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.’
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?’
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.’
So… it has to be one of you.
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.’
Then HeMustNotBeNamed continued: ‘@JasonMicheli I think you’re brilliant, but I also think you think so yourself.’
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.’
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.’
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?’
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.
‘@HeMustNotBeNamed What do you mean?’ I asked.
Like a good pastor I asked a clarifying question: ‘@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?’
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?’
‘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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
I clicked send. And, so far, I haven’t heard back.