Archives For Faith

I noticed the upcoming lectionary epistle for this Sunday is Romans 5.1-11 which begins thus:

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God…”

The question is- or should be- by whose faith are we justified? Ours? Or Christ’s? By faith here in Romans 5 is an echo of an earlier theme Paul picks up from Romans 3:

“Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Romans 3:20-23.

Sometimes a preposition can make all the difference.

I remember my first theology course as a freshman undergraduate, Elements of Christian Thought, with Euene Rogers. I’d just become a Christian as a Junior in High School and was only beginning to become acquainted with the actual content of our faith. The topic one week was Justification & Salvation, and I remember another student asking the TA:

‘If Christians believe we’re justified by faith in Christ, then what about people like me who don’t have faith, who’d maybe like to have faith but can’t seem to find it?

Is it our fault then if we’re not saved? Why faith is essential why is it so hard?

That seems like a pretty limited God.’

It hit me then and still does as a very good question. Not only does it make essential something that is sincerely elusive for many people, it also turns faith into a kind of work- the very opposite of Paul’s point- in that we’re saved by our ability to believe.

Justification by (our) faith (in) Christ turns faith into the very thing Paul railed against: our work.

That is, religion

The irony of the historic Faith vs. Works, Gospel vs. Law debate among Christians, however, is that the very idea of justification coming through faith in Christ is premised on a bad translation of scripture. 

Almost everywhere, other than the King James, that is written in English it is a wrong translation. In Greek, the actual wording is  that we’re justified “through the faith OF Jesus Christ.”

Grammar Lesson: 

It is a possessive or genitive phrase. Now a genitive means that this phrase can be interpreted as either subjective or objective. In other words, it is like the phrase, the Love of God. That is either our love for God, or the love that God has. In one case it is objective (love for God), in the other subjective (God is the subject) and it describes the love that belongs to God, or God’s love.

In Greek, the faith of Jesus Christ is also a subjective genitive, but has been interpreted as an objective in almost every translation.

Why is this important?

Because it is not our faith in Jesus which justifies us, but the faith of Jesus Christ in us which justifies us.

Faith isn’t a work.

Isn’t our work at least.

The faith that saves us and justifies us is the obedience of Christ.

In other words, it is his faith at work in us and in our hearts which produces righteousness and the God kind of life. This explains why faith is a gift and why we are saved through faith by grace and not as a work of our own. It is not our faith which justifies, but the faith of Jesus given to us, which resides in us.

The good news is, it isn’t my faith that matters. It is the faith OF Jesus Christ given to me, that when God regards you or me God isn’t measuring our feeble attempts at faithfulness. In other words, when God looks upon us God chooses not to see us but to see Jesus.

 

Cancer is Funny (?!)

Jason Micheli —  August 3, 2016 — 3 Comments

MicheliCover_FINALApparently, unbeknownst to me, my forthcoming Fortress Press book is available for pre-order on Amazon. Hell, it’s even the #1 New Release in Religious Humor, no big feat considering how humorless we are as a tribe.

Almost a year ago, Fortress approached me to ask if I’d consider writing about my cancer exile and wandering.

Some have questioned the appropriateness of the title. Fair enough. Obviously, it was meant to grab attention.

“How can something so painful and horrific be funny?” I’ve been asked.

Don’t forget, I’m not nor will I ever be ‘cured’ so I get better than most the unfunny bits of cancer.

Still, I believe cancer is funny because God is present in cancer.

John Chrysostom, a fourth-century Christian clergyman, whose oratory netted him the nickname John Goldenmouth, once preached, “Tears bind us to God not laughter.” 

You might expect to find such esteeming of seriousness and suffering in a religion with a cross at the front of every sanctuary and an execution at the heart of its story, but the Gospels frame their narratives not from the perspective of the crucifixion, but from the hindsight of resurrection’s happy surprise. In other words, the laughter of Easter, not the laments of Good Friday, should determine for us how we conceive of God and ourselves as God’s creatures.

Everyone assumes that suffering leads the sufferer to God, and sometimes it does. Suffering can knock down all our other (self-) defenses so that we can finally, wholly, depend upon our maker. But if suffering leads us closer to God, suffering should not leave us mirthless.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French philosopher and priest from the twentieth century, posited as a sort of first principle:

“Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.”

The first time I heard my youngest son’s belly laugh, I marveled over how a celibate like Pierre had understood about God what it took fatherhood to teach me.

Everyone assumes suffering leads you closer to God. And no one registers surprise to hear how cancer has led someone to a deeper (i.e., more serious) faith, but people betray something like shock when you suggest to them that cancer can be funny.

If God is Joy, then we can’t rightly be said to have grown closer to God, through suffering or any other means, without a marked increase in joy, and with joy comes laughter.

Mirth and levity that only the good news of grace makes possible.

Despite the finality with which he expressed it, John Chrysostom was only partially correct. Tears, and the suffering that provokes them, can in fact bring us closer to God by leaving us no other options but turning to God.

But tears and suffering cannot fetter us to God.

Only joy can bind us fully to the God who is most infallibly Joy.

Cancer is funny, then, because the suffering occasioned by cancer draws you nearer to God, and the closer you get to God, the louder laughter becomes.

Pre-Order the Book!

The more people who do, the more people will happen upon it by accident. The whole reason I wrote about my cancer in the real, raw language I was feeling was because of the number of people I met still carrying unresolved grief and pain from cancer in their own family. I wrote about my cancer the way a lot of people (non-pastors) speak so that those people might find a way to speak their grief, worry, rage, and laughter.

It’s available on Amazon for pre-order.

Check it out.

Order another copy for someone who might be helped by it.

Here’s the book

If you get this by email, here’s the link to cut and paste:

https://www.amazon.com/Cancer-Funny-Keeping-Faith-Stage-Serious/dp/1506408478/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1470192757&sr=1-1&refinements=p_27%3AJason+Micheli

political-convention     Here’s this weekend’s sermon on Colossians 3.1-17. 

According to my Facebook Timeline, I preached on this lectionary text from Colossians 3 exactly two years ago today.

Actually, my Facebook Timeline reminded me that Will Gerig and Becca McGraw, two youth who grew up here at Aldersgate, exchanged marriage vows here at Aldersgate two years ago today.

Will and Becca chose this passage from Paul about putting on Christ for their wedding service. Well, not the part about fornication.

And they didn’t just choose this text; they also chose a reading from the Song of Songs, an erotic love poem from the Old Testament that makes 50 Shades of Grey sound like a Cary Grant and Doris Day movie.

Since Dennis is on vacation- I mean sabbatical- it’s probably for the best that the lectionary today only gives us one of those passages I preached for Will and Becca.

I’d known them since Will was 8 and Becca was 7.

And so I wanted to do a good job with their wedding. I wanted to make sure I preached clearly this passage from Colossians 3 that they’d chosen and that through it I said something not only helpful but gospel true.

So I started by asking them a question, a Colossians 3 sort of question, the question begged by every bridal magazine, rom-com, and wedding ceremony.

I asked them this question:

If love is a feeling, how in the world can you promise to love someone forever?

If love is a feeling, how can two people promise that to each other forever?

Of all the things in our lives, our feelings are the part of us we have the least control over. You can’t promise to feel a certain feeling every day for the rest of your life.

If love is a feeling, then it’s no wonder the odds are better than even that it won’t last.

Two years ago today I’m not sure Will and Becca heard that as good news.

And then-

Then it got worse for me.

Because then I turned to the New Testament and reminded them that love in the New Testament isn’t just something you promise to another. It’s something you’re commanded to give another.

When a rich lawyer asks Jesus for the key to it all, Jesus says: ‘Love the Lord completely and love your neighbor as yourself.’

And when Jesus washes his friends’ feet, he tells them: ‘I give you a new commandment: love one another just as I have loved you.’

And when the Apostle Paul writes to the Colossians he commands them to ‘bear with each other, forgive one another, put on love.’

Those are all imperatives.

Jesus doesn’t say like your neighbor. Jesus doesn’t say you should love one another. Paul doesn’t tell us to try to love and forgive one another. They’re imperatives not aspirations. They’re commands not considerations. Here’s the thing. You can’t force a feeling. You can’t command an emotion. You can only command an action. You can only command a doing. A practice. A habit. I told them two years ago today.

In scripture, love is an action first and a feeling second.

Jesus and Paul take a word we use as a noun, and they make it a verb.

Which is the exact opposite of how the culture has taught us all to think about love.

We think of love as a noun, as a feeling, as something that happens to us, which means then we think we must feel love in order to give it.

But that’s a recipe for a broken relationship. Because when you think you must feel love first in order to give it, then when you don’t feel love towards the other you stop offering them loving acts.

And of course the fewer loving actions you show someone else, the fewer loving feelings there will be between you.

In scripture, love is an action first and a feeling second.

Love is something you do- even when you don’t feel like it; so that, you feel like it.

That’s how Jesus can command us to love our enemies. And just ask any married person- the ability to love your enemy is often the necessary condition to love your spouse.

Jesus can’t force us to feel a certain way about our enemies, but Jesus can command us to do concrete loving actions for our enemies knowing that those loving acts might eventually transform how we feel.

The key to having love as a noun in your life is making love a verb. Where you invest loving actions, loving feelings will follow.

You do it and then you feel it. Love is something you do and you promise to trust that the doing of love will transform your heart so that you do feel love.

Two years ago today, I led with that question: If love is a feeling, how can you promise to love someone always and forever?

Today, two years later, I have a different Colossians question:

     If that’s how love works for a spouse

If that’s how love works in a relationship

Then why do we suppose it’s any different when it comes to our love for God?

      If our heart works this way when it has a person as its object of desire, then why do we suppose that our heart works any differently when the object of its desire is three-personned, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians roughly a generation after Jesus and 250 years before the Gospel about Jesus converted the Empire. When Paul wrote to the Colossians, Christians’ faith made them like unwelcome immigrants in a hostile land.

For the Christians in Colossae,  you couldn’t accept Jesus as Lord without rejecting Caesar as Lord. To make a commitment to Christ was to make enemies. So you didn’t join a church without thinking about it. Seriously and hard.

In fact, the Church wouldn’t let you. The Church first required you to undergo rigorous catechesis, throughout the long season of Lent.

Then, and only then, you would be led outside the sanctuary on Easter Eve to a pool of water. There the Church would strip you naked. And facing the darkness you would renounce Caesar and Satan and all their works.

Then, like Pharoah’s soliders, you would be drown in the water three times and, rising up from the water as Jesus from the grave, you would turn the opposite direction to affirm his Lordship and every practical implication that now had for your life.

Maybe it’s TMI but I certainly wouldn’t want to strip naked, plunge down into night cold water (with its, you know, shrinkage factor) and then stand around with a crowd of church people looking at me and what God gave me.

To do something like that- you’d really have to feel and believe that Jesus Christ is Lord.

And yet-

Those same Christians who faced down Caesar and spit in Sin’s face and renounced the world and took the plunge into a new one, naked and unashamed, still had trouble forsaking their former ways of life.

Just before today’s text, Paul chastises them for worrying about pagan food regulations, lunar festivals, idolatrous mysticism and ascetic practices.

And again here in chapter 3 Paul scolds them that though they’d died with Christ they still haven’t put to death their prior way of life: their malice, their deception, their fornication.

How does that happen?

They’d risked too much when they’d become Christian not to have felt its truth down deep inside them. But, it didn’t stick.

They knew that Jesus is Lord; too much was at stake for them not to have taken their faith with life and death seriousness. Still, it didn’t take.

They believed that they’d been set free to live as in a New Creation. Yet, they fell back to doing what they’d done in the Old Creation.

They had stripped naked for Christ- shrinkage factor and all- but they still hadn’t stripped off their old selves.

They had stripped naked for Christ, but they still hadn’t put him on. Why not? Or, how not?

It’s revealing-

In chapter two Paul admonishes the Colossians against false philosophy, wrong thinking, and deceitful beliefs. In other words, Paul scolds them to get their heads straight, but then his prescription for false thinking and wrong belief is through their hands. Through their habits.  And then here in chapter three it’s the very same dynamic. Paul tells them in verse two to “set your minds on things that are above.” But then, further down in verse 12, what Paul commends to them is not beliefs but practices, not ideas but doings. Paul uses a clothing metaphor:

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”

    Any one who’s been around little kids knows- putting on clothes takes practice. Compassion, humility, patience- these aren’t attitudes in our heads. They’re not affections in our hearts. They’re virtues. They’re moral attributes that you can only acquire over time through habits. Though hands-on practice.

We assume our feelings of love for God produce works of love, that faith leads to action. I mean, we make habit a dirty word and suppose that we’re saved by the sincerity of our feelings for God or the strength of our belief in God.

But for Paul it’s our habits that shape our feelings and beliefs. For Paul, the way to our hearts, the way into our heads, is through our hands. Through practices and actions and habits and every day doings.

Before you can invite Jesus in to your heart, before you can conform your mind to Christ, you’ve got to put him on and practice.

You’ve got to practice serving the poor so that it becomes a habit until that habit becomes compassion.

You’ve got to practice praising God, week in and week out, until it becomes such a habit that you know without thinking about it that you are creature of God- which makes you NOT God- which becomes humility.

You’ve got to practice confessing your sins and bringing another’s sins to them without malice and passing the peace of Christ until those practices become habits because eventually those habits will make you forgiving.

You’ve got to practice praying “Thy Kingdom come…” and working towards that Kingdom in places like Guatemala and Route 1 and DC.

You’ve got to practice the Kingdom until it becomes a habit so that it becomes, in you, patience and hope.

You’ve got to practice receiving with outstretched hands the body and blood of Christ so that the habit of the sacrament makes you hunger and thirst for God’s justice.

You’ve got to put on Christ in order to calibrate your head and your heart to him.

Your love for God can never be just a feeling that you feel. It can never be just a belief that you believe.

If that’s all it is, then your love for God will never last because- here’s the rub- it’s not just the practices of Christ that become habits that then shape your head and your heart. It’s every kind of practice. It’s all your habits and every day doings.

So it’s not that your heart can either belong to God or to nothing at all; it’s that your heart will belong to God or to another god. The gods of capitalism or consumerism or partisan politics. The gods of nationalism or individualism.

If the way to our heads and our hearts is through our hands- through our habits- then our heads and our hearts will belong to something if they do not belong to God.

As James KA Smith says, Victoria’s secret is that she’s after your head and your heart not just your wallet. And so is Hollywood. And so is the Republican Party and so is the Democratic Party and so is Amazon and Apple and Wall Street and the NFL and all the stuff and noise that make up our everyday habits.

You see if you do not put on Christ, if you do not practice the habits of Jesus following, then all your other habits will shape you.

That’s why it’s not a bad idea, for example, to give God one day of your week.

Because your heart will have a lover. And your habits determine who.

When Will and Becca got married two years ago today, I told me them how lifelong monogamous love, for better and for worse, was an enormous, outrageous promise to make and even more impossible promise to keep.

That is, without a community to hold them accountable to it.

“That’s why, for Christians, there’s no such thing as a private wedding,” I told them.

Of course, the same goes for our lifelong, monogamous love for God.

It’s why there can be no such thing as a person who is a Christian in private.

It’s why there can be no such thing as a Christian who is not a practicing part of the Christian community.

It’s why there’s no salvation outside of the Church.

Because without the practices that become habits of the Christian community- without putting on Christ: in prayer and praise and passing peace and serving the poor- your mouth might confess that Jesus is Lord but your heart will eventually hunger for another lover and soon you’ll be worshipping idols unawares.

 

 

 

4131253271_64251f8068For Episode 14 of Crackers and Grape Juice, Jason and Teer are joined by Dr. Johanna Hartelius as they check in with Fleming Rutledge. Johanna is one of Jason’s best friends and is a professor of rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh. She’s almost as much of a fan of Fleming’s as Jason.

This is part 1 of a 2 part conversation. If you notice some sighs or scoffs, that’s just Teer & Johanna noticing how much Jason is kissing up to Fleming.

Download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.Teer spends unpaid HOURS editing this crap, so spread the love.

If you appreciate this as much as you tell us, give us a rating and review here in the iTunes store.

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast.

‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Here it is:

I noticed the upcoming lectionary epistle for this Sunday is Galatians 2.11-21:

“We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.”

Wait, is that the right way of putting it?

The entire evangelical Christian understanding of Justification by Faith Alone is premised upon a particular reading of Romans and this passage here in Galatians.

Justification by Faith Alone, in case you didn’t know, names God’s declaration of forgiveness of our sins because of Jesus Christ’s work on the cross. For example, this grace hit Martin Luther had transformed him when he heard spoken to him in the confessional by a brother priest: ‘Martin, your sins are forgiven.’ It’s this declaration and our faith in it that justifies us before God. And nothing else (Romans 1-3).

That’s the historic Reformed/Evangelical understanding of Justification.

It also happens to be wrong.

Just because something’s historic doesn’t mean it’s right.

The Founders were wrong about slavery.

And Christian traditions have been wrong about what Paul is intending when he talks about faith and justification.

Exhibit A has to do with the (mis)translated line ‘faith in Jesus Christ.’

Almost everywhere that is written in English it is an incorrect translation. It is correctly translated by the King James version, but by virtually no other translations.

For example:

“Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Romans 3:20-23,.

 

In Greek, the actual wording is “even the righteousness of God, through the faith OF Jesus Christ.” 

ek pisteos Iesou Christou

A little grammar:

It is in the genitive case. Now because it’s in the genitive means that this phrase can be interpreted as either subjective or objective. That is, it’s like saying the Love of God. We’re referring either to our love for God, or the love that God has for us.

In one instance God is the object of our love. In other instance, God is the subject.

In Greek, ‘the faith of Jesus Christ’ is also a subjective genitive, but it gets translated as an objective nearly all the time: ‘faith in Jesus Christ.’ 

Thus translated, it’s not long before we start talking about how it’s our faith in Christ (see how this now makes our ‘faith’ just another ‘work?’) that makes us righteous before God. 

Huh?

In Paul’s day, Jews called the Messiah, the Righteous One. In his letter to the Romans, Paul draws on the idea of The Righteous One to describe Jesus Christ, who reveals the righteousness of God through his faith. Not our faith.

You see, Paul’s whole argument in Romans/Galatians is that the Law does not justify anyone, not even Abraham was justified by Law, but by faith. And Paul sees Jesus as the Righteous One who was able to maintain faith to the end. Unlike Israel or any of us. Jesus was able to do through his faith what we could not. Jesus was able to trust the Father perfectly. Even unto a cross. That is why he is “The Righteous One who shall live by his Faith.”

Paul is making an argument in Romans is that God’s righteousness was revealed “from faith to faith. God’s righteousness was revealed in and through the faith OF Jesus Christ, and was revealed to faith; that is, our faith as we receive him.

To preach Romans or Galatians well requires out-Pauling evangelicals, who often champion Paul more so than the Messiah for whom Paul gave his life.

But there it is.

Most evangelicals are wrong about what they’ve made their central doctrine, Justification by Faith Alone.

It not our faith in Jesus which justifies us, but the faith of Jesus Christ in us which justifies us. 

In other words, as Richard Hays puts it, it’s the faith of Jesus that saves us and we simply get caught up in the story of his faithfulness. We participate in it. We don’t agree to it, nod our head to it or even, dare I say it, invite it into our hearts.

And this is what Paul freaking means when he calls faith a ‘gift’ from God. He doesn’t mean that some people who have faith have been given a gift while those who don’t have it have been screwed by the Almighty- a line of thinking that only begets vile doctrines like double predestination.

No, faith is a gift because it’s Jesus’ faith he’s talking about.

And Jesus, as we learn at Christmas, is a gift given to the whole world.

In the traditional evangelical rendering in which it is our faith which sets us right with God, faith becomes another work, another work of the law, something we must do. That’s neither Paul’s argument nor good news. We can’t do anything ourselves, not even our faith, to improve our situation vis a vis God.

Not to mention, it only succeeds in reproducing Martin Luther’s original dilemma about the veracity of his suaveness and leads to the myriad number of Protestants who make repeated trips forward to the anxious bench or to the font for rebaptism.

The clause ‘we must (have faith/serve the poor/be inclusive/obey the commandments’ in order for God to _________can never be Gospel. It’s exhortation not proclamation. It reduces the Gospel promise to If/Then conditionality.

Paul’s Gospel is instead a Because/Now construction: Because we have been set right before God by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, now we are empowered, emboldened, set free to live for God.

12744280_1713461858909999_5768302360489547677_nI was the guest at the most recent Pub Theology gathering. Since its Lent, the topic I was given was Faith and Suffering. I apologize for how much I say ‘um.’ The poem I shared during the event is included below.

 

“A Prayer That Will Be Answered”

Lord let me suffer much

and then die

Let me walk through silence

and leave nothing behind not even fear

Make the world continue

let the ocean kiss the sand just as before

Let the grass stay green

so that the frogs can hide in it

so that someone can bury his face in it

and sob out his love

Make the day rise brightly

as if there were no more pain

And let my poem stand clear as a windowpane

bumped by a bumblebee’s head

– by Anna Kamienska

12243486_10207332160440258_4824375795530545494_nI preached this weekend for the first time in almost a year – since I found out I had Mantle Cell. The warmth of the congregation was overwhelming, including a mortifying standing applause, which more than adequately masked over what was a so-so sermon. My text was Paul’s closing to his letter to the Philippians, 4.10-23. 

You can listen to it here below as well as in iTunes here. Better yet, download the free blog app here and you’ll get it automatically.

Philippians 4.10-23

11/22/2015

So….this feels…weird.

It’s been 10 months since I last preached here.

When it was announced that I’d be here preaching this weekend, a member of the 8:30 service emailed me to remind me to wear my robe so, actually, it feels like old times.

Whether it feels weird or like old times, Dennis wanted me here this weekend because he thought a guy with cancer could emotionally manipulate you into giving more money on commitment Sunday.

But I tried telling him- there’s no way even guy with a rare, incurable cancer could get more cash out of the 9:45 crowd. You should get a puppy. Or an orphan. I said.

Just kidding. Missed me, huh?

Actually, when you think about it, this is a most appropriate day for me to be here, given our scripture text today. After all, Paul writes to the Philippian Church after he’s been locked away under house arrest, not with cancer but with a charge of sedition.

And while he’s been away Paul has grown concerned that, after all his hard work, his congregation has fallen under the influence of a false teacher.

A teacher who may have had a warm, FM voice and a thick, white Kenny Rogers mane and the theological acuity of Joel Osteen but a preacher who’d led them astray nonetheless.

Paul fears.

So it’s fitting I’m here today because, when it comes to Philippians, Paul and I have some things in common.

Paul never came back to the Philippians. After he wrote this letter, it was curtains on Paul, but it looks like I will be back, sometime after Christmas. After 10 months and exactly 64 days of chemo and 2 dozen blood transfusions, my latest PET scan was all clear.

I was so excited that I posted a picture of my PET scan online before I realized the picture also showed the positronic outline of my man-parts.

IMG_1315

Naturally, I received a few complaints about the appropriateness of such a picture- that’s fair, I thought. What struck me as unfair, though, below the belt, was one message I got registering surprise that my man-parts were so ‘ample.’

By the way, if any of you see the bishop, tell him I’m still waiting for his apology.

I have one more bone marrow test coming up in December, and I’ll have to do a day of chemo every couple of months for the rest of my life. I’ll never be ‘cured’ and Mantle Cell doesn’t go into remission like other cancers so it’s not a Miracle, but it’s the best news we could have gotten, and it looks like I’ll be back after Christmas.

Today, though, is as good a day as any for me to come back. Paul and I have a lot in common.

Like Paul, I know what it is to be in need (of healing).

Like Paul, I know what it is to have little (little hope).

Like Paul, I know what it is to have plenty- plenty of worries and fear and regrets, plenty of pain and pain-in-the-ass insurance claims.

Like Paul, I know what it is to go hungry (for some good news), and like Paul in today’s text I’ve got so much to thank my church for.

The Philippians fed Paul.

The money they sent to Paul supplied him with food because the Romans didn’t provide any for their prisoners. You either had benefactors to keep you from going hungry, or you didn’t and you did.

Like Paul’s church in Philippi, you all have done so much for us. You’ve fed us and prayed for us and with  us. You’ve helped us my medical bills and you’ve sat with me in the hospital. You were there to catch when I passed out in the chemo room, and you didn’t bat an eye when I puked in your car. And Dennis Perry became not my colleague but my pastor. He was with us the night I learned I had cancer, he prayed with us the morning of my surgery, and he’s been there for me all during my treatment.

     You all have done more than I could ever repay, and, honestly, that’s been a tougher pill for me to swallow than the vaginal yeast infection pills my doctor forced me to take.

Because the truth is-

I’ve always been awful at receiving gifts. I hate feeling like I’m in another’s debt. Before, whenever someone would give me a gift, I would immediately think about what I now had to give them to even the scales between us, to balance out the relationship.

In other words, I was a guy who kept score, which means I didn’t mind you being in my debt. I just didn’t want to be in yours.

One thing cancer taught me: when you think of your relationships in that way, in terms of credits and debits, you probably think of God that way too.  And so you worry about the debt of sin you owe God and could never pay back, and you fear that, maybe, you deserve what’s happened to you. Or, you count up all the good you’ve given God and you think, maybe subconsciously, that God owes you, and you get angry that this has happened to you.

All my life, I’ve been crazy terrible at receiving generosity, and then I got cancer and (dammit) you responded by giving us so much. And I worried: How can I possibly repay you?

I physically can’t write that many thank you notes or cook that many meals. I don’t really want any of you barfing in my car. I even tried repaying one of you by driving you to your vasectomy appointment, but since he made me hold his hand during the procedure, I definitely don’t want to do that for anyone else.

So how could I ever give back everything you’ve given? Balance the scales?

I could spend another 10 years at Aldersgate and it wouldn’t do it. I could work so hard for you that you’d just need to look in my eyes and, in the words of the immortal Bryan Adams, you’d see that everything I do, I do it for you.

But, I’d owe you still.

I can’t ever repay everything you’ve done for us.

And what you’ve done for us isn’t even the most important thing you’ve done.

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Unlike Paul-

     This past year, I’ve not been able to say ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me.’

When you have cancer, everyone- EVERY SINGLE PERSON-  tells you ‘to kick cancer’s ass.’ But it works the other way around. It kicks yours.

The last few months I’ve felt exhausted. Spiritually exhausted.

Like Bilbo Baggins, I felt ’thin, stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.’

I didn’t lose my faith; I just didn’t feel my faith, and Paul’s ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me’- it sounded to me like an empty cliche, like naive optimism, like hollow cheerleading for Team Happiness.

I may have a few things in common lately with Paul and the Philippians but not with the ‘I can endure all things through Christ…’ part.

Unless-

Unless, when Paul tells the Philippians ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ he’s not talking about Christ in heaven, he’s talking about you: ‘I can endure all things through you who strengthens me’ 

After all, the Christ who declares at the beginning of the gospel ‘I am the Light of the World,’ looks at his disciples at the end of the gospel and says to them ‘You are the Light of the World.’

And when we profess ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit’ we mean that Jesus isn’t a figure in the past nor is he a promise for the future but he’s here and now. There is no Christ ‘up there’ because he’s here. Now.

And Paul in another, earlier letter tells the church that they are the Body of the Christ and then, in this letter, Paul tells the church ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me.

And when Jesus commissions his disciples after Easter, he doesn’t say I’ll be waiting for you at the end of the age. No, he says: ‘I will be with you always unto the end of the age.’

You see-

Just as God, in the incarnation, chooses not to be God apart from Jesus, God-with-us; Jesus, after the resurrection, chooses not to be Christ apart from us, his Church.

There is no Christ, in other words, who is not mediated by and through and in his Gathered People, the Church.

So maybe-

Maybe when Paul says ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me’ he doesn’t mean ‘I can do all things because of my belief in Christ…’ Maybe he doesn’t mean ‘I can endure all things through my faith in Christ…’  And maybe he doesn’t mean ‘I can do anything by the power of my personal prayer…’

Maybe, instead, Paul’s talking about you.

About your prayer. About your faithfulness. About your compassion and care. You. The Body of Christ, who’s strengthened me. I can do all things through you.

If Paul means it that way, then it’s no longer a naive catchphrase; it’s a statement of faith, one I can affirm. And so can Ali. And so would Gabriel and Alexander.

     We can endure all things because you’ve been with us.

You’re with us.

More so than all the stuff you’ve done for us, you’ve been with us.

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When you think about it, in scripture, ‘with’ just might be the most important word. In scripture, ‘with’ is much more important than ‘for.’ *

‘In the beginning,’ says scripture, ‘the Word was with God. He was in the beginning with God.and without him not one thing came into being.’

In other words, before anything else, there was a with. The with between God and the Word, the Father and the Son. With, says the bible, is the most fundamental thing about God. So at the very end of the bible, when it describes our final destiny, a voice from heaven declares: ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God. God himself will be with them.’

According to the bible, ‘with’ is the word that describes the heart of God and the nature of God’s purposes and the plot of God’s desire for us. God’s whole life and action and purpose are shaped to be with. Us.

And, I know firsthand, being with isn’t doing things for. Being with is about presence. Being with is about participation. It’s about partnership.

Which is why, I think, when Paul finally gets around to thanking the Philippians, it’s not for the all the things they’ve done for him. Read it again- Paul never actually thanks them for the money they’ve sent him or the meals they’ve provided for him. No, he thanks them for sharing in his struggle, for being with him: ‘It was kind of you,’ he says, ‘to share in my distress.’

It was kind of you to share my nightmare. It was kind of you to share in my pain and suffering. It was kind of you to share in Ali’s worry. In my boys’ fears and anxiety. It was kind of you to make my cancer- our cancer- yours too.

Thank you, for being with me.

Thank you for sharing in my distress. Paul says.

The money and the ministry, they’re just the means by which the Philippians shared in Paul’s suffering. They’re the way they were with him.

And that’s all they are here. The money you give, the ministry you do- they’re just the means by which we share in the distress of people like me and, by extension, share in the distress of our community and the pain in our world.

It’s the crappiest small church cliche of all time, but what Paul and I are ultimately thankful for is that our two churches are like family. They’re with us. I offer it you in the name of that other family- Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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* I owe this section on the importance of ‘with’ in scripture to Samuel Wells‘ new book, A Nazareth Manifesto.

 

   rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x68311111.jpg13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

People speak of the dying experiencing their lives flashing before them. I suppose that’s something, albeit slower, of what it’s like with cancer- the ‘hell of prolonged farewell‘ that it can be.

And it’s funny the memories that cancer calls to mind, such as the ones I have of a man named Wayne.

One summer Sunday morning, about 6 1/2 years ago, I sat down in a plastic lawn chair in the courtyard of the bungalows where a service team from my church were staying in Guatemala. I had a bowl of cereal in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.

It was just the beginning of our week. Most of the service team had already eaten and had left to explore the lake at the edge of town and to snap pictures of the volcanoes that surrounded it.

For a moment or two, I ate alone.

Until another plastic lawn chair scraped across the concrete and a tall, lanky, balding man sat down next to me. He was wearing navy cargo pants and a bright yellow t-shirt that said ‘Fredricksburg UMC’ on the chest.

I recognized him immediately, but I could tell by the look on his face that the recognition wasn’t mutual.

He held his hand out and said matter-of-factly: ‘Wayne.’

‘Jason,’ I replied and shook his hand.

There were several other mission teams there that week and Wayne asked me which church I was a part of.

‘Is your pastor here with you this week?’ he asked.

‘Yep,’ I said nonchalantly and crunched some cereal.

After a pregnant pause or three, I said ‘Actually, I’m the pastor.’

He looked up from his cereal bowl and paused for a moment to see if I was being serious.

‘I wouldn’t think a pastor could get away with a shirt like that,’ Wayne observed.

He was referring to the black, triathalon t-shirt my wife gave me. It has pictures of a runner, a swimmer and a biker on it and below the images is the caption: ‘Threesome anyone?’

‘Shit, they’d be surprised if I didn’t wear shirts like this.’

‘So I guess they wouldn’t be shocked by your language then either?’

‘Not for a while now,’ I said, ‘though my bishop’s a different story.’

‘And does your congregation know you wear an earring when you go on mission trips?’ he asked me.

‘I wear it all the time,’ I said.

‘Really?’ he replied and again looked up from his cereal bowl to see if I was being serious.

‘You’d be surprised. It’s my sandals that irritate my congregation the most. I wear them all the time.’

He smiled and, with a napkin, dabbed at the milk in the corners of his mouth.

‘Are you really a pastor?’ he asked one last time.

I could tell he still didn’t recognize me so I said: ‘I was here last summer when you were here.’

He pointed a long, thin finger at me and snapped- like he’d just experienced an ‘Aha’ moment. And then he rubbed his chin as though he were trying to place me. But really I think he was just remembering the previous summer.

That past July

Wayne’s church and the service team from mine- we’d met in a tiny Guatemalan village called Alaska, so-called because the mountain altitude makes the community cloudy and cold. Both of our churches had gone there that day to participate in a reforestation project and to celebrate the construction of a new school.

Wayne had cancer that summer.

I remember hearing how he’d collapsed and spit up blood during the week while building a wood stove for a Mayan family. I remember overhearing him say in a defeated voice that he’d been coming to Guatemala for fifteen years to build stoves and how he expected that summer to be his last.

A Mayan priest had been invited to the village that day to perform a ritual blessing for the new school, but because of Wayne the priest instead performed an indigenous healing ceremony.

Wayne’s church and ours sat in a circle with a fire in the middle. Wayne sat with his shoulders slumped over. Wayne’s wife sat next to him and with a blue bandana, stoically wiped the tears from behind her sunglasses. The priest prayed a long, elaborate prayer with ‘Wayne’ being the only word distinguishable beneath the hard-sounding, Klingon-like Mayan dialect.

After the prayer, the priest dipped a bouquet of flowers in to the smoke and brushed Wayne’s body with it, up and down, front and back. He anointed Wayne’s neck and temples with oil. And then the priest placed his hands on Wayne’s chest and back and whispered another long prayer into his ear.

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When the priest finished, the emotion swelling in the group was such the entire circle sang the doxology to Wayne. Sang it as a blessing. And, one-by-one, we hugged and promised to pray for him.

     ‘Have faith,’ I remember telling him, approximately 7 1/2 years before I was diagnosed with cancer myself.

A year later, that summer Sunday morning, sitting there at breakfast, Wayne was about the last person I expected to see.

‘How are you?’ I asked him.

No matter what I’d told him before no part of me expected him to live. So I was surprised when he said: ‘I’m fine. The cancer’s gone. I’m cured.’

It’s hard to say anything to that without it sounding cliche or contrived so for a while I just smiled awkwardly at him, the same way I do when the salesgirl at Victoria’s Secret catches my eyes lingering over the posters on the wall a bit too long.

But then I asked him: ‘Has it strengthened your faith?’ A pastorly type question I wagered.

Wayne put his elbows on the table and he looked at me like he had a secret and he said:

‘Well, that all depends on how you define faith.’

I pushed my cereal bowl to the center of the table, and I gestured to Wayne in a tell me more sort of way. He rested his chin on his hand and he said, confidingly:

‘I used to think faith was just a personal thing. You know- just between me and my God.’

Then he smiled as though he were embarrassed by what he’d said.

‘When you think your life’s just about over,’ Wayne whispered, ‘you realize: faith is about more than just you and God. Its bigger than you. It’s not just in here or in here.’

And he pointed to his head and his heart.

‘It’s here,’ he said and he circled his fingers all around.

‘It’s about changing the world,’ he said in a case-closed tone of voice.

‘I guess I never thought about it like that before,’ I said.

And he squinted his eyes at me and asked: ‘You’re not just yanking my chain? You’re really a pastor?’

Wayne came to mind a few months after that morning while I was writing a sermon on Hebrews 11.1-16, a passage in which the author, whom scholars refer to as ‘the Preacher,’ preaches:

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for.’ 

     As with any sermon, if you read between the lines you can learn what’s going on in the preacher’s congregation. And when it comes to this preacher’s congregation, it’s obvious. They’re tired.

They’re tired of the endless challenges of serving their neighbor. They’re tired of the monotony of worship. They’re tired of the routine of church life.

They’ve heard every bible story and learned every prayer and the Good News- it’s not so new anymore.

This preacher’s congregation-

they’ve had faith for so long they’ve forgotten what faith is.

So the preacher of Hebrews attempts to reignite them, to call them back. And the preacher pulls out all the stops to do so.

The preacher preaches about how Jesus is superior to every angel in heaven. The preacher preaches about how Jesus is the only one who is blameless when it comes to sin, the only one who can approach God Almighty and plead our case.

The preacher preaches about how Christ is our great high priest, the One who mediates a covenant of forgiveness, a covenant that is new and perfect and forever, a covenant sealed with the blood of Christ’s sacrifice, a sacrifice that is final and once-for-all because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.

It’s a kitchen sink, swing for the fences, altar call kind of sermon.

But then-

Just when the congregation starts to nod their heads and murmur ‘Amen,’ just before the preacher works his way to the crescendo- he stops. And he lets all the momentum leak out of his sermon.

The preacher stops. He looks out at his congregation. And with all deliberate plainness he says:

‘Before I preach another word, I want to make sure we all know what faith is.’ 

     And probably some there in the congregation yawned, thinking they don’t need to be reminded of what faith is. And I bet there were others there in the pews that morning who looked at their watches and wondered why the preacher was wasting time on this.

After all, it’s obvious what faith is. Right?

Faith is believing in what you can’t see. It’s being confident of what you can’t prove. It’s like trust. It’s like obedience. It’s personal. It’s a relationship. It’s in here, as Wayne told me he’d once thought.

Before cancer.

But for this preacher, those usual definitions they don’t quite measure up:

‘Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for…’

     The preacher preaches.

Except- that’s not quite it, I made a point to point out in my own preaching that day. What we hear in the passage and what the preacher’s congregation first heard aren’t the same thing. Something’s lost in the translation from Greek to English:

     ‘Faith is the hypostasis of things hoped for…’ 

     That’s what the preacher preaches. The trouble is biblical translators think that word carries too much philosophical baggage to give it to you straight up. So they translate it as ‘assurance.’

Hypostasis.

It’s the same word we recite in the creeds when we affirm how Jesus the Son and God the Father- even though they’re different and distinct- somehow, mysteriously, share in the very same life, the very same work, the very same mission. Faith is like that- that’s what the preacher’s getting at.

Hypostasis. It means literally ‘very being.’

     In other words, ‘faith is the very being- one and the same- of what we hope for.’

Or a better way of putting it- ‘faith is the reality of what we hope for.’  An even clearer way of putting it would be- Faith brings into the here and now what God has promised for tomorrow.

To make the preacher’s point really plain- Faith makes our future hope real in the now.

Our hope for things on earth to be as they are in heaven, our hope for the empty to be filled and the lowly lifted up, our hope for mourning and crying and pain to be no more.

     Faith makes our hope real.

So of course it’s can’t just be in here or in here. It’s about changing the world, as Wayne told me. And I’ve been preaching that kind of faith 52 Sundays a year ever since.

     Except, I wonder now if maybe that’s not quite it either. 

The poet Kazim Ali advises that when you write or speak about something for a living you need to walk away from it for a time or you cease to know anything about it.

I think there’s wisdom in that advice. It’s been nearly 6 months since I ‘walked away’ from preaching and now I find myself recalling Wayne, whose point I once reiterated in sermon after sermon, and wanting to push back a bit.

Maybe it’s because Wayne was ‘cured’ when I spoke with him that morning over breakfast and, even if the months of treatment in front of me still go well, I never will be.

Maybe it’s because the teenage boy in the room next to me today, who has leukemia and the alienesque translucent skin to prove it, spit up blood all over the bathroom.

Which made me think of Wayne spitting up blood.

Which made me think of that boy in the room next to me.

Or maybe it’s that I have cancer now and, dammit, I’m entitled to my own take on things.

It’s probably all three, why I want to resist Wayne’s now, push back on his insistence that faith is about changing the world.

Frankly, there’s just too much changing that needs to be done.

While she flushed the lines of chest catheter today, I asked my nurse if she enjoyed her job. I was just making chit-chat, but I’m sure on some level we were both thinking of the boy in the next room.

‘I went into nursing to help people,’ she said, ‘You know, to make a difference, change the world.’ And she raised her eyebrows like you do at an old high school photo of yourself you barely rescue (or want to).

‘I enjoy it, yeah, but after so many patients, especially ones with what turns out to be a terminal illness (and she glanced at me and blushed), it’s easy to think you’re not really changing anything. There’s always the next one, so much need.’

‘Compassion fatigue, I guess’ she said and smiled.

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Strangely, her words reminded me not of Wayne, not at first. but of the ending to a book we’ve all read, Charlotte’s Web. Like I said, cancer conjures curious memories. We’ve all read the book but, I think, forgotten the melancholy ending:

“Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died. The Fair Grounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash.

Nobody of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair knew that a gray spider had played the most important part of all.”

Anyone in the often grim trade of ministry or anyone in oncology can tell you: deaths like Charlotte’s, lonely deaths where the world goes on at best oblivious and at worst indifferent, they happen all the time.

And that’s just 1 statistic with which you can scratch the surface. You can throw in war, poverty, sex-trafficing- what Paul calls the ‘Principalities and Powers’ against which we must contend.

Of course, that’s the rub. Elsewhere Paul also claims those selfsame Principalities and Powers have been defeated. On the cross.

     What my nurse hit upon by expressing her feelings of being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the world’s suffering and need is what theologians mean by describing the ‘already/not yet’ character of Christ’s saving work.

That is-

Christ’s victory over the powers of this dark world has been achieved already; his work upon the cross is perfect, complete and once-for-all.

But the effects of his victory, Christ’s reign and his Kingdom, the evacuation of suffering and alienation, the elimination of Sin and Death, still are not yet realized upon the world. Innocents die of collateral damage. Kids die of cancer. The poor suffer our affluence. Prisoners suffer our indifference. Minorities suffer our blind and casual callousness.

In a nutshell, already/not yet translates to:

The world is not the way it’s supposed to be if- especially freaking if- A) God exists and B) God is sovereign and C) God as the Incarnate Christ already defeated the Principalities and Powers.

Believe me, take the cancer ward as just one possible exhibit A. It can get hard to believe in the already when you’re surrounded by, thrust into, so much of the not yet. So much so you start to worry- any sane or moral person would, I think- that your faith in the ‘already’ isn’t really a form of cognitive dissonance. Not pie in the sky as much as willful shutting of the eyes to all the shit below the skies.

 Now, with cancer myself, I find myself begging to differ with Wayne:

Christian faith is not about rolling up our sleeves and changing the world, chipping away at the ‘not yet’ one compassionate act at a time.

It can’t be because ever since the alleged ‘already’ at the first Easter about 2 thousand years of ‘not yet’ have accrued and, much like the sin that begat the cross in the first place, that’s a debt we cannot possibly pay.

To insist that faith in the Risen Jesus is about changing the world not only suggests that we can ourselves what Jesus still has not done himself (for whatever reasons), it surely also inflicts the kind of fatigued sense of futility my nurse expressed to me, as though Christians are called not to baptize but to burnout.

So if Christian faith isn’t about changing the world, then what’s the why behind our compassionate actions?

What’s the why behind bothering to build wood-stoves in Guatemala? Behind serving the poor? Behind caring for the sick and the suffering?

People often ask me these days if cancer has gotten me to rethink any of my theology.

Here it is:

Christian faith- our compassionate acts of faithful service- are not about changing the world.

They’re about protesting it.

Protesting the ‘not yet’ way of the God’s world.

Portrait Karl Barth

Karl Barth, the theologian on whom I first cut my teeth, writes that whenever we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘for God’s name to be hallowed and God’s Kingdom to come we cannot come to terms and be satisfied with the status quo.’ 

We are, Barth says, by our prayerful action to ‘revolt and fight against the disorder which inwardly and outwardly controls and penetrates and disrupts all human relations and interconnections.’ 

Or, as it’s put more concisely in a quote attributed to Barth: ‘To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising agains the disorder of the world.’ 

 So we pray, we serve, we roll up our sleeves and care in order to protest- to point out- that the world isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, far far from it (screams the boy’s blood in the bathroom next to me), and although we cannot change the world ourselves we pursue these modest acts of faith as a witness, a summons, to the only One who can.

Of course, if Christian faith is more about protesting the world than changing it, then it should become obvious that our biggest protest is to against God, who still has not yet made good on the already of his Easter promise.

     Only a God whose power is suffering love could appreciate the irony: faith that looks to any outsider like doubt or, sometimes even- maybe at our best times, despair.

God is Not Cancer

Jason Micheli —  February 12, 2015 — 23 Comments

Untitled101111For about 6 months now I’ve been working on this Distilled catechism, initially with young people and the questions they ask me in mind. You can peruse the old Questions and Answers by clicking here.

The last couple of days, however, my tranquiliated mind keeps going back to one of the older, original Q/A’s unpacking what the ancient Church called the via negative or apophatic theology.

Monday this week I had unexpected intestinal surgery which has begat other unexpected news; namely that I have a rare form of blood cancer. Turns out I didn’t have ulcers or gall stones after all. Damn.

I like to think I’m unique in all things and, it turns out, I am in diseases too. In just a few short but lingering days, we have had lots of cries and surreal WTF? calls for clarity. We’ve had to tell our boys that ‘Daddy has cancer’ and, even now, we do more of the same (we wait), waiting to find out this evening exactly what type is this blood cancer and at what stage I’ll get thrown in the ring with it.

Doing cancer as a Christian can be hard enough for many folks; doing cancer as a public, professional Christian is something I’m still only beginning to sort out.

Its like someone’s thrown me a gown and I’m still trying to find the arms.

Not only is my faith expected to be a resource for me while cancer tries to kill me, it’s expected my faith vs cancer will be a resource to others too.

And after just 3 exhausting days I can (only) honestly say I don’t know if I can do it- the cancer in a fish bowl thing.

Even still, I’ve started to take stock of where I am at with the bastard formerly known as God and what, of my faith, I must reevaluate or reemphasize.

To that end, I return to Question 13 from the beginning of Distilled. Suffering terrific post-op pain, acute melancholy and ___________ cancer, it’s more important to me than ever before that what I speak of God- or have spoken to me- is true. Or at the very least, not idolatrous nonsense.

I. The Father

13. How should we speak of God? 

With deep humility, realizing that even our best speech is nonsense when applied to God and, as sinners, we’re prone to project our feelings and wills upon God.

We should speak of God always realizing our best words fit God like a baby’s clothes fit on a grown-up. Our language for God is approximate without being at all adequate.

For this reason, the best way to speak of God is to begin by saying what God is not (an approach called the via negativa):

God is not hate, for example. God is not a man with a beard.

Or, God is not cancer.

When we arrive at a negative statement which we know is false (eg, ‘God is not Love’) then we know we’ve hit upon something true of God.

‘Whoever does not love does not know God.’ – 1 John 4.8

2014-emailteaserIn 2014 average of 20K readers per month came from over 250 countries and, according to Google Analytics, these were the most viewed posts on the blog this year.

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.

1. Why I Left the Ordination Process

2. Is There an Unforgivable Sin? 

3. The Way Forward for the UMC: Stop Baptizing Homosexuals

4. Why Rapture-Believing Christians are Really Liberals

5. I Don’t Need to have Faith 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Is Belief Wishful Thinking?

Jason Micheli —  November 12, 2014 — 1 Comment

Untitled101111I’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?

Yes.

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?

Of course.

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 and sweet.

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:

Faith

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.

Tikkun Olam is a Jewish theological concept that refers to God’s commitment to repair the world.

On Friday morning our team of about 30 returned from Chuicutama, Guatemala, an indigenous village about 11K feet up in the Highlands. Over the past few years my church has been committed to providing a complete sanitation system for the 400+ residents of Chuicutama.

In addition, we’ve constructed a community center in the village where volunteer teams like ours can stay to service the neighboring communities and where medical volunteers from North American can come to train indigenous women to provide themselves healthcare.

Ministry has few tangible results to which you can point. I’m grateful that due to the generosity and hard work of many of you we’ve made an impactful differences in the lives of the people in Chuicutama.

This work I believe is one way important way we’ve embodied tikkun olam as a community.

In December/January when the dry season has come the final sewage lines will be added to the system bringing the multiyear project to a close. It should be a cool celebration to experience. If you’re interested in joining our winter team to share in that moment just let me know. 

For my sermon on Sunday I walked people through images from the week’s work. If you’d like to listen to it, you can below. Or you can download the free mobile app.

If you’d like to read my introductory and concluding comments, you can here: Tikkun Olam Romans 4 Sermon

Here’s the slideshow that went with the sermon: Toilet Project Slideshow

Here are some images from the week:

James Matthews, Ron Good and I digging the ditch for the main sewer line.

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Our ladies sorting rocks and sifting sand for the septic tank’s filtration system. IMG_3891

First Manhole (10 ft down)IMG_3897

First Community Street’s Sewer Line
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Jimmy Owsley digging and digging and digging…IMG_3916

200 lb sewer pipesIMG_3904

Mainline about 1/5 of the way dug 🙁

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The hard work leads to high jinks:

This picture, I think, captures just how invested every member of the community is in this project. It’s something we’re doing with them not for them. IMG_5519

Lorenzo, a member of the community, received a needful wage from our fundraising for the Toilet Project.

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Carrying the sewage pipes a 4-man affair

IMG_5110My brother-in-law, who quit his job and sold his stuff about 16 months to volunteer full-time in Guatemala, overseeing the Toilet Project.

IMG_5107Community Septic System. The Community Center was the first building in the village tied into the system.

IMG_4567IMG_4553The completed Community Center where our team this week lived and ate.

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Miguel, the leader of Chuicutama, thanks Aldersgate for all their work and partnership (the power went out our last night so it’s dark):

Consider It Pure Joy

Jason Micheli —  July 19, 2014 — 4 Comments

This is from my friend Martha Carucci.

I encourage you to check out here blog, Sobrietease,

I had never even opened a bible.  Perhaps I looked at one or two sitting in nightstand drawers at  hotel rooms.  That’s about it.   I participated in my first bible study at the same time I started my battle against alcoholism, a little over two years ago.   A friend asked me to join her, thinking it would be a good idea to get me to turn my attention to activities that didn’t involve drinking.  While I didn’t know too much about bible studies, I was pretty sure they didn’t involve sitting around doing tequila shots every time someone said the word “Jesus”.   It was amazing how much the two things were compatible and reinforced each other.   In my twelve-step program I was learning about the need to turn to faith in order to achieve and maintain sobriety.  The bible study taught me the need to turn to faith in order to achieve and maintain sanity and grace.  

The study focused on the book of James, which has been described by Bible Hub as “a book about practical Christian living that reflects a genuine faith that transforms lives”.  A good place for a bible newbie to start, and an excellent place for someone seeking transformative faith to start.  I’ll never forget one of the first lines of the book of James:  “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance”.  My personal translation was this:  “Be glad that you are going through living hell because it will make you stronger.”   In other words, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and there is a reason for it.  Whatever your struggle, there is a reason behind it and somehow, someway, even though we may have a hard time seeing it or understanding it, God has a plan and will produce some good from it. 

With the bible study homework, I did a fair amount of soul-searching.  This is going to be great, I thought.  I can’t wait to figure out just how the hell my decades of alcoholic drinking, blackouts, falling down stairs, etc., would bring about something good.  So far, all I could figure out was that it got me to open a bible and to meet some very interesting women.  Not to mention the fact that I went to an activity from which I emerged as sober as I was when I arrived.  

But I noticed that while I started to read “the word”, worked on turning my will and my life over to God (Step Three), and simply became more present in my life by being sober, I began seeing “God-winks” all around me.  Squire Rushnell has an excellent book called “When God Winks at You”, all about certain “chance” circumstances that can only be explained by divine intervention (God-winks).   I started writing a blog about my journey through recovery.  The more I wrote, the more cathartic it was, and the more it helped in my soul-searching and self-awareness.   People started to comment about my blog, pull me aside and tell me that they shared it with their friend/mother/father/cousin/uncle/aunt/brother/sister/butcher….anyone they knew struggling with addiction.   The more I heard, the more I realized how much addiction touches almost everyone in some form or shape, and the more I wanted to help.   

There were several other God-winks, but one of the biggest came on a Sunday morning when I grabbed my coffee and turned on the television.   I flipped it to the well-known evangelist, Joel Osteen, at the exact time he was saying these words:  “God can take your mess and turn it into your message.  God knows how to use what you’ve been through.  He doesn’t waste any experiences.  He can use what you’ve been through to help others in that situation.  Nothing is wasted—the good, the bad, the painful.”  It was as though he was speaking directly to me.   It strongly reaffirmed my feeling that I am supposed to take my mess, my bad, my pain and not waste it, but rather use it to help others in a similar situation.  That situation doesn’t have to be alcoholism.  It can be whatever trial or tribulation you suffer in your life.  It reinforced the fact that it’s never too late to change something bad into something good.   To consider it pure joy. 

Another major God-wink came in the form of an opportunity a few weeks ago to speak to women in a local jail.  It was a small group of women in what they called the “Sober Living Unit”, who had committed to try to live a clean and sober life when they left their incarceration.  I had no idea what to expect, and even less of an idea what I was going to say.  But somehow, the words just came.  God gave me the guidance and the words I needed.  

I began by telling my story, and then went on to share two pieces from my blog, which were very well-received.  At the end, there was no awkward silence as I feared, but rather an extensive, interactive discussion.  Each woman shared some of her story, but not all explained what they had done to land themselves in this dreadful place.  Several were there for selling drugs.  One woman drank so much that she passed out with her small child next to her, only to be awakened by a police officer and arrested for child abandonment/neglect.  That prompted me to share the story of a friend of mine who had relapsed twice after brief periods of sobriety, each time with major repercussions.  The first time, she picked up a drink simply because it was a nice, sunny, spring day.   She finished a bottle of vodka and decided to drive to the ABC store to get more.  She realized she was in no shape to be driving, pulled over and passed out in her car.  She, too, was awakened by police officers, and lost her license for a year for driving under the influence.  The second time, she drank so much after being upset by an argument that she again passed out. This time she woke up to find police and Child Protective Services at her door because someone had called saying that the children were alone with an incapacitated mother.  Two relapses.  Two major screw-ups.  But her mess turned into my message.  God didn’t waste it.  Does she consider it pure joy?  I doubt it.  But perhaps just one of those women will remember   it when they return to their normal lives and think twice about picking up a drink or selling drugs.

The entire time, I was well aware of how incredibly blessed, and lucky, I am.  But for the grace of God, I could be in there with them myself.  Have I driven when I shouldn’t have?  Yes.  Have I been incapacitated around my children?  I’m so incredibly ashamed to admit yes.  All the more reason why I feel strongly about my need to make what they call living amends.  I have been given the chance to live my life in a much better and healthier way, so why wouldn’t I take that and use it in the best ways I can? I’m in no position to preach or give advice, but I told the women as I was leaving that it was not too late for them to change and turn their lives around.  They have to start in there as we do out here, one day at a time. 

 The book of James also includes what I like to call the “Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is” message.   “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves.  Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.”  Sometimes it’s really hard to look in the mirror.  Often we don’t like what we see.   Look.  Really look.  Listen and act.  Read and do.  James also says “faith, by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead….Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.”  I have faith that I can stay sober.  But if that faith is not accompanied by action—by hard work, rewiring and praying—it is dead.  

For a relatively short bible book, James contains so many other powerful messages.  “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”  Quick to listen and slow to speak.  Advice everyone could benefit from.   And “the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.  Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark”.   There is so much good stuff in here.   Why didn’t I pick up this book in the hotel rooms? 

Finally, the last chapter of James leaves us with this:  “….if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this:  Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins”.  I’m not sure I have the power to bring someone back from sin or wandering in the wrong direction.  I have to start with myself.  However, I have a friend, an older woman, who is a very nervous driver and gets completely frazzled when people behind her are driving too close.  She called me over to her car in the parking lot one day after a meeting and said she wanted to show me something.  There, taped on her steering wheel, was a piece of paper with a simple message and reminder to herself:  “Consider it pure joy.” 

Martha Carucci:

-grew up in Western Massachusetts
-studied at Harvard, University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown
-worked for over fifteen years as a lobbyist in the telecommunications industry
-currently working my ass off as a stay-at home, suburban mom 🙂
-avid tennis player, golfer and soccer player
Hobbies include rambling to unsuspecting pastors on school buses, being suckered in to any and all volunteer positions, and trying to maintain my sanity and sobriety.

 

rev-charles-moore-327x388You may have missed it in the mainstream press.

Last week a retired United Methodist pastor in Texas set himself on fire in a shopping center parking lot.

Rev. Charles Moore intended his self-immolation as an act of social protest against the death penalty, homophobia and racism of both his denomination and his home-state.

Not only did Moore see his suicide as his destiny, he saw it as an unavoidable act of faithfulness- the place where his Gethsemane led.

Methodists, I think it’s fair to say, aren’t known being particularly exciting or taking up extraordinary means to make their point. Moore’s immolation, however, reminds Christians that the line between mysticism and mental anguish has always been a fine one.

While I certainly don’t want to make hay of another’s struggles of the soul, I do think it worthwhile pondering whether Moore’s self-immolation can be construed as faithful according to Christian grammar.

In letter he wrote in June, Rev. Moore drew an analogy between himself and the Protestant saint of the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“This decision to sacrifice myself was not impulsive: I have struggled all my life (especially the last several years) with what it means to take Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s insistence that Christ calls a person to come and die seriously. He was not advocating self-immolation, but others have found this to be the necessary deed, as I have myself for some time now: it has been a long Gethsemane, and excruciating to keep my plans from my wife and other members of our family.”

Of course, any student of history could point out the obvious distinction that renders such an analogy erroneous: Bonhoeffer didn’t commit suicide.

Bonhoeffer didn’t choose death or martyrdom.

Bonhoeffer chose a path of faithfulness he knew might well lead to his death.

The difference could not be greater nor could their appropriation of the cross be more divergent.

Self-immolation is (I hope is clear) an outlier but nonetheless it relies upon a certain logic of the cross that is quite mainstream: the belief that a greater good can come from suffering and death.

Such a belief consequently baptizes suffering and death as means towards greater aims for it reads the Cross as what God requires/desires in order for the transaction of redemption to be complete.

The myth of redemptive suffering/violence IS a myth.

To put it more clearly if more crudely only a penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement can lead to someone like Rev. Moore construing his own self-inflicted suffering as a divinely sanctioned means to a social justice end.

It’s a broad generalization but this IS a blog after all:

Rev. Moore’s logic of the Cross is no different than the understandings preached from pulpits on most Sundays and sung in nearly every 19th century hymn and contemporary CCM song.

Rev. Moore’s self-immolation reveals how destructive such interpretations of the Cross can prove.

My recent theo-crush, the late Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe once wrote: timothy-radcliffe

“Jesus teaches us two things.

First, he teaches that in order to be a human being we must love fully and without condition.

Second, he teaches us that if we do love this way, they’ll kill us.”

More ably put perhaps but this is the same point McCabe makes when he writes:

 “The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus should be human…And this is what Jesus sees as a command laid on him by his Father in heaven; the obedience of Jesus to his Father is to be totally, completely human.

Thus, Jesus was crucified because he was human not because the Father planned to have him killed for some greater cause.

We must always remember and never shy away from the fact that we crucified Jesus, not the Father. 

We have created a world that is characterized by suffering and death—by oppression, torture, and even crucifixion. We must not become confused on this point: God never causes suffering. God is always God for us, always for human flourishing, always for love.

Jesus was killed not because God wanted him to be killed but because we wanted him to be killed.” 

McCabe seeing Jesus as the truly human one is a point not altogether different from what Paul means in Romans 1 and 3 when he identifies Jesus as the Faithful One.

Because Jesus shows us what it means to be authentically, fully human, he also accordingly reveals to us what it means to be faithful. And what we see revealed by Jesus is not someone desiring death nor someone who sees violence as the means by which God chooses to redeem.

Rather in Jesus the Faithful One we see a lover of God who accepts- with no small amount of terror and regret- his death rather than resort to violence himself.

Without Easter, the Cross just is what Rome intended it to be: tragic.

And when we remember that the Cross is what we do to Jesus not what God does to Jesus we can see Rev. Moore’s act for what it so sadly is: suicide.

 

Untitled9-1024x682Here’s the sermon from Sunday. Continuing the summer series through Paul’s Letter to the Romans, the text was the critical pistis Christou passage in Romans 3.21-31.

You can listen to the sermon here below, in the widget on the sidebar or you can download it in iTunes by clicking here. For that matter, you can download the free Tamed Cynic mobile app here.

Like black coffee, I’m an acquired taste. I have a tendency to rub some people the wrong way- shocking I know.

In fact, almost 9 years ago to the day, one elderly curmudgeon- bless his heart- chewed me out and tore me a new one as he left worship.

That was my first Sunday at Aldersgate.

Since then his red-faced finger-pointing, clenched-teeth indictments and patronizing soliloquies went on to become an every sermon ritual.

Fortunately, I was able to dismiss his criticism, seeing as how this sweet saint of the Lord typically fell asleep after the opening prayer and was in no position to evaluate my effectiveness as a preacher.

And because I didn’t take his criticisms too much to heart, I was able to make light of them in my sermons.

About 7 years ago, I started using his gripes with me as a foil in some of my sermons. Since I couldn’t out him outright, reveal his name and his character, I instead adopted an anonymous, affectionate handle for him:

He Who Must Not Be Named.

     Sure, I admit it was my passive aggressive way of exacting revenge, to rebut from the pulpit all the gripes I’d had to grin and bear at the sanctuary doors. But it was also good for a laugh or two.

What goes around comes around.

But then it came around again to bite me in the ass.

Because about 2 years ago, someone set up an email address (HeMustNotBeNamed@gmail.com) and a Twitter handle: HeMustNotBeNamed and started sending me mocking emails and tweets from someone taking the name HeMustNotBeNamed.

His (yours?) tagline on Twitter reads: I taught @jasonmicheli everything I wanted him to know. I am here to expose the truth one blog post at a time.

     For example, last winter I tweeted out a preview of my sermon:

‘This weekend we will conclude our marriage sermon series by discussing the current marriage debate in the larger Church around homosexuality.’

And HeMustNotBeNamed tweeted:

‘@JasonMicheli I can’t wait for the children’s sermon.’

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In response to a promo for pub theology, HeMustNotBeNamed sent me this tweet:

‘@JasonMicheli if I come to #pubtheology will you buy me a butter beer?’

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And I know this has to be someone in the congregation, is because in January I received this tweet:  ‘@JasonMicheli nice red sweater this weekend. The Mr. Rogers look is good for you.’

 

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So… it has to be one of you.

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Just over a week ago, I published my 1000th post on my blog, and I pushed it out to social media with this line:

 

‘Thanks to Tony Jones for encouraging me to start the blog and trust that if I wrote stuff of substance, readers would come.’

And HeMustNotBeNamed replied: ‘@JasonMicheli this stuff makes me want to drink something of substance.’

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Then HeMustNotBeNamed continued: ‘@JasonMicheli I think you’re brilliant, but I also think you think so yourself.’

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Ignoring the put down, I tweeted to @HeMustNotBeNamed: ‘Thanks.’

 

But HeMustNotBeNamed continued: ‘@JasonMicheli But, at times, I’ve no idea what you’re talking about. Of course, that makes it no different than listening to you preach.’

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Wounded, I responded by tweeting: ‘@HeMustNotBeNamed So sorry you’re not able to understand me!’

Sounding like my mother-in-law, HeMustNotBeNamed replied: ‘@JasonMicheli I don’t think your deadpan humor really helps.’

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Which just begged for me to up the ante: ‘@HeMustNotBeNamed Deadpan humor?!’

HeMustNotBeNamed wondered: ‘@JasonMicheli Does @DennisPerry ever weary of your constant jokes at his expense?’

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Of course, a comment like that is ripe for another joke at Dennis’ expense so I tweeted back: ‘@HeMustNotBeNamed @DennisPerry is 65. Everything wearies him at this point.’  He didn’t find it funny, I guess, because HeMustNotBeNamed tweeted: ‘@JasonMicheli Your intellect IS your problem.

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‘@HeMustNotBeNamed What do you mean?’ I asked.

 

 

And HeMustNotBeNamed queried: Untitled15‘@JasonMicheli Why is the intellectual stuff necessary? Why can’t God just come out of the closet and reveal himself so there’d be no doubting?’

 

 

Like a good pastor I asked a clarifying question: Untitled13‘@HeMustNotBeNamed You want God to come out of the closet?’ He didn’t find it funny: ‘@JasonMicheli Haha. If our salvation depends on faith, why can’t God do a better job of convincing us?’

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Serious for once, I asked him: ‘@HeMustNotBeNamed What kind of convincing would you want?’  He answered: ‘@JasonMicheli Why can’t God write across the sky ‘Here’s your proof. Believe in me. Sincerely God.’ Everyone would be on their knees.’

Then he tweeted a sort of PS: ‘@JasonMicheli After all, no one doubts my existence and they don’t even speak my name.’

 

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If everything depends on faith- on our faith, on our faith in Jesus, then why doesn’t God make it easier to believe?

 

Whether HeMustNotBeNamed’s tweets and emails are meant to mock me or not, it’s a good question.

Maybe, even, it’s the best question.

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I received those tweets a little over a week ago.  And since then, a number of times I’ve sat down at my laptop and tried to sort through a good answer.

 

Parts of each those answers were good, but I wasn’t content with any of them.

 

Because I’m no good at the 140 characters or less stricture, I opted for email.

 

Untitled11     Those responses still are saved in the drafts folder of my mailbox. The first draft was from the following Saturday, June 28.

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@HeMustNotBeNamed,

 

Thanks for your question. Though, your comment about me seeming full of myself makes me wonder if your message was meant for @DennisPerry.

 

Despite what you might assume given my line of work, faith has never come easy for me. John Wesley told his pastors: ‘Preach faith until you have it.’

 

Sometimes I think I need to be a pastor in order to be a Christian. I need people- even satirical Tweeters like you- holding me accountable. I need the Sunday sermon deadline hanging over me to force me to work through what I believe.

 

That’s why I think the notion that you can be a Christian without participating in a church is BS.

 

I suppose this shows I’m sympathetic with your question but doesn’t really answer it.

 

Let me say this:

One of the abiding memories I carry around with me like a scar that’s smoothed over is being at the hospital a few years back with my arm around a mom as she held her son- my confirmation student- and prayed… to God…pleaded…for her son.

 

Who was already gone.

 

Hers was a desperate prayer, a kind of yearning. The sort of prayer from someone who’s wounded and has no where else to turn.

On the one hand, you could say a grieving mother praying for her little boy makes the whole question of belief even muddier: If there’s a God why should she be in such a position? I get that. Trust me, I get that.

 

Leave those questions aside for a moment because I think there’s a way of seeing that mother’s prayer as the absolute embodiment of faith.

All the good examples of faith in the Gospels are from people just like her.

They’re all people who don’t wait for proof. They just bare their wounds and desperation to Christ.

 

Most of the time we do the opposite. We wait to be convinced before we’re willing to lay ourselves bare to God. We’ve got it backwards from the way faith works in the Bible.

 

That mother in the hospital didn’t have the luxury of waiting for proof, but I wonder if any of us ever do.

 

I wonder if it’s not God that’s the problem.

I wonder if we make it hard on ourselves to have faith by our refusal to let go of control and admit we’re every bit as desperate as those people in scripture who come to Christ with their kids’ lives on the line.

Blessings,

Jason

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I never clicked send. It was a good response, a solid answer, but I didn’t face the question head-on.

 

According to my drafts folder, my second attempt came a couple of days later, on Tuesday, July 1.

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@HeMustNotBeNamed

 

I appreciate your willingness to push back on my thinking. Of course, thinking about God is challenging; however, your suggestion that I suffer from a lack of clarity makes me wonder if you’d meant to send these tweets to @DennisPerry.

 

I’ve always admired folks with unquestioning faith, but I’m not one of them.

 

I sometimes worry the unspoken assumption at church is that everyone’s faith is rock-solid firm when I know the faith of the person sitting next to you is just as likely to be hanging on by the thinnest of threads.

 

Remember all that Harold Camping hoopla a few years ago about the world ending on May 21?

 

A few days before that I was in Old Town walking down the sidewalk and on the corner near Banana Republic were four or five evangelists holding poster-board signs and passing out tracts.

 

I guess it sounds bad for a pastor to say but I hate evangelists. At least the ones who think fear is an appropriate medium to share the love of Christ.

 

According to them the world is going to end on May 21. I guess we’ll see if they’re right. I suppose if they are then you’ll finally have the proof you want.

 

I could tell they weren’t going to let me pass by without an encounter so when one of them tried to hand me a tract, I held up hands and said: ‘I’m a Buddhist.’

 

He gave me his spiel anyway about the end of the world and how ‘only the saved will survive.’

 

Since I was a Buddhist, I thought I should feign ignorance: ‘Saved? How do I get saved?’

 

‘By faith.’

 

‘How do I have faith?’

 

And he told me I needed to accept that I’m a sinner etc, etc.

 

Faith for him was really more like agreement.

 

I’ve spent 19 years learning how to have faith. It’s crazy to me that this evangelist thought that could all be sped up just by getting me to nod my head to a list of propositions.

 

Faith is something you live into, not agree to.

 

Maybe because I’ve had those evangelists on my mind, but I guess I’d say that, just like the scribes and the Pharisees in the Gospels, I think sometimes its religious people themselves who make faith hard for others.

They make it sound painless, quick and rational.

 

It isn’t any of those things.

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Blessings, I wrote. But I didn’t click send that time either. It was a passable way to answer the question. I’d said what faith isn’t, but I hadn’t said what it is.

I tried again on June 7.

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@HeMustNotBeNamed

 

Thanks for sharing your struggles with me. I assume you were only kidding about @DennisPerry getting wearied by me, but- to be honest- @DennisPerry is getting to that age where it’s not really funny anymore to make age jokes.

He’s now so old he deserves sympathy not sarcasm.

 

Actually, knowing @DennisPerry’s workload, it’s difficult for me to imagine how Dennis could be weary from anything.

 

@HeMustNotBeNamed, whomever you are, I’ve been putting off my reply.

 

I couldn’t come up with a good definition for faith, and without that there’s not a really good way to answer you.

 

I think I finally figured out how I want to put it.

 

On Monday morning I spoke to a woman in the community. Her neighbor gave her my number. She and her husband moved here from the West Coast a little less than a year ago.

 

Right after they moved in to their new house, they miscarried their first child.

Two days after the miscarriage they found out that her husband had a rare and advanced form of leukemia.

 

He’s dying and there’s nothing anyone can do.

As she put it to me: ‘He has his bad days and he has God-awful days.’

 

And then she asked if I’d come over and pray with them some time.

Before the End.

 

That wasn’t what I was expecting to hear from her- to pray. To God.

 

I probably looked like I was gawking at her, but to be honest I was marveling. How could she pray? Or have faith at all?

Because if faith was just ‘belief’ there’s no way it could survive what she and her husband were going through.

 

Here’s what I realized again on Monday. Faith is more like trust.

The sort of trust capable of saying to God: I don’t understand you; it seems you’re breaking your word to me; still I trust you; I trust you because it’s you, because it’s you and me, even though my heart is breaking. I trust you.

 

Faith. Is. Trust.

 

This is what it means to have a personal relationship with God, a term I normally don’t like because it sounds exclusionary and sentimental.

 

A personal relationship with God means you and God are together through thick and thin…

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I never finished that reply. Even though I’d figured out how to say what faith is, I still hadn’t gotten behind the ‘why’ of the question. I hadn’t gotten at the problem behind so many of our problems with faith.

 

So I tried again, on Friday the 4th.

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@HeMustNotBeNamed

 

Snark aside, thank you for your question. I’m embarrassed its taken so long to respond. Even @DennisPerry can type faster than this. Well, not really.

 

I could’ve replied much quicker had I dispensed the standard pastor answers: faith is hard because we’re fallen, sinful creatures.

 

God doesn’t make faith easy or obvious for us because God needs to know if we trust him.

 

Faith is hard because it’s a gift from God, some have it.

 

And some don’t.

 

The problem with the standard pastor answers on faith is the same problem as the standard questions we ask about faith.

 

In both cases we assume that when it comes to God and how God regards us it’s our faith in Jesus that’s important, that’s operative.

 

The standard pastor answers and the conventional questions both assume that it’s our faith in Jesus Christ that justifies us, that makes us right with God.

 

The problem though is that that’s NOT how St. Paul speaks of faith.

 

In Romans 3, probably the most important passage in the New Testament about faith, Paul uses two words: Pistis and Christou.

 

The word ‘pistis’ is the Greek word that gets translated as ‘faith.’

 

But the word ‘pistis’ doesn’t mean ‘rational assent’ or ‘belief’’ and certainly not ‘a feeling in your heart.’

 

It means ‘trusting obedience,’ and so the better way to translate the word ‘pistis’ isn’t with the word ‘faith’ but with the word ‘faithfulness.’ 

 

And the word ‘Christou.’

Obviously that’s the word for Christ or Messiah.

Christou is in the Genitive Case.

 

And the best way to translate it is not ‘in Christ’

The best way to translate it ‘of Christ.’

 

When you read Romans 3, you realize Paul speaks of faith in a way that’s very different from how we think of it in our questions and answers.

 

Paul’s not saying we are justified by our faith in Christ. 

     He’s saying it is the faithfulness of Christ that justifies you. 

For Paul, it’s the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah that justifies us.

It’s Christ’s faithfulness that makes us right with God.

It’s Jesus’ trusting obedience, not just on the cross but all the way up to it, from Galilee to Golgotha, that zeroes out the sin in our ledgers.

 

For Paul, Christ’s faithfulness isn’t just an example of something. It’s effective for something. It changes something between God and us, perfectly and permanently. Just like Jesus said it did when he said: ‘It is accomplished.’

 

That’s why, for Paul, any of our attempts to justify ourselves are absurd. Of course they are- because he’s already justified us.

 

What motivates so many of our questions and struggles about faith is the assumption that our justification before God is like a conditional if/then statement: If you have faith in Christ then you will be justified, then your sins will be forgiven.

 

That’s not good news; in fact, it suggests that Christ’s Cross doesn’t actually change anything until we first invite Jesus to change our hearts.

 

But Jesus didn’t hang on the cross and with his dying breath say ‘It is accomplished

dot, dot, dot

if and when you have faith in me…’

 

No, Jesus says ‘It is accomplished.’

Through his faithfulness- not ours.

 

Think about what Paul’s saying:

your believing, your saying the sinner’s prayer, your inviting Jesus in to your heart, your making a decision for Christ- all of it is good.

But none of it is necessary.

None of it is the precondition for having your sins erased.

None of it is necessary for you being justified.

Because you already are justified- because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.

 

That’s it. That’s the good news.

And it’s such good news it reveals how our questions about and struggles with our faith aren’t so urgent after all.

 

You can have a mountain’s worth of doubts and you can have faith as small as a fraction of a mustard seed- no worries.

 

Because your justification, your being made right with God- it does not depend on you or your faith or lack thereof.

 

It depends on Jesus Christ and his faithfulness.

It’s the faith of Jesus that saves us and we simply get caught up in the story of his faithfulness. We participate in it. We don’t agree to it, nod our head to it or even, dare I say it, invite it into our hearts.

 

And this is what Paul freaking means when he calls faith a ‘gift’ from God. He doesn’t mean that some people who have faith have been given a gift while those who don’t have it have been screwed by the Almighty.

No, faith is a gift because it’s Jesus’ faith he’s talking about.

And Jesus, as we learn at Christmas, is a gift given to the whole world.

Even you.

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I clicked send. And, so far, I haven’t heard back.

Open grave jmikolaSave 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.

6a00d834515f9b69e2019b00771a43970b-800wiIn Unapologetic, Francis Spufford writes:

“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.

 

the-sower-sower-with-setting-sun-1888

‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’– Mark 4

Listen.

There was a man I knew. Andy. And if you had just one sentence to describe him, you would probably say that Andy was a hard man. His eyes were as dark as pavement. His voice and even his bearing were as rough as gravel.

He’d been a cop, and I’ve always wondered if his jaded personality came as a result of his career or if his career had been the perfect fit for his personality. He was a hard man.

I remember one time I was sitting in my office. I was on the phone and I heard Andy’s gravely voice in the foyer- barking in his cop’s voice: ‘Get up. Get your stuff. Move on out of here. You don’t belong here.’ 

I hung up the phone and I walked out to the little foyer to see what the barking was about. A hitchhiker- a homeless man- had stopped into the church earlier that morning, looking not for money but for a meal. And so when Andy had come into the church office that day, he found this hobo sitting on a dirty, green army duffel in the corner of the foyer near a stack of Upper Room devotionals. The man was eating ham and sweet potatoes from a church luncheon the day before.

The door to the church office had a little electric bell that went off whenever someone entered the building. That morning, before the bell even stopped ringing, Andy had appraised this stranger and was ordering him away: ‘Get up. Get your stuff. You don’t belong here.’ 

For Andy, ‘church’ was just another word for wishful thinking. For Andy, the ‘real’ world was the world he’d retired from- a world where people will do anything to get ahead and where scores are settled certainly not forgiven. For Andy, that was the real world not the world as it’s described in stained glass places.

He’d grown up in the church. But he’d never really become a Christian.

In his moments of need- when his dad had died, when he’d lost his job, when he’d struggled with alcoholism- God had not been the one he’d turned to. He had two daughters, a wife and a house. Andy was happy with his life but not grateful. And he’d be the first to admit he’d made mistakes in his life, but he’d never call those mistakes sins.

If you asked Andy if he was a Christian, without thinking, he’d say: ‘Yes, of course.’ But if you asked his friends or his neighbors, they’d have no idea. They wouldn’t know.

Andy came to worship not regularly but often enough- whenever one of his girls was singing. Every time he came he looked distracted and inattentive- like he was restless to get to the main event, which for him never came.

When I preached, Andy would squint at me suspiciously, searching for the agenda hidden beneath my words. And whenever I saw Andy sitting in the pews, I would preach straight at him. I’d throw the Gospel at him every which way like he was target practice, hoping that some Word would take root in him. Nothing ever did.

When I heard Andy barking ‘Get up. You don’t belong here.’ I got up and walked out to the foyer and, in my pastoral tone of voice, I asked Andy: ‘What are you doing?’ 

And Andy smiled at me like I was the most naïve child in the world and he said: ‘He doesn’t need to be here. He’ll only bother the old folks for a handout or scare the kids.’ Meanwhile, the hitchhiker was looking up at the two of us unsure of what to do.

And I said: ‘This is a church. We can’t treat him like that. Whether he bothers the old folks or not, whether he scares the kids or not, we’ve got to treat him like he’s Jesus.’ 

My words just bounced off him like seeds on a sidewalk. Andy just responded with a blank face.

As Andy went to leave he mumbled: ‘Don’t say I didn’t tell you so.’ 

You know it’s not that he was a bad person because he wasn’t. It’s just that he had let the world harden him so that the Word never had much chance to take root in him.

Listen.

There was a family I knew for a short time. I met them at the hospital in Charlottesville back when I worked there as a chaplain. The husband and wife were maybe in their early forties. They had three boys. Their oldest boy, Chad, was 12 or 13.

Chad was in the hospital with leukemia. Except for occasional respites at home, Chad was in the hospital for almost a year. And during that time I saw him and his family once or twice a week.

Ministering to strangers in a hospital can be more than a bit awkward. Not knowing the people or their religious background can make conversation both more delicate and unduly forward.

When I first met Chad’s family the first thing I did was survey the hospital room, glancing at their stuff, hoping to get a sense of them. There were newspapers on the floor, movies on the window sill and a Play-Station controller on Chad’s bedside table.

Chad’s mom, I noticed, had a silver cross around her neck and, even, a symbol for the Trinity tattooed on her ankle.

The afternoon I first met them they welcomed me with…joy. We talked about what they did, where they lived, the friends Chad was anxious to get home to, how the Cavaliers were forecast to do that season. And when I asked to pray with them, they said yes, even though they were visibly uncomfortable about it.

That first afternoon I met them, when I’d told them I was a Methodist pastor they told me that they were Methodists too. So I asked them if I should contact their pastor for them. They said: ‘No, he probably doesn’t know who we are.’

I asked if they had a small group or friends from church that I could call for support and again they said ‘No.’

They blushed and then told me that they’d gone to church a few years ago. ‘We wanted to expose our kids to it’ they said, ‘but we never went any deeper than that. We never made it a regular part of our lives.’ 

I didn’t really say anything. Then Chad’s father added: ‘We believe in God though. We’re good people. That’s enough isn’t it?’ 

And because of where we were and the situation they were in, I said yes. Even though I knew it wasn’t true.

I spoke with Chad and his family countless times after that first afternoon. Every time I tried to do what a pastor’s supposed to do. I tried to model the presence of Christ. I tried to get them to articulate their feelings and name their fears. I encouraged them to affirm their faith and to identify where they felt God was in their struggle.

I tried, but I could never get past the surface things with them. And I think it’s because they never let their faith get any deeper than the surface of their lives.

One of the last conversations I had with Chad’s parents happened one winter morning. They’d just been given some bad news, a setback in Chad’s treatment. We talked about it for a while and when I asked if I could pray with them they said: ‘No. We’ve lost our faith.’ 

Now, it’s not that I don’t understand their feelings or empathize with them. And it’s not like seeing one of my own boys in Chad’s place wouldn’t stretch my faith to the breaking point.

And I would never dream to say it to them but the fact is that had their faith been a deeper part of their lives it might not have been so easily blown away. The fact is they never let their faith take root in their lives. And when they got to a point in their lives when they needed a faith to grab onto, it wouldn’t hold them.

Eventually, Chad returned home.  I don’t know if his parent’s faith ever did.

Listen.

There was a man I knew in the first church I ever served. In New Jersey. Sheldon.

Sheldom reminded me a lot of the fastidious character in the Odd Couple. He had a vaguely aristocratic accent, the kind of voice you can still hear in the parts of New Jersey that you don’t see from the turnpike.

He was seventy or so. He’d been a teacher, a principal and a professor. He’d served on township board and city councils and task forces. He’d coached sport teams and led Boy Scout troops. He’d traveled all over the world. He had a family. His life was a thicket of activity.

In the short time I served as his pastor, Sheldon was always asking me questions: What does the bible say about X? Is it true that Jesus…Y? I’ve always wondered….Z, what do you think? 

Initially I thought the barrage of questions was because he was an educator and, thus, naturally curious. But that was only part of it.

One Sunday morning, well before worship began, I met Sheldon for breakfast at a nearby diner. It was the Advent season and Sheldon was the scripture reader that day.

The passage that Sunday was from the beginning of John’s Gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.’

Sheldon commented on the dense, philosophic language and asked me to unpack the rhetoric for him.  ‘What the heck does it mean?’ he asked. And I just said that it’s John’s poetic way of saying that Jesus is God.

Now that’s a pretty basic concept, I thought, so I just said it kind of quickly, matter-of-factly. But Sheldon said: ‘What?’ like he’d missed the punch-line.

I just repeated it again: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. It’s just a pretentious way of saying that Jesus is God.’ 

Sheldon sipped his tea and he said, softly: ‘I don’t know why I’ve never heard that before.’

By the time he set his tea back down on the table, he was crying.

And I had no idea why.

I waited for him to say something. After a moment he told me how he had a PhD after his name, how he could point to schools he’d built, how he could rattle off the names of children he’d taught- teachers he’d taught, how his savings was flush with the fruit of his life’s work and how his home was filled with pictures and trinkets from all the places he’d been.

And then he confessed to me: ‘I’ve never given my faith a fraction of the time I’ve given to other things. I’ve been a Christian all my life but I don’t know any more about my faith than I did when I was twelve years old. 

     I tell people all the time ‘You’ll be in my prayers’ and that would be true, if I did. But I’ve never learned how to pray, not really. 

      I’ve been a Christian all my life but my faith is the one thing in my life I don’t have anything to show for. 

     I can point to kids who know math because of me, but I can’t point to anyone who knows God more deeply because of me.’ 

The frankness of what he’d said winded him.

A moment passed. He patted my hand and said: ‘It’s not that my faith wasn’t important to me. It’s that so many other things were important too.’ 

Listen.

I’ve known other people. I know some here.

People in whom the faith has grown and flowered; people whose lives are beautiful. And I don’t understand them. It’s like their lives are fertile soil for the Gospel.

I mean…Andy, I get. I meet people like Chad’s parents all the time. Sheldon is me all over.

But genuine, truly humble, serving Christians- they are a mystery to me.

I mean- they live in the same world as Andy. They work in the same places as Chad’s parents, and they have the same sorts of friends as Sheldon does.

But there is something different about them.

They love. They care. They go. They do. They give. They serve. They share. They embody. And if you were to recite all the fruit of their faithfulness they would be embarrassed.

I’ve known people like that. I know some here.

When the crowds press in on Jesus to hear him preaching, I’m sure there were plenty by the lake shore who wanted to hear clear-cut, practical kinds of teaching: Do This, Don’t Do That, Follow These Three Steps.

What Jesus gives them is stories. And Jesus never says it. He never makes it obvious, but what he’s doing is inviting them to consider who they are in the stories- who they really are- and who God would have them become.

 

Justified_2010_Intertitle_8064While I’ve argued here before that mainline Christians have overemphasized the importance of ordained clergy at the expense of the priesthood of all believers, a church’s role in nurturing God’s call to ministry is nonetheless an important signifier of congregational health.

For instance, if a church fails to make the faith compelling to others then you can safely wager that no one from that church will find ministry a compelling or worthwhile vocation. A church where some of its own consider the life of a pastor an interesting option is at the very least a church where following Jesus is an interesting option.

Pastors should strive to avoid making Jesus so bland and boring that no one would ever consider becoming a pastor. 

This weekend Taylor Mertins continued our sermon series, Justified, by preaching on Romans 4.13-17. Taylor recently graduated from Duke Divinity and will be taking his first appointment at the end of the month. I’ve known Taylor since he was a youth. I’ve watched him grow and mature. Having been one of my youth, he’s since become a friend and I’m excited that he’s soon to be a colleague. 

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Mid-way through my time in seminary a group of us were regularly gathering for intentional faith formation. Our group was made of 20-something Christians both in and outside of Duke Divinity School. As we met on a weekly basis we learned more about one another’s faith, and what had led each of us to Durham, and our present relationship with God. On one particular evening we were discussing the differences between adhering to the law, or the righteousness of faith, when one of my roommates told the story of why it had taken him so long to return to the church.

My roommate had grown up in the deep south in a town where attending the high school football games on Friday nights were second only to attending the Baptist churches on Sunday morning. He had grown up in the church and eventually chose to be baptized out of fear, rather than an intimate relationship with the triune God. He left church every Sunday unsure of what he had done wrong in the eyes of God, but certainly felt that he had committed some horrible atrocity. At some point during high school, his youth group went on a retreat to a local college campus where a conservative evangelical Christian organization was holding a “Faith Weekend.” The hundreds of young Christians gathered in the large auditorium to hear Christian music, sermons, broke into small groups, and generally worshipped with one another until one evening, during the height of a sermon about accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, the fire alarm went off. Immediately, all of the counselors and chaperones quickly filed all of the students out of the arena through the exit doors to the parking lot. In the sea of chaos my roommate remembered being incredibly frightened and even began praying that everyone would safely make it out of the building. When his eyes finally adjusted to the dimly lit parking lot, he was surprised to discover lifeboats scattered throughout the area with little ladders leading up into the boats. “Quick!” Someone shouted, “Everyone into the boats as quickly as you can, run!” As my roommate was swinging his legs over the starboard side of a life boat the fire alarm stopped ringing and a man began speaking through a megaphone: “Take a good look around you, there are not enough spaces in all of the life boats for everyone… Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”

Those are the kind of scare tactics that move people away from the church.

In the fourth chapter of his epistle to the church in Rome, Paul addresses the differences between adherence to the Law and the righteousness of faith. Paul’s use of the Old Testament figure of Abraham is of fundamental importance for the message he intended to share with the Roman church: Though the reasons behind his attention to the relationship between Jews and Christians in the first century are helpful for understanding Paul’s frame-of-reference, the point still remains pertinent today. God’s promises to God’s people are revealed and realized through faith.

Paul begs us to remember Abraham, the father of Israel, because God promised Abraham that he would inherit the world and this inheritance was not realized through adherence to the law, but through the righteousness of faith. The promise of God was coming to Abraham regardless of his ability to maintain the ordinances declared by God. God would never love Abraham any more or any less than he did the day the covenant was made. For this same reason, God’s promises are realized through faith not only to the adherents of the law, those among us to do everything right, but also to those who share in the same faith as Abraham.

Abraham, formerly known as Abram, called out of his homeland to travel to the land that God would send him, promised to be made a great nation, entered into the holy covenant with God marked by circumcision, the husband of Sarah and the father of Isaac. The man who carried his young son to the land of Moriah where he prepared to sacrifice him only to be stopped by an angel of the Lord, and thus Abraham continued to demonstrate his faith. Abraham the father of the great nation that eventually made its way out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Abraham. God’s promises are realized to those who share in the same faith as Abraham. We, the Christian Church, share in this same faith and have been grafted into a relationship with the triune God.

On March 12th 1988, when I was 19 days old, my family gathered right over there by the baptismal font and participated as Ken Wetzel baptized me in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. In addition to the water spilled onto my forehead, and the presence of the Holy Spirit there was one fundamentally important aspect of that sacrament that this church participated in: Reverend Wetzel looked out to you, this congregation more than 25 years ago, and asked this question: Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life and include this person now before you in your care? The response of this congregation that morning is why I am standing before you today:

With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround him with a community of love and forgiveness, that he may grow in his service to others. We will pray for him, they he may be a true disciple who walks in the way that leads to life.

The commitment this church made to God that morning regarding my life as a Christian was one that formed and shaped me into the man I am today. Among the many things that this church committed to, it was the first part of the response, “With God’s Help,” that has made the biggest impact on my life. From my infancy, Aldersgate UMC has been the type of community that recognizes how what we do can only be accomplished with God’s help; that has made all the difference. Instead of being raised in a church where I was taught to fear God, like my roommate from seminary was, I was constantly reminded of how to remain committed to the gospel through hope, faith, and love.

The true beginning of my call to ministry did not begin with my confirmation around that altar, or even when I was a Boy Scout with troop 996, but when I was 13 years old I noticed a call for help in one of our Sunday bulletins for someone to run the soundboard. (It gave me goose bumps to see a similar message in the bulletins from last week). I spent every Sunday for a month standing in the back of the church with men like Bud Walker and Paul Corrum who taught me how to keep the correct sound levels. And until I graduated from High School I ran the sound system for many of our Sunday services, weddings, and funerals. Though I was considerably younger than anyone in the back of the church, men such as Paul Tuoig, Bob Foley, Les Norton, and Sam Schrage made it a point to come stand with me every week and treated me with respect, like an adult, and they treated me like a fellow Christian. There have been countless individuals from this church who have made it their responsibility to demonstrate the goodness of God through their actions on mission trips, meetings, and worship. With God’s Help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ.

After enrolling in college I was invited to act as a ministerial intern for our church every summer until I entered seminary. I was encouraged to lead mission trips all over the world, visit congregants who could no longer attend church, create bible study curricula, and preach regularly. I still can’t believe that Jason and Dennis were foolish enough to let me preach for the first time when I was 19 years old. A plethora of people have expressed their gratitude for my sermons, and leadership on mission trips, but even more important have been those of you who disliked what I said and did, and loved me enough to tell me why. Without you I could not have grown. With God’s Help we will surround him with a community of love and forgiveness that he may grow in his service to others.

I have been living in Durham, North Carolina for the last three years working on my Masters of Divinity and I have been continually invited to preach from this pulpit. Even if I was invited on specific weekends when Jason and Dennis wanted to go on vacation I nevertheless appreciated the invitation and felt privileged to proclaim the good news within my home church. I have now been approved by the Virginia Conference to serve as a Provisional Elder and have been appointed to St. John’s UMC in Staunton VA. I am incredibly humbled by the fact that, to my knowledge, I am the first person to have grown up through Aldersgate and then pursue a call to ordained ministry. With God’s help, we will pray for him, that he may be a true disciple, who walks in the way that leads to life.

I was incredibly blessed to have grown up through Aldersgate. It was this Christian community that showed me the importance of faith predicated on God’s help. Faith was never taught to me in such a way that I would respond to God out of fear but instead by love. This church nurtured me in such a way that the question: Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior felt uncomfortable and dissonant. It puts too much power and control on our side of the equation. Accepting Jesus sounds a lot more like following the Law than it does embodying the righteousness of faith. If the church is to be thought of from this legal point of view, from simply accepting Jesus, if it is regarded as a condition capable of human attainment, then the church will remain deprived of its dynamic power and continually insecure. This is why I fear that so many young people are no longer coming to church; perhaps they feel completely isolated regarding their relationship with God after accepting Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. Maybe they believe they carry the burden of their relationship with God completely on their own. Convincing someone to accept Jesus is an important element of Christian discipleship but the difference between accepting Jesus, and confessing Jesus Christ as Lord are two different things. Aldersgate never let my relationship with God stop at acceptance, but pushed me to learn so much more about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. It is my prayer that the new faith community that this church is preparing to help establish will continue to make disciples of Jesus Christ teaching that faith is faith only when it is an advance, understandable only because if come from God alone. Faith is creative, faith is living, faith is fulfilling, only when we find ourselves wrapped up in God’s love. Faith is real only when it is found With God’s help.

As I look forward to my future in the ministry, I am thankful for Aldersgate, the opportunities it has provided me, and the people that have demonstrated God’s love to me. I would not be standing here if it were not for that baptismal commitment you made to God twenty-five years ago. I never could have discovered faith in God on my own; it was this church that shared the faith of Abraham with me regarding God’s promises to God’s people. I learned the language and grammar of Christianity through sermons, classes, and even vacation bible school. I participated in God’s kingdom on earth by visiting those who were in need, through proclaiming the good news, and even dressing up for living Bethlehem. Paul’s words to the church in Rome have now come alive for me, because this church committed to raising me in the faith, to share the faith of Abraham with everyone, and proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom. This church taught me that the truly creative act by which we all become the children of Abraham does not lie in the possible possibility of the law, but in the impossible possibility of faith.

It’s when I open up to the fourth chapter of Romans that I am reminded of what this church does every day, every week, every month, every year; you open up the strange new world of the Bible. We get to stand on the rocky ground and feel the warmth of the burning bush on our cheek with Moses. We get to feel the water flow between our toes as we wait on the banks of the Jabbok witnessing Jacob wrestle with the angel from God. We get to gather together in the marketplaces and the shores of the lakes watching Jesus perform miracles, feed the multitudes, and teach about the kingdom of God. This church invites us into the strange new world of the Bible.

Just as you made a commitment to God regarding my faith 25 years ago, you also have committed to nurture those sitting to your right and left in faith. To show them Christ’s love in everything you do, to embody the kingdom of God so that we all might share in the faith of Abraham.

With God’s Help we are called to proclaim the good news, to gather together regularly in order to share the story of God’s interaction with God’s people, to read scripture and learn our own story. With God’s help we are commissioned to live according to the example of Christ, to lift up our own crosses and bear them in the world, to serve those in need, to love the unlovable and transform the world by first transforming ourselves.

I thank all of you from the bottom of my heart. To God Be the Glory.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

Here’s this weekend’s sermon from Romans 4.1-5 for our series, JustifiedYou can also download it in the iTunes store under ‘Tamed Cynic.’Or, you can listen to the sermon here: 

      1. The Stars are the Light of the World

photo-4     Over Memorial Day Weekend I joined 1,000 people from around the world at for the Taize Gathering at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Taize is a monastery in Burgundy, France. Every week the brothers of Taize welcome thousands of pilgrims to their monastery in France to participate in the rhythms of their communal life.

Once a year some of the more than 100 brothers take their ‘community’ somewhere else in the world for a pilgrimage gathering.

This year the brothers were invited by the Lakota Nation to welcome pilgrims to Pine Ridge.

Just as pilgrims do at the monastery in Taize, we spent our time at Pine Ridge worshipping 3 times a day, sharing simple meals, and sharing our faith stories in small groups. photo-3

On Saturday of the Pilgrimage Weekend, after morning prayer and breakfast, we were assigned small groups to reflect on the morning scripture lesson.

I was told our small groups were assigned according to the order in which we’d registered for the Pilgrimage, but I swear it was due to some some cruel, cosmic joke I can’t be sure.

The seven of us in my small group sat down in a circle in the dry, prairie grass.

     Directly across from me in the circle sat a white-haired, tie-dyed Episcopal Bishop from Berkley, California.

     Next to the lady bishop sat a gay Episcopal priest from San Francisco.

     Next to him sat a Unitarian lay person from Boulder, Colorado.

     Next to him, a Catholic civil servant from Paris, France.

     Next to her, a women’s studies PhD candidate from Barcelona, Spain.

     Next to her, on my left, was a man who looked like a shorter, plumper, balder, older version of me- except he was dressed sloppy and had an unkempt beard.

     His green Velcro sneakers, red tube socks and Trotsky eyeglasses screamed ‘European Socialist.’

     And finally in the circle, there was me.

We began by going around the circle, introducing ourselves.

     I went second to last. As I’m want to do, I tried to charm them with self-effacing, sarcastic humor.

‘I’m a Methodist pastor from Virginia,’ I began, ‘and I just gotta say my congregation back home would be shocked to hear that I could be the most conservative person in any group.’

No one laughed, which, I suppose, just proves how liberal they all were.

‘You didn’t tell us your name,’ the Bishop said with a tone of voice that suggested what she really meant was: ‘I’d prefer not to make your acquaintance.’

     ‘Sorry, my name’s Jason’ I said, ‘Jason Micheli.’

And when I said ‘Micheli,’ the shorter, plumper, older, balder version of me shouted: ‘Micheli! Italiano!’

He shouted ‘Ciao!’

And then got up and embraced me like Gepetto rescuing Pinocchio from the Island of Lost Boys.

He rubbed his sweaty beard across my face as he man-kissed me on both my cheeks, and then he began ticking off the names of people he insisted I must be related to back in “Roma.”

Wiping his sweat from my face, I gestured for him to introduce himself.

He adjusted his glasses and said in a thick accent: ‘My name is Tomaso.’

Tomaso told us he was a scientist, a geologist, from Rome. And then he laughed nervously and said: ‘I am not a Christian. I am not a person of faith.’

Both times the accent landed heavy on the ‘not.’

5127ee0225791.preview-620Our bible study felt forced. Everyone in the group kept deferring to the bishop and, being Episcopalian, the bible was an unfamiliar to her.

The bishop said the types of knee-jerk things you’d expect an Episcopal Bishop from Berkley, California to say.

And- you’d be proud of me- initially, at least, I bit my tongue and didn’t respond with any snarky comments.

That is, until I remembered she wasn’t my Bishop- at which point I started to interrupt her with thoughtful, sober comments like:

‘Of course, you think that. You’re a tree-hugging, liberal, Baby Boomer Episcopalian from California.’

In truth, I wasn’t really interested in our bible study- because, really, I was dying to ask Tomaso, the paisano to my left, why he’d flown all the way from Italy, driven all the way from Denver, agreed to sleep in a horse pasture and go without running water and spend 4 days with Christians and celibate monks if he was NOT a person of faith.

When our bible study wrapped up, I grabbed Tomaso by the elbow and I said: ‘Tomaso, call it professional curiosity, but what are you doing here if you’re not a person of faith?’

And, a bit anticlimactically, he said: ‘Because my wife made me come.’

‘Well, that’s nothing new. Half the men in my church are there because their old ladies force them to come.’

Tomaso chuckled and grabbed his book- a science fiction novel- like he was about to leave, but I said: ‘Tell me- why don’t you consider yourself a person of faith?’

He smiled like a professor who’s not sure how to water down his material for a freshman class, and then he launched into what sounded like a well-rehearsed litany. His reasons against faith.

‘I am a scientist’ he began, ‘and there is no scientific explanation for a 7 day creation, for an incarnation, for a resurrection.’

    ‘Gosh, there isn’t? I guess it’s a good thing scripture doesn’t try to explain them scientifically then, huh?’

My sarcasm apparently didn’t translate because he just kept ticking off his reasons for not believing:

How the virgin birth is based on a mistranslation.

How faith is just a psychological crutch.

How the Gospels don’t always agree with one another.

How the Church has been responsible much evil and injustice.

How it’s superstitious to think bread and wine can become anyone’s body and blood.

How St Paul endorses slavery and sexism.

How Revelation is about Rome not the Rapture.

How scripture is not the literal Word of God but instead bears all the messy fingerprints of people like you and me.

His list was surprisingly long and surprisingly unoriginal. And when he got to the end, he held out his hands like a magician, whose just disappeared his assistant, and he said:

‘See, mi amico, there’s nothing left for me to believe. There’s nothing left for me to be a person of faith.’ 

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‘Abraham believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.’ 

     There may be no other sentence in the Old Testament that has been more significant to followers of the New. And more misleading.

     God told Abraham that he and his wife, Sarah, would have millions of descendants- as many as the stars in the sky.

     Abraham believed God and that was enough for God to credit Abraham as ‘righteous.’

Ever since Martin Luther, the Founding Father of Protestantism, Father Abraham has served as Exhibit A for what we think it means for us to have faith:

Abraham did not lift a finger to be saved. 

Abraham did nothing to earn or deserve it. 

Abraham simply believed in God. 

Abraham was saved by faith alone. 

At least that’s what we think Paul means in Romans 4.

But here’s the problem:

When we reduce Abraham to an example (for us) of someone who has faith in God and is rewarded accordingly- we lose the biblical plot of what God is doing IN and THROUGH Abraham.

And when we lose that plot, the seam Paul’s entire argument in the Book of Romans unravels.

Because the argument Paul is weaving from Romans 1 to Romans 16 is that what we discover in Jesus Christ is God making good on a promise first made to Abraham.

Because when you go back to the Book of Genesis, you notice:

It doesn’t say Abraham believed IN God.  

It says Abraham believed God

It doesn’t Abraham accepted God as his personal savior. 

It says Abraham believed God

That is, Abraham accepted something God said. 

Abraham believed a single thing God said. 

A very specific thing God said. 

Abraham believed the promise: the promise that his children would be like the stars in the sky. 

But this promise, it isn’t about God providing Abraham with progeny.

The promise is that THROUGH Abraham God would create a new and distinct People in the world.

The promise is that the way God would pick the world back up from its Fall, the way God would heal the world’s sin, the way God would bring forth a New Creation would be by creating a New People.

The promise is that through Abraham God would create a People who would do what Adam failed to do, a People whose trust in God and trust in one another would provide an alternative to the ways of the world.

abramThe stars God promises to Abraham- they’re meant to be a light to the world.

That’s the unconditional commitment God promises and that’s what Abraham believes.

And God, scripture says, reckons that to Abraham as ‘righteousness.’

Now if, as I told you weeks ago, ‘God’s Righteousness’ is a specific biblical term that refers to God’s commitment to undo the injustice of the world and usher in a New Creation, then Abraham being ‘reckoned righteousness’ means Abraham was credited, acknowledged, signed up as a participant in God’s New Creation work.

Abraham didn’t believe everything he could possibly believe about God; in fact, plenty remained that Abraham still struggled to believe:

Abraham lacked faith that he and his wife’s old bodies could produce new life.

Abraham doubted the events in his life would pan out as God had predicted.

Abraham questioned God’s justice and mercy.

But despite his doubts, despite his questions, despite those parts of God’s Word he scratched his head at and crossed his fingers through- what Abraham always believed, what Abraham always had faith in, what it always meant for Abraham to be a person of faith, the person of faith, was his faith in this single promise:

    The promise that God so loved the world, God would not give up on what he had made.

     That just as God’s first creation began with God calling into the void ‘Let there be light,’ God’s New Creation would begin by God calling a People who would be a Light to the world.

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Sunday afternoon, a group of us there for the Pilgrimage weekend made another pilgrimage.

To Wounded Knee.

The place where the US Army, without provocation, slaughtered over 300 Indians, little more than a hundred years ago.

2/3 of the victims were children…with their mothers.

In 1973 Wounded Knee became the site of a standoff between Lakota Indians and the Federal Government. Resulting in more violence.

Wounded Knee remains a festering reminder of suffering and injustice that persists to this day.

So on Sunday afternoon, in reverent silence, we loaded on to 3 school buses.

And silently we rode the 30 minutes to Wounded Knee, riding past shacks and trailers and the kind of poverty that seems to fit a 3rd world nation better than this one.

When we arrived at Wounded Knee, the brothers put on their gleaming, white-as-light, monastic robes and then they led us all, silently, down the road and up the hill to the graveyard. photo-2

Some locals from the reservation were there, loitering, sitting on top of rusted, broken down cars and squinting at us with justifiable suspicion.

There’s a church there by the graveyard. It had ‘Fuck you white people’ spray-painted on the sanctuary doors.

An old woman was in the graveyard planting flowers by an old tombstone while a young woman tamped down the dirt of a freshly dug grave.

The mass grave, the hole where the victims bodies had been dumped, is at the center of the cemetery.

Brother Alois, the head of the monastery at Taize, motioned silently for us to make a circle around the mass grave.

I glanced around the circle at all the people, literally, from all over the world, from as many nations as there are stars in the sky.

Then Brother Alois held out his hands for us to take hold of one another’s hands.

Then Brother Alois bowed his head and so did we.

And then we prayed. Silently.

For a long time.

Silently- because how else do you pray when some of the people you’re holding hands with share the same names as the bodies you’re standing on top of and still suffer the consequences of so many empty words?

As Brother John, another monk, had told us the previous morning, we were going to Wounded Knee:

‘as people of faith, to a place of broken promises, to be a silent, visible sign of a different promise, the promise that the God who made the world in love will, with us and through us, redeem it.’ 

Many of us kept the silence as we rode the way back from Wounded Knee. After we’d returned to our campsite, I ran into Tomaso. Both of us were coming out of adjoining Port O’ Johns and reaching for the hand sanitizer.

     ‘If it isn’t Doubting Tomaso’ I said.

‘Mi amico, how are you?’

     ‘I’m not sure. I just got back from Wounded Knee.’

‘How was that?’

     ‘Did you not go?’

‘To pray?’ and he laughed like it was a ridiculous notion. ‘No, I stayed here and read my book.’ And he held up his sci-fy novel.

     ‘Like I tell my wife: faith is the easy way out in this world.’

‘Easy? How can someone with a PhD be so stupid?

Jesus has done a lot of things in my life but made my life easier is definitely not one of them. Faith hasn’t been my way out of the world; faith has thrust me into the world: to places I’d rather not go, to pain and poverty I’d rather not have weigh on my conscience, to people towards whom I’d be happy not to feel any responsibility. 

Easy way out? Are you a complete idiot?

Most of the time, to believe in God is to feel heartbroken over all the places you see God absent in the world. I just watched and prayed as a 20 year old Indian girl wept over a mass grave beneath her and a hopeless future in front of her. Faith isn’t an escape from the world’s problems; it’s a summons to wade waist deep into its problems.

I know you’re a geologist, Tomaso, but does that mean you have rocks in your head?’ 

     I thought to myself.

But instead I squirted some Pure El into my hands and I said- the only thing I said:

‘Easy way out? That’s and  interesting indictment coming from someone who spent the afternoon relaxing in his tent, reading a trashy novel.’

Doubting Tomaso laughed and said: ‘Like I said, there’s too many things I don’t believe ever to be a person of faith.’

‘Tomaso, you don’t seem to understand that, being a pastor, I’ve heard all the reasons not to believe before and, as a Christian, I struggle with all of them myself.’

‘Why do you care so much about me anyway?’ Tomaso asked, ‘Do you care about ‘my salvation’?’ he said with sarcastic air quotes.

     ‘That’s just it- it’s not about you and your salvation. Ever since Abraham, it’s never just been about you, you selfish coward. It’s about God calling- God needing- people to be light for the world’ I wanted to scream at him. 

But I didn’t.

And he finished wiping the Pure-El into his hands and said ‘Ciao.’

And then he walked back to his tent, and with the world just a little bit darker for it.