“An Invitation to Trust” or “An Invitation Not to Believe”

The Script has a song, Breakeven, that starts out,

I’m still alive but I’m barely breathing
Just prayin’ to a God that I don’t believe in

When this song first came out, I had a friend call me up and ask if I’d heard it.  “You’ll like the first two lines,” he said.  I was in seminary at the time, and while this friend would be someone who would probably identify as skeptical, he would always come and hear me when I preached or taught.

He knew my theology, my style, my leanings.

He knew that I think that many people pray to a God that they don’t believe in.  Perhaps he is one of them.

Perhaps we all are at one time or another.

We must remember that the opposite of faith is not doubt.  The opposite of faith is certainty.  Somewhere down the line of history we’ve lost sight of this, to the detriment of those of us who identify as religious and spiritual.

I’m a big proponent of changing the word “believe” into “trust” when we’re reading the scriptures.  Our post-enlightenment habits have tended toward making everything that happens in this world begin in the brain.  We use the words “belief” and “believe” in all ways as if it can be equated to “mental assent.”

But in the ancient world, no such corollary existed.  Diana Butler Bass notes this in her most recent work Christianity After Religion.  She writes,

Although Western Christianity would eventually be defined as a belief system about God, throughout its first five centuries people understood it primarily as spiritual practices that offered a meaningful way of life in this world-not as a neat set of doctrines, an esoteric belief, or the promise of heaven.  By practicing Jesus’s teachings, followers of the way discovered that their lives were made better on a practical spiritual path…members of the community were not held accountable for their opinions about God or Jesus; rather, the community measured faithfulness by how well its members practiced loving God and neighbor. (p 149)

When I was going through my first wrestling period with faith, I felt terrible.  I felt as if I had been fed these lies that I was supposed to mentally assent to and that I was finally coming out of a deep hole…only to find the world around me disordered and frightening.  It felt as if I was breaking a relationship with someone.

It felt as if I couldn’t breathe.

But I still attended services.  I still attended church.  I still contributed in religious discussions.

I still prayed to a God that I didn’t believe in.

And those practices brought me back around to faith.  Those practices, and some meaningful discussions with people who took faith seriously enough to fight with it, brought me back around to a space in this world where I could once again interact with God.

But it wasn’t belief, per se.  It was much more powerful than belief.

It was trust.

This is why, when Rick Warren the pastor of the mega-church Saddleback Church and author of The Purpose Driven Life, writes in an article published early last year that “change always starts in the mind,” and “to help people change, we must change their beliefs,” I think he’s ridiculously lost in the post-enlightenment mindset that has led the church to this place where people are leaving in droves.

He goes on to write that, “trying to change behavior (without) changing belief is a waste of time.”  I couldn’t disagree more.  My story wouldn’t make sense if trying to change behavior without changing beliefs is a waste of time. Warren obviously doesn’t understand lex orandi, lex credendi…

Sometimes I think these pastors that go for the “belief then behavior” theory of Christianity are no more than self-help gurus that insert the word “God” where it’s convenient. “You can change your behavior.  You can do it.  God will help you, if only you believe…”

Take out the God wording in that sentence, and I think it exposes what they’re really saying.

I don’t want to invite people to believe in God.  I want to invite people to trust in God.

We can believe all sorts of things about God, about God’s nature, about God’s action in the world.  We can believe all sorts of things about God’s authority, about what God expects of us.

But if “belief” is equal to “mental assent,” then everything rests on whether or not I believe what you believe about God.

If not, we end up fighting or not talking.

But if we trust God, we can trust enough to ask questions about God, of God, of one another without being threatened.

And then trust enough to invite people into those questions as well.  And trust is, I think, indicated through activities and practices.

I think that as we head into this next phase as people of faith, practices…activities of trust…will become more and more important.

I’m not sure how to invite Jesus into my heart, or even what that phrase means.  But I strive to live as if God is already present inside of me. And you, too.  And in the stranger, regardless of what they believe.

And I find it important to gather with other people who trust in that way, too.  Or who want to trust.  Or who don’t trust but think it’d be interesting to see what it looks like.  We teach one another.

And as someone who has been there in the deep hole of not making sense of whats up or down because not everything that you’ve been taught to believe lines up with reality, it’s really important, when you find yourself barely breathing, to pray to God…even if you don’t believe.

Doing so you’re embodying something more powerful than belief.  You’re trusting.

And trusting can change things.

“Scripture and Responsibility,” or “Someone Stole My God and Put a Bible in It’s Place!”

I got a message on one of my social media sites from someone I don’t know.  They were upset with some of the blog posts that I had written.  They wrote,

All due respect, I get what you’re trying to do with your blog, but you are irresponsible with your perspective. You are pitting the world against Christians in the name of reaching them. That said, there is very little that is explicitly biblical in your blogs. You rely on opinion and hope. The scriptures themselves are the only hope we have, and I would suggest that your addition (or subtraction of their authority) are dangerous and, again, irresponsible to say the least.

One of the phrases that I think humanity should abandon, in general, is “all due respect.”  It pretty much ensures that what they say won’t be very respectful…

I’m not offended or anything.  People are welcome to have their own opinions, although I disagree with the writer’s analysis.  I don’t think it’s irresponsible to come into conversation with scripture, and I don’t find my writings based on “opinions and hope.”  There is much scholarship (and late nights with beer and granola bars) that inform these posts.  Hence why I don’t post every day…sometimes I have to sleep.

And I don’t think I’m pitting the world against Christians (what does that even mean?).  Although I’m uncertain exactly what the writer is trying to say there, I’m pretty sure that Christians are doing a pretty good job of pitting people against them on their own…

But I think that the writer makes one substantial claim that can be enlightening in teasing out the reason (or, at least one of the reasons) why certain parts of the faith/a-faith community talk over one another.  Did you double-take at the line, “the scriptures themselves are the only hope” that humanity has?

Yikes.

I’m a Christian, a person of faith, and I have to say that my hope is not in the scriptures.

The story of Jesus that is told in the scriptures is the most intriguing story I’ve ever read.  I believe that God has revealed something in the Christ that can’t be ignored for it’s importance and life-changing ability.  I believe that, in the person of Jesus, God started something new in the world.  So new, in fact, that people had to write about it in haste.

But you see, that’s just it.  My hope is in God’s work through Jesus.  The scriptures contain that story, but they aren’t the object of my hope itself.  Somewhere along the line we’ve turned the scriptures into God…and then everyone who begins to question them, to delve into their historical context to weed out discrepancies and cultural trappings becomes “irresponsible” and “dangerous.”

In short, my question is: “If the Bible isn’t God, why are so many people worshiping it?”

As a Christian, a person of faith, a pastor, the Bible informs my faith.  It is the feedbox of faith; not the fence nor the object of faith.

But we’ve turned it into the idol on a pedestal.  We’ve claimed it as “infallible” and “inerrant.”  My favorite variation of this claim is that it is “inerrant in it’s original languages.”  Nice dodge, people.  I hate to say it, but that’s not exactly how language works.  It is not intellectually honest to claim that something is perfect in its original but long-lost form.  It’s a quaint way of acknowledging that there are internal inconsistencies with the scriptures while escaping any need to take them seriously.

Infallibility and inerrancy are traits commonly ascribed to the Divine itself.   But because we can’t see the Divine in the ways we want to, we’ve created this lovely Bible-calf out of the gold of our desire for concrete things, and think that full “authority” rests in it instead of the God it points to.

As an interesting test-study, let’s look at some scripture passages (as the person who wrote to me doesn’t think I use enough) that are commonly held up as proofs for the Bible’s inerrant nature and infallibility to engage the heart of the issue.

In 2 Timothy 3:16 the writer says, “All scripture is God breathed.”  This has commonly been used as a defense for the Bible’s infallibility and inerrant nature.

Unfortunately, the writer of 2 Timothy didn’t have a Bible.  They only had the Torah, the Psalms, and some wisdom writings.  In fact, they may not have even had all of those, depending on where they were in the world.  So, unless the writer of 2 Timothy was indeed projecting 300 years into the future to when the scriptures were canonized, the writer was talking about some other books.

On the face, to say that “all scripture is God-breathed” seems pretty cut and dry.  It can very easily be understood as talking about the canonized Bible because, for the last 1700 years, that’s exactly what most people have been talking about when they say the word “scripture.”

But I think it is irresponsible to allow that line of thinking to go on without some good questions like, “What writings did the author have?” and “What was the understanding of ‘God-breathed’ that they may have been working with?”  Too often we imagine these writers like they are sitting in Cleveland using the same dictionary we have on our shelves.

Another example that deserves a spin on the old turn-table of critical thought: Revelation 22:19, “And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from (them) a share of the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described therein.”

I love Revelation.  It’s a book of unending interest to me.  A great treatment on the subject was written by my seminary professor Barbara Rossing entitled, “The Rapture Exposed.” (Spoiler alert: the “rapture” is exposed as a bunch of leviathan dung…)

But one of the problems with this verse from Revelation’s 22nd chapter is that, for years I’ve heard preachers who haven’t done their homework take this line and apply it to the whole canon.  I mean, not only is it clear that John the Diviner (the name we’ve given to the writer of Revelation) didn’t intend for that to be the case, it’s absolutely reprehensible to suggest that notion to someone interested in the faith because it automatically cuts off any ability to question or wrestle with scripture.

If the result of wrestling, questioning, and even saying, “hey, that’s a little nuts…” is being cut off from God’s grace, do you think people are going to do it?  Instead people start yelling “false prophet!” or “anti-Christ” or…well, other things that people begin to yell when they feel like their faith is threatened.  It cuts off conversation at it’s core.

There are other verses and proof-texts, of course.  Many.  You know of some, too.

The person who wrote to me said that my suggestions are irresponsible, and that my thoughts are dangerous.  I want to say, quite plainly, that I think that reading the Bible without taking note of its historical context is irresponsible for a pastor/theologian leading a faith community, and that I think its dangerous for the faith to continue along this anti-intellectual trajectory that we’ve been heading down since the Enlightenment.

My own context, Lutheranism, has always understood scripture to be read in three ways: for devotion (spiritual edification), proclamation (faith formation), and study (critical learning).  I like that we uphold (at least) three ways…it’s very Trinitarian. And they each inform the other and have elements of the other within them.  My own faith has been edified and formed through critical study.  My devotional life has been formed and developed by hearing the scriptures and ancient texts read with other people gathered around.

But having a multivariant approach to scripture is important.  It’s important because the scriptures are not one monolithic writing, but contain myths, legends, histories, testimonies, letters, and all sorts of type of writings, and that variance should be acknowledged through a lens that allows for it.  It’s important because it prevents the reader from putting the Bible, as words on a page, on a pedestal because each approach informs and critiques the other.

Martin Luther himself, who took the Bible more seriously than most in an age where reading wasn’t exactly in vogue and questioning authority wasn’t encouraged (remember what happened to Hus?), even argued with scripture.  He opined that the book of James and the book of Revelation should be cut from the canon (at least, in his younger less angry years).  Was that irresponsible?

Or was it him taking scripture and what it is seriously?

I take scripture seriously, not literally. For me it is not some fable nor is it a golden book that fell from the sky. It holds the most intriguing story I’ve ever heard in which I put my hope…but it’s not the story itself, and is certainly not the hope.

So, read your Bibles, preferably with other people.  Don’t worship them.  And if you’re a pastor, introduce some critical thinking into your instruction…the world will be better for it.

“Trayvon Martin and Liturgy” or “We Have Tools To Counteract This…”

I live in Chicago, not Sanford.

And yet, I find myself in Sanford a lot lately.  Not physically, of course.  Just mentally.

I find myself there because, well, the streets of Chicago can be scary, too.  There are times when I’m walking around my neighborhood and I’m looking for the suspicious character…and find myself being the suspicious character in some neighborhoods.

But luckily, I have a tool that counteracts the fear of suspicious characters.  I’m not talking about a gun, a baton, a taser, or some other self-defense tool or technique.

I don’t have those.

I have “The Peace.”

“The Peace” is what I share every Sunday morning at my church, where I go around to shake the hands of people I know, and people I don’t know.  And as I do it, I say, “The peace of God be with you!”  It’s a peace that I extend with my hand.  It’s a peace that I, sometimes, extend with a kiss.

It’s a peace that I extend to everyone.  Everyone there.

And I do it, week after week, first and foremost, to teach myself.  To teach myself how to be the peace, to live in the peace of God, that peace that I’m extending.

Secondarily, I do it to receive the peace of the other person.  To allow myself to be vulnerable to them, to receive their blessing, that we hold to be the tangible blessing of God.

My hope is that in living in this rhythm of intentionally greeting people I don’t know on a weekly basis, I might be shaped and formed into a person who doesn’t fear the stranger, the “other” in front of me.

Some weeks I feel it “takes” better than others.  But I go back, week after week, believing that the process is teaching me a spiritual muscle memory that will pay off.

And why?

Because otherwise we end up worshiping idols.  Like the idol of security.  Security that comes with packing a firearm with you.  And as a good friend said recently, “The idol of false security always demands blood.”

And that’s what we saw in Sanford: the idol of false security taking its blood payment.

But for those of us who profess to be Christian, we have a different model, a different norm that we practice week after week in the liturgy.  The Peace can teach us, if we pay attention, that vulnerability leads to relationship, that openness leads to community.

The Peace can teach us how to act with courage, and not to seek out false security.  Courage, as I see it, is holding the appropriate amount of fear, but stepping forward nonetheless.

If Christians profess the faith of a Christ who is calling the universe toward unity (read Ephesians 1 if you’re wondering what that mystery might look like), then why are we so silent on this issue?  Why are we not lifting up the tools that we have, that we use, that we practice to counteract this issue?!

I think we are inactive, and largely silent, because we fail to take The Peace seriously.  We don’t reflect on the liturgy anymore; it’s simply the bridge between the sermon and communion.

That, or worse, it’s a time to greet our friends. Exclusively.

But what if that time, in every community, could be a time when we actively counteract the violence around us?  Where we reach out to the other not with a sword (or gun), but with an open hand?

Of course it appears as if other things muddy these particular waters.  Racial tensions are very present (and very real).  Policies and laws that glorify the individual rather than the community provide for troubling legal escapes.  But the fact remains that the church has a wealth of knowledge in the communal practice of our liturgical gathering to speak about this issue, and even those that muddy the waters!

Where is that voice?

This is one of the reasons that I’m a reluctant Christian.  We’ve become so numb to our own worship practices that we can’t see them as tools for daily living.  We might as well get in line at at our local chain coffee shop, put in our ipods (and, isn’t it funny that all of those products begin with “i”…we’ve stripped the community out of everything), and never greet those around us.

What does it mean to participate in a meal where all are invited forward and none leave without something?  What does it mean to bathe a person in the waters of grace and tell them, definitively, that we affirm their existence as a child of God?  What does it mean to weekly greet people we do not know, to welcome them into our personal space without asking them for something?  What does it mean to sing corporately songs of longing, songs of peace, songs of lament, shunning our ipods, iphones, i-gadgets for just a while?

You’d think such practices, if internalized, could be life changing.

Or, in this case, life-saving.

We have tools for this.  We’ve just forgotten how to use them.

“Love is not a victory march. It’s a cold, and it’s a broken Hallelujah…”

“What if there’s nothing there?”

A good question.  An old question.

I get it more often than one might think.  It’s not a question that people like to entertain.

At least in the company of other people.  Especially a pastor.

The question hung in the air like a thick fog.  You couldn’t see the tubes, the wires, the gown, the pad meant to catch whatever might fall from the failing body, protecting the bed.  The question obstructed everything in the room.

You couldn’t see the white tab, the black suit, the small red book clutched in my hand.  “Pastoral Care” was embossed on the cover.

But there wasn’t a section for apologies for the faith in there.

No.  Simply prayers.  And readings of prayers that people had written two thousand years ago to the God now in question.

We just sat there through tears as the question lingered.

Finally, a cough.  It broke the silence, allowed for a bit of light.

The tubes were now visible, the wires, the pad, the collar, the book.

“A good question, ” I affirmed.  Because it is.  It’s an old one.

“But…I don’t know, I can’t grasp on to nothing.  And when cells morph and stomachs rebel and eye sight fades, the Something of this world still seems graspable.  Or rather…it still feels as if I’m in a grasp of some sort…the grasp of a promise made long ago that still speaks to my heart today…”

The ribbon led me to the passage.  Psalm 31.  An old one.

“In you Lord I take refuge…”

And the machine beeps, slowly.

“…let me never be put to shame.”

And the covers are pulled over the toes, readjusted.

“Turn your ear to me…”

A sigh of resignation is released.

“…come quickly to my rescue.”

There’s a knock at the door.  The nurse shuffles the medi-cart in.  On it a computer screen with meds and doses to be doled out.

“Thanks.”  All that is said.  To me or to the nurse?  To both?

Or to the question, that though remains unanswered fully, is at least shared on more than two shoulders.

It’s true.  Love is not a victory march.  It’s cold, and it’s broken, and full of tubes and wires and pads…and collars and small books clutched tightly, and old promises kept…

Hallelujah.

“Utopian Smoke” or “Bono was Right: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”

It’s been a while since I’ve posted.

The absence has not been due to disinterest; quite the contrary.  The absence has been due to an overabundance of interest!

Reading, writing, reflecting…hospital visits, counseling…

But here and now, it’s time to post again.  And the topic at hand is a fun one, I think.

Utopia.

Or more precisely, the promise of utopias.  I love utopian promises almost as much as I love tacks in my socks and splinters in my finger nails.

And this is a promise that I hear from both theists and atheists alike.

An acquaintance of mine once said, “I feel sorry for those who haven’t accepted Christ in their life.  The world would be a better place for it.”  And, while I don’t necessarily disagree with the words she put forth, I think we’d disagree over the intention.

I have no illusions over the corrupted and corruptible nature of humanity.  It does not fill me with despair, mind you.  It just is.  So, would the world be “better”?  Depends what you mean by better.  I think the Middle Ages tried pretty hard to have the “known world” (leaving out entire continents, of course) under a banner that displayed a cross…erroneously…and that didn’t seem to go so well.

In even more stringent circles you have Darby-ists trying to create perfect heifers and advocating for all people of Jewish heritage to make it back to the “promised land” (a land that had been subsequently promised to the Palestinians, but then un-promised later on) in the hopes that somehow this will start some kind of cosmic clock to kick off a bloody Armageddon.

Sigh.

On the atheist side I find much the same argument.  The trick one must do is insert the word “science” or “reason” where the fanatical theist might insert the word “God” or “faith”.

In Sam Harris’s new book The Moral Landscape he actually begins to chomp at the utopian dream, believing that “science” and “reason” (always by his own definitions) will lead us to begin to make moral decisions.  Because, afterall, everything has to do with the chemical make-up of the brain.  Once that is mastered, once controlling and identifying those aspects are mastered, we’ll actually begin to discern what is moral and immoral not using ethical systems, but using science and brain chemistry as the plumb-line.

It sounds nice.

The problem is, we’ve tried it…with disastrous consequences.  Eugenics promised something akin to what Harris describes; how he misses the similarities is beyond me.  It ended with shame we still haven’t apologized for and atrocious smoke stacks full of humus, not to mention Pol Pot and other genocidal experiments.

One of my favorite sections of Harris’s frustrating book is his commentary on “Psychopathy” where he advocates for identifying the brain development of children early in order to identify them at the outset.  He writes:

“Unlike others who suffer from mental illness or mood disorders, psychopaths generally do not feel that anything is wrong with them.  They also meet the legal definition of sanity, in that they possess an intellectual understanding of the difference between right and wrong…for the purposes of this discussion…it seems sufficient to point out that we are beginning to understand the kinds of brain pathologies that lead to the most extreme forms of human evil. And just as some people have obvious moral deficits, others must possess moral talent, moral expertise, and even moral genius. As with any human ability, these gradations must be expressed at the level of the brain.” (The Moral Landscape, 98-99)

What’s so scary about that?  Take it one step further.  Do we allow those with “moral deficits” (by Harris’s definition) to exist alongside us “moral geniuses” (and I do suspect that that wording is correct…how many of you will place yourself under the “moral deficit” banner)?

Harris is not unusual in this line of thinking.  I’ve read a similar line in almost all of the New Atheist writings I’ve read.  And if you wonder if Harris is actually suggesting that we weed out “morally deficient” individuals, simply look at his writings on Islam and the solution to Islamic terrorism (hint: it includes the phrase “preemptive strike” and has lots of explosions).

But are these two positions really any different?  The fanatical theist wants to usher in the end of all things to expose the stupidity of those who don’t believe; the fanatical atheist wants to usher in the supremacy of science on the belief that it will expose the morally deficient and reform humanity.

Sigh.

The problem with both of these convictions is the absence of “competing truths.”

Can science usher in peace?  No.  Last time we tried that as a society we created a bomb that would destroy everything.

Can religion usher in peace? No.  Not as long as we refuse to accept that when we say the phrase “I believe…” we also, simultaneously are saying, “but I could be wrong…”

Utopias aren’t possible; humans haven’t the ability.  Heaven requires Divine intervention…something one side is trying to force while the other side is trying to prove is impossible, while claiming itself as divine.

And I’m a reluctant Christian because too often evangelism has turned into this sort of practice: ushering in utopia.  Instead its just made suburbs pop up around big-box churches.

Sigh.

Perhaps Einstein was right when he said, “I know not what weapons World War III will be fought with, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

We have a dystopia.  It’s cause is Sin.  Are we capable of better?  Somewhat.  Are we willing?  No…

It seems we still haven’t found what we’re looking for…but we’ll probably kill ourselves, one another,  and the Earth, trying to prove we have.