’t strictly forbidden to enter the house of a Gentile, it was highly discouraged given how easy it is to accidentally defile yourself. The commentaries suggest that the centurion was aware of this and was sensitive to Jewish laws and customs. This is the man that Jesus holds up as the paragon of faith. “Not even in Israel,” not even among the Jews, “have I found such faith.” If faith was about thinking things – say, believing Jesus to be the Jewish messiah, the centurion might have converted to Judaism, or at least been a proselyte. If faith was about trusting in healing from afar, we might be singing praises to Chanina ben Dosa. But that isn’t it. The faith this centurion exemplifies is that of valuing people. Faith is building houses of worship for people of a different tradition, being sensitive to their laws and customs. Faith is caring deeply for a slave. Faith is valuing people, even people who aren’t valued by society. And while this centurion is the paragon, all of the healing stories show this. Faith is knowing that whether you are a bleeding woman or a Gentile, you are just as worthy of healing as the sons of prominent men.
Now, I will admit that this faith is something I struggle with. And, while I know some people who are – who see the value and the commonality in all people – as a whole we as people aren’t very good at this. Instead, we excel at dividing people into categories – into us and them. We do so in politics, not only nationally, vying democrats against republicans, but also internationally “either you’re with us or you’re against us,” and even locally. We do so in our workplaces, in our relationships and in our churches. One of my favorite jokes – and it’s a nerdy one – is that there are ten types of people in the world: those who understand binary and those who don’t. There are lots of jokes based on making such distinctions. There are two types of people in the world: those who finish punchlines. Or ultimately, “there are two types of people in the world: those who think there are two types of people and those who don’t.”
These distinctions are more than jokes, however, and they do more than serve as colored jerseys indicating who is on which team. These distinctions, in fact, impact how we treat people. A study was done at the University of Michigan last year, looking at how people empathize with others. Students were approached either at the University’s library or at the bus stop outside of the library (during the middle of winter mind you), and they were told a story about a person who had gotten lost on a hike with no food, water or extra clothes. The students were then asked what was most unpleasant for the hiker, what was his most pressing need: hunger, thirst or cold. Not surprisingly, the students who were questioned waiting outside at the bus stop overwhelmingly rated the cold as the most unpleasant condition for the hiker – much more than the people inside the warm library did. This result indicates that our empathy derives from our ability to imagine ourselves in other people’s situations.
However, an interesting twist was added to this study. In the story that was told to the students, the hiker was identified either as a liberal, gay-rights supporting, Democrat or a conservative, anti-gay-rights, Republican. And following the survey, the students were asked similar demographic questions about themselves. What the researchers found was that this result, where the students standing out in the cold rated the hiker’s concern for the cold higher, only held when the hiker in the story had the same political stance as the student. Their ability to empathize was limited to people they judged as similar to themselves. For hikers that were different from the student, however, the cold students questioned at the bus stop we no more likely than the students inside the library to rate being cold as the most unpleasant condition. As the researchers note, “knowledge of another person’s politics should not influence how cold or thirsty one thinks he or she is.” But apparently it does. In many ways, we are very good at empathizing with others – of understanding how they are suffering, of imaging what their pain is, and even of thinking of how we can help them. But our empathy, and likewise our ability and willingness to care for and help others, is often limited to those people we consider similar to us.
And yet, the faith of Christ is to value those people who aren’t like us – who don’t look like us, who don’t think like us, who don’t vote for the people we vote for, and who don’t even believe what we believe. Throughout history, starting in the Bible and continuing to today, we find the people of God setting up boundaries, defining who is in and who is out, who they will care for and who they won’t. Yet again and again, God subverts those boundaries – be they distinctions of lineage, of ethnicity, or of ideological beliefs. As Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her book The Luminous Web, “the Bible is one long story about how God demolishes human beliefs in order to clear space for faith.” Throughout the Bible we encounter God breaking apart the boundaries and distinctions we’ve established to find ways to embrace and include more people. We hear the prophets urging us to care for powerless people. We see Jesus healing and befriending the sinners (the people outside of the law). And we find Paul extending that inclusion to Gentiles of all stripes.
And yet we have continued marking divisions and establishing litmus tests for who’s in and who’s out, who’s acceptable and who isn’t. We’ve struggled with racism and sexism. We debate whether (and how) to fully include gays and lesbians and transgendered people in our churches and denominations. Even in the midst of these debates we struggle to respect the people on the other side. We’ve set up all sort of doctrinal and dogmatic divisions. In order to belong you must agree with this or that list of statements, of putative facts. But I tell you what – I don’t think it really matters what we think. God loves us – all of us. Not because of who we are, not because we belong to the right club, and not because of what we think or believe. The corollary is that God loves everyone else too – inside this church, outside this church, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, even atheists and people who could care less about God. God loves them. And we are made whole, we live our life by the faith of Christ, when we extend our love, our healing care, to all of God’s people.
Regardless of what you believe, live your life by the faith of Christ, knowing that God loves you and God loves everyone else too.
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