Tag Archives: Faith

I Am Haunted by Waters (Walking on Water, Part 3)

To borrow a line from A River Runs Through It: I am haunted by waters.

Specifically, I am haunted by the story of Jesus (and Peter) walking on water in Matthew 14. More than 6 years ago now I wrote a post pondering my negative reaction to John Ortberg’s book, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat, which is based entirely on Peter’s little episode. (Or more specifically, my negative reaction was to the first 30 pages of the book. I couldn’t read any further.) That turned out to be one of my most discussed musings: a long (for a blog) conversation about calling, growing as a Christian, trusting in God, and stepping out in faith. I look back at it as marking a watershed (heh-heh-heh) of sorts in my life. I had been in a personal rut, directionless, for about 6 years, but within a year of writing that post I began what some might call “stepping out of the boat,” according to the popular interpretation of that story.

My beef with the popular interpretation remained, however. Two years ago, I came across a different though equally, if not more, plausible interpretation of the passage, one in which Peter’s actions aren’t commended as a model for all Christians to follow.

I hadn’t thought about it at all since then, but as it happened, the speaker at this weekend’s family camp used that passage in one of his sessions. He was preaching a series on trust and his take on this passage was again along the lines of the popular stepping-out-in-faith reading. My response was again negative, though to a much lower degree. Perhaps this will mark another watershed in my life, but this time my response is more along the lines of how we interpret this passage.

Let me say this first: I’m not questioning the speaker or his motives or his overall message. I believe that we need to trust in God fully for everything. That is what faith is. I believe that sometimes we are called to do difficult things and when that happens we need to “step out in faith,” but that this could mean anything from sharing the Gospel with a friend, repairing a broken relationship, making Kingdom choices rather than cultural choices, moving to the inner-city to work with the poor, or selling everything and moving to the jungles of South America. Some are called to what from the world’s perspective are “great things”, but I believe that we are all called to something specific and, when it comes down to it, things greater still in the Kingdom of God: to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.

My concern with the popular reading of Peter walking on water is a general concern about how we read scripture. In the case of Peter walking on water, there are several dangers I see which could be applied to our interpretation of any passage of scripture.

One is that we interpret how we’ve always interpreted it. I value the tradition of the church—that is, the wisdom of the Christian witnesses who have gone before—and so I want to be careful not to argue for innovative readings of scripture for no reason other than innovation. What I intend to say is that whenever we read scripture, we need to read with fresh eyes and open ears. We may have misinterpreted it previously, we have missed a detail or an important contextual element, or the Spirit may simply have something different to tell us about the passage.

A fine example of this happening to me was Matthew 24:36-41. That’s the passage where Jesus talks about what it will be like when he returns: “Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.” This is where I assume the Left Behind book series gets its name; I imagine this was also the inspiration for Larry Norman’s song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” The popular interpretation among conservative evangelicals, and the assumption behind both the books and Norman’s song, is that those in the passage who are “taken” are taken to be with Jesus and the ones who are “left” are unbelievers who, depending on your eschatology, will either have to suffer through the Great Tribulation or suffer some other terrible fate from which the believer is spared. But when you look at the context of Jesus’ words, you notice that he says that his return will be like the days of Noah in which “the flood came and took them all away.” In other words, it seems that Jesus intended a meaning reverse to the popular reading: those left behind are the children of God; those taken are unbelievers. When it comes down to it, it’s a rather minor point (though it may have repercussions for our eschatology), but it was an eye-opener for me in terms of needing to read scripture with an eye for the details and context. We need to be attentive rather than lazy readers (I continue to struggle with lazy reading).

When we look at the details of Jesus and Peter walking on water, we see this: Jesus walks out to the disciples on the lake; they are afraid; Jesus reassures them by identifying himself; Peter says, “If it’s you, let me come to you”; Jesus calls him; Peter walks on water; Peter becomes afraid and starts sinking; Jesus calls Peter one of “little faith” and wonders why he doubted; Jesus and Peter join the others in the boat. These things we know for sure. In addition—and I think this is important—we note that Jesus does not challenge the other disciples for staying in the boat. From the looks of things, they weren’t all meant to walk on water.

We don’t know whether Jesus intended for Peter to walk on water or if he was just responding to his request. We don’t know to what Jesus was referring when he asks Peter why he doubted: did Jesus mean to ask why Peter doubted his ability (through Jesus) to walk on water or why he doubted Jesus’ self-identification or maybe both.

The problem I see with the popular interpretation of this passage is that it makes much of Peter’s getting out and walking on water, but makes little, if anything, of his doubt. In addition, the popular reading tends to project a negative image on the rest of the disciples (who did not get out of the boat) which the text in no way calls for.

The second, and possibly more insidious danger in how we read the text is hearing what we want to hear. I think this danger is possibly worse than the first one because it appeals to our emotions so much—we understandably like hearing positive, encouraging things, and we don’t like the resulting feelings to be questioned. We may continue interpret a passage a certain way simply because it’s a nice, encouraging sentiment, because we want it to mean that. What we want it to mean may even be a true sentiment, but it may not be the meaning of the verse or passage. Nobody likes a bubble-burster; nobody likes to have their bubbles burst. We may reject  a bubble burster’s attempted bursting by saying, “But my reading is also true, right, so…” as if the truth of an idea is itself enough to justify imposing on any old text. This is the problem with proof-texts or life-verses like Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you…plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future”): it may be true about me in a general way (insofar as I fall into God’s redeeming work in history), but this verse is not about me or you, it’s about Israel first and foremost. So I can claim this verse as my hope for my part in God’s future for creation; I’m not sure it’s proper for me to claim it as God’s specific promise to me and my life as it relates to my career or family or retirement, as much as I would like it to mean that.

How does this apply to the popular reading of Jesus and Peter walking on water? The popular reading smacks a bit of a Christianized version the “American dream”: you can do great things through faith in Jesus, almost to the point of Jesus being the means to the end of doing great things. We like to hear the message that God has wonderful things in store for us and that we are destined for great things if only we would believe and act. While I am inclined to say that, with some reservations (e.g. those mentioned above in reference to the Jeremiah passage), that this is true, given what we know and what we don’t know about this passage I don’t think we can honestly say that this is what this story is about.

For one, the story survives if we take away Peter’s part of it, as the other gospels have done. One could say that Matthew included it for a purpose, but the knows and know-nots of the passage are such that it’s difficult to say what that purpose might be. So I’m inclined to think that we misplace our focus if we pay too much attention to Peter in this passage. I think the story calls us, not to walk on water, but to trust in Jesus, whether he wants to walk on water or stay in the boat. Jesus where our focus should rightly lie.

My other concern with this story and our superimposing the things we like or prefer on it is how we define “walking on water.” I think the tendency is to think of this as “doing great things” for God (at least on the surface) or otherwise. But there is no clear idea as to what such “great things” might be. Will we then come up with our own things? will we superimpose the American dream of wealth and happiness? I’m reminded of Jesus’ observation that the poor widows offering of a few coins was greater than the large offerings of the wealthy; I’m reminded of the Beatitudes: the great things of the world are not the great things of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus may well be calling you and/or me to “walk on water,” but I’m not convinced the story of Peter’s walking on water is intended to do this. Neither am I convinced that “walking on water” would be becoming the next Billy Graham or Mother Theresa any more than becoming a peacemaker in our communities or sincerely praying for our enemies and wishing them the good life.

And so ends today’s musings on scripture and Peter walking on water. You may wonder why I would waste so much time and energy talking about this passage. You may even think this is all done in resistance to the truth in this passage. You might be right. Time will tell. Part of this post is certainly “reactionary.” But I find great joy in this sort of thing: to go back to a passage like this one (or, say, Genesis 1), to really pay attention to it and wrestle with it again and again.

Closed hands and self-reliance.

“Yet so many religious people are in bondage to their religion! They are like John Wesley in his post-graduate Oxford days in the Holy Club. He was the son of a clergyman and already a clergyman himself. He was orthodox in belief, religious in practice, upright in conduct and full of good works. He and his friends visited the inmates of the prisons and work-houses of Oxford. They took pity on the slum children of the city, providing them with food, clothing and education. They observed Saturday as the Sabbath as well as Sunday. They went to church and to Holy Communion. They gave alms, searched the Scriptures, fasted and prayed. But they were bound in the fetters of their own religion, for they were trusting in themselves that they were righteous, instead of putting their trust in Jesus Christ and Him crucified. A few years later, John Wesley (in his own words) came to ‘trust in Christ, in Christ only for salvation’…” (John Stott, commenting on Galatians 4:1-11, in The Message of Galatians).

Yes indeed. Salvation through faith as nothing more than open hands and surrender.

The things Wesley and his friend did were all good and admirable and appropriate to do. It’s the motivation that’s the problem. All of those things should be a response to a salvation freely offered, an act of gratitude for God’s prior gift to us, rather than a “necessary” act to earn something from God.

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.

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…

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.”

Islam and Current Events

Today was the first day of a week-long class called “Islam and Current Events” (interesting timing with the death of Osama bin Laden). It was very stimulating. The professor (Dr. Nabeel Jabbour–from off-campus) noted that there are two sides of the coin in terms of what is presented regarding Islam and the Middle East. Muslims get one side; the West gets another. One of the aims of the course is for us to get the side we don’t normally hear.

Joel noted accurately that pretty much everything he said today is new material. It was all very interesting, but what was of particular interest to me was trying to understand Islam from a Muslim point-of-view.

Christians normally approach the topic with what they assume is a direct-correspondence approach: compare our guy and their guy, our scriptures and their scriptures. They have Muhammad, we have Jesus; they have the Qur’an, we have the Bible. We make the connections, assuming their figure and scripture are analogous to ours, and think we understand Islam.

Dr. Jabbour argued that this kind of comparison does not, in fact, work to understand Islam. Christians won’t understand Islam if they assume the same thing about Muhammad and the Qur’an as Christians do about Jesus and the Bible. It’s not simply a matter of saying, the Qur’an is their authoritative book, just like the Bible is our authoritative book.

In fact, the comparisons that work–that is, the views that we could say are analogous between the two religions–are quite unexpected. Here are the main ones we discussed:

1. We  cannot directly compare Jesus and Muhammad. Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the eternal, uncreated word of God. Muslims believe nothing of the sort about Muhammad. In Islam, the closest analogy to Jesus is actually the Qur’an, which they believe is the eternal, uncreated word of God.

2. The closest analogy for Muslim belief about Muhammad is Mary, the mother of Jesus. Both Mary and Muhammad are believed to be passive receivers of the eternal, uncreated word of God–Jesus Christ and the Qur’an, respectively. Mary was a virgin, meaning that Jesus wasn’t simply the result of normal reproductive means. Similarly, Muhammad was illiterate, meaning that he did not just record the words of the Qur’an on his own. Mary was miraculously pregnant; Muhammad received the word of God by dictation, which his photographic memory retained rather like a tape recorder. Both have historically been venerated.

(I’m not interested in discussing critiques of the virgin birth or the dictation theory of the Qur’an. I’m simply highlighting the proper belief-comparison as discussed in class.)

3. The Bible and the Qur’an are not directly comparable either. The 10 Commandments would perhaps be comparable, because they are believed to have been dictated (actually inscribed) by God. Historically, however, Christians have not officially believed in a dictation theory of the Bible (divine inspiration and dictation are not the same thing). The Qur’an, by contrast, is believed by Muslims to have been dictated by God (through the angel Gabriel), so that it is the direct word of God.

The best analogy for the Bible in Islam, then, is their books on the life and teaching of Muhammad. Muhammad made a distinction between the dictated revelations he received and his own teachings, much like Catholics make a distinction between the pope’s ex cathedra statements and his other teachings. The professor didn’t say whether Muslims consider Muhammad’s non-dictated teachings authoritative, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they do.

So, an interesting lesson. It won’t do to simply compare Jesus and Muhammad or the Bible and the Qur’an. The proper analogies are, in fact,

  • The Qur’an and Jesus
  • Muhammad and Mary
  • The Bible and books about Muhammad’s life and teachings

Fascinating stuff.

Open Hands

I suppose I’d better post something. Two posts of largely non-original material–”Bob Ross” and “Footprints in the Sand“–continue to receive far and away the most hits on this blog, even on a day-to-day basis. I’m not sure what to do about that. Nothing, I suppose.

In the first half of Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, which I have unfortunately not finished, Miroslav Volf writes about giving and how it relates to God. He describes God as pure giver, saying, “In relation to the world…God’s gifts only flow out” (37). He goes on to qualify the giving of God:

When God gives, it’s not a transfer of goods. We receive things from God not because God takes them from here (where God happens to be) and places them there (where we happen to be), but because God is present where we are and is continually giving to us all the things and abilities we have. To return something to God would be like pushing back to the giver the hand that gives (41).

I am, of course, just presenting a skeletal view of what Volf has to say in this section of the book. I found it particularly interesting in what he had to say with respect to faith. The distinction between faith and works has, in recent years, become less clear to me–at least as presented in the evangelical circles I grew up in. Faith is something one must “have” (or possibly “do”) in order to be saved. It is presented as almost a cognitive thing–an act of the intellect. So, I wonder, how is this different than a work?

Volf helps clarify this for me by putting faith in the context of a giving God:

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. That is why, as Luther put it, faith “honors God”; it tells the truth about God and our relation to the divine Giver and ascribes to God what is due (43, emphasis mine).

Is holding my hands open to receive a work? If it is, it’s extremely passive (and borders on laziness!).

Post of the Year

Who am I to say what my post of the year is?  I suppose that should be decided by my readers.

We’ve arrived in Prince Albert and I’m fully into the early stages of the flu: runny nose, aching body, chills, headache. What a way to start the Christmas break!  I suspect it’s as a result of my trying to dig out the van when we hit the ditch the other day. I didn’t have proper snow pants on and spent quite a bit of time out there. Plus, my adrenaline probably ran out when I handed in my last assignment of the semester on Monday.

But I digress. I confess I have neither the will nor the strength scan through all of my 2010 post. No matter–I’m convinced this is the best one. In fact, it may well be the only post I wrote this year that I think is worth reading.

Written on February 19, 2010, it’s a reflection on good, evil, and God, prompted by a Bruce Cockburn song I was listening to at the time. This isn’t a post putting forward tentative theological ideas, as I usually do. These words came from my heart and my guts, which is why, I think, they continue to resonate with me.

* * *

how faint the whisper we hear of him! (Job 26:14, TNIV)

* * *

Here
is bigger than you can imagine
Now
is forever (Bruce Cockburn)

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about pain and suffering and genocide and natural disasters and…God.  Without diminishing the pain and horror, and without denying the legitimacy of our incredulity, our anger at God for allowing these things to happen, I do have the strong sense that we humans are awfully short-sighted in our assessment of what God is or is not doing in the world. What truths can we derive from our suffering when it is but a blip of an event in the continuum of history?  What do we, with our short lives, know about how these things fit in the great scheme of things?

And what of all the beauty and goodness we see in the world?  Should God get any credit for those things?  Should the bad things outweigh the good?

Perhaps it is easy for me to say this sitting comfortably in my Poäng chair at home, surrounded by books, family, love, health and…a roof and walls, but there runs inside me a deep vein of hope.  There is good in the world and it will prevail. I believe this deeply.

Hope does not do away with the pain and suffering, and neither does it justify or excuse it.  Hope does not mean we cannot or do not weep, grieve, shout at God in anger.  What hope does is see, if faintly and uncertainly, beyond pain and suffering to the time when, in Julian of Norwich’s wonderful words, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”.

Tonight I had Bruce Cockburn’s album You’ve Never Seen Everything playing in the background as I worked.  The title track is quite a powerful song.  On first listen it comes across as a heavily political song, which is not unusual for Cockburn.  It is a dark song, sparse instrumentation, with lyrics spoken in a low, tired, almost pained voice.

The listener is presented with a series of vignettes showing the dark underbelly of the world: viruses, suicide, murder, drug trade, sexual harassment, consumerism, poisoning of women and children, rage, greed, and so on.  After a couple of these vignettes, the words, “You’ve never seen everything”.  For example:

And a car crashes and burns on an offramp from the Gardiner
Two dogs in the back seat die, and in the front
a man and his mother
Forensics reveals the lady has pitchfork wounds in her chest -
Pitchfork!
And that the same or a similar instrument has been screwed to the dash
to make sure the driver goes too

You’ve never seen everything

The listener is shaken out of his or her stupor: there is so much darkness beyond that comfortable little world you’ve created for yourself, he seems to be saying. You think you get it?  You think you understand the world–like watching the nightly news gives you any sense of what’s going on?

For the longest time I would simply skip over the song.  It was too dark, too discomforting.  And the only reason I did choose to listen to it was to get to the chorus, which is a rich, beautiful melody dropped in the middle of those dark vignettes:

Bad pressure coming down
Tears – what we really traffic in
ride the ribbon of shadow
Never feel the light falling all around

Until tonight I wasn’t sure what to do with that chorus, other than enjoy it as a brief reprieve from the dark images being spoken around it.  The song is the shadow, it seemed to me, and the chorus but a thin ribbon of half-light running through it.  But suddenly, tonight, perhaps in confirmation of the things I’ve been thinking about hope, I realized what the song is actually saying.  It ends with the chorus and repeated mantra:

Bad pressure coming down
Tears – what we really traffic in
ride the ribbon of shadow
Never feel the light falling all around
Never feel the light falling all around

You’ve never seen everything

It’s not the darkness we haven’t seen around us, it’s the light!  We think we’ve seen it all when we see the pain and sorrow of the world, but we haven’t seen everything: we haven’t seen the light falling all around, filling all the infinite space in which the ribbon of shadow moves.  We choose to ride the ribbon of darkness when we could just as well ride the light if we are willing to see it.

In fact, the album ends quite abruptly a few songs later on the word “hope”.

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The original post is here if you want to follow the discussion that went with it (comments there are closed, but they are open here).