A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Faith in impossible things

From Alice in Wonderland…

"I can't believe that!" said Alice.

"Can't you?" the queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again, draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."

Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said. "One can't believe impossible things."

"I dare say you haven't had much practice," said the queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

That seems to me a pretty good definition of faith. Over the years I’ve really had some doubts about myself as a person of faith, because so many of the impossible things I was brought up to believe in within the church kept making me stumble. So much so, I finally started pushing them out of my way. I believe Noah’s Ark is a mostly fictional story. I am not a creationist, meaning I don’t believe in a literal interpretation of the two Genesis creation stories. I have my doubts about the virgin birth. I don’t even believe Jesus came to die for our sins. I think it makes way more sense that Jesus came to show us how to live.

The thing is, each of these examples are treated as foundational issues of faith within Christianity. I say this, because I used to be a pretty typical Christian. I fit the stereotypes to a T. I remember when I was a college student how ticked off I got when one of my religion professors called the story of Jonah and the big fish into question. Or when I spent a year living and teaching in Eastern Europe, the righteous indignation and offense I felt when a pastor told me she didn’t believe in the virgin birth. I went to seminary a devout creationist and was happy to talk about it with anyone who would listen. I remember letting go of the Noah’s Ark story in one of my seminary classes and feeling the ground shift under my feet…wondering if my faith would survive anymore surrender.

Most shocking was several years ago when a friend asked in a group if we really believed God had sent Jesus to die on the cross. She found that line of thought quite disturbing and it had become a real obstacle for her on her faith journey. But her question was an obstacle for me. Because until that point I certainly had never thought to question traditional theories of atonement. It really felt like if I let go of that foundational piece of my religion, surely it would all come toppling down on my head.

And yet, here I am, still with a fairly shaky faith, but still intact. Since that time, I’ve loosened my grip on still other cherished traditional religious beliefs and have come to believe that faith is a fairly shaky proposition at best, as long as we see through this mirror so dimly. But following my last on post, on Christmas Eve, I had an epiphany moment. I realized I have just as much faith as the next religious person out there. In fact, at the risk of sounding prideful, I might almost be tempted to say I have more faith than the average Christian. It is simply that I and others like me, we stake our faith in such different places than the vast majority of Christians.

Noah’s Ark, the Virgin birth, these are some impossible things I choose not to believe in anymore, before breakfast or otherwise. But I’ve found these pieces to be no more than pleasant window dressing in the first place. They are so very peripheral to the whole shebang. Even traditional atonement theory seems to me to skate around the edges of the real deal. That’s not where I chose to sink my faith.

No, I’m staking my claim in other impossible areas. This has become increasingly clear in the weeks following the Newtown tragedy. My faith is all wrapped up in Jesus - in what he said and how he lived. To me, this is the whole point of the story. And I’m in good company. Many, many others today and over time feel and have felt the same way. This was certainly the focus when the church got going and for the first several hundred years after, as we find recounted in the book of Acts.

So my faith has more to do with the teachings and the example of Jesus and the ways in which following this instruction and example has and can continue to revolutionize this world. I have faith in this gospel playbook and the ways in which it can reveal God’s Kingdom in the here and now.

When I hear Christians lobbying for war. When I hear Christians hollering about their gun rights and their desire to ensure their loved ones safety with weapons. When I hear about Christians pushing for cuts to social programs that protect the poor and vulnerable. When I hear about Christians who think God rewards them with wealth. When I hear about Christians who vehemently oppose the idea of health care as an inalienable human right. Well, it seems like they’re sinking their faith into religion’s window dressing rather than into the nitty gritty truth of the gospels. It seems like they don’t have faith in the idea that another and better world is possible. It seems like they don’t have much….well….faith.

I did a quick journey through the gospels again this week looking for the guidelines in Jesus’ playbook, for those nuggets that inspire so much of my faith.

Here’s what my very cursory survey turned up. In Luke 4, Jesus marches into the temple and declares his very life mission. Quoting from Isaiah he says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he had anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” In a similar vein, he describes his ministry for John the Baptist saying, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them (11:5).”
In Matthew 5 and again in Luke 6, Jesus instructs his followers, instruct us, to love our enemies. In Luke he continues on telling us to do good to those who hate us, to bless those who curse us, to pray for those who abuse us, to offer our other cheek.

Jesus advises us to not store up treasures for ourselves here on earth (Matthew 6:19) and in the next chapter tells us not to judge other people either. A sin I‘ve already committed in this post.
In each of the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), a person asks Jesus how to become great in this life. In Luke, Jesus replies, “You want to be great? Serve others (22:24-27).” In Matthew, he tells people they must become like children if they really want to be great (18:1-5). And in Mark, Jesus insists the only way to be great is to be last (9:33).

In all four gospels Jesus consistently says the greatest commandments are to love God and to love neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-28; John 13:31-35). And using the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke, he makes it clear, not only that our neighbors are all of humanity, but that loving is the path to eternal life (10:25-37).

In Luke, Jesus calls us to be a hospitable people, offering ourselves to those who will never be able to repay us (14:12). In Matthew, Jesus tells us that when we feed the hungry, when we clothe the naked, when we welcome the stranger, when we care for the sick, when we visit those in prison, we are, in fact, ministering to God (25:31-46).”

Jesus, much to his followers’ dismay, insists on being utterly defenseless as he spends his life teaching, healing, praying for and feeding the masses of needy people who flock to his side. He repeatedly tells his followers to listen, to pay attention, noting that most people will choose not to listen, will choose not to understand (Matthew 13:3; Mark 7:14; Luke 6:27; Mark 4:24 - among many others). He follows that up urging his followers to be not hearers, but doers of the word (Matthew 7:24-27).

And for all those who would warp Jesus’ words and actions to better make them fit with other more comfortable passages in the Bible, Jesus also makes clear he came not to abolish scripture, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). Meaning, everything Jesus taught and did was a fulfillment of the very essence of the Old Testament. And everything that comes after the gospels is derived from the life and teachings of Jesus.

It takes a lot of faith to believe Jesus meant what he said. To believe that if we were willing to listen and follow, we could make amazing and seemingly impossible changes in this world. But everyday people do take Jesus at his word and they do accomplish the impossible. Such folk are called idealists, naïve, deluded. So be it. That’s exactly what I want to be. If we can’t even begin by imagining a world without war, for example - a time when we all do finally beat our swords, our guns, back into plowshares, if we can’t imagine this Biblical vision, then it truly is an impossible pipedream. But I can imagine it. And many others can as well. I believe this is the direction we are moving and I invest my faith in this possibility.

What I love most about Christmas and most about Easter is these seem to be thin times in our calendar year. Times when God’s spirit seems to breathe on us in a more tangible way, empowering us to imagine new possibilities, to dream of new heavens and a new earth. The impossible seems possible.

But now the work begins, the time to take our big impossible dreams and work to make them a new reality. Howard Thurman’s, “The Work of Christmas” speaks to this truth.
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

There are many impossible things in the Bible I choose not to believe. But if Jesus said it and lived it, than I believe Jesus meant it. Along with the Queen of Hearts, may we all spend a half an hour a day encouraging our sure belief in the impossible vision of Jesus, a vision that lacks only faith on its journey toward possibility.

by Lynn Schlosser


Laurie said...

I take a similar approach to the Bible. This is what brought me to a relationship with God. I figure it doesn't matter if I believe all the details, as long as I believe the message. Its hard to deny the messages the Bible tells are true. If I have skepticism about a virgin mother or a global flood, its ok. I think some people just find it easier to have faith if they take a more literal approach. Its not easy to question things and still have faith.

Regardless of ones thoughts on why Jesus was killed, I feel his horrific death has saved us from our sins. If he had died a quiet death at s ripe old age, we might not be following him in 2013.

I think the hard part is having faith that our current world could turn in to something that resembles what Jesus taught. I think this is where we have to think like children. I pray that we can all see things through the eyes of a child.

Lynn Schlosser said...

Thanks for your comments Laurie. It does seem like the greatest test of faith is actually living as though the world Jesus talked about could be achieved in this time rather than in an ethereal, everafter reality. I so agree this is where we learn from children. Children believe in impossible things all the time. Their faith sometimes sustains my own.