These rough and undisciplined thoughts begin in politics, touch on art, but ultimately, I hope, plead for thoughtful engagement on persuasion to a more beautiful way of living. They have been catalyzed by the dismaying outcomes of the political processes of this election year. But they have been a realization that has been dawning for some time. Though I am going to attempt to be as charitable as I can in their expression, I doubt I can utterly diminish the deep frustration and irritation I feel at the state of the conservative movement and, relatedly, traditional, or small-o orthodox, conservative Christianity.
In this season, we are both in the beginning of the Advent season for “western” Christians, and in the middle of the “eastern” Advent, the Christmas Fast, for Orthodox Christians. In this time of year, when we can tune out the noise of the commercial mercantile season, we hear notes of hope and waiting. This season is the time where we enter mystically, spiritually the experience of ancient Israel, as well as the entire cosmos, hopefully anticipating, waiting for, the appearance of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Although merchants focus us on the joy of the season, so that we’ll purchase their things, the Christmas joy is not yet. We’re in the time of hope and waiting.
It’s important to make sure we keep this distinction. Oh, yes, I know, even the Orthodox hymns of this time are already starting to “turn the corner” with their joyful hints and glimpses of what’s to come. And even though Orthodox traditions in the United States still try to keep a spare and penitential theme during the Nativity Fast, we’ll still celebrate St Nicholas’ day with gold-foil chocolate coins in the shoes of the children on December 6th, St Nicholas’ Day, and it’s not unheard of that Christmas stockings with candy, nuts, fruit and little icons will be passed out to the children near St. Nicholas’ Day. Yet, even so, Orthodox keep this season in fasting and almsgiving. We will feast. For twelve days beginning Christmas Day. But now we wait and hope.
The assurance of faith is often talked about in terms of feeling. We feel assured, we feel a conviction in our hears, we feel confident of a belief or hoped-for outcome. And there is no doubt an aspect of assurance that involves feelings. The difficulty however is that feelings are fleeting. They come and go. We may feel assurance about something, but days or weeks or months later, no longer feel that assurance. And then after a time, we once again feel that assurance. If that’s assurance, that’s not very sure.
Part of the dilemma is that we normally associate conviction with knowledge. If we know a thing to be true, we are convinced of it. But if we are uncertain about something, then we normally assume we don’t have enough knowledge about the thing. Or, worse, we assume that we lack faith. Because if we have faith about a matter, we believe we also will have strong feelings about it. We separate out faith and knowledge. And, tragically, since we tie faith and feeling so closely together, we lose a vital aspect of faith, which is to bring assurance to our hearts. Or, to say it another way, assurance is the expression of trust. We are certain of a matter, because we trust that it is true or will come to be true. Assurance is the exercise of faith itself.
Jacob, trying to throw off the stifling yoke of his father-in-law, Laban, flees with his wives, children and possessions. But leaving Laban brings him into the path of Esau, his brother, from whom he stole the birthright. Pinched between two enemies, Jacob prepares for the worst, then heads off by himself to pray. Dawn reveals Jacob wrestling with the angel, then marked by a limp. He next meets Esau, and avoids war.
Samuel heads to the home of Jesse, on a mission from God to anoint a king. Moved by the word of God in his heart, he anoints the youngest son, David. It took another decade and a half before David was finally installed as King of Israel.
Daniel, in Persia, sends aloft a prayer for understanding. Immediately, God sends his messenger. But the messenger is opposed by demons, and it is three weeks before Daniel receives his answer.
Word comes to Jesus of Lazarus’ illness. He waits long enough for Lazarus to die. Four days later, Lazarus emerges from the tomb.
We wrestle not against flesh and blood, Paul tells us. Our lives as Christians are constantly immersed in realities we do not perceive with our senses. All around us is an immaterial reality we do not see, which our prayers influence and which influences our prayers.
More than a year and a half ago, I wrote a blog post on the way God intertwines his divine freedom with our human asking (Prayer’s Co-creations). In that piece, I contrasted a view of prayer in which one tries as hard as one can to pray God’s specific will (either like trying to hit the small point of a bull’s eye, or just tossing up some prayers and hoping some of them will be answered like winning some sort of “prayer lottery”) with a view that encompasses God’s divine freedom with our true experiences and desires as his and our co-creations. I gave the two examples of the wedding feast at Cana in which Jesus turned the water to wine, and of the Syro-Phoenician woman who was first rebuked by Jesus for her request to heal her daughter before then granting her prayer. I made the point there that, at least with the Cana wedding, it appears as though God shifted his divine plan of redemption so as to include the gracious mercy of meeting a humble human need.
I want to think further on this idea of God’s enfolding our prayers into his divine plan, but this time from the standpoint of the one praying, using the metaphor of apprenticeship.
[Note: the following is an unspoken sermon, a sermon written but not preached, for my Grandfather’s funeral. It was Grandpa who gave me the opportunity to preach my first sermon, and so it seems fitting that on the occasion of his repose in the Lord, I compose a sermon in his honor.]
Twice in the ministry of Elisha, prophet of Israel, these words are spoken: “My father, my father, the chariots and horsemen of Israel.” The first occasion is when Elisha doggedly follows Elijah across the Jordan and sees Elijah translated alive into heaven in the fiery chariot and horses. Elisha is given a double portion of the Spirit of Elijah and begins his ministry. The second time is when the evil king, Jehoash (or Joash) of Israel goes to Elisha when Elisha is dying. Seeing Elisha dying, Joash cries out, “My father, my father, the chariots and horsemen of Israel.” Whatever we may say of these two occasions and the meaning of these words, we can at least say that both times they are uttered, the men who utter them are recognizing the end of a ministry, the gathering to his fathers of a man of God.
I have been listening to some excerpts from a recent book on the person of Jesus. Frequently, in the podcasts at any rate, the author inveighs against the “spirit of religion,” calling it a contagion which infects an otherwise healthy relationship with God. While I’ve not read the new book and so would not claim to have an adequate understanding of the author’s critique against, or definition of, religion, I do not think it is religion that is the problem, or at least there is no Christianity apart from some form of religion.
I have written elsewhere on this blog on an incarnational understanding of religion. But I want to take a little different pathway here.
It has been popular within American religious circles in the past couple of decades (since, say, the Jesus Movement) to deny being religious but to affirm being spiritual. If one is religious one is “going through the motions,” is concerned with form over substance, isn’t really a Christian. If one is spiritual one has a “personal relationship” with Jesus, can worship in the forest as easily as in a church building, is a real Christian. Yes, religion has taken a beating. No one wants to own up to being religious. Best to be spiritual. The problem is this is a false dichotomy.
The Gospel story, told in Matthew 9, Mark 5 and Luke 8, is a familiar one. Jairus’ daughter is dying (Mark and Luke), or has died (Matthew), and Jairus seeks Jesus to heal his daughter. He is in a mortal hurry. He bids Jesus come that he might heal his daughter and save her from death. There is no time to waste. She may die at any moment.
In our modernist, enlightenment world, faith and hope seem to be of a different species than knowledge. Hope points to the future, which is not something about which we can have any knowledge. Faith seems built on unverifiable first principles–that God exists, or even that through reason we can know anything at all. Knowledge is the only thing that seems grounded in any sort of empirical reality, the things we can see, taste, touch, smell and hear, the things of which we can have personal experience. But are the differences so stark? Is there some sort of relationship here that we can tease out? Is it possible that it is faith that bridges for us the sphere of knowledge with the future of hope?