Category Archives: Faith

Faith as surrender (and Garrison Keillor as theologian)

Several years ago I posted about Miroslav Volf’s definition of faith, which goes as follows:

Faith is not something we give to God. In that case, faith would be a work, and a silly kind of work because it would be work we do even though it doesn’t benefit anyone. But exactly the opposite is true. To have faith in God is to be “without works” before God (Romans 4:5). Faith is the way we as receivers relate appropriately to God as the giver. It is empty hands held open for God to fill.

On the way home from some care home services this evening, I listened to Garrison Keillor’s “News from Lake Wobegon” podcast from August 31, 2013. He concluded the week’s story with the following reflection:

“I used to think that faith… was sort of like a building block and you’d put all these blocks together and you’d build a house, sort of like the one the little pig built that the wolf could not blow down. And now I get older and I feel that faith is a matter of surrender, it’s a matter of just giving up and leaving that house and just walking out and experiencing the cold and the rain and doubt and confusion and trying to keep up your hope and some sense of gratitude. If you just keep up hope and gratitude maybe that’s… all you need…”

Not exactly the same thing as what Volf said, but then Keillor’s a storyteller first, theologian second. But open hands held open for God to fill and the notion of surrender to God run along the same lines. I like it.

An Apocalypse of Love

(This is my Christmas Eve meditation from this year’s Christmas Eve service at our church.)

It has been a strange couple of weeks. Just over a week ago, there was the horrible shooting at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, in which 27 people, including 20 children, were killed. This last Friday was anticipated by some to be the end of the world, based on a particular interpretation and understanding of the Mayan calendar. People were buying bomb shelters, survival supplies, and some even stockpiling weapons. That same day, much closer to home, several Alberta school received what appeared to be threats of violence. Some of them were false alarms, but in Ponoka the school was locked down and a young man in possession of firearms was arrested in relation to this even–perhaps in imitation of Newtown, perhaps in anticipation of an apocalypse, perhaps for entirely different reasons.

It was a week or so of hatred, grief, and fear, and of nervous watching.

One question asked by many people this week was “Where was God?” It is a fair question and we are not the first to ask it. It is an ancient question. Biblical Israel used to ask essentially the same thing. “How long, O Lord?” is a question peppered throughout the Psalms and the prophets. “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?”

* * *

We live between two Advents, two “comings” of Jesus. The last several weeks and especially tonight and tomorrow, we mostly look back at the first Advent, but–let’s not forget–we also look forward to the second Advent. The first coming and the second coming. Both those Advents mark the end of the world as we know it. This time of year we actually do anticipate an apocalypse, but not, perhaps, as popularly depicted or understood.

The first Coming–the one that was promised long ago, was announced to a young girl, began in her womb, and was revealed in a manger, an animal’s feeding trough–this first coming was the coming of Love, with a capital “L”, into the world. Not a sentimental love, not love as some kind of nice, but abstract idea, but a living, self-giving Love, which took on flesh, became human, became a baby, helpless and weak. And the world was changed. It was the end of the world as it was known.

Why did Love come down? “For God so loved the world,” it says in the Bible. Love came down because the world was and is messed up and God loves this messed up world–not because it’s messed up, not because it may have potential–but because God is love and so loves the world in spite of what it is. And God knew that no effort of our own would be able to clean up the mess, no sentimental love or goodwill, no sweet notion of making the world a better place. Only Love with capital “L”, only love in its greatest, holiest, and most powerful sense, only a love in its purest most uncompromising form–only a love that gave itself fully for others–could make things right. Humans all ultimately turn away from this kind of true love, so Love had to come to us. That Love became human–became the baby named Jesus.

We’ve heard a lot about “apocalypse” lately, in books, in movies, in this news. This first coming of Jesus was an apocalypse. See, the word “apocalypse” does not mean “a time of zombies and nuclear bombs” as popular use suggests. The word means, simply and literally, “reveal” or “revelation”. Biblically, apocalypse is about revealing reality and God–telling us about the way the world is and the way it will be and the God who’s in charge of it all. God revealed himself in Jesus–this weak, helpless baby, who in the name of love would give himself for us. God’s love was revealed in this first Advent, in Jesus’ first Coming.

It was an Apocalypse of Love.

It was the beginning of the end. The world would be transformed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who turned this world of revenge, injustice, and pride upside-down with God’s world of mercy, justice, forgiveness, and love. Mary saw this, as we heard in her song, read a few minutes ago: the hungry filled, the oppressors overthrown.

The birth of Jesus is the answer to the question of God’s whereabouts. He’s right here, at work in the world. And the birth of Jesus is also the answer to that similar question that Israel had been asking for generations: “How long, O Lord?” The answer, in the fullness of time, was both “Now” and “Not yet.”

We still, in weeks like this one particularly, cry out, “How long, O Lord?”

And so we anticipate the second Advent, the Second Coming of Jesus. That will once again mark the end of the world as we know it. Not the end of God’s good creation, but the end of “the world” as we know it–the world of hatred, fear, violence, grief, death. This, too, will be an Apocalypse of Love.

It’s interesting that The End of the World, the “End Times”, the Apocalypse (whatever you want to call it) has become a thing of fear. We see this every time someone predicts the end of the world, whether it’s the Mayans or some obscure Christian sect: people buying shelters, stockpiling food and weapons; images of fire, zombies, death. Popular depictions of the end are terrifying–nightmare-inducing, even. Yes, there are beasts and boils in the book of Revelation, and facing Almighty God could put a different kind of fear in a person, but that book is meant to be encouraging, not terrifying, precisely because Jesus has come and is coming. It’s supposed to be good news.

Why? Because it tells us that in the end evil doesn’t have its way, but that Good prevails; that the God of Love will have his way and set the world right.

The post-apocalyptic world won’t be a barren, smoky desert of bedraggled wanderers, who daily live in fear of violence and death. It will be a lush, healing garden, where fear and grieving and death will have no place, because they will have been done away with.

Near the end of the book of Revelation, God says, “Look, I am making everything new!” And that work began with the baby in the manger, the Christ-child, the first of many brothers and sisters. God becomes human, born a baby–new, clean, innocent, trusting, loving–so that we can once again become children: reborn new, clean, innocent, trusting, loving.

There’s an apocalypse we can look forward to!

* *

We live between two Advents. We remember and celebrate the first Advent; we watch and wait for the second. In the meantime, God is at work in the world, and in and through us. When Jesus left the first time, he promised not only that he would return, but that his Spirit would come and live in us, that in this way he would remain with us. And so he did, and so he does, and while we wait, with the Spirit’s help we can each be a little apocalypse of God’s self-giving love.

“Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”

Keeping the ‘X’ in ‘Christmas’.

It’s that time of year again, folks, where Christ begins to disappear from Christmas…

These days we are likely to see “Xmas” written as often as “Christmas,” and this is of major concern for many Christians. Christ disappearing from Christmas is certainly something to give us pause, but this has been going on for a long time, and the way “Christmas” is written is not, ultimately, the problem.

In Koine Greek (the common language of the early church and the original language of the New Testament), “Christ” is written (here in equivalent English letters) “Xristos”(pronounced “Kris-toss”). The early church would use “X” as shorthand for “Christ”. Look at one of those Jesus fish sometime. Inside some of these fish are these Greek letters: IX[TH]YS.* These signs have been found at ancient Christian sites. Each of these Greek letters is the first letter in the words that say: “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Saviour”. You see the “X” there is short for “Christ”.

In English, there is no natural correlation between “X” and “Christ”. It is such an unlikely connection, in fact, that I’m inclined to think that it’s origin in English is most likely Christian as well, from someone or a group familiar with Koine Greek. So there’s nothing for Christians fear there–the loss is not in the name but (potentially) in the way the occasion is celebrated.

What we call Christmas is ultimately irrelevant. It is now for most people a cultural, consumption-based holiday event, including for most Christians. Whether or not the the word “Christ” is in the name is not going to change that fact. The name “Easter” has nothing whatsoever to do with Christ or the Resurrection event, so far as I can tell (wheras “Paschal” does), and it takes nothing away from the religious end of that season for those who choose to focus on it that way.

So keep the ‘X’ in Christmas and keep the ‘Christ’, too, for that matter. Keep Christ in there not by means of spelling the word a certain way, but by entering into the season reflectively and with open hearts, preparing for his arrival, remembering his birth and anticipating his second advent. That’s a choice we all have to make, regardless of how we spell “Christmas”.

______________________
*in Greek there is one letter that represents the English “th” sound.

Lots of news.

I suppose it’s time for me to say something about what’s next for us. I’m generally inclined to keep things like this to myself until such time as it feels right to talk about it, and that takes time to build as I process and begin to understand my own feelings and perceptions and let things settle in me. And I also kinda sorta wanted to wait for the official letter from the church, more as a formality than anything, or maybe as something to confirm that this is really real (’cause it’s a bit surreal). It’s easier to keep things from you, dear readers, but not so easily from friends who have traveled with us on this journey and who know the stages we are at and want to know what’s happening. And information is seeping its way out into the world, by word-of-mouth, Facebook, etc. (and Dixie writing a post about it today).

So I’ve been called to The Field. That’ll mean something to some of you and nothing to others. So: I’ve been called by a church in a field quite literally in the middle of nowhere (that is, it is not in or near a town). Plopped in a field in the middle of the the Wetaskiwin-Camrose-Ponoka triangle of Alberta. It’s called Malmo Mission Covenant Church.

It’s an associate pastor position, with responsibilities for youth, families, discipleship, intergenerational stuff, etc. A pretty broad position, in my view (hold the weight jokes, folks), with room for growth and learning and change and shaping. I’m quite excited (and nervous) about that. This is a process that started last fall sometime when I put my name into my denomination’s “system.” That was followed by phone calls, interviews, prayer, votes, and so on. Well, I suppose it goes back farther than that and even farther still.

The name of the church may sound familiar to some of you. That’s because it’s the one Randall is pastoring. That’s what makes this additionally surreal. Randall was there when the stirring began and had a big part to play in my developing sense of “calling.” To work with my friend, mentor, former pastor, and someone with experience and wisdom to share is quite a privilege as well.

So, the Vanderfamily will be moving to Alberta. When we got the announcement of the church’s vote while traveling in the car a couple of weeks ago, I said to the kids, “I got the job in Alberta. What do you guys think of that?” And Luke replied, “Okay I guess. But we’ll miss you.”

Adorable! Funny! So innocent! Or should I be concerned that he seemed unphased, that it didn’t seem like a big deal that Daddy was going away while they stayed here?

In some sense we have been for some time now carrying the burden of our childrens’ grief at moving away from their friends. Particularly Madeline’s. But the kids are excited at the prospect of this new adventure. I don’t think it has quite hit us yet that we are leaving friends as well. We’ve built some lasting ones here and it will be difficult to leave them. Of course, if we weren’t leaving them, they’d eventually be leaving us. That’s the nature of friendships made at educational institutions. But I do think that I am at least subconsciously beginning to grieve, if such a thing is possible. So I’m worried a bit that this post will sound too melancholic for what is actually good and exciting news. The excitement is building with each day, but that doesn’t mean grieving doesn’t get added to the mix.

A new chapter. A new adventure. A new home. A new community. New friends. New experiences. New joys. New mistakes. New successes. New lessons. Lots of news in the next couple of months.

Mystery

I realize I’m cross-posting with Facebook here, which seems a little off, but this is such a wonderful quote that it needs to be preserved here. It’s from Gilead, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Marilynne Robinson. The book is a letter written by an aging/dying pastor to his young son. It is a sort of reflection on his life? for the future benefit of his son.

…six months later I baptized her. And I felt like asking her, ‘What have I done? What does it mean?’ That was a question that came to me often, not because I felt less certain I had done something that did mean something, but because no matter how much I thought and read and prayed, I felt outside the mystery of it.

Ah, mystery. Western Christians tend to not like it. We like everything explained in detail. Yet it often seems like we’re trying to paint a picture of something we have experienced and witnessed but not actually seen, if you know what I mean, and so these explanations can never be more than a blurred “impressionist” depiction.

Anyway, Gilead has been wonderful so far. It has that “Pulitzer Tone,” to use a term I just made up a second ago, kind of like The Shipping News or Buechner’s Godric (which was nominated) or Alistair MacLeod’s short stories (which were not nominated, but probably should have been).

Scripture… as we live it

I came across this series of posts by Alan Knox in which he “get us to think about what Scripture says compared to how we actually live and what our traditions teach.” Here is the original post (#1). I haven’t read all of them (there are over 180), but as I started going through them, this one particularly caught my attention:

Now as they were eatinginstead of eating a meal, Jesus tookbreadsmall pieces of bread that had already been broken, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cupseveral small cups, one for each of them, and when he had given thanks hegave it to thempassed them out, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-28 re-mix)

“Several small cups, one for each of them…” Funny ’cause it’s true.

The whole series is here… 

A Letter About Doubt

I wanted to follow-up on something at the end of our conversation. I said, “Doubt is not necessarily a bad thing.” And then you said, “But it could be.” To which I replied, “Of course it could be.” I’m not entirely happy with my response.

Doubt could be a bad thing if you assume doubt means a loss of faith, if you assume doubt borders on Agnosticism or Atheism. Some people assume this and then, rather than explore their doubts from within (which is where their problems lie), they start looking elsewhere, as if doubts can be dealt with through another belief system. But it can’t. They will eventually find the same struggles there.

That’s why the Psalms really are a great thing to turn to. Read Psalm 13 sometime soon. The Psalmist, in his own way, asked the same questions you are asking,

“How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?”

Read that Psalm–slowly; soak it in. You could even make it your own prayer. The Psalmist doesn’t have it all together. Nobody does. Doubt is a universal struggle. That’s not meant to diminish your questions and concerns in any way, but simply to say that you are not alone, you are not an oddity among people of faith.

What’s unique about the Psalmist, though, is that he didn’t keep these things to himself and didn’t walk away from God. Instead, he dared to direct his questions and doubt and anguish at God. If I have some kind of issue with a friend or family member, the solution isn’t to walk away but to address that friend. Otherwise I’m not dealing with the problem. In one way or another, if I don’t address the source of the problem, I am simply ignoring the issue. If your questions are about God, don’t shut him out of the conversation and struggle, but be honest in your prayers.

I mentioned that we shouldn’t let our current mood or state or whatever dictate the entire course of our lives. This moment isn’t the only moment in your life–there have been many and there will be many. There are certainly pivotal points of change in life, but it seems to me that more often than not we fall into those moments. We don’t make a choice one day to take this moment of doubt or this moment of anger and let that guide my life from here on in. Psalm 13 kind of addresses this in a small way: “I trust in your unfailing love.” The Psalmist remembers God’s faithfulness and the things that God has done for him and the people of Israel. Psalm 77 is another Psalm of struggle, and there it says, “I will remember the deeds of the Lord.”

There’s something poignant in Bruce Cockburn’s words (at least, as I understand them):

Derailed and desperate
How did I get here?
Hanging from this high wire
By the tatters of my faith

Sometimes all we have to go on is what has come before–whether that is the faith of the “saints” (that is, Christians that have gone before) or our own faith to this point (or our baptism) and we choose to carry on in faith through this season.

Daniel Taylor, in that book I was telling you about, says this:

Normally doubt is seen as sapping faith’s strength. Why not the reverse? Where there is doubt, faith has its reason for being. Clearly faith is not needed where certainty supposedly exists.

Doubt does not mean you have lost your faith or no longer believe, nor does it mean that you are heading in that direction. And your doubts in themselves don’t make or break the truth of something. Doubt means simply that you have questions and uncertainties about your beliefs and about God. To have faith means to carry on in spite of uncertainties and seasons of doubt.

[…]

I hope this is helpful…

Pre-sermon nightmare

I preach tomorrow morning on a weepy passage from Jeremiah, which I have found difficult to carry over into modern meaning.

Today, in my fitful early morning, post-alarm sleep, I dreamed that I had neglected to finalize my rough notes and to go over them before delivery. At some point I realized I was preaching to a group of impoverished women and children in muddy ocean-side caves. The tide was rising.

It was a disaster on so many levels. Incoherent due mixed up notes; irrelevant to the audience, who, as a result, were not at all paying attention; my pastor standing there taking it all in and looking at me with deep disappointment.

What a nightmare.

Don’t stop believing

Gordon Atkinson (of dormant Real Live Preacher) wrote a letter to his daughter about her doubts. It’s warm and fatherly. It also expresses the important but generally ignored notion that doubt or lack of understanding is not in itself reason to give up on faith:

On the one hand, it is glorious for you to ask questions. It is beautiful and righteous and good for you to wonder at the deep mysteries of the world. How I love your mind. How I look forward to years of conversations with you.

On the other hand, if you can know this without it causing you to despair, understand that you will not find answers to many of those questions. Some questions will haunt you all of your life. And most answers you do find will only come after decades of searching and seeking and trying and failing and despairing and hurting and grieving and giving birth and discovering and accepting and laughing and experiencing the rich joys of life.

My precious daughter, if I could give you any gift today, it would be that you might experience the joy of your questions without being burdened by the elusive nature of their answers.

You are young. Now is the time for practice. Throw yourself into the practice of Christianity. Pray and worship and read the scriptures. Ask your questions, yes, but do so while practicing your faith.

I think you’ll find that when your mind reaches its limits, it’s good to pay attention to the body.

And the body needs practice.

Read the rest: “A Letter to my Doubting Daughter.”