Tag Archives: faith

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen Saves the Weekend

Sometimes, being squished on a United Airlines plane — heading for a conference that promises to be discouraging, in a land broiling under a smoggy sun — can be inspirational! Take heart!

Suddenly, the screens tilted down and Ewan McGregor appeared. I quickly rummaged around and found the headphones because it was Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. I did not go to the Ritz to see this movie because I thought it had to be silly, even if Ewan was in it. Now I will need to buy a disc to add to my collection, right alongside Brother Sun,  Sister Moon.

I did not realize it was all about faith sneaking up on the over-bureaucratized. I did not know it was full of little epiphanies converting fear-ridden people. I did not know it was about a couple coming together over mutual faith in something that is a miracle rather than just a sensation. What a pleasure!

Even though I could barely see the piddly screen and could not see any subtitles. I got the picture. And I got the inspiration. A rich Arab tries to do something wonderful with his money. European bean-counters and petty office workers are lifted to something organic and eternal. Cultures learn about each other in a real-world scenario; bad things happen and they decide that faith is more important than  giving in to fear and hatred

I paid to see Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. (Well I guess I paid an airline ticket for Salmon Fishing….too). But I was not as well served. That one just retreaded the idea that love saves you, which looked even more unsatisfying when everyone blew up. Salmon Fishing had the same vile people doing the same vile things and the same lovers trying to make sense of it all, but they find something beyond their embrace to embrace and it makes all the difference. They did not exactly find Jesus, but Ewan starts praying — and that gives me hope.

I know I did not give you enough plot to convince you that this is not a silly movie. But take my word for it. Put it in the queue.  It actually unleashed a couple of hours of inspiration in me on an airplane serenaded by a grumpy baby! That’s something. It keeps coming to mind while I am in the Yemen of my conference wondering if salmon will ever run again. That’s really something!

Stop Eating that Damned Apple (Please)

I want you to know…that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any human, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. Galatians 1:11-12

I have been talking to several cell leaders who feel like their cells are drowning in discussion fomented by people who would probably kick people out of their “Bible study” if they said something like Paul said to the Galatians, above. A lot of these dear complainees went to a rationalistic church that started them down the road to seeing their faith as an exercise in thinking the right thoughts and organizing their lives around them.

So what do they want to do in their cell, now that they have moved out of the church of their youth and are thinking their own thoughts in the big city? They come to the cell meeting, the discussion is left open to see what God has been revealing, and what do they do with the kind people who are leaning in to listen? They lead them to continually scratch their heads over some conundrum. They keep coming up against the imponderables that rationalistic Christianity leads to. They keep bumping up against atonement theories that they haven’t thought through. They want to re-discuss the trinity. They love the topic of predestination. If you bring out the Bible they’ll start channeling some professor debunking its historicity or consistency and they’ll want to compare it to the latest Buddhist tidbit their yoga teacher passed on.

Their faith is an argument, not a relationship. And most of the time they didn’t really understand the argument to begin with and never really bought it. I, for one, love all these discussions — when they are open-hearted and part of a real struggle for faith they can be beautiful. But they can be hard on a cell leader. Because when they are just the dark side of someone resisting Jesus, they are tiresome, even dangerous. When they are merely an unconscious, stuck person floundering around in the mire that bad teaching created for them, they can be pitiful and sad.

Paul is speaking out of his experience with God (and I am too), THEN he makes an argument. He is worried that the Galatians will begin with the Spirit and then return to the teachings of mere people. He is afraid that Jesus has not really been born in them and so they are easily duped into returning to mere religion. The cell leaders to which I am referring feel his pain. The prison doors have been opened and certain friends won’t walk out — they rebel against being imprisoned, but they are still discussing the terms of their sentence, post-parole.

Ironically, while pondering the theories of Bible interpretation, many Christians we meet have missed main messages of the Bible. For instance, they eat the apple every day:

Rembrandt Adam and Eve

“You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
            When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked… Genesis 3:4-7

When the goal of faith has been reduced to knowing stuff, when faith is about feeling the security and power of knowing the secrets and explaining everything perfectly; it is easy to feel naked all day. People come to our cells from parts of the kingdom of God where folks are trying to stay covered up all day and the main pursuit of fellowship is all about collecting another piece of data to add to their wardrobe. They are always trying to look right. They only trust people who seem to know it all. And they tend to try to be know-it-alls themselves, even though everyone can see that the data is not covering their human parts. Did God tell them they didn’t know enough? I don’t think so.

The Bible repeatedly says that knowing anything begins with knowing God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Eat Jesus, not the apple again. Then we can talk about faith.

Principle Christianity Is Too Easy to Choke On

But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop. Luke 8:15

The Lord’s parable of the sower is a hopeful story. But no more hopeful than creation itself, in which a single seed actually does result in many more seeds, even hundreds of seeds.

But the parable is also a starkly truthful story, and that can feel very discouraging. Because some seeds don’t take root, some are eaten by birds, and some, even when they take root, can die from lack of water or by being choked out by weeds.

I’m thinking about seeds that are getting nowhere this morning. I’m the kind of farmer to whom every seed counts.

People in the weeds

A matter of principle?
Parable of the Sower
Lisa Snow Lady Acrylic on canvas 2010

I am especially thinking of the much-loved friends I have who have been effectively choked out by weeds, or, by now, have faith that has been so ill-watered for so long that it is about dried up. Even more specifically, I am thinking about my friends who have what I call a “principle faith”. They received “the seed” of the word of the kingdom of God as a set of thoughts, a system of belief, even as oral tradition from their parents. When they took their faith on the road, when it encountered a world hungry for their allegiance, when it was surrounded by the jungle of desire and demand, it did not have the stuff to withstand the weeds of opposition.

A faith based on principle alone has a hard time standing up against other forces demanding allegiance on a more visceral level. But many people were persuaded to rely on principles at an early age. I’m not sure why Christian parents and teachers did this, but they sat their children in classes to get their training for a life of faith. I know, I went through some of these. Among the first things a child learns from such classes is that Christianity is about learning things in a class! In our classes, we were taught stories from the Bible which all had morals — sometimes more like Aesop’s fables than the Bible. We learned principles of faith, which were extracted from scripture. For instance, from the parable of the sower the following principle might be derived, “It is God’s will that I should be good, productive soil and bear a very fruitful crop for the storehouses of the kingdom.”  Advanced students might argue that they had a more accurate principle to propose. And so it started. Every paragraph, even every clause, in the Bible had a secret meaning that correlated with all the other meanings in a rather intricate system of right thinking that one needed to master to be a good Christian.

Do we really need to be better students?

As most children in school do, a lot of the students of Christianity didn’t listen too well. They were like most of the of the students of 11th grade math who never mastered higher math skills and certainly never used them after 11th grade! Hopefully, they aren’t all like me, but I became much more adept at cheating than at higher math skills as a result of trigonometry. If the principles of math are hard to convey, the “principles” of life in Christ are much harder! Math can be reduced to some principles, perhaps. But life in Christ needs to grow among weeds. The inorganic approach to teaching about Jesus needs a classroom to live in, not real life. So there are many problems with the teaching that a lot of my friends received. They ended up with a smattering of good thinking (or disputable theology) and that’s about all they have of the word when they are facing the weighty issues of their lives.

Does everything happen for a reason?

The friends I am praying for this morning have a “principle faith” that took them quite a distance on the pilgrimage of faith, but eventually it got them lost. For instance, a couple of these friends had very disheartening break-ups with people with whom they had been having sex for a year or so (and so the break-up was a no-marriage divorce and felt like one). The only faith they could apply to the situation was the common, unshakeable assurance a mother or teacher had taught them that, “Everything happens for a reason,“ which is an application of a faulty principle based on an interpretation of Romans 8:28 among other things. It wasn’t enough. Their faith started to wither.

People are more compelling than principles

Another main thing that I’ve seen choking out the weak little seedlings of principle faith in many people is the demand for allegiance from an unbelieving mate (usually one they are prospectively marrying). That demand is a virulent weed. Once you have sex with someone, it is hard to have what is always an intimate discussion about faith based merely on a set of morals or principles and not on a relationship with God that is as intimate as a sexual one with your lover. But in the cases of the dear people I am remembering, their relationship with God never got that intimate — it was all on paper, it was all in their head, it was all a theory they were applying and not a life growing in their redeemed heart.

They were never good soil. “Good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.” One can’t hear the word of Jesus like it is more classroom material to be boiled down to the couple of things one can remember — not if it is supposed to withstand robust competition. Noble hearts hear the word from the Word in an ongoing, well-developed, Spirit to spirit relationship that is rooted in eternity — deeper than any human relationship. One has to retain the word of the kingdom of God like good soil retains water – much more than one strains to maintain a relationship with a mate, even. One must hear the word like a call from a master to direct one’s energy to the task of the day – it can’t be the background philosophy that lightly colors what one is really doing.

What does God think?

My friends did not have the faith they needed to stand up to their circumstances. They still have the same thoughts their mother or a well-meaning teacher taught them, but whatever they needed to hear in their heart got choked out by whoever they finally hooked up with. That connection was probably the noblest aim they could come up with, since their faith was merely theoretical and their love/sex relationship quite real. If they were married to the job, instead, as so many are, the job likely parched their scrawny thoughts about God, and the world at large rewarded them with something tangible for that. They may end up great parents and co-workers. But they are not going to be Jesus-followers unless something drastically changes.

Well, they may think they are Jesus followers. But if they don’t open their heart to hear with their heart, if they don’t retain what the Spirit of God implants, and if they don’t doggedly produce the crop of faith, hope and love that their master bought the farm to produce, will God think they are Jesus followers? What would make Jesus think that?

Who Are You?

Saint_Teresa_of_AvilaTomorrow is the day we remember Teresa of Avila (1515-1582).

The famous Teresa was a reformer from the center of Spain, along with her protégé, St. John of the Cross. In response to the radicals of the protestant reformation, which was like an earthquake in the Church of their time, they wanted to return their order to the ways to the hermits that founded it near Elijah’s well in Palestine, on Mt. Carmel (see 1 Kings 18). They ended up with an offshoot of the Carmelites called the “barefoot” or “discalced” Carmelites. [As a total aside, we stayed in Aylesford Abbey last year when in Kent, the site of the first convocation of Carmelites in England in 1240. They had a yard full of elementary kids when we arrived, befitting the order’s traditional love of children.].

When we were in Avila a few years ago, Gwen and I went to the house where Teresa got started on her remarkable, influential ministry. For some reason we were the only pilgrims at the site and had a great museum all to ourselves. On the stairs there was a mannequin of a little boy, replicating one of the moments of ecstasy that popped up in Teresa’s prayer. One day, as she was preparing to ascend stairs leading to the upper rooms of the convent she met a beautiful child. He asked her “Who are you?” She replied, “I am Teresa of Jesus, and who are you?” To which the child responded, “I am Jesus of Teresa.”

Biographers say that encounter with the Lord, as a child, affected her so deeply that whenever  Teresa set out to found a new house (she founded eighteen in all) she always brought a statue of the Child Jesus with her. She did a lot of teaching on contemplative prayer and encouraged everyone to leave their hearts open to visions and mysterious connections with God. But she didn’t want people to seek them or to rely on them.

In Carmelite spirituality there is an ancient custom of choosing a name which uniquely expresses a member’s personal relationship to the mysteries of the faith. Thus there are people like Teresa of Jesus, John of the Cross, and Elizabeth of the Trinity. In honor of these ancestors in the faith, I have been pondering what name I should have.

If the risen Lord were to ask you today, “Who are you?” How would you answer? If you were a Discalced (or other kind of) Carmelite, what new name would you choose for yourself? What mystery of the faith has been central to your life-journey in Christ?

When I pondered this in Teresa’s honor, I realized I have been blessed with so many ways to connect with God that it is hard to choose something central (and Teresa cobbled together another name for herself, as well, since she couldn’t quite decide either). Rod of Jesus works for me, too. Rod of the Silence. Rod of the Pioneers. But mainly, I think, Rod of the church. The mystery of the body of Christ in action: restoring people to their rightful place, redeeming the creation, fulfilling what is left of the Lord’s suffering as a living organism of many diverse parts – I have never been diverted from my passion for it.  Maybe that is why I have a hard time figuring out a name – I would prefer to be named, by my brothers and sisters, as they recognized Jesus in me, Jesus living through me to contribute what I have been given to share.

“Who are you?” How would you answer?

Joseph Helps 30somethings with Spiritual Roadblocks

A friend was telling me about his remarkable triumph over the temptations that accompanied his 30something decade the other day. He reminded me of a series of messages I offered in 2007. Here is an adaptation of one of them I thought might be useful to some of you facing temptations to your fidelity, like Joseph faced in Genesis 39, when he might have been in his thirties….

Part One

Philly 30somethings at El VezThe Inquirer interviewed Daniel Brook at El Vez, up on 13th St on September 2 about  his new book called The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All-America. As they were interviewing, they observed a lot of happy, young professionals enjoying happy hour. Daniel’s take on them? — “They won’t be happy for long.” In his view, the small luxuries, from sangria to Ikea, may come cheap these days, but the ballooning costs of education, housing and health care will soon drive these young people into making the bargain with corporate America they wish they did not have to make.  Daniel Brook says, and I imagine you agree, that a great many 20 and 30somethings are in the process of “selling out,” right now. If you just look at everyone’s school debt or at the inequity of salaries between teachers/social workers and lawyers/big pharma workers, it is so striking, who can consider teaching or doing social work or doing anything that isn’t about surviving? Who can live in Center City unless you go for the bucks? In 1970 a beginner lawyer made $2000 more than a beginner teacher. Now the salary gap is $100,000. The corporate takeover of America under the business-friendly policies of Clinton and Bush, especially, is making freedom to choose impossible if you want to have a family and live in a decent house. In some places, like San Francisco or Manhattan there is no middle class at all anymore, and everyone thinks this is normal.

Daniel Brook is talking about teaching, social work, writing for the City Paper or creating an arts cooperative as occupations for people who want to care. He’s lamenting that such a choice is unaffordable. As Jesus-followers, we’re talking about a life that is not merely a matter of choosing a place in the economic order of things. I’m talking about Christians who receive basic directives like “love your neighbor as yourself” and hear demanding teaching like “If you have done it for the least of these, you have done it to me.” Our choice is not just about how big a house we can afford; we have a moral imperative that is stronger than that impulse; the compulsion to love is bred into us. We can’t help but care, if we are following Jesus. But we face the same social circumstances as everyone else. Will we sell Jesus out for a seat at the economic table? I think that is the big question for 30somethings as they continue on the spiritual journey; and as we’ll see, the answer doesn’t just boil down just to economics, but answering might largely take place in that arena.

Jesus describes the spiritual challenge of the 30s with a picture that every 29-year-old might want to display somewhere in her house. Remember what he said in the parable of the sower? “The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the person who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful.” Put up a picture of a believer getting choked with worry and deceit. That’s the threat of the 30’s.

The story of Joseph the 30something

Our friend Joseph fell into quite a thorn patch, didn’t he? I am saying he is about thirty by the time we get to the part of the story we’re looking at. That gives him a few years to rise up in the ranks of Potiphar’s employees and become the head of his household. But even if he is not quite thirty, he is facing what 30somethings often face. And if we haven’t gotten over the roadblocks we typically face in our thirties, if there is some arrested spiritual development, he is facing the roadblocks any of us could face.

There are striking parallels between him and us:

Joseph, the boy who had the great coat and the pampered place in his family is now a slave in Egypt. 30somethings around here may have grown up in wealthy, pampered environment, as well — similar to the compared to other countries. Now, those same pampered youths are often as good as slaves. They have first-rung jobs; they are in debt; they are working long hours under threat of dire consequences; they get two weeks vacation and no job security; if they are married they may have a couple of kids tying them down to the house with both parents working to stay afloat.

Nevertheless, Joseph, the youth who had his splendid dreams, who seemed full of potential but ended up a slave, is still very capable. Everything he touches prospers and his boss has noticed how he makes things better.  Likewise, the 30somethings we all know are generally more capable than they used to be. They learned from being in their 20’s; maybe they went to school; they have at least been in the school of hard knocks; they have survived. They are bearing the first fruits of coming into their fullness as the person they were meant to be. This fruit will ripen for the next 20 years or so and feed people. It is no surprise that Jesus was a 30something when he died. He was just ready to do what he was sent to do and did it as soon as he could.

So I am mainly talking about the roadblocks to faith that are presented to capable slaves. The roadblock to gaining faith, if you have passed the 30 mark, is often insurmountable, since most people are fully in thrall to some master by then. The master might just be a philosophy, or one’s own entrenched habits of the heart, maybe an addiction, or it may be an actual master, like the job. In my cell last night we named the people who weren’t there because of school, but mainly because of the job – and the absentees assumed that was normal. The job was unadaptable, but their expression of faith was easily pushed to the margins — they didn’t even have a problem with it. So although there are 30somethings who do not fit this description, I think most do and all are going to have their fidelity tested.

For people who have faith, I am still talking about the unfortunate circumstance of basically being a capable slave, caught in some demand that needs to be satisfied and facing serious consequences if the master who is usurping the place of God is not obeyed. Like never before, perhaps, we face the thorns in our thirties. The main roadblock for Joseph is obvious, he literally belongs to someone else! For most of us, it could be more about belonging to one’s employer. Or it could be about belonging to someone else you love. There are serious roadblocks to being faithful to God and doing what God has given you to be and do.

I think Joseph is a brilliant example of what one must do to get beyond the roadblock. His response boils down to two basic questions we will all have to answer, “Do you honor who you are?” And “Will you risk the wrath of the master to serve God?”

Part 2

Joseph was sold to Ishmaelite traders who passed by Dothan on their way to Egypt. They showed up just in time for Judah and his brothers to flag them down. The boys must have shouted over the braying of the camels, “Hey what do you say about buying this fine potential slave we have in a pit over here? We think you’ll find him dreamy, just like we do.”

It is very possible that the main salesman, Judah, is a 30something, or nigh on to it, when he makes the sale. Judah spent his twenties being a jealous, rapacious youth. By this time, he is hardening into a bitter, greedy adult who can traffic in brothers. As we know, God can use anything for good, but that doesn’t mean Judah is going to be spiritually present for the results of God’s grace. His act unwittingly ends up saving his family and he, personally, fathers the tribe that produces King David — God may use you, too. But that doesn’t mean you won’t make yourself disposable after you have pursued yourself or some other master instead of God. Life is meant to be lived in relationship with God. If we don’t do that, we appropriately return to the dust whence we came. God brings the life.

So Joseph ends up in Egypt, delivered by Bedouin Express, perhaps with the shipment of the balm the picked up in Gilead. Potiphar buys him. Some people say they can verify that both Potiphar and Joseph were in Egypt and were the people the Bible says they are, by reading the scarce records of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom during the reign of Pharaoh Amenemhet III

30something temptation

Like many artists have done as Noel Halle did, portraying Potiphar as old and his unnamed wife as young. It is a juicy story. Everyone wants to but a brush to it. It looks like Potiphar may been the head of the secret police, so one could paint the whole picture in 1940’s uniforms. Maybe he is the old, established captain of the guard with his trophy wife. She seems to wish she had a different husband. Maybe she has a reason to wish it — he owns slaves; he may own wives, too.

30something temptation

The artists also like to portray everyone in this story naked, but I like this more chaste rendition by Orazio Gentileschi. It is just so hyper real! — with the beautiful work on the red curtain in the background; it is kind of a “still life with seduction.”

The story is relatively predictable and gets played out on the TV about every night in one way or another. What doesn’t get played out on TV (except on Saving Grace which is a lot like the story of Joseph), is that God is in the middle of this predictable story. Joseph is actually considering God, and that makes all the difference in how this scene gets played out. Joseph is faithful to God; and the story is about how his fidelity is being challenged by his subjection to a master and the invitations of a potential sex partner. If he can maintain his fidelity he will be with God and God will be with him and we can move on to the next challenge.

Considering God, being faithful and moving on seems like just what should happen; the choice is obvious to anyone who follows Jesus — that is, until you place it in the workplace.

  • In the workplace so many of us are convinced that mentioning Jesus it is impolite, if not illegal – “Better to be put in jail, then,” Joseph might say.
  • Or put us in a relationship with a sexual partner and we might not think morality makes that much sense any more if “they love me and want me.” Some people would sell out God for a chance at sex or love or whatever it is we are doing since we moved in with each other – “Better to never have sex, than not trust God,” Joseph might say.
  • Or put the choosing in our social circle in which half the people are ambivalent about Jesus, at best. We are tempted to give Jesus up whenever we are around such friends because it isn’t nice to believe things and we don’t want to seem pushy by being ourselves or thinking we know where being ourselves leads – “Better to have no friends than to trust such friends,” Joseph might say.

But the fact is, 30somethings have been sold out and they are tempted to sell out.

Joseph does two things that are brilliant.

1)      He honors who he is. This begs the questions “Do you honor who you are?”

When Potiphar’s wife wants to have sex, Joseph remembers who he is. “No one is greater in this house than I am.”

30somethings are getting hold of their true selves and operating out them, or not. It is their great task.

Listen to Jesus working this out. He tells people who are essentially trying to get him to conform to their way of thinking in John 7:28-30 “I am not here on my own, but he who sent me is true. You do not know him, but I know him because I am from him and he sent me.” Jesus knows where he is from and why he is here. In the face of his opponents he reaffirms who he is and honors his true self, even if others discount him.

It is not easy to be confident about being who we are, especially when we are just learning about that. Sometimes we have a slippery hold on what we’ve been given and what we’re sent to do. That’s why it is so important, during the first fruits of our thirties, when we are feeling our capability, being useful, possibly nurturing a young family and marriage, that we honor who we are. If your faith makes it to thirty, you will be especially challenged to maintain Jesus at the core of who you are. It is the prime sell-out decade for believers.

Joseph was tempted to doubt that what was entrusted to him was worth being faithful to. He was tempted to give up his integrity for an orgasm. It seems that he considered the prospect and then came to his senses. “No, I won’t do this, I am who I am.”

Going through this doubt and staying faithful to our true self is fundamental to overcoming the 30something roadblocks to faith. For instance, if you get married, you’ll face a subset of the problem when you are tempted to doubt the love in your marriage and start over somewhere else instead of going through the problems and letting them refine who you really are, like all good marriages do. The emotional landscape is littered with people who did not make it through that doubt. Many of them are still kicking themselves for giving in to Potiphar’s wife in one way or another. Even if you did give in and you were not faithful or they were not faithful to you, God is much bigger than your faithlessness. But you’ll still have to recognize what you’ve still got from God and go with the maturation of that.

The doubt about who we are, especially applies to our fidelity to our relationship with Jesus. Being 30something is often the biggest challenge to that relationship because the other masters are in full competition for our allegiance. We have something to offer the powers that be and they want us. We can become excellent slaves for their greed or other pursuits. Once they get us in their thrall, we often get re-educated to think about things their way. They pay us to learn their ways. They buy us to do so. They fire us if we don’t. We begin to doubt that following Jesus is worth it. He can tag along if he likes, but He hardly has the stuff to lead. We have to answer hard questions — Do I have Jesus? Is Jesus enough? Who or what owns me and my time? Do I honor Jesus in me?

2. This brings up the other brilliant reaction Joseph demonstrates that saves his fidelity. He risks the wrath of the master. It begs the question, “Do you ever risk the wrath of the master?”

When Potiphar’s wife lures Joseph to go against what is of God, he says one of the phrases in the Bible that everyone needs to put in their knapsack to bring out at the appropriate moment (like 100 times a day), “How shall I do this thing and sin against God?”

The easiest thing to do might have been to have sex. Joseph doesn’t have his own wife, it appears, so having sex would be nice and she wants to do it. But even more, if he doesn’t do what she says (she is the master’s wife, after all), anyone could see that she might get even. She’ll start screaming and enrage the old man, upon whom Joseph’s whole life depends. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t – that’s life, unless you are faithful to God. Joseph hangs on to his faith in God and risks offending the master and his wife!

Jesus is frank with us about the likelihood of these situations. And I don’t think when he was telling his disciples this, he wasn’t telling himself, too (in Luke 12:47ff), “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”  Don’t you think Jesus was a Joseph? Wouldn’t he also say, “I would rather risk the wrath of the earth-bound people who threaten me than sin against what is from God for all eternity.”

Getting through this fear is the way through the roadblock to faith that comes up in our journey through the thirties. That is especially hard these days, because our whole country has been bending the knee to fear since 9/11. People have been appalled this week that the junta in Myanmar (which our president’s insult-first policy causes him to call Burma), has been surrounding Buddhist monasteries and keeping the monks from going out to protest. It is such naked domination. Meanwhile, the powers that be here in the U.S., have been using the means of domination (mainly the money to buy the air waves and direct the communication) to convince the country to spend billions to pursue Osama bin Laden in Iraq when he is in Pakistan making videos, all out of fear. We’re all reacting to it. Joseph does not react to his fear of the future when he refuses to jump into bed with Potiphar’s wife and that is what keeps him moving toward becoming the man he is destined to become.

More specifically for believers, we have to face our fear of the consequences of following Jesus. Just being a Christian can be a fearsome thing. We have some Joseph–like believers in our cell; I hope they will tell you stories. But, we also have a lot of friends who are really struggling with the fear they have about being a Christian. Simply not doing what others are doing because they go to a cell meeting and a PM each week makes them a weird person in the eyes of their friends and family – that tiny show of devotion gets them in trouble with other masters! What if they did what the Holy Spirit really compels them to do? What if they said what they really believe? What if they doubted out loud about the things that run them, like the things that run them doubt about them? I sent a youtube screed by Bill Maher the other day as an example of what we’re up against.

We’ll see the results of Joseph’s actions in full as the story goes on. At this point we see that his actions get him thrown into prison — where he prospers. The upside-down logic of God is something that 30something Joseph is now fully capable of accepting and living out. All us 30somethings have come to that age and can do it, or not. Now is the time. You’ll either be a slave to an earthly master, committing adultery against God, your husband, or you will honor your true self and dare to risk the consequences of faithfulness. You’ll say right in their faces, speaking the truth in love, “How could I do this thing and sin against God?”

Mustard Seed Faith

Recently a friend of mine got me thinking about faith-as-small-as-a-mustard-seed moving mountains because we sing:

Si tuvieras fe como grano de mostaza
Eso lo dice el Senor
Tu le dirias a la montana
Muevete, muevete
Esa montana se movera, se movera, se movera

 Shouldn’t this song come with a warning label? Something like: “We don’t really think this is true?” Or “No mountains were injured in the writing of this song?”

A mustard seed amount is more than enough

Why does Jesus say, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20) if He doesn’t really mean it?

mustard seed faith

That’s a good question. It is an especially good question if you were taught all your life that the Bible was feeding you the kind of truth that the philosophy of our day considers truth, namely, that truth is something you can test and see repeated when you try it again. If the formula says mountains will be moved and they aren’t moved, then it is not a true formula. Sometimes such thinking claims to be about “literal” truth, like truth is whatever gets written down and can be proved by someone else with the same methodology. I think Jesus speaks a deeper truth than that surface truth.

But Matthew 17 is very confusing for “literalists.” I feel their pain. First Jesus is up on the Mount of Transfiguration revealing to his inner circle that there is just a thin veil between His Father’s dimension and our own — but also reveals the dimensions to be very different. Then he announces his impending resurrection. Then they come down the mountain and he completes an exorcism that his other disciples could not do. And why can’t they do it? They don’t have enough faith. It is a wild chapter.

Live in Matthew 17 until you change your mind

Perhaps we should live in Matthew 17 until we understand it and stop basing our ideas of faith on things we can already understand and do, like being nice, or applying moral principles or acting on a stripped-down methodology that passes for being forgiven of our sins. (I digress…with hope in my heart).

Many people come away from what Jesus says about not having enough faith looking for a formula for getting enough faith. But I think the whole point of his statement is not about what we lack, it is about what we don’t lack. He is ultimately being very positive — realistic about us, but full of hope. Yes, Jesus is as frustrated as we are that we have less spiritual capability than we ought to. But even if we rely on Him just a little, his work of death and resurrection allows even the little faith we have to do things that were previously unimaginable.

When I sing, “Muevete!” I am expressing my hope in Jesus, not taking on the ultimate challenge to prove Jesus worthy of worship by my miraculous excavating. Obviously, Jesus is not rearranging the planet for his convenience, either, so he must not mean for us to look for faith that is mustard-seed size somewhere in our inner being and prove his validity as a Savior and our value as followers by moving Mt. Everest to Beijing. Some people give up on the Bible because that isn’t happening and say, “The Book just plain contradicts itself!” But I wish they’d soak in it long enough to see what’s really happening.

Resist reducing. Surrender to adult faith.

When there is a surface meaning that isn’t working for us, we do need to argue it out until we can receive its deeper content:

  1. Ignoring or reducing things we can’t understand keeps us infantile.
  2. Being content to endlessly argue keeps us adolescent.
  3. Working with the risen Lord to experience something of what his inner circle did on the Mt. of Transfiguration is adult and better.

Rather than focusing on how mountains are not literally moved, or on “how much faith is enough to cast out a demon,” I think we should rejoice in what the-little-faith-we-have has done in us and through us that would have been unimaginable without it.

For instance, that we should believe any parts of Matthew 17 as true must be an act of God-with-us. That we want to ponder and even argue about who Jesus is and what he did surely could only be the Spirit of God drawing us. That we know we are forgiven and destined for an eternity of connection with our creator is a big change. That we care whether we have enough faith to make a difference is a conviction only a Spirit-changed heart would have. That people continue to be comforted, saved from self-destruction, and energized to foment justice and hope by their faith in Jesus is just what Jesus was predicting, wouldn’t you say?

Not satisfied without a mountain being moved? I am not sure you are respecting the faith that causes such discontent, but who knows what will happen next?

About “Losing My Religion”

I have been pondering the de-evangelization of a few of my friends, lately. So it struck me when a blog kept popping up on the WordPress “hits list” about “Losing My Religion.” I have one friend whose new buddy is a Moslem. I have another who has “these Buddhist friends.” And I know all sorts of ex-evangelicals who are struggling to overcome years of trying and failing to “get it right.” They are losing their faith, too — or, at least, it is being undermined. There are a lot of attacks on faith in Jesus being waged, some with good targets in bogus Christianity and others attacking the truth. It is not an easy day to be a follower of Jesus.

So this person’s top-twenty reasons for losing faith kind of stung me. He seems to be losing what I call “crap Christianity” not any real faith. I think most people should lose what he is losing in order to form an actual relationship with God! So I feel compelled to try brief answers to his brief statements, just to get my two-cents worth in – and maybe to dissuade someone from thinking they are losing their faith when they are just asking the right questions.

His thoughts are in italics, my replies are not. I hope you’ll add to my thoughts, as well.

[This post is so long, you may as well take more time and go here, too, before we get started]

“I began to question why the god of the Bible is more believable than all other gods worshiped on earth. With the mountain of evidence staring me in the face, my faith began to die.”

Trading faith in God for an assessment of evidence is a definite change of world view. My faith is evidence of things unseen. Jesus is revelation, not another fact among many with me at the center living a life of endless sorting.

I finally moved past guilt and admitted to myself that I no longer believe in Jesus or the god of the Bible. Surprisingly it was a relief. Not because I wanted to run wild and sin freely, but because I no longer felt the weight a Christian carries. The weight of guilt, unworthiness and fear of god’s judgment.

This seems like a true sign that a person has only met religion, not God. The whole point of the work of Jesus is to free us from the weight one feels, not induce it! We may sense a weight of glory, but hardly of judgment.

His top twenty reasons for losing his faith.

1. God is wrathful, jealous, hateful, and kills nations of people like it is a bodily function. He is certainly not just or “holy” in nature.

The formation of the chosen people of Israel is not the last thing God did. Postmodern people parse Bible data as if what one did when he was twelve is equal to what one did when he was fifty. Humankind has been growing and God has been very creative in working out how to redeem us. We relate to God, not assess his immutable character, as we see it.

2. The act of throwing people into infinite torture and punishment for not believing a Jewish guy from 2,000 years ago was God’s son, or unknowingly worshiping the wrong god, is extremely cruel and sadistic.

Which is why I don’t believe that. People who follow Jesus rise from the dead to everlasting life and those who don’t follow don’t have the life. There will be a painful recognition of this lack for those who don’t, but no eternal torture.

3. The statements, “God works in mysterious ways,” or “It will all make sense in heaven,” are little more than irrational cop outs. This God allows horrible atrocities to be committed against innocent men, women and children every day.

I mostly agree; those are cop-outs. I don’t throw God out for inept or wrong-headed followers.

4. Bloody animal and human sacrifices are illogical demands by a divine god as payment for petty wrong doings. These actions are no different than the rituals of archaic pagan religions. Not to mention the bizarre ritual of symbolically drinking human blood and eating human flesh.

Archaic pagan religions may be smarter than sanitized, atomized, OCD, postmodern religions of no religion. Regardless, a bloody, bodily, connective God who connects with us in Jesus is beautiful.

5. If God loves us and wants us to know and believe in him, why be so completely invisible? What is the purpose of being so illusive to those who believe and worship him?

For one thing, God is not us, so it takes some multi-dimensional capacities to have a relationship. More to the point, turning our backs makes him invisible. Nevertheless, Jesus is visible. The body of Christ is visible. The works of God’s Spirit are visible. The creator is visible in the creation.

6. God never manifests himself or performs miracles as he regularly did for the Israelites in Old Testament stories.

I’m not so sure about that. The OT is the condensed version of hundreds of years of history. If one condensed the last 2000 years into the same amount of written material, the miracles would be incredibly dense.

7. Prayers are never answered. Certainly not in the way Jesus described. Prayer has absolutely no affect on the world around us.

Nonsense. Even I have my own anecdotal evidence to refute that. God responded to my prayer last night.

8. Jesus did not fulfill major Old Testament prophesies or even fulfill his own promises and predictions.

So? Chances are he will. But I am not sure he was obligated to do anything but what he was sent to do, anyway. People do, however, make a big deal about how Jesus “proves” his validity as Savior by being the fulfillment of prophecies, so it is a worthy criticism. If Jesus were Nostradamus, maybe he would be untrustworthy.

9. The authors of much of the Bible are unknown. And of these unknown authors, the men who wrote the gospels likely never even met Jesus considering they were written 40-70 years after his death. A far cry from reliable testimony.

The man who wrote these questions does not even use his real name on his blog, so he is unknown as well – he has an ironic complaint. Regardless, hundreds of people validated the testimony of the gospel-writers. The whole community of believers has been assessing the testimony and validating it for centuries. It is hard to imagine a more reliable and tested revelation. But everyone writing the Bible thinks God will verify the testimony himself, anyway.

10. The Bible is repeatedly contradictory with itself, reality, and the laws of morality. Couldn’t God inspire a less poorly written book?

Of course the Bible contradicts itself if all one thinks it is is a moral lesson or systematic theology. The whole Bible is not meant to be morally exemplary. When King David has Uriah set up, that is hardly a suggestion to “have someone killed effectively.”

11. The Bible is open to interpretation. Everyone interprets it in the way that suits them best or serves their purposes.

Of course we interpret. We are humans, not robots. Hopefully, we discern, not just compare notes.

12. Throughout history, Christians have justified horrific actions by the Bible and its teaching.

So? They were wrong. They have also caused amazing transformation.

13. The Bible promotes hate and persecution against women, homosexuals and those who worship other gods or no god at all.

No, it actually promotes their wholeness. What’s more, the western world’s promotion of human rights is a direct expression of the Christian respect for human dignity and individual value. Democracy is basically Christianity without God, which is what makes it so attractive and dangerous.

14. According to the Bible, nearly 70% percent of the people in the world will burn in hell because they don’t believe Jesus was the son of God.

Another ironic complaint. If you don’t care about God, why would you care about being with God? Just go ahead and die. Again, I don’t think the scripture fully teaches that people burn in hell forever. They may go to ash; but all dead bodies, do.

15. The only reason I was a Christian was because I was indoctrinated into the religion as a child as a result of the culture and region of the world in which I was born.

That is too bad. A lot of people never gain faith because of that.

16. Christianity has no more rational or factual foundation than any other religion on earth that I openly reject.

These points are all just personal reactions, so it is hard to understand what is behind them. Maybe the writer has done some great thinking, but it does not appear so. Having done an awful lot of research, myself, I think religions are much more different than people have been lead to believe by postmodern, dumbed-down, pluralism promoters. The similarities are great; people come up with great stuff and long for love and life, but Jesus is a deeper foundation. Faith in Jesus is rich and very satisfying rationally, too.

17. The Christian church is disjointed and can’t even agree with one another.

That’s for sure. This is the best reason so far, that I can see, for not being a Christian. I’m often surprised that God keeps drawing people to himself by means of the church. But it happened last night after our 7pm meeting.

18. Christians are not at all ethically or morally different from non-Christians.

I think that is a good reason to become a Christian. We need to be saved. My morality does not prove Jesus, but my immorality proves my need for Him.

19. Today, powerful church leaders steal, lie and molest young children. The church repeatedly attempts to cover up these atrocities, only to reluctantly apologize as a last resort.

I think the author is mostly talking about the Roman Catholic church, which should either reform or disperse. The number one reform that needs to happen is ending the requirement that priests are celibate.

20. It is absolutely irrational to continue to believe archaic teaching with the amount of knowledge we’ve gained through science and technology. The Bible reads like a book of primitive folklore, not divinely inspired insight into our true reason for existence.

The Bible is hardly the only source of inspiration for Christians, as the Bible teaches. I agree that everything about God is not summed up in the Bible. But it seems crazy to think that knowledge is summed up in “science and technology,” which is what plenty of scientists say.

What do you think? Any faith out there? Having any stories about speaking back to the de-evangelizers?