Saturday, November 17, 2012

Faith, Hope, and Sure and Certain Hope


Faith and hope are often mentioned together as if they are different facets of the same gem, but I think they are more different than that. 

Faith, it seems to me, is the assertion of what we believe to be true on the basis of evidence and reason.  Our creeds, for instance, are statements of faith about who we Christians understand God to be.  They were worked out through reasoned (if not always reasonable) debate grounded in a thorough examination of scripture and the oral traditions of the first generations of believers.  In our own day, what we describe as our faith is the set of beliefs that define denomination, tradition, or local congregation that have been painfully hashed out over some period of time.  

Religious faith is certainly not the only kind of faith.  Faith is also found in the political, scientific, and economic worlds.  Faith in the big bang, faith in evolution, faith in free enterprise, faith in a political ideology.  Each article of faith is based on a reasoned examination of the evidence.  That doesn’t necessarily make it right.  Even based on reason and evidence it can still be wrong.  Reason can be corrupted and evidence misleading.  What has been known to be true about things in the past is often shown to be untrue by new knowledge and new evidence.   Nevertheless, statements of faith assert truths on which individual lives and entire societies are built.  

Faith must be flexible if it is to endure, but any substantial changes to it must be carefully worked out with diligence over time.  That’s because challenges to statements of faith are necessary to their continued legitimacy as truths on which lives can be built, and they must be met by close examination to determine their own legitimacy and consequences.  The old dialectic thinkers were not wrong about that, and scripture suggests that God is engaged in a constant dialectic of his own with us: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Heb. 4.12)  The living word of God is not trapped in the text of a book, but through that text it can and does leap into new places with new understandings. 

Hope is different.  There is something anxious about hope.  Hope is an anxious expectation that something better will come along.  Hope is anxious because it has little or no evidence to support it, and what evidence it does have can be to the contrary.  I am reminded of the lines waiting for the buses in front of the church I served in New York City.  They were populated by people hoping their bus would come on time.  Did it ever?  Sometimes, but not often.  “Hope springs eternal in the human breast; Man never Is, but always to be blest: The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home, rests and expatiates in a life to come.”  So said Alexander Pope in his “An Essay on Man.”

We hope for sunshine tomorrow in spite of forecasts of rain.  We hope our team wins in spite of its losing record.  We hope for fulfillment in new relationships that the old ones seldom met.  We hope we win the lottery or finally get a pony for Christmas.  We hope for all kinds of things in anxious expectation that his time it might work out, and sometimes it does.  Maybe by chance, maybe in answer to prayer, and maybe what we hope for is more predictable than we thought.  It’s hard to tell.  The New York buses turn out to be fairly reliable. 

But there is a different kind of hope.  It is the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.  
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly trust in Jesus’ Name.
(Edward Mote)

It’s a ridiculous kind of hope because it is founded on the relatively flimsy evidence of the resurrection; flimsy because such a one time in all of history never to be replicated by anyone else event was attested to by witnesses of dubious qualification, none with academic credentials.  It is a hope that defies everything we currently know about the cycles of life and death.  Moreover, Christians in each generation have been firm in their sure and certain hope that Jesus’ resurrection is the sign and symbol of their own resurrection under conditions unknown and never yet reported on - near death experiences notwithstanding.  For all of that, it is, at least in orthodox Christianity, a non-anxious hope, despite its shortcomings of evidence.

The bus may be late.  It may rain tomorrow.  My team may lose.  The lottery will go to someone else.  My pony may never come.  My best friend may betray and abandon me.  But my hope in God through Christ for my own resurrection is sure and certain.  And we wonder why some people think Christians are deluded fools.  Well, as Paul said, if our hope is not true we really are crazy, but it is true and we know it. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Childlike Delight


Youth ministry is not among my gifts.  When my children were young, well before my late vocation ordination, I did my duty helping teach confirmation and organizing a few youth events, but they were not my strengths.  After seminary and ordination, and in my early 50s, I had the usual round of interviews with rectors looking for a newly minted youth minister.  Thankfully, none of them offered me a job.  Adult Christian education is my passion, what I’m good at.  As a priest and rector, I have never given a children’s sermon, nor am I much in favor of them believing, as I do, that children can handle the fullness of church, including the sermon.  

This is not to say that I have little regard for youth ministry.  To the contrary, I think it is of highest importance.  I made it a policy and discipline to do everything possible to raise it up, make it happen, see that it was funded and rejoice in its successes.  It’s just that I am not very good at it myself.  

All this is prelude to my first encounter with pre-schoolers.  I filled in for a good friend of mine several weeks this summer while he was on vacation.  His parish has a pre-school, and he conducts a regular education and worship service for them.  So there I was, face to face with about thirty three and four year olds who expected some songs, prayers, a bible story or two and a chance to talk about them.  It was quite a wonderful experience.  They did their best to teach me some songs about saying good morning and thank you and loving one’s neighbor.  They offered enthusiastic prayers of thanksgiving and supplication.  They explained to me whose house (God’s) we were in and what we do when we are in it.  And they seemed to enjoy my reading of simple bible stories.  

They all appeared to be enthusiastic, energetic, willing, trusting, and absolutely fascinated to learn anything new, anything at all.  Much of the school is open air, it is the tropics after all, so I walked by them many times a day witnessing their behavior under each of the circumstance of their routine.  It seemed to me to be a happy place.

So what happens?  Do we stifle all of that, stuffing kids into pedagogical boxes and throwing up barriers to the sheer joy of being and learning?  Do maturing minds naturally lose that joyful spontaneity as they age?  Do we observe some small character defect, real or imagined, and label a child from that point on?  Do parents discourage the joy of life as they try to teach them the right way to be?  Some of these children will grow up to be pillars of society.  Some will go to prison.  Some will die young of drugs, accidents or war.  Some will drift through a life of boring mediocrity.  Some will achieve great things.  Some will rebel, and some will obey.  Some, maybe not many, will never lose the joyful spontaneity of childhood.  Even fewer will rediscover it after many years.  

It gets complicated.  Children must grow into adults.  Childishness must be left behind.  The balance of leaving childishness behind while retaining a childlike delight in life is not an easy one.  My few hours with these children helped me rejoice again in childlike delight.  It was fun.  Who knows, maybe I’ll learn all the words of the sassy little mynah bird song one of these days.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Our Middle School Paper on Jesus


I had an hour long Skype session with my 13 year old granddaughter who had a paper to write for her religion class (private school, Hong Kong) in which she was asked to reflect on a movie about Jesus and contrast several things that were said about him in it with what is said about him in scripture.  I presume that the other kids in her class were all well versed in scripture and the basics of Christian history so that they could easily distinguish between the movie version and the mosaic of Jesus that comes to us through the gospels and epistles.  Moreover, the instructions for the paper required the students to distinguish between what Jesus’ disciples believed about him during their time with him and what today’s Christians believe about Jesus.

As I said, no doubt the other 13 year olds in her class were up to it, but she was in tears because she simply could not understand what was being asked of her.  Frankly, I doubt that many adults who regularly attend church would be up to it either.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  I have several conservative evangelical acquaintances who have been taught the correct answers and are quite certain that any other possibility is of the devil, but I digress.

We talked it through as best we could, and I think she will produce a fine paper, but how do you explain, in a few words, that the disciples did not know anymore about who Jesus was on any given day than what they had experienced up to that moment, nor did they have any idea what tomorrow might bring?  We, on the other hand, have read the whole story and know how it comes out, and we have two thousand years of scholarship and tradition to help us understand it in ever new ways.

How do you explain that everything depends on the resurrection?  How do you explain that the four gospels portray Jesus in ways sufficiently different from each other that there are conflicts and gaps hard to reconcile?  Becoming a mature Christian is not an easy thing to do.  Providing a 13 year old with enough understandable information to write a school paper isn’t that easy either.  I hope we get a decent grade on it.  I’d like to see the one her teacher writes.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Sacred Space, Holy Space


Our Italian sojourn was filled with visits to churches, famous and otherwise.  I was struck by the ornate beauty of the great cathedrals and basilicas, but as we visited one after another it became clear that few of them were built to the glory of God.  They were, like Herod’s temple, built to the glory of wealthy patrons and powerful Church bureaucrats.  That’s clear from the family crests, statues, architectural adornments, and commemorative chapels that dominate the buildings and give them their place in history as objects of great art.  Yet, they endure to the glory of God.  How can that be?  

What consecrates a space to the glory of God is not a bishop’s blessing amidst clouds of incense, but the intentionality of those who gather to worship and offer prayer.  The ritual of consecration does not make a place holy, but it is a powerful symbol of the holy.  It does set aside a space as sacred space, a fundamentally different kind of space from the spaces that surround it.  In my imagination I could see the pomp of medieval ritual in the company of patrons and princes.  It must have been a magnificent show of self importance, with God’s name thrown in now and then to lend the appearance of legitimacy.  

Having said that, it did what it was supposed to do.  It set aside space that would be filled with God’s presence through the intentional prayers of the people through centuries of time.  It was, and is, these hundreds of years of the faithful offering their prayers of supplication and thanksgiving that have imbued these buildings with a holiness that can be palpable if you let it, and which exists in, but entirely separate from, the buildings themselves.     

As for me, my favorite church, one that spoke deeply to my soul, was S. Stefano in Assisi.  It’s a crude stone church tucked into a piazza no larger than a patio and well off the tourist track.  No architect designed it, no engineer built it.  Centuries ago the local workers cobbled it together by themselves as a place for them to worship.  No wealthy patron endowed it, no famous artist decorated it. Fifty or sixty would fill it to capacity.  It reeked of all that is sacred.

Perhaps the Silly Season is Over


A recent editorial in our local paper lamented the extreme positions taken by each party these last few years, and hoped that the next four would provide an opportunity for them to show reasonable moderation.  

Trying to appear even handed in a sort of inverse of the wishy-washy “I’m OK, You’re OK” approach to pop psychology, they missed something important.  For the most part, the president and his supporters in congress have been quite centrist in their policies and positions.  Extremism came from the caterwauling of the far right who declared that if they could not have their way they would stop anything from happening, and who yelped at every opportunity that the president was a socialist radical intent on destroying the nation when the plain vanilla, in front of your nose facts said just the opposite.  

Therefore, I was heartened by Mr. Boehner’s post election speech in which he sounded like a responsible Speaker of the House leading the loyal opposition into negotiations from which workable solutions will emerge.  It was, I believe, aimed directly at the tea party elements of his side of the aisle, letting them know that their day of recalcitrant defiance has passed.  I would be even more heartened if I thought that Senators Reid and Mitchell, and minority leader Pelosi were capable legislative leaders of their respective troops, but that remains to be seen. So far there is not much evidence of it. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Driving in Italy


We just got home from several weeks exploring Tuscany and Umbria by car, and then taking a trans-Atlantic repositioning cruise from Italy to Florida.  So, a few thoughts about driving in Italy. 

The books say that Italian drivers have slowed down since speed cameras and electronic ticketing have become common place on all major highways, in most towns, and on a few secondary roads.  That’s partly true.  There are speed cameras everywhere.  Thousands of them.  I seldom saw anyone going over 100 mph, although there were a few.  Anything below that seemed OK.  Sticking relatively close to the posted speed limits, I was not just among the slow ones, but a definite road hazard.  The real embarrassment came when our rented Mercedes got passed by Smart Cars, more than once, going up hill. The way I figure it, either the speed cameras are fake, or no one pays the tickets.  

Italians like to pack as many cars as possible into the whatever space is available.  It doesn’t matter if that space is on a four lane highway with plenty of room to spread out.  They discourage signaling lane changes or turns, but they use their signals often.  For what I have no idea.  If there are two lanes of traffic, a third lane can always be created for those who want to pass.  It makes for a thrilling form of high speed slalom racing. 

Many of the old walled cities allow only authorized vehicles on their narrow alley size streets, and it seemed to me that their were an awful lot of authorized vehicles.  So there you are strolling down a narrow alley filled with other pedestrians, quickly learning that pedestrians have no right of way, and that survival depends on how well you can melt into a wall.  Just the same, I never saw a mishap.  

What we did not see was any evidence of road rage.  As far as I could tell, the freestyle form of driving with its unwritten rules works pretty well.  We got along fine, I just resurrected my old NYC driving habits, minus the aggression, and got along fine, if a little slow for the locals.  For what it’s worth, our greatest joy was to get off the major toll roads and onto secondary highways that meandered through beautiful countryside and picturesque villages.