Sunday, May 27, 2018

Pole Dancing for Heretics

The sermon for Holy Trinity Sunday, 2018.
We don’t have to re-invent the wheel. It’s what we often say when we’re starting out on a new venture. We look at what other people have done who have faced similar challenges and use what they’ve already figured out. But once upon a time, before there were wheels, there were actually people who invented them. Can you imagine what that must have been like?

2,000 years ago, when the followers of Jesus formed the church, it was a lot like re-inventing the wheel. They did have their Jewish roots, but the notion of a monotheistic God, like the God of Abraham and Sarah, was no longer large enough to explain their experience of the divine. They were pretty much starting from scratch. There was no understanding of the Holy Trinity, and it wasn’t spelled out in the scriptures, anywhere.

The questions that were long ago answered for us were all up for grabs in those early years. Who was Jesus, really? Was he God, was he a human being? How did Jesus relate to God the Creator? Did the Creator create Jesus? And how does the Holy Spirit that came to Jesus’ followers after Jesus wasn’t walking this earth… how does the Holy Spirit fit into all of this?

A variety of understandings were floating around, and things remained that way for about 300 years.

The early Church did finally arrive at the doctrine of the Trinity. God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit was explained in the ancient creeds of the church. Those creeds have continued to define orthodox Christianity all these years later. We have three that we lift up: the Apostles’ Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and the Nicene Creed.

The Apostles’ Creed is also known as the Baptismal Creed. The Athanasian Creed is so long and weird that we rarely use it in public worship.

The Nicene Creed is the one that has the most interesting history. In a nutshell, there was a shady collusion between the Emperor Constantine and the bishops that was all about power. Each wanted to use Christianity for their own purposes, and it culminated at the Council of Nicea in 325. That’s how we got the Nicene Creed.

The original purpose of this creed was to unify the empire by weeding out anyone who didn’t agree. It became the standard that led thousands of heretics to be tortured and burned at the stake.

Over the next 1500 years, although most Christians quit executing those who disagreed with them, Christianity became all about believing in the right way.

Lutherans have been no exception. Most of us lifelong Lutherans, educated in the faith way back in the 20th century, were taught by memorizing the right answers. We weren’t nurtured into the life of faith so much as told what to believe.

This feels like a different flavor of fundamentalism to me. Fundamentalists have the definitive answer to every question. Fundamentalists must have certainty and they can’t deal with ambiguity. Fundamentalists tell us that there is only one right way to believe. Reciting a creed can feel that way, too. It’s like we’re saying, “Here’s what you gotta believe about God.”

As an educator, I have to push back against this. Faith isn’t cast in stone. It develops throughout our lives. A basic level of faith takes everything literally. It’s a right and wrong, law and order way of looking at the world. Something that’s typical of a person in elementary school. Unfortunately, some people get stuck there. But if all goes well, a more nuanced faith develops in our late teenage years, when our brains have grown large enough for us to think abstractly. As our faith continues to grow, we allow for ambiguity and mystery. Later in life, some people pass into a universalizing style of faith that goes beyond all of this. That’s the process of faith development for us. And this is the reason our rigid creeds may not be all that helpful.

But before we throw them out completely, let’s back up a bit and consider how they might serve us in the 21st century.

Creeds are not about faith; they are clusters of beliefs. There’s a big difference between belief and faith, although most people seem to use those words interchangeably.

In Harvey Cox’s book, The Future of Faith, he does an excellent job of making the distinction. He cites a story by the Spanish writer Miguel Unamuno, that goes like this…

A young man returns from the city to his native village in Spain because his mother is dying. In the presence of the local priest she clutches his hand and asks him to pray for her. The son doesn’t answer, but as they leave the room, he tells the priest that, much as he would like to, he cannot pray for his mother because he does not believe in God. “That’s nonsense,” the priest replies. “You don’t have to believe in God to pray.”

The priest in the story recognizes the difference between faith and belief. Faith is more at the core of our being than belief. Beliefs, you can argue about, but not faith. Faith is putting your trust in someone. It’s a way of life. It’s a relationship. It’s of the heart. It’s fluid. It grows. A belief is more like an opinion. It’s of the head. It’s concrete. It’s possible that it may one day be discarded, but it never changes. Again, creeds are not about faith; they are clusters of beliefs.

In his book, Cox separates Christian history into three eras. First, there was the Age of Faith which stretched from Jesus to the time of Constantine in the fourth century. 

Then, from the time of Constantine until now, we’ve been in an Age of Belief. But now, Cox says, we’re entering a new age, the Age of the Spirit. Much like the early church, it’s an age of faith.

We’re returning to a time when doctrinal questions aren’t all that important. There were lots of different beliefs about God floating around in the first centuries of Christianity, and no need to agree on every point. The important thing was not belief, it was faith. No longer identifying correct doctrines but experiencing a relationship with God. In the early church there was never a single Christianity. There were many. It wasn’t until the time of Constantine that we got so hung up on our beliefs and rooting out heretics.

The fact is, despite the church’s attempts to root out heretics, they have always been with us. Thank God! For without them, where would we be? Heresy is healthy for the church. It’s always been the heretics, the ones traveling on the fringes of orthodoxy, who have moved the Christian church to a new place. Martin Luther is the most notable. Heretics have been God’s agents of transformation.

It seems to me that if there is any purpose for our ancient creeds, it’s that they give us a center. We don’t have to agree about everything. But the Trinitarian creeds remind us where the center has been for the Christian church over the past 1600 years or so. That center remains significant for us as we find our way on the journey of faith.

Some of us may be far from the center, but there’s value in knowing where the center is because it’s that center that holds us in community, even as it holds us in God’s presence.

Our Trinitarian understanding of God isn’t the only way God is experienced in the world. For us Christians, it’s our center, but there are other centers for other peoples. And while our centers may be different, often our circles overlap so that those of us who have moved far from the center may find ourselves in more than one circle at the same time.

Way back before the Nicene Creed, the metaphor of the dance was used to describe the Triune God. It’s a dynamic faith image. It’s relational, it moves, it grows, it includes. Father, Son, and Spirit are inviting us to dance with them. And maybe, that’s the key to saying the Creed together on a Sunday morning. It invites us into a circle dance. Perhaps it’s something like dancing around a maypole. None of us is required to stand in the center and make a statement of belief that’s a litmus test for God’s people. But we can dance around that center, some close to it, some way out on the fringes, some weaving in and out.

The important thing is that we all share the same center, we’re all in the circle; we’re all in the dance.

 See the source image

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

A grateful preacher

Years ago, I read that being a pastor is like being the lead dog in a team of Alaskan sled dogs. You’re the only one who can see what’s on the horizon, so you need to tell the others what you see. That way you can keep moving forward together. (This isn’t exactly how the quote went, but that’s how I remember it.) Sometimes I feel more comfortable in the role of lead sled dog than others. And I’ve often wondered if it’s true. Are the others who are a part of my team even listening to what I have to say, or am I barking in the wind? This was particularly true back when I was a young woman struggling to be taken seriously.

This past Sunday, on the Day of Pentecost, I preached a sermon that challenged my congregation. I tried hard not to be scolding, but I suspect for some it may have sounded that way. What they may not realize, when I’m preaching one of those sermons where I’m pushing them to become more than they are, is that while they’re squirming a bit in the pews, the most uncomfortable person in the place is in the pulpit.

I did my best to soften my words because a) I truly do love these folks, and b) I know nobody is going to hear a word I say if I alienate them in the process. And yet, it was the challenge of the gospel, and I knew it had to be said if I am really a pastor to these people. So, I said what I felt compelled by the Holy Spirit to say, and I trusted that the same Spirit would use my words to move within the people of Ascension so they might become all that God intends for them.

Guess what! Last night, at a committee meeting, people were talking about the challenge I put to the congregation in my sermon on Sunday morning. They were listening! They took exception to one of my points, and rightfully so, I realized. But mostly, they embraced the challenge. They wrestled with how my words could draw them forward in the ministry we share.

They had no idea how moved I was by their conversation and how affirmed I felt as their pastor. My energy for ministry has been a little low lately, so I really needed this. And I must add that I often receive feedback from the congregation after I preach; my sermon doesn't end for them in pulpit/pew. They actually listen, and they take my words seriously. It’s one of the reasons why I love serving Ascension, and it’s why I work harder on my sermons now than I ever have with any other congregation. Preaching matters for them.

There’s something to be said for the team of sled dogs barking along with their leader so she doesn’t feel all alone. She needs to be reminded that she’s not bearing the weight on her own, and she needs to be encouraged to continue. I’m grateful to serve with such a team.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Wait for it...? I'd rather not.

(Understatement alert!) I don’t do very well with the whole waiting thing. For example, I always have to read how a mystery turns out before I work my way to the end of the book. In the same way, if I'm binge-watching on Netflix, I watch the first few episodes of a season and then go to the last one. If I'm curious about how the plot arrived at its ending, I'll go back and explore what's in the middle. But cutting to the chase is often all I need to be satisfied. 

They say that the best things in life are worth waiting for, but I say, if they’re so darn good, why wait? So, for me, the only waiting I do is waiting that is forced upon me. I can’t remember the last time I waited for something by choice. Delayed gratification isn’t all that gratifying to me. I eat dessert first a lot!

I suspect that technology hasn’t served me well as a wait-er. When I first started using the internet and dial-up was my only option, I could sit and listen with amusement to the cartoon noises my computer emitted while I waited for the little hamsters exercising on their wheel inside to grab onto a connection. Now I would gladly choose water-boarding over going back to a dial-up connection. My tolerance for waiting seems to diminish every time I flick my finger and receive an instant result.

The real problem for me is that people aren’t machines. I can’t right-click and get them to do what I want them to do when I want them to do it. And so, I sit and wait for the doctor to give me test results. I wait for the cable guy to come to the house so I can get on the internet again. I wait for my daughter to call me back on the phone. Being human myself, I understand the limitations we all have. When I deal with other people, I have no choice but to wait. And the more people I have to deal with, the more you have to wait.

Have you ever traveled with a group of people? The more the merrier? Not for me! The more, the crabbier. We’re always waiting on someone. Gladys is in the gift shop. Herb is in the bathroom. Stan locked himself out of his room and needs to get a key. Shirley can’t find her sun glasses. When I picture hell, I imagine it as an endless group vacation.

It’s occurred to me that all waiting is not created equal. At this moment, there are members of my congregation who are waiting for a child to be born. Another is waiting for a parent to die as she lives through her final days. Those events are just a matter of time. You know they’ll get here sooner or later. 

Open-ended waiting is another matter entirely. That’s waiting for something that may or may not ever happen. I have dear friends who are waiting for their next job right now. Despite their best efforts, doing everything in their power to make it happen, they’re left with endless waiting. And they wonder, “Am I waiting for nothing?” Waiting with uncertainty is so much more difficult than waiting when you know that it’s just a matter of time.

And that brings us to the worst kind of waiting: waiting till the cows come home. That’s when you’re waiting for something or someone to come along and magically change your life. There’s a fine line between having faith that your future will be better than your past and passively sitting back and waiting for your future to find you. I’m not one to wait till the cows come home, and I don’t have a whole lot of patience for people who do.

Waiting for social justice is in a category of its own. Waiting for the hungry to have bread. Waiting for all children to be offered dignity and love. Waiting for a time when no one is excluded from God's circle of grace. This is waiting for the inevitable, but it's not done passively. It's an active kind of waiting. I trust that God's gonna do what God's gonna do, with us or without us. But God's will is accomplished a whole lot sooner with us, and so this is an impatience that won't allow me to rest.

I've long hoped that I would learn to wait patiently as I aged. It hasn’t happened for me so far, and I wonder if it ever will. If anything, I seem to be more aware that my time is running out, which exacerbates my sense of impatience.

I realize that my life would be better if I could learn to wait with a certain amount of grace, if I could stop fighting it. I think of the passage from Ecclesiastes that the Byrds first introduced to me back in the days before I ever cracked open a Bible. "For everything there’s a season and a time for every purpose under heaven." There’s a time for everything, and that includes waiting. Some things truly are worth waiting for. And sometimes waiting is necessary because we’re not yet ready for what comes next.

Often, there’s a purpose to our waiting, particularly when we look at it as more than just marking time until the next big thing comes along. Henri Nouwen says: “A waiting person is a patient person. The word patience means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us.” I really love that. And I can’t help but think that I’m missing out on something significant in my life because I haven't learned to wait with grace.

I know I’m not dead yet. Maybe I can still learn to be at peace with patience. But can I wait while I'm learning to wait?