Monday, April 30, 2007

Faithful Questioning

I need a new sort of questioning, rooted not in doubt but in faith. The tendency is place questioning with doubt and certainty with faith. All of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience has taught me that life is not filled with certainty but questions. When I was in school we were always encouraged to ask questions, this was how we were meant to learn, but at the same time, questions often meant acknowledging that we did not understand what was going on. As a vain academic, the questions I was most proud of were the ones that pushed the envelope of learning far beyond what we were meant to have covered in the class. Now this worked for me, I was an intelligent child, capable of understanding many of the more advanced concepts that were being taught, my deep probing questions were good for where I was at in my learning process. At the same time I wonder if I would have had the courage to ask the questions if they were simple and basic ones that everyone else already knew the answer to. I am ashamed to say the answer would probably have been “no.” Academic vanity and pride have always been struggling points for me.

Often contained in the idea of asking questions is the idea that we will get answers. My experience however is that simply or complex, questions often lead to more questions. I remember in 9th grade trying to understand the periodic table of the elements and generating more and more questions about how electrons worked. The reason I share this is I think faith is meant to be the same way. Sometimes I feel we try to simplify faith too much. Rather than trying to probe the complexity of Jesus, we reduce him merely to the Way, the Truth and the Life, or the Trinity to creator, redeemer, and sustainer. Whatever the question, the temptation is to try and find a simply answer which resolves it for us.

What do I do with this as a pastor? How do I help lead people not to answers, but to questions that will give them a better understanding of the complexity of God. I think an atom is a really good way to look at God. The basic understanding of an atom is a ball. Then if you get more complex it is a series of shells (electron levels) surrounding a smaller ball (the nucleus). If you study more however you learn that electrons spin, and rotate and do all sorts of other things, so that simply to see them as shells is not right, and then you add in the uncertainty principle and learn that the shells we previously used to understand the make-up of the atom only tells us where an electron is something like 90% of the time. Is there an uncertainty principle to God? How do I deal with the human needs for answers when I believe we are better living in the questions? How do I transform the grammatical question mark from an expression of extreme doubt or skepticism into an expression of healthy growth? I know many churches that advertise that questions are welcome, the implication is that they will provide answers. I want to be part of a church that helps people with answers find more questions to ask, a church that peels back the various atomic models to find the deeper uncertainty of God that requires a greater expression of faith.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Harry Potter and Insights on God

I am currently leading a discussion group/class on the connections between Harry Potter and scripture. The purpose of the class is to look at possible religious themes in Rowling's work as a way of better understanding our faith. I have done a similar class on the C.S. Lewis' book "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." With Lewis it was easy to compare and contrast between fiction and scripture because the connections were much more obvious. As I have been looking at Harry Potter with a similar goal in mind I have struggle with how to read the characters in Harry Potter. The discussion this week centered in part around the question of whether Harry Potter's encounter with Voldemort as a baby should be read as an Easter narrative or as Christmas. If we are to take it as Easter, then Harry living represents the resurrection and the triumph of Good over Evil, of Christ over Sin. The Christmas connections are just as strong however, since now hope is coming into the world, but what that hope is we are not sure of.
All of this pondering lead me to a remarkable insight. The challenge with any attempt to understand Harry Potter's religious significance is that our information is incomplete. Is Harry Potter meant to be seen as the Christ figure? Or is Dumbledore? I suddenly understand how things must have been for the disciples, crowds, and even the priests during Jesus' time, asking the question "who is this man." How could anyone begin to understand Jesus when his story was not yet done. The miracle of his death and resurrection is something almost too impossible to believe would happen even when you know it did, let alone before hand.
Theoretically the questions with Harry Potter have already been answered, copies of the last book are probably already being edited and polished off and ready to print, the mystery of what happens next is in part resolved; but for those of us who have not yet seen the book, we are left to try and ponder who is Harry Potter, what hope does he bring for Hogwarts, and how does he help us to understand the mystery of a man 2,000 years ago who changed the world with his teachings.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Touching God

I have been pondering the story of Thomas and the resurrected Christ for the last few weeks know. I love the first Sunday after Easter because there are some very powerful stories that we get to read, the road to Emmaus, where where Jesus is known in the breaking of the bread, and the story of Thomas, where he reaches out to touch and believe. Woven into Thomas' story is the idea that believing without touching is an even greater expression of faith. I agree with this, but I also think it is important to remember that each person needs to experience God differently.
I am a person of ideas and thoughts. The concept of God can be made known to me and derived at some level a priori, that is before experience. Other people are much more grounded in their senses. This is not a bad thing, but just a different way of experiencing and learning about the world. I think is important to remember that for many, God cannot be known without experience, without something they can touch, hold, see, or hear. I think the challenge that Thomas gives to us worship leaders and pastors is to remember that in addition to simply talking about, praying about, and singing about God, we need to find ways to make God physically known to people.
Unfortunately, most people will not have the opportunity to touch Jesus, to place their hands in his wounds, and come to know his love and his relationship for us through such a tangible interaction. I do not believe this means all experience of God must be filtered through words, and certainly not simply through worship. But I think we need to find ways to make God real to people.
Worship needs to involve both a mental and a physical interaction with God. My favorite line of liturgy without question, is one that is often spoken during Communion, "taste and see." There is a powerful reminder in those words that when we taste the bread we are tasting God, we are touching God. I guess that is just something I really want to see more of in worship is sounds, sights, and objects that can be experienced as a reminder of God's presence in our lives. I think Thomas speaks to me so much because he reminds us that there is often more to our faith than just hearing it, that it takes something more to make God real in our lives. Each of us in our own way needs to find a way to reach out and touch God.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

A new understanding of Grace

One of the things I have struggled with in my faith is grace. For many people grace came to them while they were at the bottom of something, and out of their darkness, the light of grace shone to them. I know people who have turned from drugs, or other destructive lifestyles because of grace. The grace that they experience is real and relevant in their lives. I would not call myself perfect, in fact I am far from perfect, but I am also very optimistic, and so my sins seem minor, and while I believe in God's grace, it has been something I desperately needed, my sins were never too much of a concern. One dichotomy that can be made is between Christ's call to salvation and Christ's call to service. At the extreme ends, the sole purpose of the Gospel is either salvation, or a call to help the least, the last, and the lost. While I would not say that I fall to an extreme, I tend to focus more on the call to service rather than salvation in the Gospel, which again can be traced back to my own mild need for salvation and my upbringing which taught me to help those in need. A few weeks ago I had an insight that helped to change that perspective. One of the texts that I have always struggled with is Matthew 25:40, "what you do unto the least of these, you do unto me." This is Jesus' reminder of how we need to see and treat each person around us as being part of God. One of the things that I have come to realize is how much I fail in this regard. It is not that I ever mistreat, but that I will never be able to do everything I can to help those in need. My sinful nature is not one of positive destructive action, it is like what Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "we will be judged in this century, not by the terrible deeds of the wicked, but by the appalling silence of the good." (I am roughly quoting here) I am not one committing the terrible deeds of the wicked, but often I am part of that appalling silence that does nothing. I am too comfortable in my lifestyle to make the radical changes that a Christ-like life calls for. Just as much as any person living a destructive life of drugs and violence, I am in need of Grace, because without it I have no hope of following Christ. At least for myself I have a better understanding of the balance between what I see as the dual message of the Gospel.