Saturday, January 19, 2019

"Embracing Our Doubts"

What is it about religious doubt that frightens Christians so much?

Perhaps it is that religious doubt interjects uncertainty into our lives.  With religious doubt, the stakes are very, very high.  For me personally, if God does not really exist, then the very meaning of my life and who I am would get taken away. If there were no God, then there would be no heaven, no life after death, and my ultimate destiny is taken away from me.  Or, as the Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.  Then those also who have died in Christ have perished.  If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”  (1 Corinthians 15:12-19) 

Such doubts could cause me to lose my faith—and, my way.  Thus, the stakes are very, very high.  To acknowledge and talk about religious doubt creates fear and anxiety.  It can make this huge knot in the pit of my stomach.

For me, the most important scriptural discussion of religious doubt occurs in the Gospel of John, after Christ’s Resurrection; see John 20:24-29.  During the evening of that first Easter, most of Jesus’ followers had gathered together in the Upper Room.  Despite a locked door, Jesus appeared to them, greeting them with the words:  “Peace be with you.”  After his greeting, John records that Jesus “showed them his hands and his side.”  When they saw this clear physical evidence of the resurrection, “the disciples rejoiced.” 

The only problem is that one of the disciples, Thomas, was not present when Jesus appeared to his followers.  When Thomas rejoins the other followers, and they tell him that they have seen the resurrected Christ, Thomas is really doubtful.  He says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  Now, notice here that Thomas is only asking for the same proof, which Jesus had already given the others in the Upper Room. 

            A week later, Jesus reappears to his followers in the Upper Room—this time, with Thomas present.  Jesus immediately goes to Thomas and offers, “Thomas, put your finger here and seen my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt but believe.”  Notice that Jesus is offering to provide Thomas with exactly the proof that Thomas identified as essential for him to have faith.  And, notice further that this is the same, exact evidence which Jesus had given the other disciples a week earlier, when he appeared to them.  One scholar points out that “Jesus is not attempting to shame Thomas, but is giving Thomas what he needs for faith, as Jesus has done so many times in the Gospel.”[i]  She notes further that Thomas’ response to Jesus, “My Lord and My God!” is “the most powerful confession [of faith] in the Gospel.”

            It seems to me that there are two prominent forms of religious doubt.  The first form is rational.  This form of doubt concerns the rational plausibility of certain aspects of a religion or sacred writing.  For instance, within the Christian tradition the claim, that after three days Jesus was resurrected from the dead, could create insurmountable religious doubt because physical resurrection is completely antithetical from all that we know about life and death from science.  Here, it is important to highlight that religious faith is not necessarily opposed to rationality—or, even science.  The English writer C. S. Lweis develops this distinction well in his book, Mere Christianity.[ii]  Lewis observes that there is a rational component to faith.  It is not as though faith is irrational.  Instead, reason is an integral component of faith.  Yet, reason may itself challenge faith or the propositions of a religious faith.  As Lewis observed, “Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods..”.

            The second form of religious doubt concerns an emotional incongruity, instead of a rational incongruity.  As an illustration, consider the parents of a young daughter who dies at the age of 7, after a short lifetime of suffering from bone cancer.  Although initially devout Christians, the young girl’s parents may begin to doubt God—or, even the existence of God.  They may question why a supposedly all loving and all powerful God would have allowed their young daughter to suffer and die.  This is a different type of doubt from the doubt one may have due to some aspect of the religion not appearing rational or being consistent with what we have learned from science.

            There are two responses we can make regarding religious doubt.  The first response is to try and avoid thinking about any religious doubts which we may have.  We can take all of our doubts and cram them into a box; put a lid on, and then put the box way in the back of our closet, where we never have to see it.  Then, we can try and live our lives without ever having to open that box up and confront our doubts. 

However, the problem with this response is that we end up living our lives in fear that at some point, something is going to happen in our lives, which will force us to confront these doubts.  If that happens, then we may finally be forced to confront our doubts, and we may lose our faith.  In essence, the problem with this response is that we end up living in the shadow of our doubts.  By contrast, the alternative response is to simply confront our doubts head on; to struggle and wrestle with our doubts.    

            I believe that God does not oppose and probably intends for us to confront our doubts and to struggle with them.  There are a couple of considerations here.  First, consider the story of ‘doubting Thomas,’ which we examined earlier.  Jesus does not condemn Thomas’ doubt.  Instead, Jesus accepts his doubt and then encourages Thomas to find the answer he is seeking by placing his finger in the marks of the nails and his hand in the wound from the spear.  In essence, Jesus is walking with Thomas as Thomas seeks to resolve his doubts. 

            A second consideration is that Christians sometimes experience profound spiritual growth by struggling with doubt.  It is only through his struggle of faith that Thomas eventually develops the spiritual discernment to see that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah.   Thomas has been a disciple of Jesus for three years.  He has traveled with Jesus; eaten with Jesus; lived with Jesus; listened to all of Jesus’ teachings.  Thomas has had an inside track to Jesus life and teachings for 3 years.  Yet, it is not until after Thomas has struggled with his doubts about Jesus’ resurrection that he sees clearly who Jesus really and truly is:  “My Lord and My God!”

            Still, coping with religious doubt is hard.  As we have seen, there is the uncertainty of doubt.  We all want to know about God with certainty.  Yet, even worse, it is hard to admit our doubts to others.  We don’t want others to think badly of us.  We don’t want others to judge and condemn us as unbelievers, bad people, or troublemakers.  Sometimes we don’t even want to raise hard questions.  If we were to raise hard questions, then we might appear to be rude or difficult.  Finally, we don’t want to undermine other peoples’ faith by sharing our doubts or asking difficult questions.  So, our first inclination is to hide our doubts from others and struggle with them alone.

            Churches also have trouble with doubts.  Some churches are intolerant of doubts or questions.  In some churches, to raise doubts indicates that the doubter is not really a Christian; they are an imposter and need to be rooted out of the Body of Christ.  In those churches, doubters and questioners are ostracized as well as denigrated for not being truly faithful.

            I will argue that it is this negative attitude towards doubts and questions which is actually unfaithful to the teachings and example of Christ.  As we have seen in our analysis of “doubting Thomas,” Jesus did not condemn Thomas because of his doubts.  Instead, Jesus affirmed the legitimacy of Thomas’ questions and then sought to help Thomas answer his questions.

            But what if the Church actually did as Jesus?  What if the Church actually welcomed questioners and doubters?  What if the Church was willing to accompany doubters and questioners on the quest for answers, just as Jesus accompanied Thomas? 

Of course, there are some people who are looking for a church that will provide them with a definitive answer to all their questions about religion and spirituality.  Yet, at the same time, there are many, many other people who would like to have a church that does not claim to have all of the answers.  Rather than having a church which tells them what they must believe, many persons are looking for a safe place, with theological resources, to help them work out their own answers to their doubts and questions.

I think that the British theologian John Polkinghorne sums it up well, when he writes:  “For many in the Western-educated world today, [there is] a kind of wistful fellow-travelling with religion, able neither to accept [Christianity] nor wholly to dismiss it, retaining a memory of old talks of [God] kept echoing in the caverns of mind more by poetry than by argument.”[iii]  Among so many of our neighbors, our work colleagues, our family members, there is this huge spiritual hunger.  Yet, at the same time these individuals do not feel that they can join us in church because they still retain some significant doubts.  There are individuals who say, I would like to be more spiritual, but how can I be part of a church, when I have these questions? 

But, what if the Church…

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, January 20th.  As we continue our series on the “Upside Down Church,” we will examine the opportunities which doubt presents and why faithful Christians should embrace questions and doubt, just as Jesus embraced the questions and doubt of Thomas. 

Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street.  We have three worship services on Sunday mornings at 8:30, 9:45, and 11:00.  The 8:30 and 11:00 services feature a traditional worship format and the services are held in our Sanctuary.  “The Gathering” at 9:45 is held in our Family Life Center (gym), and it is more informal and interactive.   

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[i] Gail R. O’Day, Commentary on the Gospel of John in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 9, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.
[ii] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, 1952).
[iii] John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist:  Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1996), 14.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Turning the World Upside Down

            These days the word, “Christian,” is a loaded term.  To some people, it means a “hypocrite,” while to others it refers to someone who is “superstitious” or “greedy.”  To still others, it refers to someone who is “judgmental,” while to others it means someone who is faithful to God.  To even others, a “Christian” may take on additional meanings. 

In our foundational scripture from the Book of Acts this weekend, the first Christians were described as “these people who have been turning the world upside down.”  During his ministry, Jesus frequently “turned the world upside down.”  In my post last week, I remembered how Jesus turned the popular, accepted notion of justice upside down.  Rather than accepting “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” Jesus taught his followers, “…if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…” (Matthew 5:39)

            There are many other examples of Jesus’ teachings turning the world upside down as well:

1.      When Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20), he turns the socio-political world upside down by privileging the marginalized over the powerful.

2.      When Jesus teaches, “ ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’” (Matthew 5:43-44), he turns our natural inclinations upside down.

3.      And, when Jesus consistently refers to God as Abba, “Pops,” then he turned the nature of our relationship with God upside down.

In addition to his teachings, Jesus also turns the world upside down through his actions: 

1.      Jesus turned the conventional understanding of keeping the Sabbath upside down, when he healed on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6, Luke 13:10-17) and allowed his disciples to pluck grain in the field on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-6).

2.      Rather than hanging out with the righteous and the powerful in society, Jesus frequently ate with sinners and the marginalized—thus turning the social order and the expectations for a rabbi upside down.  (Mark 2:15-22)

3.      During the last week of his earthly life, when Jesus was in Jerusalem, he stormed into the Temple and overturned the tables of the money changers and the merchants who sold doves, quoting scripture and saying:  “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”  (Matthew 21:13)

Again and again and again, Jesus and the early Church turned the world upside down.  Yet that all changed in 312 C.E., when the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity.  Whereas before, Christianity was literally an outlaw religion, banished to the margins of society, after Constantine’s conversion Christianity became the official religion of the Empire.  Whereas before Constantine’s conversion, becoming a Christian meant becoming socially ostracized and risking the death for one’s faith, afterwards becoming a Christian was a career move leading to social and financial promotion. 

Constantine’s conversion became a watershed moment because it encouraged Christianity to shift away from turning the world upside down.  Rather, as the official religion of secular society, the Church was predisposed to defend and justify the prevailing secular society.  There were important exceptions to this generalization, of course.  For instance, one shining exception was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the religious-led Civil Rights movement.  Yet, despite these important exceptions, Christianity, and especially the Church, has focused more on supporting and defending the socio-economic status quo.

But, what if the Church began turning the world upside down again?

I began this post by noting that for many people today, the word “Christian” has a deeply negative meaning, raising up negative adjectives, such as hypocritical, superstitious, greedy, and judgmental.  The truth is that many contemporary people view the Church with great suspicion.  Yet, despite the negative assessment of the Church and Christianity in general, Jesus is popularly viewed in overwhelmingly positive terms.  This disconnect for many people—both inside and outside the Church—is that in his life Jesus clearly modeled the love and life which all of his followers should have.  Yet, when they look at the Church and contemporary Christians, they don’t see the enactment of Jesus’ teachings; they don’t see the Church doing anything productive or worthwhile.  Instead, they see hypocrisy, superstition, greed, and judgment.

Perhaps before the Church can turn the world upside down, someone needs to turn the Church upside down.  But, what does that mean, to turn the Church upside down?  And, what will it take to turn the Church upside down?

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, January 13th.  As we continue our series on the “Upside Down Church,” I will suggest that it is the responsibility of those inside the Church to turn it upside down. 

Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street.  We have three worship services on Sunday mornings at 8:30, 9:45, and 11:00.  The 8:30 and 11:00 services feature a traditional worship format and the services are held in our Sanctuary.  “The Gathering” at 9:45 is held in our Family Life Center (gym), and it is more informal and interactive.   

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

"Jesus Calls Us"

            Happy New Year!

            As we begin a new year, my proclamation focus will examine what it means to be Christian in the 21st  century.  We have titled this series, “An Upside-Down Church.”  This past fall, as I continued to read and study the Gospels, I gained a new insight into Jesus.  Looking at Jesus from the perspective of faithful Jews in the first century, Jesus was someone who came in and turned upside-down their understanding of what it meant to be faithful to God.  For instance, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made this claim:
‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…”  ~ Matthew 5:38-39
At that time—as in our current time—the popular notion of justice was predominantly understood as lex talinois; that is, the right for a wronged person to seek retribution against any perpetrator who injured him.  Yet, in the passage quoted above, Jesus turns that understanding upside down.  Rather than permitting harm for harm, Jesus advocates the return of good in response to harm.  In so doing, Jesus turns the conception of being faithful to God upside down as well.  Now, persons loyal to God must re-think their understanding of justice, moving from lex talinois to an understanding which sees the importance of returning good—even for bad. 

In reflecting on this insight last fall, I began to ask myself what Jesus’ propensity to turn things upside-down might mean for the Christian faith and the Church in the 21st century?  If Jesus were to physically appear today, how might he turn his Church upside-down?  Then, I began to ask, as disciples of Jesus, are we called to turn the contemporary church upside down? 

            So, that question became the inspiration for this proclamation series:  How is God calling us now to turn the Church upside down, so that we may be more faithful disciples?

            This Sunday, January 5th, we begin this exploration with a foundational question: 

“What does it mean to be a follower of Christ?”

Our grounding scriptural text will be Matthew 4:18-23, which tells how Jesus recruited his first disciples:

As he [Jesus] walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Professional Biblical scholars are quick to point out that this is more than simply Matthew’s 
description of how Jesus began his ministry.  For instance, Eugene Boring writes, “How do people become disciples of Jesus Christ?  …this is the question Matthew is addressing, not the historical or biographical question of a past event.”[i]

            To fully appreciate the call of the disciples, some background context is in order.  In Judaism during this period, rabbis were the recognized Jewish authorities and teachers within the faith.  This was especially true in matters of the Jewish Law, which was so fundamental to their faith. One trained to become a rabbi by first becoming a disciple of an already established and highly regarded rabbi.  Rabbis’ disciples were literally their followers, who went wherever the rabbi went.  The disciples would sit and listen to the rabbi’s teaching.  In order to become a rabbi’s disciple, a young Jewish man would have to seek out a rabbi and apply to become a disciple.  Generally speaking, rabbis did not seek out students.

            Of course, Jesus turned this tradition completely upside-down.  First, as far as we know, Jesus was not formally trained with a well-regarded rabbi in the normal disciple system described in the previous paragraph.  Instead, he appears to have been self-taught.  Secondly, as we learn from the scripture, Jesus actively sought out and recruited Andrew and Peter, James and John, and the others to be his disciples.

            Jesus calls the disciples:  “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  Note that the disciples immediately drop everything and follow him.  The typical questions, “Where are we going?”  “What should we bring?”  Where will we stay?”  How will we feed ourselves?” “What do you mean we will become ‘fishers of men?’” etc. are never asked.  Eugene Boring notes that the disciples appear to have been comfortable in their life-situation.  They had a good profession, with boats and nets for their work.  They have families and friends.  They were not looking to start a new life.  They had never met Jesus and did not know who he was.              Yet, there was Jesus appearing and disrupting their entire lives.  And, the disciples embraced the call.

            What did Jesus mean when he said, “I will make you fish for people”?  We should not interpret this claim as just a clever metaphor which Jesus invoked because he was talking to fishermen.  There is something much deeper going on here.  Jesus is inviting Andrew, Peter, James, and John to join him in the work of building God’s Kingdom here on Earth.  At the heart of the Christian faith is a fundamental claim:  Not only is God the Creator of all Creation, but God will continue God’s work of Creation until the Kingdom of God has been fully established.  Although God’s Reign has not yet been fully established, we can see evidence in the world already and God has guaranteed the fulfillment of this reign through the Resurrection of Christ.

The theologian Phil Hefner coined the term, “created co-creators,” to indicate that we finite humans have been invited to join in the work of Kingdom-building by the Infinite One.  Jesus’ invitation to the disciples in Matthew is not restricted to Andrew, Peter, James, and John.  No.  Instead, this invitation is extended to all who seek to follow him.  As Eugene Boring writes, “…the picture seems to be that God’s judging/saving mission to the world is represented by Jesus, who calls disciples to participate in the divine mission to humanity.  The scene is thus utterly theological…  Nothing in the text suggests that this is a special call to apostleship; rather, a theological perspective on the way every follower becomes a disciple is here presented.”[ii]

What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus?  Out of his great love for us, Jesus invites us to enter into a special relationship as his disciples.  In this special relationship, we are invited to join with Jesus in the work of building God’s Kingdom here on Earth.  This is a special invitation, which brings great honor, joy, hope, and peace.  Further, as we join in the work of Kingdom building, we also will grow closer and deeper in our relationship with the Divine.  At Christ United Methodist Church, we think of this special role of discipleship as comprised of four pillars:

1.      Seek God.
2.      Act Inclusively
3.      Serve Others.
4.      Do Justice.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, January 5th, as we begin our exploration of how Jesus is calling us to turn the Church upside-down.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street. 

We have three worship services on Sunday mornings at 8:30, 9:45, and 11:00.  The 8:30 and 11:00 services feature a traditional worship format and the services are held in our Sanctuary.  “The Gathering” at 9:45 is held in our Family Life Center (gym), and it is more informal and interactive.    

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[i] M. Eugene Boring, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 8, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

[ii] Ibid.