Sunday, January 24, 2010

Who Are You

Sermon preached January 24, 2010

Text: Luke 4:14-21

After last week, I thought I needed to begin with music that rocked out a bit.

The Who, "Who Are You

Who are you? That was the question his home town people were asking of Jesus – who are you? He chose to answer by quoting a Scripture from his tradition, Isaiah 61. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has 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.
With these words Jesus is saying important things about who he is and about the mission which he believes God has called him to. Jesus is a Spirit-person, someone who sought to embody God’s Spirit and to follow the winds of that Spirit. Spirit people tend to their relationship with God, they take time to care for their souls.
Jesus was a Spirit person with a mission, a mission to teach – to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim release to captives and recovery of sight. Jesus mission went beyond teaching to enacting his teaching by healing and freeing people. There are inner and outer aspects to Jesus mission. He wanted to transform people’s lives from the inside – to free their souls, to help them see life more fully and truthfully, to heal their inner oppression. Jesus also pointed to God’s dream for the world, a dream of a world without oppression – a more just and peaceful world, a world in which the poor and sick were cared for. While he did not create this world completely, he taught that this was God’s dream for the world, the work of God’s Spirit in the world.
Who are you Jesus - - - a Spirit person who wanted to see lives and the world transformed.
The question, “Who are you?” is asked of us, too. It is asked of us as individuals and of us as a church. It is a question we should ask ourselves as a church, a congregation. Who are we?
The United Methodist Church of which we are a part says that the mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. That is an important part of who we are. We exist to make disciples of Jesus Christ, to make ourselves disciples, and to invite others into the journey of discipleship. We exist to work with each other and with God to make the world different, better. Again, there are inner and outer dimensions to this. We are Spirit people, too, and the Spirit of God is the Spirit of God as we know this in Jesus. As Spirit people, we are to tend to our hearts, minds, souls. We seek ways to be shaped inside by God’s love, God’s grace. But that is not all that being a disciple of Jesus Christ means.
Until 2008, the United Methodist Church said that the mission of the church was to make disciples of Jesus Christ – end of sentence. At that General Conference, the General Conference in Fort Worth the proposal came to change our official understanding of the mission of the church so that it would become – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” While it sounds pretty uncontroversial, it was vigorously debated. People argued, rightly, that a complete understanding of being a disciple included working to transform the world. However, it can become too easy to hear that language of discipleship and think only of inner change. Who are we? We are people on a journey of inner transformation who seek to transform the world.
But making disciples is a broad notion. If we at First United Methodist Church are Spirit people seeking to make disciples and make a difference, we need to take the next step and ask ourselves, what does a disciple look like at First United Methodist Church? Where are we called, more specifically, given our gifts, graces and history, to focus on making a difference in the world? While these may seem like silly questions – what does a disciple of Jesus Christ look like here? – I don’t think they are. Donald Evans, a theological ethicist, in his book Struggle and Fulfillment writes, “Even the New Testament teachings of Jesus and about Jesus… sanction a wide variety of emphases in life and belief” (156). Different Christian communities emphasize different elements of Christian faith and tradition.
I can illustrate this easily by recent news stories. A couple of weeks ago Britt Hume on Fox News, speaking of Tiger Woods, said that Buddhism, which he believed Tiger practices doesn’t offer “the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith.” Hume encouraged Tiger Woods to become Christian. Is that the kind of disciple we seek to form here at First UMC. I don’t think so. While I believe Britt Hume offered his faith perspective in a well-meaning fashion, his words displayed an inadequate understanding of Buddhism and did not seem very sensitive to Tiger Woods as a person. Does he even know if Tiger is Buddhist? We want disciples who can share Christian faith, and share its resources of healing, forgiveness and new life, but we would want them to be respectful and knowledgeable about other religious traditions, and respectful of persons.
After the earthquake in Haiti, Rev. Pat Robertson offered a theological rationale for what had happened, noting that the Haitians had long ago made a pact with the devil that if the devil would help them get rid of the French, they would worship him. Since then, Rev. Robertson offered, Haiti has been cursed. Somehow the kind of disciples we want to produce here don’t see God as narrowly jealous and vengeful and peevish.
So what do disciples of Jesus Christ look like here at First UMC? In answering this questions I am relying on my own thoughts and observations and on feedback from our recent church conference. Disciples of Jesus Christ here at First UMC are welcoming and inclusive – we work to keep barriers from getting in the way of community here – barriers of age, race, background, orientation. Disciples of Jesus Christ here are committed to growth – we see life as a journey. Disciples of Jesus Christ here want to bring out the best in each other, affirm our gifts. Disciples of Jesus Christ here ask questions – we want a faith that appeals to head, heart and hands, one that is open to mystery and complexity. Disciples of Jesus Christ here really want to make a difference in the world. We are very United Methodist in that. If anything, I think we can be tempted to short-change the inner parts of discipleship. I want to keep ever before us statements like this from Donald Evans: The variety of issues in adult life should not be evaded. The person who is immersed in political activism or progressing in meditation may also be struggling against a terrible inner despair. (Struggle and Fulfillment, 158)
Disciples here have a deep desire to make a difference in the world. We are compassionate and seek to grow in that compassion and live more compassionately. We are socially conscious and seek to not only help the hungry but change systems so that there is less hunger in the world. The toughest question we need to ask again and again is knowing that there is always more good in the world that needs doing than we can do, where is God calling us with our gifts, graces and history to work to make a difference. We have identified some areas like our ministry with Lake Superior Elementary School, our participation in the CHUM Gabriel Project, our work with the kids from Northwoods Children’s Home, our music program which involves a range of persons from children to adults and styles from contemporary to classical to jazz. We always need to ask what next and what more.
Who are we? I have been trying to answer that question a little bit, and we need to keep asking that. As we grow in our self-understanding as a congregation we will find new ways to grow in making disciples and making a difference. One final note. We can paint a nice picture of who we are, but we know that we won’t always live up to that picture. We see life as a journey and sometimes we stray along the way. We are also a community of faith that trusts in God’s love, grace and forgiveness. God accompanies us all along the way as we seek to make disciples of ourselves and others and as we seek to make a difference in our world.
Who are we? We are disciples of Jesus Christ.
Who are we? We are Spirit people tending to our inner lives.
Who are we? We are Christian seekers on a spiritual journey.
Who are we? We are a welcoming and open people.
Who are we? We are a compassionate people.
Who are we? We seek justice and a better world.
Who are we? We are First United Methodist Church, a people on a journey of making disciples and making a difference and we welcome any who wish to join us along the way. Amen.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Roll Out the Barrel

Sermon preached on January 17, 2010

Text: John 2:1-11

I have spoken of the transforming power of God’s Spirit and Christian faith. Here is some evidence. (Play the first part of “Beer Barrel Polka”).

The Andrews Sisters "Beer Barrel Polka"

You see, until this week, I had absolutely no polka music in my personal music library. None. Zip. Nada. Then I came up with this sermon title and I was just going to use it as a title, but during the course of the week I have had enough people ask me about the song that I sought it out to play it. But now my whole self-understanding is in the midst of transformation. I am now a guy who owns polka music – “Polka Till You Drop.” Could colorful suspenders and funny little hats be far behind?
Now to say I had no polka music in my library is not to say that I had never heard the music before. My growing up years had more than their share of polka music. As a kid I attended a lot of weddings of my dad’s cousins – he was the oldest of fifty some. Most were Catholic weddings, about ninety minutes long, I think – where you had the wedding followed by a mass. The service seemed kind of long, but that was only part of the day – later in the afternoon, family and friends gathered, often in the church school gym, for a meal, and in the evening there was dancing - - - and yes, we danced the polka. It was a lot of fun, though I never bought any polka music until just this week!
Thinking back on all this, you know, there seemed to have been a disconnect between the church and the school gym – serious stuff here, fun stuff there. But I think that in our lives and in our faith, we need to see the two intertwined, we need to seek joy, to welcome joy, in the midst of our deep and serious work.
The challenges in our world are many, deep, painful and we take them seriously. We grapple within with wounds from our past, with patterns of behavior that don’t serve us well but are hard to break, with patterns of thought that create in us more stress and heartache than is necessary. A few weeks ago I confessed to my struggles with “awfulizing” – taking a minor disappointment or setback and making it a sign of the apocalypse. After church, many others confessed to that same struggle.
We grapple in our world with challenges that can leave us breathless. On the weekend when we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. we need to acknowledge the on-going struggle in our society with racial reconciliation. The evidence that we are not where we need to be is all around: Harry Reid, Senate Majority leader quoted in a recently published book as remarking that President Obama was more electable because he was a light-skinned black and spoke well; former governor of Illinois, Rob Blagoavich saying in an interview that he was “blacker than Obama.” What does that mean? We are still trying to figure out how to live together amidst our difference. Then, of course, there is Haiti - - - 50 plus thousand dead from an earthquake, bodies being bulldozed into mass graves because that it all that is possible, the entire thing almost too devastating to comprehend.
Still joy – that’s one of the issues our gospel reading puts before us – extravagant, overflowing joy, joy rooted in trust in God – trust being the essence of faith. As I was thinking about the development of this sermon earlier in the week, here it was that I was going to fly into joy, yet I must confess my heart is heavy today, my heart and soul are not quite at the “taking flight” stage. This week we celebrated the lives and mourned the losses of Nath Beck and Barbara Ballou. Since December 1, I have led such times of celebration and grieving (funerals/memorial services) seven times. The depth of the tragedy in Haiti has hit close to home. Since they moved to Duluth, I have had the pleasure of getting to know April and Judd Larson, she the pastor at First Lutheran and he the interim pastor at Our Savior’s Lutheran. Thursday it was announced that their son, Benjamin, a seminary student who was in Haiti to work with a Lutheran Church there, lost his life in the earthquake. I can only dimly imagine their grief and sorrow.
Still, this is the text for today, and still I think joy has something powerful to say. Because of Jesus, there was joy in Cana at a wedding feast. The dancing continued. Because of Jesus in our lives, there can be joy even in a tragic world; there can be joy even as we seek to be healers in a wounded world. Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983) was an Orthodox priest , teacher and writer. In his journals, Schmemann wrote: I think God will forgive everything except lack of joy…. Joy is not one of the “components” of Christianity, it’s the tonality of Christianity that penetrates everything. Hyperbole? Yes, but the point is well taken – the basic tone of Christian faith is not dour determination, it is not passive piety, it is joy - - - joy even in a tragic world. John 2 invites us to say “yes” to gladness and joy, even as Jesus said “yes” to Mary when she asked his help in keeping the party going. We can find joy because we trust that the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus is still at work in the world working toward healing, reconciliation, compassion, care, beauty, justice, and love. Jesus is still at work in the world and no earthquake, however devastating, no action however hurtful, no injustice however widespread, can finally defeat this tenacious gracious Spirit of God. We say “yes” to gladness and joy, when that joy is flying and dancing. When our hearts are aching we say “yes” to a joy that soothes and sustains us. And we need joy for that. Joy sustains us in difficult times. Joy helps us get through. Joy awaits us on the other side of disappointment and sorrow and joy can be part of the healing process.
Always, always, always we need to connect the church which takes God’s call to healing and hope seriously with the dance in the gym that celebrates life and nurtures joy.
Let me quickly suggest three possibilities for keeping that connection strong – the connection between the seriousness of our faith and the joy of our faith.
Pay attention. Take time. Notice. Life is often hard. Tragedy strikes. We will be disappointed in life often. Psychoanalyst Michael Eigen writes, “it is not possible to live without injury” (Conversations, 55). He also writes, “we live from wound to wound and joy to joy” (Coming Through the Whirlwind, 179). Joy is there. There is beauty in the world. We need to slow down and take the time to notice, and to celebrate it. We don’t deny the tragedy and pain in the world. I never related well with the Christians I would sometimes see on television who would say something like, “Since I met Jesus my life has been just wonderful.” Life is sometimes painful and difficult for people of faith, but what our faith gives us is an assurance that God is still at work for good in the world and we can see that if we pay attention – take time to notice beauty and goodness and generosity and kindness and caring. Such noticing is a form of prayer
Create small joys. Sustaining joy is fed by the small joys we can create in our lives. You may have noticed that I talk about music, maybe too much, but music is a source of small joy for me. Sometimes it does my soul good to “get lost in rock and roll and drift away” (Dobie Gray). The music that creates joy for me can be mellow: Springsteen, “Lonesome Day;” Dylan, “Shelter from the Storm;” The Beatles, “In My Life,” Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Dear Prudence;” Miles Davis, “Blue in Green,” “My Ship,” “Miles Ahead;’ John Coltrane, “Naima,” “After the Rain.” It can be raucous: Louis Armstrong, “West End Blues;” Brubeck, “Take Five;” The Who, “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Pinball Wizard.” No polka music yet on this list that almost always guarantees me joy. Poetry, too, functions as a source of joy for me. We can create small joys for others. Think of the small joy that comes with a kind word, a gentle smile, a warm embrace, giving a helping hand. Creating small joys is also a form of prayer.
And when we are trying to tackle significant issues like poverty, racism, injustice, violence, may joy be our tonality. I have always liked the quote attributed to the anarchist Emma Goldman, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” God invites us to work with God in transforming the world. It is serious stuff, but it can be done with joy – connecting the sanctuary with the dancing in the gym.
So Jesus shows up at a wedding and creates more joy – wildly extravagant joy. Jesus shows up in our lives and lets us know the importance of joy, and give us the ground for it – the on-going work of his Spirit in the world. We trust that. As followers of Jesus, we know its gonna be all right, even when it is hard. Roll out the barrel. Amen.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

All Wet

Sermon preached January 10, 2010

Texts: Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22

One of the things I appreciated about the old television show, All in the Family, was the way it would address religious themes from time to time. One such episode was about baptism, and it aired in February 1976 (season six, episode 22, 23 February 1976). Archie, the deeply committed Protestant who never went to church himself, is determined to have his grandson Joey baptized. His son-in-law, Michael, does not want this for his child as he is committed to being non-religious. Archie concocts a plan to take Joey to the church with his wife, Edith, while they are babysitting. Edith wants nothing to do with this plan, even after Archie tries to convince her. “You gotta use force, that’s the Christian way.” Foiled temporarily, Archie is undeterred. He sneaks off by himself with Joey, and then the pastor at the church refuses to baptize the baby, Archie takes matters into his own hands and baptizes Joey himself, ending with a memorable benediction – “I hope that took, Lord, cause when I get home they’re gonna kill me.” In his views about and method for baptism, we might say that Archie Bunker was “all wet” - - - pun intended.
In my first pastorate there was a woman about my age who was going through a transition in her faith. We had a number of conversations and it became clear to her that her theology fit more comfortably within the local Baptist Church. She decided to join that church, and even though she had already been baptized in that United Methodist Church, and, in fact, was twelve when she was so baptized, the Baptist pastor told her she would need to be baptized again with a “believer’s baptism.” I thought his theology was all wet – pun intended.
Yet when we are honest with ourselves we might admit that baptism is a bit of a puzzle. We can wonder why such a simple act carries with it so much feeling and creates so much controversy and debate. We wonder, but we are also grasped with wonder by baptism. There is something special about this simple act of being touched by water, something about it that marks our lives. We are often baptized not long after we come into the world, and next week again we will baptize a young child. When our life here is ended, baptism is also present. The beginning words to our traditional funeral liturgy make reference to baptism. “Dying, Christ destroyed our death. Rising, Christ restored our life. Christ will come again in glory. As in baptism ___________ put on Chirst so in Christ may _________ be clothed with glory.” Baptism marks our lives from beginning to end. It is significant, yet its significance is shrouded in mystery.
This morning, I don’t want to take away all the mystery from baptism. Part of the power of art or ritual is that there are mysterious and indefinable qualities that touch us deeply. Still, a modicum of understanding is also helpful so on this day when we read about the baptism of Jesus, let’s reflect for a few moments on baptism.
What is baptism about? What makes it meaningful and significant?
God welcomes. Actually, part of Archie Bunker’s theology of baptism makes a little bit of sense. “Every kid needs to be something.” Every human being should know they are something, that they are special, that they matter just because they are. Baptism is the way the church, in the name of the God we know in Jesus, communicates that. When the pastor extends arms to hold the child, or extends hands out to an adult, it is symbolic of the way God reaches out to all. “I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1). The words spoken at the baptism of Jesus – “You are beloved” are spoken to each of us. When the community welcomes the baptized person, it extends the welcoming of God, and I love the way we do that here with children with a quilt to match our words of welcome.
God accompanies. “Do not fear, for I am with you” (Isaiah 43:5). Just as we are made of water within, and surrounded by water on this planet, so God is with us within and without. God rejoices with us in our joys – tears of joy, a water image. God wills and whispers our well-being. God cries with us in our sorrow – another water image. God is with us in the difficult times – “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (Isaiah 43:2). When we lose our way, God forgives and helps restore us – an image of cleansing, yet another water image.
All this happens by God-with-us, by the presence of God as Holy Spirit. In some Christian traditions, there is a claim made that God’s Spirit needs to come in a different way – that there is a strong distinction between water baptism and baptism in the Holy Spirit. While we don’t deny that God’s Spirit can touch our lives more or less powerfully throughout our lives, we affirm that as in Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit of God comes into our lives meaningfully and powerfully at baptism.
This is pretty powerful stuff. How do we expect a little child, someone without words, to understand it? We don’t. Nor do we really expect the adults baptized to fully understand it. While I understand the logic of believer’s baptism – that a person should be willing and able to accept faith for themselves as a condition of being baptized, I disagree with a major premise – that baptism is most about understanding. There is something beyond our full comprehension about God. God’s grace is not dependent upon our intellectual ability, but is there for us before our awareness of it and beyond our full comprehension of it. That’s the logic behind our church’s practice of infant baptism.
Baptism reminds us that God in Jesus Christ welcomes us, accompanies us along life’s journey – beginning to end - - - rejoicing with us, weeping with us, whispering to us direction for our well-being and the well-being of the world, forgiving us, and giving us new starts and second chances. We are God’s all wet people – not all wet in the manner of being mistaken or all wrong - - - but all wet in that baptism marks our lives from birth to death. We are God’s all wet people dedicated to living out our identity and the vows made at our baptism.
Those vows are powerful guidelines for our lives. “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sin?” Weird question, I know – but when I think of racism, of all the oppressive things human beings have done to one another based on religion, skin color, ethnic identity, orientation I can relate to something like “spiritual forces of wickedness” and “evil powers.” I also see how people get caught in patterns of behavior that do harm to themselves and others. We can get caught up in forces of wickedness and harmful behaviors and need to turn – that’s what repent means.
“Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” God gives us freedom and power – will we use it for good? That’s the challenge to God’s all wet people.
“Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace and promise to serve him as Lord in union with the Church which Christ has opened to all people?” We miss the mark from time to time and need forgiveness, the forgiveness taught and shared by Jesus. We trust in God’s grace experienced in Christ. We pledge our lives to being Christlike, and we do that together with others.
United Methodist Bishop and former dean of the Chapel at Duke Divinity School Will Willimon tells the story of growing up in South Carolina. When he would leave the house, his mother would say to him, “Will, remember who you are.” Today, remember who you are – God beloved, all wet with the waters of baptism, pledged to use our freedom and power well.
It is said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Well, the journey of our life in faith begins with a splash, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to send ripples of love, freedom, compassion, care and justice from that moment on. Amen.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

One Way or Another

Sermon preached January 3, 2010

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12

“We Three Kings” may be the traditional soundtrack to the story of the wise men, but I think this song could also serve as a soundtrack to the story. Play: “The Seeker” The Who
The Who, "The Seeker"

The Magi, the wise men are religious seekers. The wise men were trying to find one way or another, in one place or another, wisdom, the Divine, the Spirit, God. They followed a star that led them to Jesus, found him, then returned home.
Being a religious seeker is nothing new, I guess. Yet seekers have gained in prominence in recent years. In the Pew Forum survey on religious affiliation in the United States released in 2009, the fastest growing group was persons unaffiliated with any faith tradition (16.1% of the population). But interestingly about a third of that group identifies themselves as “religious unaffiliated.” 70 % of the unaffiliated believe in God and a whopping 92% believe in God. Religious seeking seems a growing phenomenon. While doing some research for this sermon I found an on-line blog written by a twenty-something woman in which she wrote: “I’ve been thinking and searching a lot lately for something to believe in. I need something to understand, something to place confidence in.” That is pure seeker language.
To those who are seeking, the Christian faith offers Jesus, the Jesus the seeking wise men found years ago. The essence of Christian faith is that God can be found in the life and teaching of Jesus, that the essence of God is love, and that the life of Jesus also serves as a model for what living in response to God is like. Christian faith offers resources that are true to life – love heals and our world needs healing, love runs into roadblocks because it threatens what is unloving (notice the fear of Herod in this story), love triumphs (after the crucifixion, resurrection). Christian faith offers resources that are true for life, helping us live more lovingly. “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”
So we who are Christian, who have found Jesus, are our seeking days done? I don’t think so. There is still something of the adventurous spirit of the seeker that should be ours. One might say that Christian faith gives us a map, but the territory remains open for exploration, for adventure, for seeking. As Christians we are also seekers, not unaffiliated seekers, pure seekers, but seekers nonetheless. We realize that the God we know in Jesus Christ can be explored for a lifetime.
There is an old story about a billboard that read: “Jesus is the Answer.” Underneath someone had spray painted, “What’s the Question?” As Christians we say, “Jesus is the answer,” but we also know that the questions change, we change, and how Jesus is the answer changes along with that. American philosopher and psychologist William James has this wonderful line that I deeply appreciate. “Experience, as we know, has ways of boiling over, and making us correct our present formulas” (in “Preface” to The Meaning of Truth).
One testimony to being Christian and seeker can be found in the life and work of Marcus Borg. One of Borg’s well known books is entitled Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, a title that itself combines being Christian and seeker. In that work, Borg relates his own story about being a Christian and a seeker, his own story about how one can “meet Jesus again for the first time.”
Borg was raised in North Dakota, in a Scandinavian Lutheran home and church. He grew up with a very traditional picture of Jesus, a picture he held firmly too throughout childhood. Jesus was the divinely begotten Son of God who died for the sins of the world and whose message was about himself and his saving purpose and the importance of believing in him. (6).
In his early teen years, Borg began to have doubts about God, and these doubts filled him with anxiety, guilt and fear. He prayed to believe simply and easily. He left for college at a Midwestern Lutheran school “with a conventional but no longer deeply held understanding of the Christian faith.” (7) A religion course in his junior year proved very helpful. It introduced him wonderful intellectual resources for studying religion and Christian faith. It was a rich and rewarding experience. “But it didn’t help me believe. Rather, it provided a framework within which I could take my perplexity seriously” (8). Borg followed college with seminary at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and there his deep interest in Jesus reemerged through study of the New Testament. He read about all the work that scholars had been doing on the gospels, and his picture of Jesus was reformed.
In his mid-thirties, Borg had another series of experiences which shaped his Christian faith, experiences he describes as “nature mysticism” and moments of “radical amazement.” “They fundamentally changed my understanding of God, Jesus, religion and Christianity” (14). I no longer see the Christian life as being primarily about believing. The experiences of my mid-thirties led me to realize that God is and that the central issue of the Christian life is not believing in God or believing in the Bible or believing in the Christian tradition. Rather, the Christian life is about entering into a relationship with that to which the Christian tradition points, which may be spoken of as God, the risen living Christ, or the Spirit (17). Christian and seeker – Borg’s wife says of him: “he has been looking for Jesus all his life” (6).
Awhile back I read a simple phrase which continues to move me to deeper reflection, something written by a man named Kirk Bingaman where he discusses “the supreme choice facing every person of faith, namely, whether or not to update and transform our psychical image of God” (in Pamela Cooper-White, Many Voices, 23). Even when we find Jesus, there remain opportunities to meet him again for the first time, to update and transform our inner/psychical image of God.
My own life is a testimony to the fact that one can be both a Christian and a seeker. I was baptized as an infant and grew up in the church, though my family was not the most active family in the United Methodist Church of my youth. I made a more active and conscious commitment to the Christian faith at age 14. I was well-formed and well-schooled in a more traditional, conventional, evangelistic form of Christian faith, one I was learning more about outside my United Methodist Church. Like Marcus Borg, I, too, began having doubts and questions about this Christian faith – for me those developed in high school and continued in college. In a theological statement about the church issued in 1999 (Called to Love and Praise) by The British Methodist Church, they noted “our understanding of ourselves as human beings, of human history, and of society has been deeply influenced by thinkers such as Darwin, Marx, and Freud.” In college, I encountered some of these thinkers, and others, who challenged my simple faith.
Yet I could not and did not abandon it. Rather, I took my questions with me to seminary. There three streams in particular reshaped and recast my faith – made it stronger but also made it different - - - theology in general, biblical studies, and process theology. In seminary, I fell in love with the Bible in a remarkable way. When I could see it as both a human and Spirit-inspired document, it opened it up to me. The rich scholarship on the bible makes it much more lively and interesting. It is a book of which we can ask questions, not a simply an answer book. It gives some answers, but provokes even more questions. Process theology gave me a tremendously helpful framework for thinking about how God is connected with all of life and influences all of life.
Seminary was not the end of my seeking days. I became a pastor. Before officiating at my first funeral, I can count the number of funerals I had attended on one hand. Even with those, my family had really shielded me from death. Now I encountered it first hand. My first funeral was for a fifty some year old man who died of brain cancer leaving a wife and five children, the youngest of whom were twins in junior high school. That was about three weeks into my ministry, and within the first five weeks there had been three funerals. I have had to learn about grief and pain and tragedy through this – and I have officiated at funerals for persons from just under two to over 102. - - - five in the month of December.
A couple of years later I remember watching the movie Sophie’s Choice. It is a gut-wrenching story about the Holocaust. I read William Styron’s novel and realized that somehow I needed to grapple with radical evil in the world. I needed to think more deeply about Christian faith and such evil. What particularly struck me is that the Holocaust happened in a country steeped in the Christian tradition, a country which had a vibrant intellectual life. Germany has been a center of theology and biblical studies, and while some theologians and church people stood strongly against Nazism, others said nothing. Some of the anti-Semitism which fed Hitler’s ideology has long roots with Christianity. Faith cannot simply be in the head, not matter how sophisticated the thinking. It must shape/transform the heart, the soul, all of life so that we are kinder and gentler people.
Other experiences and forms of thought have shaped how I understand Christian faith: being a husband and a parent, death in my own family, rediscovering poetry while working on my Ph.D. through the Voices and Visions series on PBS, or rediscovering jazz, again through a PBS series. In both those cases, I had encountered poetry and jazz in college, but they were more tangential interests until they were rekindled. The same could be said for Buddhism and psychoanalysis. A couple of years ago I was asked to teach a course on peace for the United Methodist Women’s School of Christian Mission. One book I read on world religion made me think that there were elements of Buddhism left unexplored from my college days, and I have found the conversation between that tradition and my Christian faith deeply helpful. I was a philosophy and psychology major in college, but had not thought much about psychoanalysis until about a year or so ago when I read Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death. Again this conversation is enriching my spirituality and theology as a Christian.
Toward the end of his long poem “Little Gidding”, T.S. Eliot pens these lines:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

That’s what it means to be a Christian and seeker, to keep finding fresh insights and resources for living within Christian faith. Anglican priest Andrew Shanks writes, “the truth that belongs to the poetry of faith is not exactly a matter of correctness. Far rather, it is the truth of a true challenge: to imagine more, to feel more, to think more – in short, to love more. And so to be inwardly changed.” (What is Truth? 5). Truth in the deepest and most interesting sense is a journey, is a way, and Christians name that way Jesus.
Joan Chittister, in her memoir Called to Question distinguishes between religion and spirituality – both have value, but for Chittister “spirituality” is the life, the heartbeat, while religion the outward form. “Spirituality is a commitment to immersion in God, to the seeking that has no end…. Religion, the finger pointing at the moon, is not the moon…. [To get us there] we need a spirituality of the search.” (24)
We have searched for a home one way or another, a spiritual home for our wandering hearts and souls. As Christians we have found this in Jesus, but what we discover if we dare is that this home has countless rooms, fascinating hallways, walk-in closets, hidden basements which are there for the exploring as our own lives change. It is also a home full of windows, windows which allow us to see the world from all kinds of different angles and which let the light in in countless ways. Welcome to the spirituality of the search.