Here’s the sermon:
Archives For Doubt
Here’s my sermon on John 20.19-31 that I preached at my friend Todd Littleton‘s church in Oklahoma City. It was the first time I preached in a Baptist Church, somewhere an angel must’ve gotten his wings.
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.”
What’s that about?
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book!?!?!?!?
Did John’s first draft come back to him marked up with red ink?
Did John have a word limit?
Should our response to scripture reading be: “This is most of the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God”?
Think about it.
John believes he’s telling you the most important thing that’s ever been told- about the most important person who’s ever been and the most important cosmic event that’s ever happened.
Why would John leave anything out?
If the whole point of the Gospels is to convince beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus Christ is Lord…
if the whole point of the Gospels is to prove to us that the world responded to God’s love made flesh by crucifying him but that God vindicated him by raising him from the dead…
if the whole point of the Gospels is to explain to us why he came and why he died and why God raised him from the dead and what that means for us today…Then why would John not include every detail?
Why would John not submit every possible piece of evidence?
If the whole point of the Gospel is to convince us, then shouldn’t John’s Gospel be Stephen King long not Ernest Hemingway brief?
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.”
Of course, the operative phrase there is ‘…in the presence of his first disciples.’
Because we weren’t there.
We weren’t there like John was.
We weren’t there like Peter was.
We weren’t there like Matthew or Andrew or Mary Magdalene.
We didn’t get to see with our own eyes the things Jesus did.
We didn’t get to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to him with our own ears.
Jesus didn’t wash our feet.
I realize that just because you come to church doesn’t mean you don’t harbor serious doubts about God to say nothing of God raising a crucified, Galilean Jew from from the dead.
I also realize that the Easter season is an occasion when the every-Sunday sort of Christians think they need to hide their doubts.
And usually we hide our doubts by acting as though others shouldn’t have any doubts of their own.
As my muse, Stanley Hauerwas puts it:
“We try to assure ourselves that we really believe what we say we believe by convincing those who do not believe what we believe that they really believe what we believe once what we believe is properly explained.”
Easter is an occasion for doubt as much as it is an occasion for faith.
So why don’t we just admit it?
This whole believing business would be a lot easier if we weren’t 2,000 plus years removed from his resurrection.
This whole having faith thing would be a lot easier if we had just been there ourselves.
But then again-
Thomas was there.
Every step of the way.
With his own two eyes, Thomas saw Jesus feed 5,000 with just a few loaves and a couple of fish.
When Jesus raised Lazarus, called him out of his tomb, stinking and 3 days dead, Thomas was there.
And Thomas was there to hear for himself when Jesus told Martha, the grief-stricken sister of Lazarus:
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live.”
But all the first-hand evidence, all the eyewitness proof, all the personal experience wasn’t enough to convince Thomas.
Because on Easter night, after the women have run from the tomb terrified to tell the disciples that he is risen, the disciples run, terrified, and hide.
They hide behind locked doors and the Risen Christ comes and stands among them- just as he’d predicted he would- and says “Peace be with you.”
But Thomas wasn’t there.
The Gospel doesn’t give even an inkling of where Thomas was.
It just says “Thomas was not there with them when Jesus came.”
‘Seeing is believing’ we say, but three years of seeing for himself, of hearing for himself, of being right there with him- it wasn’t enough to convince Thomas that Jesus really was who he claimed he was.
Afterwards when the disciples tell Thomas what had happened, Thomas doesn’t respond by saying: All ten of you saw him? Alright, that’s good enough for me.
The shame of the cross was to great for him to believe God would redeem it.
I will not believe unless, he says.
Unless I see his hands and his feet.
Unless I can grab hold of him and touch his wounds.
Unless I can see for myself what Rome did to him.
I need proof. I need facts. I need evidence before I will believe.
This past fallI I was at the gym exercising this remarkable specimen of a body.
My head was covered in a bandana. I was wearing running shorts and a ratty old t-shirt and sneakers and looked, I thought, unrecognizable from the robed reverend I play up here on Sundays.
I was grunting and sweating and half-watching/half-listening to Luke Cage when a man, not a lot older than me, came up, tapped me on the shoulder and asked: ‘Don’t I know you?’
I told him I didn’t think so.
Maybe it was my voice that placed me.
He told me he’d met me at a funeral service- the funeral my church did a boy named Joshua in October, a little immigrant boy with brain cancer from my boy’s elementary school.
I put the weight in my hand down on the floor, wiped the sweat off on my shirt, and shook his hand.
And I suppose it was the mention of the boy’s name, his memory sneaking up on me like that, but neither one of us spoke for a few moments. We just stood there in the middle of the gym looking past each other, and probably we looked strange to anyone else might be looking at us.
‘I couldn’t do what you do’ he said, shaking his head like an insurance adjustor.
I assumed he meant funerals, couldn’t do funerals, couldn’t do funerals like that boy’s funeral.
‘Couldn’t do what?’ I asked.
‘Believe’ he said, ‘as much as I’d like to have faith I just can’t. I have too many doubts and questions.’
Thinking especially of the boy, I replied: ‘What the hell makes you think I don’t have any doubts?’
‘I guess I’m just someone who needs proof’ he said.
The first Easter wasn’t just a day.
The Risen Jesus hung around for 50 days, teaching and appearing to over 500 people.
7 days after the first Easter Day, Jesus appears again in that same locked room as before and Jesus says ‘Peace be with you.’
And this time, this time Thomas is there.
Jesus offers Thomas his body: ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’
And Thomas reaches out to Jesus’ body.
And Thomas touches Jesus.
And Thomas grabs at the wounds of Jesus.
He grasps Jesus’ wounded feet.
He holds his hands against the holes.
Puts his hand on Jesus’ pierced side to see the proof for himself…
That’s the thing-
We assume that Thomas touches Jesus’ wounds. Artists have always depicted Thomas reaching out and touching the evidence with his own hands.
Duccio drew it that way.
Caravaggio illustrated it that way.
Peter Paul Rubens painted it that way.
Artists have always shown Thomas sticking his fingers in the proof he requires in order to believe.
And that’s how we paint it in our own imaginations.
Yet, read it again, it’s not there.
The Gospel gives us no indication that Thomas actually touches the wounds in Jesus’ hands.
John never says that Thomas peeked into Jesus’ side. The Bible never says Thomas actually touches him.
That’s got to be important, right?
I mean, the one thing Thomas says he needs in order to believe is the one thing John doesn’t bother to mention. What Thomas insists he needs to see is the one thing John doesn’t give you the reader to see.
Instead John tells us that Jesus offers himself to Thomas and then the next thing we are told is that Thomas confesses: ‘My Lord and my God!”
Which- pay attention– is the first time in John’s Gospel that anyone finally and fully and CORRECTLY identifies Jesus as the same Lord who made Heaven and Earth.
“Doubting” Thomas manages to make the climatic confession of faith in the Gospel.
After so many stories about the blind receiving sight and those with sight stubbornly remaining blind to who Jesus is, “Doubting” Thomas is the first person to see that the Jesus before him is the God who made him.
And “Doubting” Thomas makes that confession of faith without the one thing he insists he needs before he can muster up faith.
St. Athanasius says that Christ, as our Great High Priest, not only mediates the things of God to man but Christ also mediates the things of man to God.
Including- especially- faith.
We think of faith as something we have, something we do. We think of belief as something we will, mustering it up in us in spite of us, despite our doubts. Believing is our activity, we think. Our act.
If we think of faith as something we do or possess, as an autonomous act within us, we’re not speaking of faith as scripture speaks of it.
In scripture, faith- our faith- is made possible only through the agency of God: “Lord, help my unbelief” the father in Mark’s Gospel must beg Jesus, as we all must beg.
Jesus doesn’t just put on our flesh and live the life we live. He puts on the belief, lives the faith and trust in God we owe God as creatures of God.
Jesus doesn’t just stand in our place when it comes to our sin.
He stands in our place when it comes to faith too.
What holds Good Friday and Easter together, what makes cross and resurrection inseparable, is that Jesus never stops being a substitute for us, in our place, on our behalf.
The Risen Christ remains, even here and now, every bit a substitute for us as the Crucified Christ.
Our faith, our belief, is made possible by him.
It’s his work not ours, and like a parent’s hand grasping a little child’s, our faith, such as it is, is enfolded within his perfect faith; so that, in him, enclosed within his faith, our faith is mediated to God the Father.
That’s what the New Testament means by calling Christ ‘the author and the finisher of our faith.” The faith we possess is the work of the Son within us not our own, but the faith by which the Father measures us is the Son’s not our own.
So often preachers make the point of this passage a kind of permission for us to have our doubts, that its okay we’re all like Doubting Thomas, that “doubt is a part of faith” goes the cliche.
But John would not have you see here simply Gospel approval for your doubts. This is the freaking climax of the Jesus story where someone finally and fully and correctly calls upon Jesus as his Lord and his God.
“…but its okay to have your doubts too.”
What kind of crappy whimper of an ending is that?! That’s not the takeaway John intends Thomas to leave with you. No. John wants you to see Jesus, the Risen Lord.
The same God who created from nothing.
The same God who called Israel- who had been no people- to be his People.
The same God who, Paul says, calls into existence the things that do not exist.
John wants you see the Risen Christ bringing into existence in Thomas, who had insisted unless I can touch his hands and feet for myself, a faith that can confess Christ as Lord and God.
Doubts are okay, sure.
I’ve got plenty of doubts and, I’ll bet, I’ve got more reasons to doubt than you do.
Sure, you’ve got doubts. Big deal. That’s not very interesting.
If faith is Christ’s work in us then doubt is just our natural human disposition, like Adam and Eve wondering in the Garden “Did God really say?”
Thomas’ doubt is not what John would have see.
What John would have us see:
Is that Thomas’ faith-
It’s the work of the Risen Christ.
The Good News is NOT that you are saved by faith.
Think about it: that puts all the onus on you.
It makes faith just another work. Your work.
It empties the cross of its saving significance and it makes his substitution in your place partial. Imperfect because its incomplete with out your faith.
The Good News is NOT that you are saved by faith.
The Good News is that you are saved by faith by grace.
By the gifting of God.
By the agency of God.
By the mediating activity of the Risen Christ.
Who is every bit as present to us now as those 10 disciples hiding behind locked doors.
You are saved by faith through the gracious work of the Risen Christ, who can compel you- against your natural disposition to doubt- to call upon him as your Lord and your God.
Such that whatever has brought you here
Whatever of the Gospel you are able to trust and believe
Whatever Word from the Lord you can hear in this sermon
Whether your faith is as meager as a mustard seed
Or as mighty as a mountainside
Your faith is NOT
It is a miracle. Grace. An act of the Risen Christ.
In you and upon you and through you.
And it makes you- even you!
It makes you exactly what Thomas insisted he required.
It makes you proof that he is risen. He is risen indeed.
You’re why John ends his Gospel the way he does.
You’re the reason John doesn’t need to write down everything Jesus did among those disciples.
Because Jesus is neither dead nor disappeared from this world.
He’s alive and still doing work among his disciples.
And for proof you need look no further than your own faith, your own ability to call him your Lord and your God.
Here’s the sermon from this Sunday’s epistle, 2 Timothy 1.1-8.
“Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord, Jesus Christ.”
Do not be ashamed, in other words, of the Gospel.
The Apostle Paul is barely a tweet’s worth of words into his final correspondence with the Christians in Ephesus and already, right out of the gate, he’s admonishing them not to be ashamed of the Gospel, which implies that they are ashamed of the Gospel.
Why are they ashamed?
Obviously, we have plenty of reasons to be ashamed of being Christian.
Christians, after all, are the ones responsible for the trite, saccharine Jesus-in-my-pants pop odes to the Almighty all over the 91.1 airwaves.
Christians are the ones who revived Kirk Cameron’s post Growing Pains career with the straight-to-video Left Behind movies, and Christians are the ones who bailed Nick Cage out of his back taxes by watching his theatrical reboot of the same crappy film.
Were it not for Christians, Stephen Baldwin, Alec’s evangelical little brother, never would’ve recovered from starring with Pauly Shore in Biodome.
Just right there we have plenty of reasons to be ashamed of being Christian.
Don’t believe me?
Go to Barnes and Noble after church today and look at the shelves underneath the sign labeled “Christian Literature.”
On cover after cover Joel Osteen’s pearly whites and vacant botoxed eyes pull you in, like the tractor beam on the Death Star, into becoming a better you and living your best life now.
And next to them, 63- I counted them the other day- Amish romance novels. Amish romance novels. And no they weren’t 63 copies of the Harrison Ford-Kelly HotGillis film Witness. They were 63 different Amish romance novels with titles like Game of Love, Let Go and Let God, and- my personal favorite, Mail Order Bride: The Brave and the Shunned.
If anyone here likes to read Amish romance novels, I’m not judging you. Actually, that’s not true but my point is…we have plenty of reasons to be ashamed of being Christian.
I mean, Christians are the ones who can’t accept that the Earth is older than 3,000 years but somehow can swallow the $60 price of admission to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.
Christians the ones who believe that nature isn’t natural; it’s creation. It’s given- every sunset, every rainbow trout, every note of every sonata, every piece of thick cut bacon, it’s all- Christians believe- a good, gratuitous gift from God, who charged Christians to steward and care for his creation.
Yet Christians are the ones who make up the majority of people who deny climate change and disabuse any suggestion they have a responsibility to arrest it.
From Duck Dynasty themed Bibles to thanking the Almighty for every touchdown and goal-line stop to the #Blessed license plate I saw on the Porsche Boxster yesterday to Red and Blue Jesuses in the social media scrum- we have plenty of reasons to be ashamed of being Christian.
Christians executed Galileo. Christians excommunicated Graham Greene. Christians excuse Franklin Graham. The reason so many protest that Black Lives Matter is because Christians for centuries pimped out their bibles to join in the chorus of those who said they don’t. Matter.
We should be ashamed.
Christians have made bedfellows with colonizers and conquistadors. In whichever nation in whatever era Christians have found themselves they’ve never missed an opportunity to bless every power grab, baptize every war, perpetuate every prejudice.
We have plenty of reasons to be ashamed of being Christian.
Survey says we’re the ones who want to keep our neighbors in the closet, keep death row open for business, and keep our communities closed to Muslims.
We have plenty of reasons to be ashamed.
And don’t even get me started on19 Kids and Counting.
But the sort of embarrassment we feel as Christians knowing that Jeff Foxworthy and MC Hammer are both sheep in the same flock as us- that’s different than being ashamed of the Gospel.
When the Apostle Paul wrote this final letter he was so old that, like Dennis Perry, whenever he stopped moving people would throw dirt on him. And here, in what may be his final letter as he passes the mantle to his protege Timothy, the first thing Paul tells them- he commands them: not to be ashamed of the Gospel.
Why would they be ashamed?
At that point, the Church was incredibly tiny, too young and too small to churn out bad music or cheesy movies or choose the wrong side of history. It would be centuries before Christians cozied up to empires or launched the Trinity Broadcasting Network.
So why are they ashamed?
Just as we have plenty of reasons to be embarrassed about being Christian, Paul assumed it was obvious why his hearers would be ashamed of the Gospel.
What’s shameful about the Gospel of the crucified Jesus is the crucified Jesus.
To Jews and to Romans alike, our testimony about the crucifixion was shameful.
Do not be ashamed of this shame, Paul essentially says.
To the Romans, crucifixion was so shameful that until Christianity converted the heart of the empire, nearly 300 years after Paul, the word “crux” was the Latin equivalent of the F-bomb. Crucifixion was so degrading and dehumanizing- designed to be so- you weren’t permitted to speak of it, or use the word ‘cross’ even, in polite society.
But to the Jews, crucifixion was an altogether different sort of shame, for the Jews’ own scripture proscribed it as the ultimate degradation and abandonment. According to one of the commandments God gives to Moses on Sinai: “…Anyone convicted and hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”
That’s the commandment Paul wrestles with in his Letter to the Galatians. In the entire Torah, only the cross- being nailed to a tree- do the commandments specifically identify as being a godforsaken death.
Paul must command his churches again and again not to be ashamed of our testimony about the Cross because that manner of death specifically marked Jesus out under God as accursed.
That’s why Christ’s disciples flee from him in the end. It isn’t because they believe his mission ended in failure. No, they flee from him because they believe his mission ended in godforsakenness. They abandon Jesus because they believe God had abandoned him. They flee not only Jesus but the curse they believe God had put on him.
So in case you’re still hung up on my crack about 19 Kids and Counting and haven’t been following along, to sum up:
Paul commands Timothy “Do not be ashamed of the Gospel” because the Gospel was shameful. And the shame of our Gospel is the Cross itself.
You can see why to Jews and Romans alike Paul’s Gospel about a crucified messiah was a tougher sell then trying to raffle off Trump Steaks at a South American beauty pageant because no one in Israel expected a crucified Messiah and nothing in Caesar’s empire prepared Romans to pledge allegiance to a man who had met a death so shameful they dare not speak of it.
Paul’s Gospel was scandalously, profanely counter-intuitive.
By any standards, Jewish or Roman, you would’ve had to be insane to worship a crucified man, which, by the way, I believe remains the strongest argument for the truth of the Gospel.
Sigmund Freud famously argued that human religion is constructed out of wish fulfillment.
Religion, Freud critiqued, is but the projection of humanity’s hopes and desires. Religion is the product of our deep (and maybe insecure) longing for a loving Father Figure.
The human heart, Freud didn’t say but would concur with Calvin, is an idol factory. We need religion. We create religion because we need our wishes to come true.
My wife tells me Freud was wrong about penis envy, and I’ve only thought about my mother in Freud’s way a few times (just kidding), but, by and large, I think Freud was right.
I know the Apostle Paul would agree with him. Religion is man-made.
We make God in our image, not vice versa, and then we project all our aspirations, assumptions, and prejudices on to him.
That’s why so often God sounds like an almighty version of ourselves. That’s why so much of the “Christianity” out there in the ether embarrasses us. The plastic pop songs and the Christian kitsch; the Self-Help and the Civil Religion and the Red and Blue hued Jesuses. It’s all what Freud and Paul call ‘religion.’ It’s all just a means of helping us endure life and advance through it.
Plenty of other religions have stories about God taking human form or someone returning from the dead. On those counts Christianity isn’t unique. It’s a religion like so many others.
But only Christianity has as its focus the shameful suffering and degradation of God.
The Gospel, our testimony about the crucified Jesus, is not religious at all. It’s irreligious, Paul writes. It’s a disgrace. It’s so shameful that Paul calls it a stumbling block for religious people.
Freud was right about religion, but he didn’t understand that Paul’s Gospel is something else entirely.
No one would have projected their hopes on to an accursed crucified man.
Crucifixion is not the invention of wish fulfillment.
Maybe that’s the only real argument for the Gospel.
Maybe that’s the only real hedge we have against our suspicions that it’s all so much fantasy and nonsense.
Maybe that’s the only hope we have that we’re not deluding ourselves with our faith.
Last Sunday I was headed to Princeton for a week-long con ed course on philanthropy. Just shy of the bridge, ordering coffee at Peets, one of you sent me a text message about a 12 year old boy at Stratford Landing dying (actively so) of brain cancer.
One of you asked Josh’s parents if they wanted me to come be with them.
I changed my order to a double expresso and turned south down Interstate 95. I hate my job sometimes and, just as often, I doubt the existence of the One from whom my vocation supposedly comes.
If there was such a thing as a believer’s thesaurus, then “Pediatric Oncology” would be a synonym for atheism. Especially when the name of the hospice nurse and the palliative morphine dosage is written on the dry erase board.
Josh’s bed was decorated with sheets of printer paper scrawled in different colors with sharpie-written Jesus speak:
“Thy will done.”
“In my Father’s House are many rooms”
“Let the little children come…”
The faith papers were arranged around him like flowers in a casket.
Josh had written them before his hands palsied, because of the brain tumor, and he couldn’t write anymore. His mother told me he stopped being able to speak that Wednesday. On Saturday he lost control of his eyes. By Sunday when I arrived his breathing was shallow and labored.
After I helped Josh’s mom wash him, for several hours I held her hand and I listened as she whispered to him, in between sobs, “It’ll be okay. God doesn’t make mistakes.”
“God doesn’t make mistakes,” she kept whispering to him. But maybe I’ve made a mistake for believing in Him, I thought.
I came back the next night. I stood by his bed and I wiped the spittle from his mouth and I rubbed his head as praise songs played on the tablet laying next to his shoulder.
It was close I could tell. So I prayed something about how Jesus says children are first in the Kingdom, prayed it to the God with whom, in that moment, I was righteously PO’d.
Your heart would have to be tone deaf to hear a mother’s spleen-deep sobs and not feel furious at God.
Feel foolish for believing in the first place.
When I left, his godmother was rubbing his feet and shouting at him, through stubborn tears, to wake up. He died just a little while later.
It’s the nature of ministry that the doing of it thrusts upon you plenty of moments where you feel like a fool for your faith and you consider quitting not just your job, though that, but quitting this whole Christian thing too.
And I don’t know how to say this with the force with which I feel it, but every time- those moments where I despair that Freud’s right and we’re all just deluding ourselves- it’s the shame of the cross that saves me from unbelief.
The disgrace of our Gospel saves me from my unbelief.
But if the shame of the cross saves me from my unbelief how was it able to convert the Apostle Paul out of his former beliefs?
How was this irreligious Gospel able to convert him from his religion?
A Pharisee like Paul knew that according to Jesus’ own bible someone executed on a cross was cursed among the People of God by the God of the Law.
So how was Paul able to get to the point where he could unashamedly proclaim this shameful Gospel?
He spells it out not in this letter to Timothy but in another letter: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel” Paul says “because it is the power of God…”
Notice, this is everything so pay attention now:
Paul says “the Gospel is the power of God.”
Paul doesn’t say the Gospel is the message about the power of God.
Paul doesn’t say the Gospel points to the power of God back then.
Paul doesn’t say anything like the Gospel is the record of the power of God.
He doesn’t say the Gospel describes how the power of God was worked in Christ upon the Cross.
Paul says the Gospel is the power of God.
Is not was.
Present-tense not past.
That the Gospel message makes NOW the power that was revealed THEN upon the Cross.
You see Paul was able to be converted from his religion to this irreligion, Paul was able to not be ashamed of this shameful Gospel because Paul discovered that the Gospel is not a message about something God did.
It’s a message through which God does.
Paul can be not ashamed because God- as Paul says in Colossians- isn’t the content of the Gospel, God is the active agent of the Gospel.
So no matter what God’s commandments say about the shamefulness of the Cross, Paul can proclaim this Gospel unashamed because God is the Preacher of this Gospel.
In other words, the Gospel is not inert.
When we proclaim the otherwise shameful Word of the Cross the Risen Christ is present to bring salvation and healing and justice and faith, Paul says.
The Gospel can give faith, Paul says, and give life to the dead and give existence to things that do not exist.
Because it is NOW not Then the Power of God.
To be honest, for most of this week all that present-tense isness about the Gospel felt like a heavy faith lift for me.
I wasn’t sure I’d be able to summon the conviction to convince you today.
But then, as I showed her around the sanctuary for Josh’s funeral, Josh’s mom told me this week that the person from this congregation who sat with them there in the hospital, who comforted them and counseled them throughout his illness and did so again after his death, you were to them the presence of Jesus, she told me.
And as she hugged me in the hallway here, crying, she told me that my prayers with them there in the hospital, which were really just paraphrases of the scripture Josh had scribbled on those printer sheets, those prayers made them feel connected to Christ, she said, and to Christ’s Church, where before, she said, they’d felt terribly alone.
And then as soon as you heard she and her husband did not have the means to bury their son you- and yes some SL families but, I checked, mostly you- raised $20,0000 in less than 24 hours. And one of you told me that if we didn’t raise anything then you’d pay everything.
Do not be ashamed of this Gospel.
Because when we proclaim it, in prayer and in presence, in deed and in generosity, by God- it’s exactly what Paul says.
It IS- now- the Power of God.
For the past 18 months, I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.
You can find all the previous posts here.
III. The Son
19. How Did Jesus Establish His Kingdom?
Jesus established his Kingdom by failing to establish a kingdom.
To say Jesus failed to establish a Kingdom is not to say his death should be circumscribed according to religious terms alone. If Jesus had been condemned for the crime of religious blasphemy or if his death had satisfied as a cultic atonement, then Jesus would have been stoned to death by the chief priests. That Jesus was executed not by Caiphus’ stone but by Pilate’s cross, a mode of execution reserved for sedition against Rome, confirms that the charge against him, albeit ironically intended, was true: Jesus presumed to be King.
If Jesus presumed to be King, as the first Christians professed, then Caesar was merely a pretender.
When Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time to celebrate, with the bread and wine of the Passover, Israel’s story of liberation from Empire, he initiates a final confrontation with Rome and its sycophants. The confrontation begets a choice. Will Jesus rebel by the sword and establish his Kingdom by force, or will Jesus remain faithful to his vision of God’s Kingdom, a Kingdom which he’s taught is marked by putting away the sword and renouncing force in favor of forgiveness?
By choosing faithfulness over force, Jesus chooses to be the meaning of his Kingdom rather than its founder.
Thus, Jesus becomes the son who has forsaken everything to venture out into the far country only to lose everything, he makes himself the tiniest bit of yeast from which newness might rise, he turns the other cheek all the way unto death, and he becomes the despised Samaritan who meets us on the road and lifts us up out of the ditch even though his own chosen path leads to suffering, abandonment, and death.
He fails to establish a kingdom out of faithfulness to his Kingdom.
And God vindicates his faithfulness by raising from the dead and then, forty days later, raising him up to sit at the right hand of the Father, confirming as the sought-after Son of Man to whom belongs dominion on Earth and Heaven.
The rule of his Kingdom is thus real and ever-present, but, as at his cross, it requires the optics of faith. Only in the fullness of time will what is real be revealed.
“God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church,which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” – Ephesians 1.21-23
The disciples, being ancient 1st century people, were superstitious people who didn’t understand biology etc like we do today and believed in supernatural occurrences like resurrections.
They had believed Jesus was the Messiah when he was alive, and after he was dead they had a spiritual sense, a religious feeling, an existential experience that Jesus was still with them.
Over time, these feelings of Jesus’ spiritual presence developed into stories of Jesus’ physical presence and later those stories were developed into Gospel texts that were written in order to prove the Church’s claims that Jesus was the Resurrected Messiah.
That’s the standard skeptical explanation, and I’ve heard it from more than a few of you. The problem with the standard, skeptical explanation- other than it’s complete ignorance of first century culture. And history. Not to mention Judaism. And Greek philosophy- is that it leaves too many ingredients unaccounted for.
For one, it fails to account for the fact that the message of Resurrection doesn’t begin in the Gospels.
It begins immediately, right after Jesus dies, with hundreds of people testifying: ‘I’ve seen Jesus resurrected from the dead, and the tomb is empty.’ Even if you do not believe the resurrection as an historical event; the resurrection claim remains a fact of history and it is announced not generations later but only days.
Another problem with the standard, skeptical explanation is that it fails to point out that the resurrection message is first written down not in the Gospels but in the letters of Paul, written barely more than a dozen years after Easter, written in public documents that were read aloud and circulated throughout the Empire, written not as hyperbole or metaphor but as verifiable testimony.
Paul doesn’t just write ‘Christ is Risen’ in 1 Corinthians. Paul names names. Up to 600 names of witnesses who had testified to seeing the Risen Christ and who were still alive when Paul wrote down and sent out his letters. Witnesses who could be cross-examined by anyone who wished to call Paul’s bluff.
If he were bluffing.
Even if you choose to think the resurrection a fantasy, you still must account for the fact that those who first claimed the resurrection did not think it a fantasy. The biggest ingredient the standard, skeptical explanation leaves out is this:
If the Easter Gospels are legends that were written down to prove that Jesus is the Messiah and to make the Christian claims of resurrection credible, then why is it that they do such a bad job of it?
If this is calculated propaganda meant to convince, it sucks.
Why, for example, do the Gospels not lie and tell you that it was Jesus’ brother, James, the next eldest in the family, who buries Jesus, as was James’ obligation under the Law?
Because by not telling you James buried Jesus, the Gospels are telling that Jesus died in shame; that is, Jesus was a source of shame to his family. By not telling you James buried Jesus, the Gospels are telling you- reminding you- that Jesus’ family never believed in him. Not until something happened to them.
If this is calculated propaganda meant to convince, it’s not very good.
For example, why is it that all four Gospels are littered with Old Testament citations from the very beginning of all four chapter ones, but when they get to the Easter stories the citations go silent? Barely a one.
As though the Gospel writers are tying to tell you:
We don’t really know what happened but something happened. We don’t understand this. We can’t comprehend this. Nothing in our scripture or experience or tradition led us to expect this.
If these stories were concocted to prove and convince, case-closed, then you’d expect a lot more than zero footnotes to support their claims.
If this is calculated propaganda, it’s kinda crappy.
For example, if the Gospel writers were making a convincing case for Christ (that was not based in experience and memory) then they would never invent women as the first eyewitnesses.
It’s not just that women weren’t credible witnesses; they weren’t even legal witnesses. Women could not testify in a Roman court of law.
Their word meant nothing, and so their witness here in the Easter story proved nothing.
There is no advantage to casting them as the first eyewitnesses and there is every disadvantage. There must have been enormous pressure on the Gospel writers to remove these women from the story. But they didn’t. Why?
Likely, it’s because by then the women’s testimony was too well-known to omit. You can dismiss the resurrection. Call it impossible, if you like. But then the burden of proof shifts to you.
How is it that a novel, counterintuitive, unexpected message (God has resurrected a failed Messiah) emerged virtually overnight?
How is it that hundreds, not just the twelve, testified to it long before the Gospels were written? And continued to so testify even when it led them to crosses of their own?
And why is it that the Gospels do not read like calculated propaganda written after the fact, but instead read much more like the flustered, puzzled, confused testimony of witnesses each of whom tells the truth even if their facts and stories don’t perfectly match?
You can dismiss the resurrection, but if you let go of your superstitious belief in reason alone, you’ll see that resurrection is in fact the most plausible explanation.
I get tired of how the burden of proof is always on the Christian to prove resurrection rather than on the skeptic to posit a more plausible explanation for the resurrection profession. The standard, skeptical explanation for the resurrection message goes like this:
The disciples, being ancient 1st century people, were superstitious people who didn’t understand biology etc like we do today.
And the disciples either had visions and hallucinations of Jesus after he died and they called that Resurrection, or wanting people to think Jesus had been resurrected, they stole his body and claimed he’d been raised.
That’s the standard skeptical explanation, and I’ve heard it from a lot of you.
The problem with the standard, skeptical explanation- other than it’s complete ignorance of first century culture. And history. Not to mention Judaism. And Greek philosophy- is that it does not account for the fact that Resurrection was a brand new idea.
Resurrection was not conceivable to a 1st century Jew and it was not desirable to a 1st century Greek. Resurrection belonged to neither worldview; it just appeared overnight. A brand new species in the religious world.
If the disciples had had visions or hallucinations or if they’d stolen the body, they would never claim it had been Resurrection.
They had no motive to make it up because Resurrection was not a belief anyone would hear. If they made it up, they chose the wrong message. Because for Jews, the bodily resurrection of a single man was unthinkable. And for Greeks, the bodily resurrection of anyone was unattractive.
The standard, skeptical explanation fails to remember that the entire religious worldview of Greeks centered around escaping this material world, which is finite and corrupt, and moving on to the spiritual realm, which is eternal and pure.
The whole trajectory of salvation was for your eternal soul to be freed from your mortal body. Resurrection was not only an impossible belief to a Gentile, it was objectionable. Repulsive. No soul, having escaped its body, would ever want to go back. If you had told a Gentile that a guy from Nazareth had died and 3 days later was resurrected, they would’ve said:
‘That’s terrible! I’ll pray for him!’
If the disciples made it up, they chose the wrong message. Because for Jews, Resurrection wasn’t a generalized term. It didn’t refer to feelings in your heart or visions in your head. For Jews, Resurrection very specifically referred to what happened NOT to one man in history but what will happen to all of God’s People at the end of history.
Resurrection referred exclusively to a future event, when God restores his creation, when wolf and lamb lie down together, when nations beat their swords and spears into plough shares and pruning hooks, when mourning and crying and pain are no more.
If you had told a 1st century Jew that one man, a failed Messiah no less, had been resurrected, they would have responded:
“What are you? An idiot? Resurrection hasn’t happened. Caesar and Herod are still in their thrones. Israel is still not free. War and pain and suffering and injustice still abound.”
If the disciples made it up, they chose the wrong message.
There was too much built-in resistance to the idea of Resurrection, from Jew and Gentile. That’s why the empty tomb and the appearances of the Risen Christ are so important for the Resurrection. You couldn’t have had one without the other. You’d would’ve needed one to substantiate the other.
If the tomb had just been empty, but no one had seen the Risen Christ, then everyone would’ve concluded that the body had been stolen or scavenged. No one would’ve concluded Resurrection from just an empty tomb.
And if followers had seen the Risen Christ but the tomb was not empty, then everyone would’ve chalked it up to the ordinary visions people have after a loved one dies. But no one would’ve concluded Resurrection from just visions of Jesus.
You would’ve needed both.
Because no one had Resurrection in their worldview.
So where did it come from? You see, you can dismiss the Resurrection. You can refuse to believe it- fine- but that doesn’t get you around the fact that they did. James and Paul believed it. Something happened to them. Something that caused them to believe something for which their Jewish and Greek world views had no previous category.
You can dismiss the Resurrection.
You can hold up your hands and say ‘Look, I don’t believe that dead bodies come back to life.’
You can say that, but realize: you’re missing the whole point if you don’t understand that that’s exactly how people like James and Paul felt.
Until something happened to them.
What? And that’s where the burden of proof shifts to you.
Because you can say you don’t believe in the Resurrection as an historical event, but that doesn’t get you around the fact that the resurrection claim is a part of history. And so if you dismiss the Resurrection, then you’re left with some explaining to do.
Just how is it that an entirely new, distinct and divergent worldview emerged virtually overnight?
How is it that virtually overnight Jews were worshipping Jesus as Lord, which they’d never done for any previous Messiah and which violated the 1st commandment?
How is that virtually overnight they started worshipping on Sundays, which violated the 4th commandment?
How is it that virtually overnight Jews were proclaiming the Resurrection of Jesus which violated everything their scripture told them?
How is it that virtually overnight they began living in such a way that violated everything the real world told them?
If you dismiss the resurrection, you still must explain how this resurrection worldview sprang up out of nowhere immediately after Jesus’ death.
As any scientist will tell you, new species of animals do not appear overnight.
That would take an act of God.
Cancer has gotten me off writing these for a few months now but, back by semi-popular demand, I hope to get back in the swing of things.
You can find the previous posts here.
III. The Son
13. Do You Have to Believe in Original Sin to be a Christian?
We can’t intelligibly consider ourselves Christian and not believe in original sin.
Of course, by calling it ‘original sin’ we do not refer to the origin of humanity- as though we believed Adam was a real, historical person or as though we failed to realize that mythology was the methodology of the first authors of scripture.
Instead by calling it original sin we name the sin in which we are all implicated, by which we are impaired from our very beginnings as creatures and from which we could not hope to be immune even were we raised by angels.
In other words, the term original sin characterizes the sinfulness we have by virtue of being persons in the world.
From the start.
Making sin not so much something we do but, firstly, something we are all in.
Original sin, then, points not to something chronological or biological but existenstial; that is, the human condition within which we come into being but also the precondition for our individual sinful acts and choices and they damage they incur.
As it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
– Romans 3.10
14. Do We Believe in a Literal, Historical Date for Original Sin?
Christians call it Good Friday.
For if ‘sin’ refers to our deprivation of the divine life through our rejection of God’s love and goodness then- obviously- the occasion sin on which original was committed was the crucifixion of Jesus.
Good Friday marks the occasion of original sin not in the sense that sin did not exist prior to the incarnation but in the sense that sin had no meaning before it.
The crucifixion of Jesus finally gave meaning to what we mean by the word ‘sin.’ The crucifixion of Christ is not just another of humanity revealing its inhumanity; the cruficixion is humanity making the most ultimate sort of rejection and, in doing so, rejecting itself.
“They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.”
– Ephesians 4.18
My theological muse, Stanley Hauerwas, likes to say that ‘Methodist means mediocre.’ As an example of what might warrant such a woeful aesthetic assessment, one need only thumb through the United Methodist Hymnal.
Though my musical skill stops at appreciating how Ryan (not Bryan) Adams is a songwriter second only to Bob Dylan, even I can point out how many of the ditties on offer in the UMH are cringe-worthy on any number of levels.
For instance, there are the songs that sound, quite simply, crap-in-your-pants frightening to the uninitiated, who could never decipher (much less stomach) their minutiae of biblical allusions. Chief among these, in my estimation, is the communion hymn ‘There’s a Fountain Filled with Blood.’
I remember first hearing this song as a teenager during those initial months when I was forced to attend church against my will. Back then I had no faith and I possessed precious little more of the faith’s story.
Listening to 300 suburbanites sing (with eyes as bright as their polo shirts) about being plunged into a tub of blood, the nascent theologian in me was struck with this crisp, cogent thought: ‘WTF?!’
Not incidentally, I should point out, the author of this Kubrickesque hymn, William Cowper did, at the time of its writing, suffer from, in the euphemism of his day, ‘madness.’ Making all us who persist in singing this ‘praise’ song a little like those vacant-eyed twins in The Shining.
Similar on this score is the hymn ‘O Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,’ a Methodist favorite. Though not as terrifying as ‘There’s a Fountain Filled with Blood’, ‘Fount’ does contain the so-cryptic-as-to-sound-silly verse: ‘…here I raise my Ebenezer…’
Despite a 6-figure seminary education which informs me that the object in question is Samuel’s memorial stone between Mizpeh and Shen from 1 Samuel 7, this doesn’t prevent me, whenever I sing ‘Fount,’ from picturing a bearded, square-jawed, performance-enhanced Samson-type bench-pressing an old man who resembles the husband from American Gothic.
His name, I’ve always assumed, certainly must be Ebenezer.
In addition to the cryptic, there are those songs that just sound plain creepy, such as my personal favorite, #367 ‘He Touched Me.’
If you haven’t heard it, ‘He Touched Me’ is a hymn which contains so many double entendres you’d be justified in glancing down at the bottom of the page to see if it was written by the artist formerly (and once again) known as Prince.
Though it was once covered by a 54-inch waisted Elvis Presley, who was no stranger to innuendo (‘Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog’), and though its allegedly about Jesus and Faith, ‘He Touched Me’ actually sounds, any impartial listener must agree, as though its narrating a slumber party at Jim Bob Duggar’s house:
‘Shackled by a heavy burden/’Neath a load of guilt and shame/His hand touched me,
And now I am no longer the same/He touched me, Oh He touched me,
Something happened and now I know…He touched me…’
We might as well wear Cosby sweaters while we sing it.
In this vein (no double entendre intended), ‘He Touched Me’ is a precursor to that genre of songs that are ubiquitous in Contemporary Christian Music.
I like to call them ‘Jesus-In-My-Pants’ songs.
Think I’m exaggerating?
Draw me close to You/Never let me go
I lay it all down again/To hear You say that I’m Your friend
You are my desire no one else will do/’Cause nothing else could take Your place
To feel the warmth of Your embrace/Help me find the way bring me back to You
You’re all I want/You’re all I’ve ever needed/You’re all I want/Help me know You are near
Methodist means mediocre, Stanley Hauerwas says. Mediocre means, one can surmise, kitsch.
In the UMH there are the cryptic and the creepy songs, and then there are the clumsy ones, songs as shallow and obvious as an AM commercial jingle, hymns so literal and earnestly unsubtle you’re half-surprised when Tang and animal crackers aren’t served after you’re done singing them.
The absolute worst among this latter group is #558 ‘We are the Church.’
Though its second verse sounds like the Democratic Party platform with a treble cleft attached, hymn #558 merely makes the same point Mitt Romney made in the 2012 campaign:
corporationschurches are people too, my friends.
I am the church! You are the church! We are the church together!
All who follow Jesus, all around the world! Yes, we’re the church together!
1. The church is not a building; the church is not a steeple; the church is not a resting place; the church is a people.
2. We’re many kinds of people, with many kinds of faces, all colours and all ages, too from all times and places.
The first time I was ever asked to sing #558 I was a new Christian and a newer undergraduate at UVA. I was worshipping at a small United Methodist church near campus. When we did a once-through the sing-songy music (to ‘refamiliarize’ ourselves) I glanced around to make sure I hadn’t accidentally stepped into Vacation Bible School.
Or ingested drugs.
When the school-marmy music director offered to demonstrate hand motions we could perform along with our singing, I laughed out loud. Guffawed.
I couldn’t stop myself.
And then I spent the rest of my college tenure worshipping at the Episcopal Church down the street where even if they no longer believed in God at least they did it with style.
Methodist means mediocre, Stanley Hauerwas says. Or, on second thought, maybe he doesn’t say it.
Maybe I said it and forgot I did. Maybe I’m just projecting my own smarty pants posture onto him.
One thing I’m sure of- Stanley Hauerwas likes to say
‘Ministry is like being nibbled to death by ducks.’
‘It’s just a bite here and a nibble there,’ Stanley says, ‘and, before you know it, you’re missing a leg.’
Not long after I became a Christian I disliked #558 for its tweenage verse and meter. Not long after I became a clergyman I objected to it on a deeper level; that is, if it’s possible for hymn, which makes the Spice Girls’ ‘Wannabe’ seem profound, to yield something like a second naïveté.
As a minister, I recoiled at what I took to be ‘We are the Church’’s romanticized ideals, for there’s nothing quite like ministry to make you wish, every now and then, that the Church was not the people.
There’s nothing like ministry in Jesus’ name to make you wish that the Church was made up of anything but Jesus’ people.
After all, a brick and mortar building was never known to leave anonymous notes about the pastor’s choice of clothes in the offering plate. A steeple has never drafted a complaint to the bishop nor has a stained glass window ever once challenged its pastor to a fistfight in the fellowship hall on Mother’s Day. That really happened.
An organ has yet to call or conduct a church council- a credit which should make you appreciate traditional music. Church mice might be a nuisance, but when it comes to turds they’ve never once forwarded their pastor emails from their favorite batshit crazy right wing organization.
It’s no secret in the United Methodist Church that every 4 years hymnal committees debate the appropriateness of a hymn like ‘Onward Christian Soldiers,’ given its violence-espousing imagery. But, considering how ministry is like being nibbled to death by (feral) ducks, it’s surprising how every quadrennium a song like ‘We are the Church’ escapes the red pen.
I suppose it’s because, like any song, no matter its musical merit, how you hear it depends on where you are. On your stage of life.
Now that I have cancer I can see how I’ve always hated ‘We are the Church’ not because it’s insipid (it still is) but because it’s sincere.
I’ve mocked and hated hymn #558, and others like it, for reasons that have nothing to do with musicology or theology and everything to do with…me.
With my heart.
I’m what you get when you mix together equal parts DNA, life experience and Gen-Y culture. Until now, I’ve pretended to be cool and detached, always ironic- always- and forever feigning self-sufficiency and self-reliance, which are just unofficial adjectives for ‘superiority.’
Me and many others in my generation are like Jane Austen characters.
We’re just keeping up a different pretense: cynicism.
The Church can’t be the people, I’ve never dared take to its logical conclusion, because I don’t need those people, and that would mean I don’t need the Church.
Chemotherapy, it turns out, eradicates not only your marrow and all attendant health but pretenses too.
When your eyebrows have gotten as thin as the blue-haired lady that sits pulpit side in the 5th pew and when you passed out last night in the kitchen because your blood has no hemoglobin left in it and when there’s a distinct possibility your life expectancy will be short-changed by a couple of Andrew Jackson’s worth of years-
It’s hard to be cool and detached.
There’s nothing, really, to be ironic about.
And there’s no point in pretending to be self-sufficient. You, it’s obvious, ain’t.
Now that cancer has me back to being ‘just’ a Christian and (for a time anyway) no longer a clergyman, I realize how much, when you’re in ministry, you view Christianity like a referee. And referees aren’t paid to blow the whistle in the middle of play and point out what’s going right.
As a pastor, you’re captured, in a good way, by who the Church could be, what the Church could do, but the shadow side of that vision is to notice only who the Church is not, what the Church is not doing. Before long, you have pastors complaining how ‘their people’ (always a fraught construction) don’t pray enough, don’t give enough, or don’t serve enough.
To no exceptional degree, in one direction or the other, that was me, often wearing black or white on a Sunday but, really, acting as though I’d been ordained to wear both. And carry a whistle.
However occasional or, even, warranted, it’s hard for such complaining not to calcify into cynicism.
That was me.
I don’t mean to be hyperbolic. I’m not saying I’m a different person now, that cancer’s changed me. I can’t say that. I’m only now nearing the halfway point in my treatment, and if I have any complications- which my doctor tells me are more likely than not- then I’m still somewhere shy of the middle.
So I’m not implying I’m a completely different person; I’m only suggesting that, thanks to cancer and if only for a time, I’ve traded in my collar for my parishioners’ shoes.
I’m just an ordinary Christian. Like them.
And, standing in their shoes, I’ve discovered something like admiration for the people that make up the Church. My church.
Only now do I appreciate, for example, how hard it is- how much trust it requires- to answer truthfully and concretely when someone asks you what are your prayer requests.
Something pastors do all the time. Something I always took for granted before. That anyone does supply a prayer request is, I think now, a small miracle. Or, an act of faith of which I’ve been found wanting.
People outside the Church often criticize, with some justification, that the Church is filled with inauthentic chatter, people always talking about things that don’t mean anything. Of course there is a lot of that in the Church but there’s a good deal less of it, I believe, than there is everywhere else in our lives. Now that I have cancer and I’m no longer busy refereeing other people’s Christianity, I realize:
Church people are among the only people who genuinely want an answer- and wait for it- to the question ‘How are you?’
Now that I’m on the receiving end of the church’s ministry rather than its referee, I’m learning that the hardest part in accepting an offer of help, a gesture of support or an act of compassion is accepting it. Accepting that you need it. Accepting that you (I mean, me) need these people. The church.
All of which gets back to my problem with hymn #558, ‘We are the Church,’ and how my problem with it is really my problem.
Grace, in the jargon of the faith, isn’t just a gift you do not deserve.
It’s a gift you didn’t know you needed until you received it.
This is why the Gospel stories are all told from the hindsight of the Resurrection and necessarily so.
You don’t know how broken you are until after God’s made you Easter new. Sin has no meaning until after the Risen Jesus speaks ‘Peace’ on Easter morning.
Grace is a gift you didn’t know you needed until after you received it, and, in that sense, I suspect that what I’ve received these past 4 months (4 effing months!) is a gift my church gives to people all the time.
I just didn’t realize it. Or, appreciate it.
The same church about whom I would sometimes grouse for not praying enough or giving enough or serving enough is the same church (and by church, I think we’ve learned by now, I mean people) that texts me several times a week for prayer requests and leaves food at my door and offers to help with the medical bills and doesn’t bat an eye when I barf in their car and throws my boy around in the pool because my chest port cannot get wet and pretends not to notice (so as not to embarrass me) when I tear up at a bit of bad news.
And that’s just this past week.
One woman in my church has sent me handwritten, snail mail cards every day- every day- since I got sick, and another, just for shits and giggles- and giggles if not shits are in short supply these days- has persisted in posting cat pictures on my Facebook Page. I don’t even like cats.
I’ve been at this church for 10 years and I feel like I’m only now seeing who they’ve been all along.
And who they are, in large part, are better Christians than me.
Every year this time of year, the time between Easter and Pentecost, someone who’s recently taken to reading their bible always expresses surprise to me how much the New Testament’s few Easter stories are characterized by doubt and disbelief.
‘…but some (as in, not just Thomas) doubted…’ Matthew and Luke and John all anticlimactically testify.
But it has to be that way.
The Risen Christ’s wounded hands and feet can never be for the disciples proof of the Resurrection because the disciples themselves are the (only) proof of the Resurrection.
Our faith, the truth of it, is corroborated by its end.
By what it becomes in us.
And I suppose that’s a better problem to have with a hymn like #558 because the people do not just comprise the Church. They themselves are the proof of the Church’s faith by what that faith becomes in them.
They are, warts and all and despite my better judgment, the gospel.
For the second year in a row, the year’s most popular post was not written by yours truly. Last year it was my wife’s post while this year the honor belongs to my friend, Teer Hardy. For the first time, a Barth-themed post made it into the Top 5 (#3) while my personally felt piece of the year comes in at #5.
And, in case you missed them, these were the most played or downloaded sermons or podcasts of 2014. You can find them in iTunes here.
1. What Do Our Prayers Sound Like to God
2. Marriage: Someone Better
3. Jesus’ Enemy-Loving Offensive
4. The Sacrifice of War
5. Podcast with Thomas Lynch
One of the things Google Analytics can measure is the amount of time each reader spends on the post, and for most of you out there the data shows that you actually take the time to read all or most of what I’ve written and, for that, I’m truly grateful.
I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.
I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.
You can find the previous posts here.
15. What do we mean by faith?
Faith is primarily imitation of the Faithful One, Jesus Christ, so by faith we mean obedience, loyalty, belief, trust and sharing in God’s self-knowledge.
While faith refers to all these characteristics and is always more than mere belief, it also means we take a particular belief to be true. If someone held a belief ‘on faith’ but showed complete indifference to any evidence for or against that belief, we would not think that person had faith just as the opposite is true too. If someone of faith is completely preoccupied with reasons for or against their belief, then it’s not clear that person of faith really has faith.
Of course faith is more than judging a proposition to be true, but it is at least thinking it true.
Christian faith is at least belief that there is no conclusive argument to disprove Christian belief. Faith in the resurrection, for example, includes the belief that no evidence can be proffered to disprove the ressurection.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen.”
– Hebrews 11.1
16. Must we have faith to be a Christian?
Not necessarily because faith is a kind of litmus test distinguishing Christian from pagan but because faith isn’t simply the means by which we accept the Christian story.
Faith is itself a key element of the Christian story.
Faith is necessary to be a Christian because one of the beliefs Christians take ‘on faith’ is faith itself, the ability of faith to move mountains and bring about things which do not exist: the faith of Abraham to journey towards an unknown land, the faith of Israel to abide in the wilderness, the faith of Mary to bear shame and messiah, the faithfulness of Jesus unto the Cross.
“As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed–the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.” – Romans 4.7
17. Is belief wishful thinking?
Then, most of our opinions, to one degree or another, are wishful thinking.
Christian belief, like most beliefs, is wishful thinking not in the sense that we force ourselves- delude ourselves- to think a certain way but in that we decide to think according to Christian belief.
A Christian who believes the creed to be true decides to live as if it’s true while someone who doesn’t believe the creed is true wills to live according to a different creed.
Christian belief is wishful thinking just as my love for my spouse is wishful thinking; that is, I will to love my wife. The only difference is that with my wife I seldom need to think too hard about willing my love while with God I often need to will such love.
One could say that Christian belief is wishful thinking because the Christian life is learning to love God such that willing love is no longer conscious or necessary.
“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” – Romans 7.15
I’m so, so afraid of appearing to be pillaging tragedy for traffic that I’ll keep this short
Most of the regular traffic on this blog aren’t (my) church folk, but many are members of my church and my community.
Those unfortunate enough to be in the latter already know that Hannah Graham, the abducted UVA student whose remains were discovered late last week, was a member of our community.
Pastors will know what I mean when I say she’s one of those faces you know and have seen many times before: in church, introduced by a friend, out and about, at something like a baccalaureate…how do I know her?
I’ve since communicated with her friends many times and to her family just a few. Both those many and the few lead to this often on my mind: ‘Please, don’t make me do her service…’
The downside of being in one church for so long is that I’ve (and, let’s give credit where its due, my church) caught more than my fair share of shitty funerals. The car load of girls who die on graduation day. The 6th grade confirmand who haunts my dreams. The too-young addict Dad who dies, leaving his family in the lurch. The older folks I’ve grown to love (no hyperbole) in 10 years and don’t want to see gone.
But with Hannah this feels different. It is different. I knew it when we held a vigil for her and I found myself unable to participate in the very liturgy I’d composed. It’s different because…why?
Because Hannah inserts a giant ‘WTF are you talking about?’ comment into all my theology. I’ve got nice, tidy Thomistic (see: Aquinas, Thomas) definitions for evil and sin.
I’ve got scripture at the ready to buttress my argument. And I’m versed in all the competing views too.
Here’s the THING- I still think the Thomistic view of evil to be right.
But ‘right’ and sufficient are hardly the same thing.
So I received it as good news this past week when reading over 1 Corinthians 12 to prepare for my sermon. I’ve read over Paul’s list of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and his analogy to the parts of the body for the members of the Church so many times it barely registers anymore. ‘Boring’ doesn’t begin to describe my knee-jerk reaction to this text.
But with Hannah on mind and the giant ‘WTF?’ looming over my mind, I noticed something on Paul’s list 1 Corinthians 12 I’ve never noticed before:
Right there alongside wisdom and interpretation and the other gifts the Spirit brings to believers whenever they gather together in worship, Paul lists ‘faith.’
That is, these aren’t permanent, personality-trait gifts Paul lists. They’re ways the Spirit temporarily manifests among Christians during worship. In other words, on any given Sunday, in any given worship setting, the Spirit only gives ‘faith’ to some of those gathered to confess that Jesus is Lord.
So often we make faith the amorphous pre-req to count as a Christian and then we beat ourselves up when we (often rightly) feel like we don’t have enough of it.
But Paul doesn’t expect all of us to have it all of the time.
Paul, I think we can wager, expects us those other times to have more than our fair share of doubt and second-guessing and just raw, righteous anger at the God we may or may not believe in.
Faith is a gift, every time we have it, because every time we gather the gift is only given to ‘some.’
Admittedly, most days and weeks that may sound like bad news to me. But not lately. Not at all.
I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.
Knowing most folks won’t read long boring books, I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.
You can find the previous posts here.
I. The Father
30. What Do We Mean by Miracles?
If God is the cause of all things, in every moment holding all things in existence, then a miracle is NOT a discrete moment in which God intervenes in a world where God is otherwise not involved.
A miracle, rather, is a discrete moment in the world when only God is involved.
A miracle is NOT a moment where God enters the world to act.
A miracle is a moment where God, who is already acting in the world at all moments, removes all other causes upon an object.
A miracle is NOT when God shows up.
God’s already there.
Always and by definition.
A miracle is when God acts to keep all other causes from ‘showing up.’
So then, just as Jesus displays what it is to be fully human, he also- in his miracles- shows us what it means for the world to be fully the world.
“Then He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed them, and broke them, and kept giving them to the disciples to set before the people. And they all ate and were satisfied; and the broken pieces which they had left over were picked up, twelve baskets full.”
– Luke 9.17
Save Marilynne Robinson’s Rev. Ames in Gilead, the clergyman of literature skew heavy towards the phony and contemptible. For every Elder Zosima there’s at least ten Elmer Gantry’s. The vicars of Jane Austen’s Victorian novels typically evidence little boldness and even more paltry theological wit.
And what’s most often lacking among the modern-day ministers of John Updike and Flannery O’Connor’s is belief itself.
Faith is their fiction.
It’s easy to assume, I suppose, that faith and doubt are part of a pastor’s professional portfolio, doctrines which we’re schooled to parse impersonally.
Doubt is something we know only from hindsight or from a detached 3rd party distance.
While faith is the tool of our trade, as unexamined a part of our professional life as a mechanic’s wrench or a doctor’s stethoscope.
Like all assumptions, this one was pulled straight out of someone’s @#$.
This week my congregation was slammed with the news of 3 deaths in the space of a day. The size of our congregation means that this past year the number of funerals we performed totaled roughly half the Sunday worship attendance of the average Methodist Church. That’s not even including the burials and graveside services we did for folks from the larger community.
One of the 3 deaths was sudden and unexpected.
One was not.
The third one was but wasn’t- you know the kind- but sadder still for the loose ends that remain and stand a good chance of overwhelming the survivors.
In a lot of ways ours is a dismal trade.
And for both proximity and frequency, I tend to think clergy have more occasion than most to wrestle with faith and doubt. Not less.
What is a singularly painful but mercifully infrequent moment in most families lives is for us part of punching the clock.
If we had one.
Only the most unreflective, unfeeling fool would be able to strap on a collar or stole and stare into the void over and over and not wonder if there’s really anything there on the other side.
And only such a fool would not weep on the inside for the gift of faith that comes back from the other side even if nothing more definitive than that ever does.
“Lots of atheists seem to be certain, recently that this (doubt in the face of suffering) ought not to be a problem for believers, because- curl of lip- we all believe we’re going to be whisked away to a magic kingdom in the sky instead. Facing the prospect of annihilation squarely is the exclusive achievement of-preen- the unbeliever.
But I don’t know many actual Christians who feel this way, or anything like it. Death’s reality is a given of human experience, for anyone old enough to have shaken off adolescent delusions of immortality. There it is, the black water, not to be cancelled by declarations, by storytelling of any kind.
Whatever sense belief makes of death, it has to incorporate its self-evident reality, not deny it.
And again, in my experience, belief makes the problem harder, not easier.
Because there death is, real for us as it is for everyone else, and yet (as with every outrage of the cruel world) we also have to fit it with the intermittently felt, constantly transmitted assurance that we are loved.
I don’t mean to suggest all believers are in a state of continual anguish about this, but it is a very rare believer who has not had to come to a reckoning with the contradiction involved.
On the one hand, the cruel world- the world made cruel by seeing it as created- and on the other hand, the sensation of being cherished by its creator.
When it comes the holy yet dismal trade that is at least 1/3 of ministry, I say:
What he said.
While literature portrays pastors as charlatans and buffoons, popular piety too often over-corrects and caroms off reality, treating pastors as heroes of faith and virtue.
If there’s anything heroic about ministry, it’s that we keep stepping close to the cruel void that most only face a few times in their lives. If there’s anything remarkable about pastors, it’s that they so step and most of the time come away with some small measure of faith.
Last week I solicited best-shot arguments for why we should NOT believe.
I’ll give a free copy of Daniel Taylor’s The Skeptical Believer to what I think is the best argument for doubt/disbelief…there’s still time. Lemme know.
I have received a lot of responses so far, some predictable, some ancient and intractable and others truly, profoundly (dare I say…Christianly?) moral.
This is an example of the third- and what I take to be the most compelling- kind:
“Why someone wouldn’t believe in God?
My sister is profoundly mentally retarded.
She was born with a clef lip and palette.
She is 44 years old and still has trouble walking.
She still wears diapers.
And she is deaf.
And she gets mad.
When she gets mad, she smashes her head into a corner.
And busts it open.
And it bleeds like mad.
Having known her, I know what I wouldn’t have known otherwise:
That there are multitudes of other people with similar conditions.
Nobody talks about caring for the retarded.
We all have sympathy for the sick child (and with good reason), but people like my sister are forgotten about by the mainstream (by God?).
People like my sister are made into jokes by callous people (“What are you, retarded or something?”).
My sister is cared for by an underpaid, overworked, and understaffed group of huge hearted people.
But, that’s an example, at least in my mind, of why someone would challenge the belief in God.
I’ve gotten over it, but it’s mostly by saying that I simply don’t get it.”
I wish I didn’t need to make the point, but my time in ministry tells me I can’t repeat it enough:
If you feel the need to ‘explain’ this woman’s disability, ‘justify’ God’s purposes in it or, for that matter, say anything pious at all (eg: ‘God is with her in her suffering’)…
Then you’ve just made this ‘Reason for Doubt’ a ‘Reason for Disbelief.’
Like cocktail parties, children’s birthday parties and wedding receptions.
Like the drunk uncle, most everyone’s fine with my presence there and certainly no one has the stones to ask me to leave, but nearly everyone is happier to have the preacher off in the corner where he will cause minimal embarrassment and not make the guests feel uncomfortable.
A healthy part of the discomfort, I think, is that most unchurched people presume a preacher can only talk about God.
Routine banter about politics, for example, will lead inexorably to the A or the H words, leaving polite conversation far behind.
Talk of sports will provoke inane analogies to carrying crosses and any lull in the conversation might let a foot in the door for the pastor’s church membership timeshare pitch.
But more so than any of those reasons, I think a good number of people, churched or not, assume pastors are people with 100 Proof faith.
No uncertainties. No struggles. No questions.
No nagging doubts that, like a too small blanket, refuse to wrap you up snuggly from head to toe.
Of course, the assumption that pastors are people without doubts is complete crap. Just like my mechanic knows better than me what’s likely to break next in my car, pastors spend day after day negotiating the particulars of this faith and we know, better than most, how fragile is the foundation.
I mentioned in my sermon for this weekend:
“being a pastor, I’ve heard all the reasons not to believe before and, as a Christian, I struggle with all of them myself.”
I thought it an innocuous line, but it yielded me 3 queries in the line of worshippers leaving church and 4 other rapid response emails.
They all wanted to know what it is I struggle to believe.
What questions to which I’m still seeking answers.
And what doubts make my faith remain like a too-small blanket.
Fair enough. I brought it up, and since I’m enough of a Calvinist to think the pulpit isn’t the most appropriate place to explore doubts (it’s a place to proclaim the Gospel) I can at least give space to such questions here.
Struggle/Doubt/Question #10: Scripture
As a preacher, scripture is a constant companion in my life.
Actually, scripture is more like the college suite-mate that your best friend invited along to share the apartment.
Sometimes you get along with them grand.
Sometimes, when it’s the two of you, there’s just nothing they’ve got to say to you.
Other times you want to throw them through the window because they refuse to do their share of the chores.
Because I work so much with scripture, my struggles/doubts/questions aren’t what you might expect.
I don’t struggle with whether or not scripture is the Word of God. Search ‘Word of God’ on this blog and you can read why (clue: Jesus is the Word of God). I recognize but don’t lose sleep over scripture’s antiquated or gringe-inducing sections.
No, my struggles/doubts/questions about scripture are summed up excellently by a comment ‘Tracy’ left to a post:
|...The Bible itself is contradictory, and silent on some topics.
On most really interesting subjects, we can quote scripture to arrive at completely different answers.
In other words, the bible seems more complicating than clarifying, much of the time.
‘Tracy’ didn’t say so but he/she could’ve pointed out how any scroll through Facebook will show how ‘sincere’ Christians use scripture to buttress diametrically opposed positions, perspectives and politics.
‘Tracy’ didn’t ask it but I will: one wonders how often Christians use scripture to reinforce arguments they would’ve made had they never met Jesus?
‘Tracy’ didn’t bring it home, but I will: how often do I ‘use’ scripture to decorate a decision I’ve already long since, even if subconsciously, made?
And that’s my pastor’s nagging question.
As a preacher, I know better than most how malleable the biblical text can be with the right exegesis and just enough rhetorical flair.
When so many other followers of Jesus Christ hear something quite different in a given text, how do we know what we’re hearing in the text is the Word of God?
How do we know we’re not just hearing ourselves in a subconscious, but loud, voice?
And, ‘Tracy’ might take it a step further, if we’re unsure of what God is speaking, upon what grounds can we definitively say God ever spoke?
Derek Rishmawy who follows this blog has post on his blog, outlining Karl Barth’s 3 Aphorisms on Doubt as found in Barth’s little book, Evangelical Theology.
Two Types of Doubt
Barth begins by noting two types of doubt that might arise for the theologian. First, there is the very “natural” doubt that comes with the territory, which is “susceptible to treatment” (pg. 121). When you’re doing theology, you’re asking questions about the nature of the faith. You’re taking things apart in order to put them back together again in a rational, coherent fashion. It is inevitable that in the process of taking things apart, you struggle or question as to whether the original shape made any sense. This is the doubt that comes with working everything through as thoroughly as possible because we do not possess God’s own knowledge of himself. Even though we work from revelation, we must eat “by the sweat of our brow”. The danger here is being a “sluggard” that fails to put things back together.
There is a second form of doubt, however. Barth says this one is far more dangerous, which is troublesome because his long-winded explanation of it makes it hard to pin down exactly. It seems to be an uneasiness that there is even any point to the enterprise of theology at all. It is the introduction of a note of embarrassment at the outset that renders the whole conversation suspect. It is the swaying between Yes and No as to whether there is anything to even discuss, or whether we’re not simply engaging in an exercise of trying to describe our own “pious emotions” (pg. 124). It’s not the honest doubting that comes naturally with the asking of questions, but the doubting that asks, “Did God really say?” (Gen. 3:1) It doubts the connection between God’s works and words to the task of theology itself. It is the kind of doubt that isn’t dealt with in answers, but must be “healed.”
Barth then “briefly” notes three reasons this latter form of doubt might arise. (As if Barth could ever “briefly” do anything.) First, it might rise in the face of “the powers and principalities” of the world. In looking about at the worlds of economics, politics, art, the newspapers–the world of “real life”–the theologian might be tempted to doubt the relevance or reality of the message he preaches. What can the Gospel really say to that world conflict? Who has time for theology in the face of the truly pressing issues of the day? Could it ever really have said anything in the first place?
The Church itself is another source of doubt in theology. Theologians and preachers have to look at the church, its history, with all of the disunity, ugliness, and petty weakness on a regular basis. Unsurprisingly they may come away jaded at times. In the face of ecclesiastical horrors, wars, heresy trials, and nonsensical squabbles, it might seem perverse to labor at theology.
Saving the deepest root for last, Barth points out that it might not be that “the world impresses him so much or that the Church impresses him so little” (pg. 128), but that his own innate flaws as an individual might be the chink in the armor of his faith. Complicating things, yet again, Barth subdivides this into two possible iterations.
The first is that of a theologian whose public theology does not match his private practice. He has a very solid public theology that is ordered under the word of God, but his practical life is ordered by any passing whim or principle. In this sense, he has put himself in the place of a wounded conscience. Of course, this source of doubt is not unique to theologians, but is the common provenance of all Christians.
The inverse possibility is that he has so engulfed himself in theology, he’s failed to have a normal life. His interests do not extend into the normal range of human affairs, to the point where theology or church-life all but consumes him. At that point, he is but a step away from burnout or boredom, which can lead to doubt.
Three Aphorisms on Doubt
At the end of these meditations Barth gives three “aphorisms” on doubt for theologians worth quoting in full:
- No theologian, whether young or old, pious or less pious, tested or untested, should have any doubt that for some reason or other and in some way or other he is also a doubter. To be exact, he is a doubter of the second unnatural species, and he should not doubt that his doubt is by no means conquered. He might just as well–although this would certainly not be “well”–doubt that he is likewise a poor sinner who at the very best has been saved like a brand from the burning.
- He should not also deny that his doubt, in this second form, is altogether a pernicious companion which has its origin not in the good creation of God but in the Nihil–the power of destruction–where not only the foxes and rabbits but also the most varied kinds of demons bid one another “Good night.” There is certainly a justification for the doubter. But there is no justification for doubt itself (and I wish someone would whisper that in Paul Tillich’s ear). No one, therefore, should account himself particularly truthful, deep, fine, and elegant because of his doubt. No one should flirt with his unbelief or with his doubt. The theologian should only be sincerely ashamed of it.
- But in the face of his doubt, even if it be the most radical, the theologian should not despair. Doubt indeed has its time and place. In the present period no one, not even the theologian, can escape it. But the theologian should not despair, because this age has a boundary beyond which again and again he may obtain a glimpse when he begs God, “Thy Kingdom Come!” Even within this boundary, without being able simply to do away with doubt, he can still offer resistance, at least like the Huguenot woman who scratched Resistes! on the windowpane. Endure and bear it!
–Evangelical Theology, pp. 131-132
As I mentioned, I’ve been giving some thought to the problem of doubt. There is a natural place for the first kind of doubt in the Christian life, as Barth notes. It’s fine to pick things apart and re-examine what you’ve learned–in a sense, doubting in order to believe. At the same time, I’ve also found that our culture, and recently certain wings of Evangelicalism, have taken to valorizing nearly all doubt to an unhealthy degree. Doubt is never to be talked about as something to be resisted, endured, struggled through, but is rather celebrated and romanticized as a sort of rite of passage into relevance and authenticity. It is either subtly or openly commended as a pathway to a “particularly truthful, deep, fine, and elegant” form of faith, brave enough to doubt even God himself.
The problem is, I don’t see scripture anywhere commending doubt in God. It allows for it. It acknowledges it. It forgives it. Much as Barth teaches us, there is room for it–there is a justification for the doubter. And yet, the state of doubt is not the end for which we strive. It is not a good place to be or even to praise. This is why I found Barth’s aphorisms to be filled with much biblical good sense. For those struggling or looking to counsel those who struggle, we find here a pastoral, humble note that acknowledges our frailty and sin, yet still exhorts us onward in hope and faith for that coming day when doubt will be overwhelmed by the fullness of the Kingdom of God.
A friend’s post on Facebook recently alerted me to the news that Wiman is giving up his position as editor of Poetry Magazine and taking a teaching position at Yale Divinity School. Wiman’s prose has often dealt with his battle with cancer and his return to faith after a hiatus of doubt. Here is the essay, Gazing in to the Abyss, from the American Scholar that first introduced me to his work. It’s well worth the read.
Though I was raised in a very religious household, until about a year ago I hadn’t been to church in any serious way in more than 20 years. It would be inaccurate to say that I have been indifferent to God in all that time. If I look back on the things I have written in the past two decades, it’s clear to me not only how thoroughly the forms and language of Christianity have shaped my imagination, but also how deep and persistent my existential anxiety has been. I don’t know whether this is all attributable to the century into which I was born, some genetic glitch, or a late reverberation of the Fall of Man. What I do know is that I have not been at ease in this world.
Poetry, for me, has always been bound up with this unease, fueled by contingency toward forms that will transcend it, as involved with silence as it is with sound. I don’t have much sympathy for the Arnoldian notion of poetry replacing religion. It seems not simply quaint but dangerous to make that assumption, even implicitly, perhaps especially implicitly. I do think, though, that poetry is how religious feeling has survived in me. Partly this is because I have at times experienced in the writing of a poem some access to a power that feels greater than I am, and it seems reductive, even somehow a deep betrayal, to attribute that power merely to the unconscious or to the dynamism of language itself. But also, if I look back on the poems I’ve written in the past two decades, it almost seems as if the one constant is God. Or, rather, His absence.
There is a passage in the writings of Simone Weil that has long been important to me. In the passage, Weil describes two prisoners who are in solitary confinement next to each other. Between them is a stone wall. Over a period of time — and I think we have to imagine it as a very long time — they find a way to communicate using taps and scratches. The wall is what separates them, but it is also the only means they have of communicating. “It is the same with us and God,” she says. “Every separation is a link.”
It’s probably obvious why this metaphor would appeal to me. If you never quite feel at home in your life, if being conscious means primarily being conscious of your own separation from the world and from divinity (and perhaps any sentient person after modernism has to feel these things) then any idea or image that can translate that depletion into energy, those absences into presences, is going to be powerful. And then there are those taps and scratches: what are they but language, and if language is the way we communicate with the divine, well, what kind of language is more refined and transcendent than poetry? You could almost embrace this vision of life — if, that is, there were any actual life to embrace: Weil’s image for the human condition is a person in solitary confinement. There is real hope in the image, but still, in human terms, it is a bare and lonely hope.
It has taken three events, each shattering in its way, for me to recognize both the full beauty, and the final insufficiency, of Weil’s image. The events are radically different, but so closely linked in time, and so inextricable from one another in their consequences, that there is an uncanny feeling of unity to them. There is definitely some wisdom in learning to see our moments of necessity and glory and tragedy not as disparate experiences but as facets of the single experience that is a life. The pity, at least for some of us, is that we cannot truly have this knowledge of life, can only feel it as some sort of abstract “wisdom,” until we come very close to death.First, necessity: four years ago, after making poetry the central purpose of my life for almost two decades, I stopped writing. Partly this was a conscious decision. I told myself that I had exhausted one way of writing, and I do think there was truth in that. The deeper truth, though, is that I myself was exhausted. To believe that being conscious means primarily being conscious of loss, to find life authentic only in the apprehension of death, is to pitch your tent at the edge of an abyss, “and when you gaze long into the abyss,” Nietzsche says, “the abyss also gazes into you.” I blinked.
On another level, though, the decision to stop writing wasn’t mine. Whatever connection I had long experienced between word and world, whatever charge in the former I had relied on to let me feel the latter, went dead. Did I give up poetry, or was it taken from me? I’m not sure, and in any event the effect was the same: I stumbled through the months, even thrived in some ways. Indeed — and there is something almost diabolical about this common phenomenon — it sometimes seemed like my career in poetry began to flourish just as poetry died in me. I finally found a reliable publisher for my work (the work I’d written earlier, I mean), moved into a good teaching job, and then quickly left that for the editorship of Poetry. But there wasn’t a scrap of excitement in any of this for me. It felt like I was watching a movie of my life rather than living it, an old silent movie, no color, no sound, no one in the audience but me.
Then I fell in love. I say it suddenly, and there was certainly an element of radical intrusion and transformation to it, but the sense I have is of color slowly aching into things, the world coming brilliantly, abradingly alive. I remember tiny Albert’s Café on Elm Street in Chicago where we first met, a pastry case like a Pollock in the corner of my eye, sunlight suddenly more itself on an empty plate, a piece of silver. I think of walking together along Lake Michigan a couple of months later talking about a particular poem of Dickinson’s (“A loss of something ever felt I”), clouds finding and failing to keep one form after another, the lake booming its blue into everything; of lying in bed in my highrise apartment downtown watching the little blazes in the distance that were the planes at Midway, so numerous and endless that all those safe departures and homecomings seemed a kind of secular miracle. We usually think of falling in love as being possessed by another person, and like anyone else I was completely consumed and did some daffy things. But it also felt, for the first time in my life, like I was being fully possessed by being itself. “Joy is the overflowing consciousness of reality,” Weil writes, and that’s what I had, a joy that was at once so overflowing that it enlarged existence, and yet so rooted in actual things that, again for the first time, that’s what I began to feel: rootedness.
I don’t mean to suggest that all my old anxieties were gone. There were still no poems, and this ate at me constantly. There was still no God, and the closer I came to reality, the more I longed for divinity — or, more accurately perhaps, the more divinity seemed so obviously apart of reality. I wasn’t alone in this: we began to say a kind of prayer before our evening meals — jokingly at first, awkwardly, but then with intensifying seriousness and deliberation, trying to name each thing that we were thankful for, and in so doing, praise the thing we could not name. On most Sundays we would even briefly entertain — again, half-jokingly, — the idea of going to church. The very morning after we got engaged, in fact, we paused for a long time outside a church on Michigan Avenue. The service was just about to start, organ music pouring out of the wide open doors into the late May sun, and we stood there holding each other and debating whether or not to walk inside. In the end it was I who resisted.
Click here to read the rest.
Here’s my problem: I don’t believe in people. To me, human beings and their world are nothing more than the product of our collective imagination, a sad manifestation of our need to feel important beyond our actual existence. I also can’t help feeling that our lives would be better if no one believed in people; only then would we be able to truly deal with our problems without nursing the delusion of a universe that’s completely dependent on us.
The bottom line is that there are no easy answers to the questions we all have about life. Why are we here? Why are we all-seeing, all-knowing and immortal? How are we able to be everywhere at the same time? I don’t pretend to know. I do know, however, that these questions are not made easier by believing there’s a planet of people somewhere out there who depend on us to land their planes safely.
Like most of us, I was raised by parents who believed in the existence of people. Before every meal and every bedtime, we would sit quietly, “listening” to their prayers, and every Sunday morning I was awakened early so we could all go sit on our heavenly thrones for an hour, pretending to be worshipped. How ridiculous that all seems now! At the time, though, I never questioned any of it. In fact, for most of my teens, I spoke to a person named Moses who I believed was completely dependent on my advice. I now realize, of course, that this was nothing more than a delusion I needed in order to break free of my cloying parents and their needs.
As I grew, persistent questions nagged at me. I asked my father: If we have ultimate power over peoples’ lives, why can’t we just make them perfect and alleviate their suffering? That way, they wouldn’t need to pray anymore, and we wouldn’t need to listen! My father shook his head with a long-suffering look as if he’d caught me playing with his best lightning bolts. He explained to me that of course we couldn’t intervene in peoples’ lives like that, because then how would they grow and become purer souls? It’s hard to believe that I actually believed this. Absolutely crazy—the idea that we created people just to torture them!
After rejecting my parents’ faith, I dabbled in different forms of people-belief. For a while, I believed that people became happier when they killed animals for me. Then I believed that I buried a gold tablet for people to find. I even flirted with even flakier religions, believing that the peoples’ sun wouldn’t rise in the morning if I didn’t haul it up with my chariot (I was on anti-depressants at the time). Then, at perhaps my lowest point, I imagined that I had a son who I sent to the people to do with as they wished—some kind of bizarre loaner, I guess.
Then I had a breakthrough: Why did the people I believed in need me so badly? If I truly had dominion over every aspect of their lives, as I was led to believe, why were they so screwed up? I was familiar with the arguments of theologians—that somehow peoples’ sorry existence was further proof of their need for me. But I just couldn’t buy it anymore.
Since throwing off the shackles of believing in people, it hasn’t been easy living in a culture where everyone seems to think they’ve talked to some guy in a desert. When I recently tried to get medical help for my now-senile father—who actually believed that dead people with wings had come to live with him—I was told that my father was “comforted” by this delusion. When will we realize that there is nothing comforting about ignorance?
I’m frequently asked: Don’t you sometimes, late at night, at your lowest moments, wish that you were worshipped? When the chips are down, when you feel completely worthless, don’t you wish you could hear the prayers of billions of people asking you for help and comfort? And I would not be completely truthful if I didn’t say that sometimes, I do. After all, I’m only a god.