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.
Resurrection is on my mind this week as I prepare to preach tomorrow on the passage from John 11, where Jesus in raising Lazarus from the dead describes Himself as “The Resurrection and The Life.”
Maybe this is why the British band Keane’s single, “Silenced by the Night,” from their latest album, Strangeland, moved me this evening. I’m not exactly sure, but the lyrics seem to be telling the story of a man and a woman whose love endures the “night” only to “rise again.” (If you can make sense of the plot, especially the enigmatic ending, I’m all ears! Leave your theory below.)
The imagery of resurrection here, especially in the chorus, is inescapably beautiful:
We were silenced by the night
But you and I, we’re gonna rise again
Divided from the light
I wanna love the way we used to then
There’s also something deeply compelling theologically in the notion that “rising again” is a kind of returning to one’s self- a process of being “born again” to the love one once knew and the self one used to be. If the video is a tribute to the beautiful, liberative qualities of erotic love, it is also a way to frame what it means to be found again and again by the Lover of our souls.
You can watch the video below:
“1.4 million lack power amidst relentless heat,” or so go the headlines these days.
Here in Atlanta over the past weekend, the heat index was upwards of 110 degrees. It was so hot that simply stepping out to get the mail felt like walking through a sauna, and the local pool offered free, unlimited, weekend passes.
Which only partially explains the following church sign on yesterday’s route through the nearby countryside only 30 miles south of Atlanta, a trek I make every other week as an itinerant chaplain to visit a few of my clients: “Hell is hotter,” the sign read.
Hell is hotter than “Hotlanta” in July.
I would reckon that hell can also be here in Atlanta in July, one observation the sign fails to mention- but it still gets high marks for creativity.
So, what do you think? Are “heaven” and “hell” reserved for some distant future, or, as Rob Bell would argue in Love Wins, can we experience them in the here and now?
For more funny church signs, check out Beliefnet’s series.
Two days ago someone I know who I would prefer not to know made me very angry.
I was so angry that when I went grocery shopping, I left all of my purchased bags of groceries in my shopping cart in the parking lot and then drove all the way home to discover they weren’t in my car. At which point I drove all the way back to the grocery store to see if they were still there. They weren’t. I consoled myself by trusting that some person who really needed frozen pizza, coconut popsicles and an array of Greek yogurts, among other things, had made off with my cart. In this way my anger would be at least somewhat redemptive for someone, even if it cost me $30.
I was still pretty angry the next day, despite that whole passage in the Bible about not letting the sun go down on one’s anger. My slightly sticky brain held on to all those thoughts about what I would really tell this person if I had the chance. I visualized taking a swing, maybe yelling that three-word declaration that when made, earns my kids a bar of Dove soap in their mouth: I hate you. I hate you. I hate you. I hate you. (There were some other uncensored words in the mix as well.) Fortunately, my kids weren’t there to see me hurling a string of mean words at the mirror in a pretend exchange with this truly despicable person.
So yesterday I must have still been dealing with the residual anger from the previous day’s exchange. This is the only explanation I can muster for why at the end of last night’s party I would first misplace my keys somewhere in a friend’s house, then leave a delicate, antique china platter on the top of my car to drive off and hear, one mile later, over the sound of fireworks in downtown Atlanta, a loud shattering.
One look in the side view mirror had confirmed my suspicions. I found myself marveling at how that delicate fragile platter had managed to balance itself precariously on the roof of my RAV-4 Toyota for even that long, and then briefly amused myself by imagining the reaction this morning from the little, old lady who steps out of her house to find pieces of rose-colored, gold-gilded china strewn in the road in front of her yard. “What in God’s good name happened here?,” she wonders.
I’m at a loss to explain.
Thankfully, Jesus got angry, too- albeit in much more altruistic ways. This week I’ll preach on the story of Lazarus. Translations of this story, in describing Jesus’ reaction as one of being “greatly troubled,” tend to miss the original connotation in Greek that Jesus was downright angry. Angry at a world in which people have to die and bad things happen to good people, where there is weeping and suffering and brokenness.
After that antique china platter shattered, I called a good friend while still en route home under a night sky bursting with big, bright displays of color. She listened as I explained all of the reasons for my righteous anger. She laughed as I told her the story of the wandering grocery bags, missing keys and broken china. Then she said, “Kristina, it’s clear that you need a little centering.”
And, of course, she’s right. What is anger, really, but a de-centering of our sense of being in control or calling the shots or having our way? I suspect that our average, garden-variety anger often hinges on the conviction that we really are more righteous than another human being who has wronged us by his or her actions. That we deserve better from others or from God. That we have good cause to be angry.
And often we may. Often anger is a healthy stage in one’s healing. It tells us that we don’t deserve to be treated unjustly. It clues us in to the things we most value and hold dear. Things like honesty or trustworthiness or loyalty in our friends.
Often the church forgets these more constructive dimensions to anger, preferring passive aggressiveness to authentic expressions. I remember listening to a whole sermon about why anger is just downright bad. Such responses to anger, in addition to being pastorally useless, are unbiblical. The Bible is replete with passages that give voice to anger. Being angry is part of being human. The question is more, how are we to manage and deal with our anger?
Healthy expressions of anger, like writing or calling a good friend who will give honest and truthful counsel, maybe in some cases confronting the offending person if it’s safe and the raw emotions have settled a bit, have helped me. Asking how anger, whatever its cause or justification, might be constructive is another.
As I drove home last night reflecting on the meaning of “centering,” I came again to Jesus standing before Lazarus’ tomb, greatly angered in spirit. Jesus’ anger in that moment was totally in alignment with God’s heart for the world: if it succeeded in in any way “de-centering” Jesus, it was also a recalibration of sorts. Jesus’ anger became further impetus to carry out God the Father’s mission of healing and redemption; and, it became the prelude to new, resurrected life.
There is no reason to doubt that our anger, like everything else profane in this world that God can make holy, can be sanctified like this, too.
Hope you’re having a fun Fourth!
I’m struck by how holidays like these, during which we celebrate some aspect of what it means to belong to a particular nation, can be much like religious rituals, insofar as they give a certain shape or story line to our often inchoate, often fragmented experiences.
The words of a poet whose name I can’t recall- (a virtual shout-out to whomever can name him), and whom Barbara Brown Taylor quoted the other night, comes to mind: “For what is story if not relief from the pain of the inconclusive, from the dread of the meaningless?”
What is story if not relief from the pain of the inconclusive and the dread of the meaningless?
And what is religion and its rituals if not first and foremost story?
I suspect this is the main reason why religion will never lose its power. It’s also the reason why the Christian tradition that gives shape to my own sometimes seemingly inconclusive, seemingly meaningless experiences contains such persuasive appeal. Its symbols are abundantly rich, not only descriptively and metaphorically but transformatively: in reminding me of who I am and where I’m headed, despite all the twists and turns and detours of my road, they help me to welcome rather than run from the inevitability of change, with a certain level of trust that in the end the plot lines of my story will all make sense.
Last night I was reading an excerpt from Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography, The Prime of Life, in which she describes in almost ecstatic tones the wonder of working and living on her own as a writer and philosopher. She was free to do as she pleased- to come and go and eat and sleep and write and abscond for long walks with her main man (Jean Sartre) with really only one person to worry about (herself). She was celebrating her independence, even if that independence seemed a bit artificial.
This afternoon when I drove my husband and children to the Atlanta airport, I could appreciate the sentiment. I quickly begun to bask in my new-found freedom of one precious week sans family with nothing other than what can be described as sheer bliss. It was bliss to return to a quiet house, throw a haphazard meal together, and dial up a girlfriend rather than troubleshoot tired children at their hour of expiration. Tonight it will be unlimited satisfaction to sink into bed with the covers all mine, curling up as I always do with a good book, only this time with no need for even the slightest resignation of a wife and mother who knows her occupation is largely one of being interrupted. By snoring. Or bed wetting. Or a bad dream.
Other mothers of young children will understand here that it’s not just that I need to get out more.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my family. They give me joy. Often.
They also drive me crazy!
I don’t know if Jesus has any of this in mind when he says that a person must “hate” his or her family in order to be one of Jesus’ disciples (Luke 14:26). Maybe we just catch him in a bad moment here: maybe he just had a spat with his parents; maybe Mom wants Jesus to go into the wine business (John 2) and settle down with a nice girl from Judea or Palestine rather than run all around the country with his pals; maybe Dad agrees. (Who knows? So stay tuned for another installment in my once-complete- but-now-incomplete “Weird Jesus Sayings” series.) Whatever the case, it is reassuring in those frequent moments when this restless soul is feeling more like the gal in the old Calgon commercials (“Calgon, take me away!”) than a paragon of domesticated motherhood, to have the excuse that I’m just keeping my eligibility for Christian discipleship intact.
But, humor aside, as pleasant as my current illusion of independence may seem, “no man is an island,” to quote Ernest Hemingway. Chances are that one week of “being on my own,” or at least pretending to be, will have refreshed me in time to greet my immediate family with the enthusiasm of a wife and mother who genuinely missed her brood. Still, I can’t help relishing the thought that this week’s inspiration (devoted to more writing than usual, I hope) won’t have to come within the crowded margins of days spent cleaning sticky hands or bottoms, reconciling feuding parties, and trudging through daily morning piano practice with a son who when asked to play his “Twinkles” reacts as if I’ve just sent him off to the gulag.
Yes, independence, even if it has its limits, hasn’t tasted so sweet in a very, long time.
I’ve recently begun a three month experiment in co-leading a small group of self-described cynics, skeptics and religious misfits engaging our questions at the intersection of life and God. Tonight we’ll be revisiting what it means that Jesus is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6).
This implicitly exclusivist claim makes me squirm. It only takes a brief survey of my own very messy, imperfect life to warrant deep discomfort with the idea that simply because I’m following Jesus, I’ve got more of a monopoly on truth and life- and God, for that matter- than my Buddhist or agnostic neighbor.
Just the other day I ran into an old acquaintance at the pool. One of the things I love about this friend, “Q,” is that she breaks all the molds: she’s Muslim and likes to wear string bikinis when she works out, looks a bit like a female version of Bob Marley with her long dreadlocks, and will be retiring from a career in corporate America to write children’s books. She and I were jokingly commiserating about how our life circumstances have made us a bit jaded, so that it can often feel like we’re walking around in a bit of a low-grade depression- hence our frequent trips to the pool to swim. “But you’ve got Jesus!,” Q exclaimed in jest at my own admission. “I keep asking the prophet Muhammad to help me out!,” We both had a good laugh.
Maybe the point that Jesus is “the Way” isn’t so much that those of us who would call ourselves followers of Christ have “arrived.” Or, similarly, that if Jesus is “the Truth” we Christians have some static possession of absolute truth. Or, that if Jesus is “the Life,” we will always be running around with perma-glued smiles, radiant, bubbly and high on life, contrary to what Joel Osteen might imply. (I still would like to know where he got his smile, though.)
I would venture to guess that the “direction” here is as important as the “destination.” We’re spiritually en route to God and Truth and Life like everybody else- only the particular way we have chosen is the Way who is Jesus, and this Jesus is uniquely the very “temple of God.” Like no other person who has walked this sad, old earth, Jesus is the living, breathing meeting place between heaven and earth.
And walking Jesus’ way is hard-going. The nineteenth century theologian, Sören Kierkegaard, in his own meditations on John 14:6, emphasizes that the thing that distinguishes Jesus’ Way from others, making Jesus’ way more “narrow” than other ways that also involve poverty, suffering and misunderstanding, is the element of free will. “Christ chose humiliation,” Kierkegaard writes. Those who follow Christ must choose humiliation also, and this path of humiliation is inseparable from the glory of the destination to which Christ gestures.
Kierkegaard goes on to write that like a mother teaching her child to walk, Jesus goes before us: “Jesus does not go by his disciples’ side, but is himself the goal, and turns himself toward the believer. He stretches out his arms just as a mother does, if perchance she stands so far away that she cannot get near the child, then she stretches out her arms and moves them as if she were all the time grasping the child, although there is too great a distance between them for this. So solicitous is the mother- more solicitous she could not be, because otherwise the child would not learn to walk.”
Maybe Kierkegaard is right- that when it comes to knowing our direction and destination (ultimately God) we are all like kids learning how to take our first steps. While some of us may pretend to go it alone, we all in actuality use handrails of one sort or another. All of us will stub our toes, or skin our knees, or take a nose dive. But chances are we all, if we’re honest with ourselves, could use a loving and vigilant parent to help us learn to walk. And it would seem by extension that if Jesus is “the Way, the Truth and the Life,” He is the most reliable parent on offer.
Barbara Brown Taylor spoke at First Baptist Decatur yesterday six years following the publication of her memoir, Leaving Church. She is one of my role models for her authenticity (an over-used word, I know, but for lack of a better term), groundedness and commitment to telling the truth as a preacher turned writer.
Taylor began her talk with a helpful distinction. Pastors spend much of their time being concerned with “rightness” and “wrongness.” Taylor had spent years in the pastorate doing just this, because “being right” had been part of her implicit job description. But when she sat down to write Leaving Church, Taylor set out to tell a story that most fundamentally was simply “true”- true to her own experience, which may or may not be true for her readers, but was indeed true for her.
I like the distinction. It helps to explain the gap between our smiling faces in church that show only “shards” (Taylor’s term) of ourselves on Sunday mornings and the rest of our lives- why it is that we so often retreat from church when life throws us a curve ball in the form of a divorce, or depression or some other kind of devastating new story line.
In times like these, we’re not looking for rightness or wrongness. We’re looking for Truth. We’re looking, whether or not we know it, for Jesus.
And, the good news here is that we don’t have to look far for the Truth. The Truth just “happens” to us. All we need to decide is whether to tell the truth.
Many of us don’t.
I’m learning more about the nature of grief as I make my way through Hilary Spurling’s fascinating biography of Pearl Buck. Pearl’s only child, Carol, was born with a rare, degenerative condition that left her mentally disabled for the rest of her life, and Pearl found herself trying to raise her daughter in a day and age when disability was treated as a shameful secret to be hidden away and not discussed. (I would submit that while we have come a long way here on behalf of people with disabilities and their families, we have a long way to go.) Pearl soon learned in this context that the only way she could really bear her deep grief as a mother was silently and alone.
“Endurance is only the beginning,” Pearl wrote years later. She went on to write, as paraphrased by Spurling, that “learning to bear grief that cannot at first be borne has to be done alone.”
Pearl dissected her grief into stages, beginning with devastation and disintegration. “Despair so profound and absorbing poisons the whole system and destroys thought and energy.”
How often, I wonder, do we apply Bandaid faith solutions to people’s grief? The assurance, “God is with you”- regardless of its inherent veracity- seems empty, disingenuous and even cruel in these times.
I’ll never forget walking with a family whose only daughter, in her twenties, was fighting for her life against a rare blood disorder. Gidgett had put on a brave face for a long time with this lifelong illness, spending days and even weeks at a time in the hospital for transfusions and other interventions.
The turning point came when she was told both legs would have to be amputated.
It was then that she succumbed. Her will to live had itself expired. She survived the operation only to die several weeks later.
I remember getting the call in the middle of the night. Her father stood outside her room and yelled angrily at God through his tears. His only daughter had been taken from him, and the very last person he wanted to see right now was the on-call chaplain.
Grief like this must be borne alone. Even the compassion that friends, family and a community of faith may offer can only go so far in expressing solidarity with the one who has been undone by loss. When the apostle Paul writing to the Galatians instructs them to bear one another’s burdens, I imagine he does so as someone who is very much alone within the bars of his prison cell. And maybe the sacred “burden” we bear for one another is the sheer loneliness of another’s unknowable, often inexpressible grief. We must acknowledge it, I think, lest we do violence to the other. We must be willing to be taught and to use our imaginations in order to construct something of the inner landscape of the one who grieves. This is the closest we can get to “being with” the one who endures deep loss.
Apparently Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church is doing a whole series on dating and relationships: “You Make Me Crazy” offers “survival skills for relationships.” I guess “Christian dating” is just one of those perennially hot topics.
When I was dating, the burning question was whether to engage in the questionable practice of so-called “missionary dating”- this, thanks to that oft-quoted, Pauline proof text, “Don’t be unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:14).
It seemed, however, that all or at least most of the cool guys in those golden college years were the ones who were not spending their Friday nights strumming guitars and singing praise music at an InterVarsity worship service.
I solved the dilemma at the time by keeping my faith and dating life pretty much separate. Paul, my husband to be, was a worldly, slightly older Ph.D. student whose sense of humor and charm gradually broke my hardened resolve to “play the field.” We met- how’s this for nerdy?- at the underground library where I worked. The dim, fluorescent lighting, hushed whispers and sterilized cubbyholes (a.k.a. make-out rooms) of “Cross Campus Library,” as it was called, became a kind of petri dish in which this nascent love between an evangelical Christian and an agnostic could develop.
Paul’s parents were (and remain) somewhere on a spectrum between agnostic and atheist. Mine were (and remain) more old-school evangelicals and former missionaries. (You might imagine what their first meeting was like following my future husband’s marriage proposal. Dare I say, “awkward”? Thank goodness for wine!)
Paul’s lack of faith proved difficult in those first couple years of our relationship. By the time things had progressed to “serious,” (meaning I had decided to date Paul exclusively), Paul had begun attending both a weekly graduate men’s Bible study and Sunday worship services; and he had discovered to his great surprise that you can be a Christian and still have fun and be smart. These would be important milestones on a gradual journey that at some point along the way involved a confession of faith in Jesus Christ.
But the external pressure to break up, often coming from the Christian circles in which I found myself at the time, was often hard to resist.
When I tried out for the only Christian singing group on campus, a rather dour, sour-faced couple who were leaders in the group- they came right out of central casting as seventeenth century Puritans, but without the costumes- sat me down to say that I would be rejected because I was dating an unbeliever. That episode sparked a rather dramatic, emotional break-up with Paul, made all the more difficult by the fact that he and I were still attending the same worship service on Sunday mornings.
On one Sunday during that tearfully laden period of separation, we happened to run into one another on our walk back to campus. It began to rain. Paul had the umbrella, which he happily shared, and moments later we were passionately smooching one another in a thunderstorm just outside my dorm- at which point, the seventeenth century Puritans just happened to walk by. It was like the college version of the movie, “Saved,” and we were back together, this time having vowed not to let Christian peer pressure keep us apart.
When Paul writes to the church in Corinth telling them not to be “unequally yoked” to unbelievers, he is well aware of the context: the church in Corinth is navigating boundaries in a culture known for its wild, promiscuous lifestyle; it is a culture in which even religious acts of worship have become loud, sexual orgies. So Paul, in this context, is not giving free, pre-marital advice here; instead he is offering some basic guidelines that will help the Corinthian church live into their relationship with God and one another.
Still, experience has much to teach on the promise and peril of “missionary dating.” Maybe both the promise and the peril could best be summed up in one word: “transformation,” either for better or worse, and for us I’d like to think that change was mostly for the better. There is no doubt that both Paul and I changed in the process of getting to know one another and falling in love. There is no doubt that seventeen years later (five years of dating plus twelve years of marriage) we are both very different people than when we began this whole journey together. And there is also no doubt that just as God was at work in my life before I met Paul, God was at work in Paul’s life before he met me- and has been ever since.
Did this reality require that Paul be a Christian in the first place? Of course not. Thankfully God doesn’t abide by our often useless categories. In fact, I would venture to guess that God derives great belly laughs from connecting all sorts of different people and watching their “conversion” in the process. Because life, afterall, as the preacher reminded me on Sunday, really is all about learning how to love better.
So, what do you think about “missionary dating,” based on your own experience and reading of Scripture? Is it a misnomer to begin with? Is it more perilous than promising or more promising than perilous? Leave your thoughts below!