Sunday, December 30, 2012

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for...

A sermon on Luke 2:21-35
Do you ever find it hard to believe something somebody has said to you? I'm pretty young and probably pretty naïve about the world, but even I sometimes have a hard time taking somebody at face value. For example, my fiance and I are trying to buy a house. There's a lot of trust that goes into this transaction, from trusting the sellers not to hide if your house is the site of an ancient burial ground to trusting your bank or mortgage lender not to take your money and run for the hills. It's an exercise in faith building, and I think it's pretty normal to be unsure and have questions, especially when all you have is the word of somebody you don't know. Faith is a lot like buying a house or taking a job; you don't know exactly what you're getting into but you hope you can trust the word of the people who say they want to help you. You cling to the hope that their word is true, but it's not easy, and faith isn't easy either.

The lesson for today is a great one, but also a tough one, mostly because I can't help thinking “Simeon and Anna, you lucky jerks!” We start out with Mary and Joseph taking the 40 day old baby Jesus to the synagogue to offer sacrifice to the Lord, as was proper for them to do for a first born son. While they're there, they run into an old man named Simeon, who some time ago had heard a word from God that the Messiah would come, and that Simeon would lay his own eyes on Israel's salvation. And so, as the text says, “Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple . . . took him in his arms, and praised God, saying, 'Master, now you are dismissing you servant in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation.'” And then after that, an old widow who spent all her time worshipping at the temple comes up and starts talking about the child and the redemption of Israel. These two devout people got to hold the incarnation of God in their arms; they got to see their own salvation. As I said, lucky people... This is not really an opportunity available to us.

This makes me think of a scene in Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade, where Indiana has to step across an invisible bridge and hope to God there's solid ground beneath his feet. That's kind of how life is. Some things you can at least foresee, like finishing a degree, getting married, or starting a family, but often that's often not the case. Certainly the parents in Newtown didn't anticipate what happened a couple weeks ago. Nobody did. We can't foresee an illness on the horizon, or an accident, or a job loss... you know your life. What kinds of things have popped out at you lately? It can be pretty hard to trust that God is there, and that God is working in the midst of such things.

In fact, sometimes it's hard, in the face of such evil, tragedy, death and sickness, to trust that God ever came at all. That God even exists. That anything will ever change. The whole story of Jesus is pretty fantastical. We start out with an angel from God announcing to a virgin that she's about to give birth, and then we move on to a fanciful and dramatic birth story that involves angels and shepherds, and magi following a star, and then to top things off we're told that this baby isn't just a baby but God, and that God is now walking around on earth. And later we'll be told that this God/man has been crucified and died, and then that he has defeated the one thing no mortal can escape: death. And we're told to just keep believing that in the face of the deaths of children, in the face of political corruption and war and starvation and cancer and... how can we? How can you?

I think there's a myth about prophets and those who testified about Christ, that they never doubted. We even have a bad attitude about the ones that do doubt. We laughingly call a skeptic a “doubting Thomas.” We assume that because Simeon and Anna were described as faithful and devout that they kept a constant vigil, that they never questioned the word which came to them, and that they never had dark moments where the pain of living in an occupied country, where the pain of being poor, of being widowed, of being lonely, or rejected seeped into them and caused them to wail in despair. We assume that they were rewarded with seeing God because of their unwavering belief. We assume that if we look at the tragedy around us and despair utterly, that we have lost our faith, that we have sinned by doubting. But the thing is, this story doesn't say that.

Blessed be Simeon and Anna, for their eyes did see the child Christ. But they never witnessed the angels appearing to Mary or the Shepherds. They never saw the child grow up. They never saw him preach, or heal, or raise the dead. They never saw him wrap so many rejected people in love and kindness, and they most certainly never saw him die and rise again. What they had was a word from the Spirit that salvation would come, and a baby: a tiny glimpse at a plan for redemption which began generations before, and which is still being completed today. And it was enough. It wasn't everything, and their trust wasn't perfect, but it was enough.

Faith isn't about never questioning. I would be remiss as a pastor and theologian if I never asked God why something had happened in absolute rage and grief. I wouldn't be human if I had never asked God why I hadn't heard his voice, or if he was even there at all. Difficulty trusting is human, and doubt is not the opposite of faith. The opposite of faith is certainty. Faith is about hearing a word and trusting the character of the speaker enough to keep believing in the face of uncertainty. It's about seeing a thread of light, of human warmth and compassion in the midst of the most horrific tragedy, and clinging to that as if it were the only thing keeping you from drowning in darkness. Faith is not about knowing where the ground is, but taking that next step anyway, because otherwise despair will chase you, and devour you.

What faith is about is looking long and hard for the ways in which God is revealed. And God is revealed to you. The character of God is revealed throughout the Bible, and through the ways we experience God in our daily lives. That experience looks and feels like a lot of different things: in the midst of tragedy, there is a gentle word from a neighbor, or the embrace of a community. In the midst of loneliness, there is imagination and creativity and vocation to reassure you. In the face of loss, there is hope for the resurrection. God enters into your life in many ways, perhaps more subtle than Jesus entered into Simeon and Anna's, but God does enter. Like them, you have been given a word by the Holy Spirit, and like them, God is being revealed to you in bread and wine, and laughter, and comfort, and in surprising and exciting ways. The beauty of Christmas is the radical declaration that Jesus is here among you, walking with you, carrying your burdens when they're too much and comforting you when you hurt. It isn't always easy to trust that it's happening, or that it will happen, but our God is a God of promise. The word has come; God is with you. Amen.

Monday, December 17, 2012

In our darkest night...

Where do we begin to address what happened in Newtown, CT last week? Where does the Gospel break into our lives when we ache for the pain of parents who sent their children to school one day, and who will never see them again, and for spouses, friends, and relatives of teachers who sacrificed themselves to save their students? This is a terrible tragedy, and one that has spurred on discussions, some sensitive, some not, about public policy such as gun control, access mental health services, school security, and more. Where can Christians go to find peace in such situations, and how can we share peace with those who are grieving so bitterly?

I can't answer that. But what is clear to me is that we have need. We have desperate need of something to heal us in the depths of despair. We have desperate need of something to bring us peace in times of discord. We have need of a voice to call us into compassion rather than selfishness. We have need of love, of understanding, of hope in the darkest of times. There is no good answer to tragedies like this, and there is no good reassurance when, even if you believe in the resurrection of the dead, your heart is split open because of a loss that can never be filled in this lifetime.

We have need. And right now, I think all I personally have is prayer. A prayer for peace, a prayer for healing, a prayer for God to reveal God's self in the midst of this unthinkable catastrophe. Come quickly, Lord Jesus, so night will be no more. Amen.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Christian Freedom

To make a long story short, I was scheduled to fly to South Africa on Sunday from Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. Anybody who has turned on the weather this week knows that the Twin Cities got 15 inches of snow, which happened to be worsening right about the time my plane was scheduled to go out. So rather than losing 5 vacation days, I waited until the roads were clear enough and headed back to my internship site (about a 3 hour drive--took me 4.5!). As I was driving through open fields blanketed in fluffy, white snow, I was listening to a compilation CD I created using music from a few of my favorite Christmas albums, including several from St. Olaf's Christmasfest a few years ago. One song, which I have always loved, is based on Psalm 100. Here are some of the lyrics:

"Make a joyful noise unto God
Sing and dance, be merry!
Celebrate the birth of our Savior!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Alleluia, alleluia,
Alleluia, alleluia,
Jesus the Lord is born
And he died to save us
Alleluia, to set us free. Alleluia!
We are the sheep meaning God is our shepherd
Alleluia, alleluia, and we are free!"

The first time I heard this piece, I was seated in the big recreation center where Fest is always held, and remember gaping openmouthed with tears streaming down my face at that last line. It's really the fundamental statement of our faith as Christians. No longer are we enslaved, in Egypt, to Babylon, to Rome, to sin, to death--we are free because of the Incarnation of our Lord.

There's a lot of misconception about what freedom looks like. We think of freedom as the ability to do whatever we want, and any rules imposed on us from the outside qualify as tyranny. But of course, rules are imposed on us all the time. We can't go around beating people up or stealing, because it may be an exercise of our 'freedom' to do so, but it also violates the freedom of another person. I think often religion, especially Christianity, gets a bad rap because of the rules. We start off with 10 commandments, and it just gets more complicated from there. There are certainly legalists out there who do their part in scaring people away from this approach to faith.

We were created for relationship. That's one of my fundamental presuppositions of my faith. We were created by God, for God and for one another, to be in relationship, and to love one another and nurture one another and creation. Sin is a force which by its nature destroys relationships. Because of that, we may think that what we are doing is exercising our freedom, but what we are actually doing is demonstrating how enslaved we really are. Sins are sins because they harm; us, each other, or creation. If our freedom inclines us to hurt others, we are not free to do what we were intended to do, but enslaved to that which harms.

I love this song because it hits directly on that point. We are free not despite the Shepherd but because of the Shepherd. Because of that guidance, we recognize the danger of following a different path, which leads us to hurt and kill and die. Because of that guidance, we know we are loved and protected, ultimately and infinitely. We, in our most perfect state, as we were created to be, can be known, because of God watching us, shaping us, and cleansing us. I never want to preach about the rules, because you can become enslaved to rules too; but it seems to me that an important question to ask about all our actions is 'who is this serving?' True freedom comes in serving that which is love embodied.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Feeding the Lions: A Reflection on Daniel 6:6-27

After the Babylonians had taken Judah (the southern part of Israel) captive, some Hebrews served in the king's house because they were skilled or of good families. Daniel was one such servant, and he served Darius faithfully, and Darius respected him greatly. Other people in the government became jealous of the respect Daniel garnered from the king and tricked Darius into writing an edict which would could not be repealed to get Daniel out of the way. They convinced the king that he alone should be worshipped (not uncommon for royalty at the time), and when Daniel was caught faithfully praying to the Lord, he was tossed into a den of lions as punishment. Despite being there overnight, God protected Daniel from the lions. The next morning, King Darius went to see how poor Daniel had fared and found him alive and well. Angry that he had been tricked, he had Daniel pulled out of the pit and the satraps who devised the scheme tossed in instead. They did not fare so well as Daniel. Darius then released another edict, because he had seen how the God of the Hebrews had delivered Daniel, saying, “in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel. For he is the living God and he endures forever; his kingdom will not be destroyed, his dominion will never end. He rescues and he saves; he performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth. He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions.” (Daniel 6:26-27)

This text was selected as the narrative lectionary text for the first week of advent. It seems like an odd choice. After all, what does this story have to do with Jesus? It's about lions and satraps and Hebrews (oh my), not about a baby or waiting or any of the other things we associate with advent, right? However, I think this story hits straight at the heart of where we live: in a world full of lions and the people who toss us to them. What's eating you these days?

A friend of mine has been going through a rough year. He lost his father, his son is unwell and he's been tossed into internship same as the rest of us. His son suffers from depression, and if you've ever watched somebody you love struggle with depression, you know the pain involved in loving somebody so deeply and being unable to help them. It's consuming without the added stresses of trying to figure out your identity as a pastor and adjust to other losses and changes. His story isn't a unique one, though. No matter what our lives look like on the outside, sometimes it just feels like we're being thrown into a den with carnivorous beasts that haven't eaten in a couple weeks. Sometimes it feels like your faith makes it even worse because you're so faithful, darn it, why is this happening to you? Why doesn't God do something about this? It just doesn't seem fair to be devoured this way. Like the satraps who wanted to entrap Daniel and get him eaten, the evil things in this world delight in the destruction of our hope.

Daniel must have been so scared down there, watching these lions circle, licking their chops and staring at him with golden eyes glowing eerily in the dark. And yet in the midst of that fear and uncertainty, God was in the pit, standing defensively between Daniel and danger. I'm sure that didn't make those ominous eyes and glinting teeth seem any less sharp, but he wasn't devoured by them, and neither are we. God is standing between us and all the things we fear: illness, loss of job, divorce, etc, gathering us up and taking us into God's loving, protective arms. This is a God whose cardinal role is to deliver us from that which stalks and threatens us, even including the final word of death.

The name Immanuel means “God with us.” Advent is about the kind of hopeful waiting expectant parents feel before the birth of their child, except that we aren't waiting for an ordinary baby that will come at an indeterminate time; we're waiting on God with us, who has already been made manifest here, and who has promised to come again. Daniel is a story fundamentally about rescue, and it nicely sums up the story of God and humans—danger is everywhere, but God is a living God, one who “rescues and saves.” Christ has done it before, and continues to do it until the lion lays with the lamb. No matter what is lurking around you, know that God is with you, and in this upcoming advent season, remember we're not just waiting for a baby; we're waiting in the hope of the final and complete deliverance from all sin and death.

Monday, December 3, 2012

What are you waiting for?

This is a short sermon written for the first Sunday of Advent, based on the text Luke 21:25-36. I wanted to raise a provocative question and play with different ways of hearing the question: WHAT are you waiting for? What are you personally waiting for? What are you waiting for to get moving? I know it can be a bit taboo to preach discipleship, especially in progressive circles (God forbid there should be any requirements on us), but the Spirit moved me in this direction and it was pretty well received

It's that time of the year again! Advent is here, Christmas is coming, and again we enter into a time of anticipation. We are waiting not just for vacation days and presents and family and food, but for the celebration that reminds us who we are—a people who follow Jesus. Advent is about remembering the anticipation of the Savior which the Hebrew people hoped for for so long, but also anticipating Christ's return. Anybody who has a child, niece, or younger sibling knows the anticipation that goes along with pregnancy. Maybe you have waited for a baby to coo at, or for the end of a school year or graduation. We've all waited for the weekend. What are you waiting for?

The gospel text for today speaks of a fig tree, saying: “As soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” Well, the world is kind of a disaster right now. There's political unrest in Syria and Israel, and government corruption is rampant here and abroad. People are dying of curable diseases because they can't afford the medicine, and of starvation for lack of food. But we haven't seen the leaves, yet, have we? We haven't seen “the heavens shaken” as verse 26 declares, so are we supposed to sit and twiddle our thumbs while we wait for Jesus to return? Things stink now, but Jesus will return and fix it all, end of story. Right?

Unfortunately, I don't think so. Theologians have a concept called the now-and-not-yet paradox. What it means is that Christ is already here, but also coming. He declares again and again that “the kingdom of God is at hand” but then practically in the same breath says: “the kingdom of God is coming.” So is it here or is it coming? The answer is, of course, “Yes.” To carry the fig tree metaphor further, let's think about the process of photosynthesis. Just because the tree isn't producing leaves and fruit doesn't mean that it's not working. It's very much alive, soaking up nutrients from the soil, benefiting from sunlight, drinking water, converting carbon dioxide to oxygen, and producing chemicals that will aid in its eventual blooming. The tree is just as there and living in the winter as in the summer. Isn't Christ also here, even if we can't see him? So what exactly are you waiting for?

Are you waiting for things to get worse? Or better? Are you waiting for parting clouds and chariots of fire? For angels or demons? What are you waiting for? A revolution has already taken place, one in which the supreme creator of all life became as humble as a helpless baby. God gave a promise to Abraham and to us, and God responded to that promise by sending Jesus. Jesus who came and stirred things up, preaching the word of God's love. Jesus who came and healed the blind and sick, who cast out demons, who calmed seas and turned water into wine. Jesus who, though the highest king in the universe, died the death of a criminal, and Jesus who defied the powers of death that no human can outrun, and rose from the grave. The heavens have already been shaken by the event that we remember in this season, haven't they? So why aren't we acting like he's already here putting things in order? Why aren't we working right beside him?

What are you waiting for? If all you're waiting for is a day of presents and candy, you know what you need to do. Create your count-down calendar, buy the presents, and wrap them, bake the cookies, and prep the turkey. We put a ton of energy, time, and money into preparing for a single day. Is that what our faith is about? But if our waiting is about the anticipation of this world-shaking power returning and righting things once and for all, why aren't we putting as much time and energy into that event as we do into our Christmas plans and vacations and graduations and birthdays?

Jesus is coming! But Jesus is also HERE! This is great news. And even better news is that in your baptism, you've been trusted with an incredible mission; the same mission that Jesus had when he healed and taught and died and rose. You--you personally, have been called to live in this now-but-not-yet paradox, and to wait with anticipation while also meticulously tending to all the duties necessary for that which is coming, and also already at hand. There are poor now. Give them food and shelter. There are sick now—give them medicine and prayer. There are grieving now—give them comfort. Remember who we are and why we're here. Our faith isn't about presents and snow and Santa. It's about our mission now and the entire year, and our whole lives. Jesus is here, and so are you--so what are you waiting for?

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Trust and Obedience in 1 Kings 17

I wrote the following as a sermon for my class on the Prophets last spring, but this is the Old Testament text for this week. I think this sermon gives a different perspective than the usual take on the text. I've yet to decide if I want to use this text or the Gospel text for the week (The Widow's Mite, in Mark), but all the texts dance around some similar questions like "What voices do we hear in our lives?" "Where is Christ in human messiness?" and "How do we live as disciples?"

1 Kings 17:8-16

8 Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, 9 "Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you." 10 So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, "Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink." 11 As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, "Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand." 12 But she said, "As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die." 13 Elijah said to her, "Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. 14 For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth." 15 She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16 The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.
Have you ever had a boss or teacher tell you to do some asinine thing that didn't make any sense? Maybe it was a parent who told you “don't skate in the house” or “don't eat that cake before dinner.” And inevitably hearing those things made you want to do them that much more. My mom just sent me a message telling me she was told to fill out somebody else's paperwork at her job for no good reason. She said she was sorely tempted to do it in Swahili out of spite. For some reason, the quickest way to raise most people's hackles is to tell them to obey. Maybe it's because we're an independent culture, or maybe just because humans are rebellious creatures, but we associate obedience with infringement; with having our freedom taken away. Unfortunately, obedience isn't simply a quaint virtue to strive for, but an integral part of Christian discipleship.

Disobedience is as old as humankind. Adam and Eve in the garden set the precedent for willfully doing exactly the opposite of what they were told and the trend continued. God said 'don't make any graven images' and the people created a golden calf. God said 'you shall have no other gods' and the people worshipped Baal. Sometimes disobedience isn't about direct defiance but about violating the spirit of the law, or even simply acting under our own initiative rather than having the patience to wait for instruction. Elijah gives us a perfect example of this. Our reading for today starts with Elijah making an announcement of a drought upon Israel in response to the evil Ahab and Jezebel had been committing. We assume, because we assume prophets are the mouthpieces of God and always act with integrity, that this is part of a prophetic act commanded by God. But when we read the text, we see that Elijah announces the drought, and in verse 2: “THEN the word of the Lord came to Elijah.” Wait, what? First Elijah acted, then God spoke? To me, this looks a bit like an abuse of power, especially given God's response, which is to say: “Okay, you want a drought? Go hang out in the desert for a while to see how you like this drought business.” Wisely, Elijah goes.

Obedience is one of my greatest struggles in life because I'm one of the most stubborn people on the planet, and it's also very easy to trick myself into thinking that what I want is what God wants. Maybe you've never had this experience, but I'd wager you've experienced it once or twice. You have two (or three or four) options about a job, a school, a house, a financial venture, or a family related decision. In your heart of hearts, deep in your gut, you know the right choice, but somehow you twist and contort and squirm with reason, logic, and sheer force of will until you are 100% logically convinced that your choice is really the right one. If you're like me, you have to follow that well-reasoned decision and have it blow up in your face a few times in order to learn your lesson. The lesson, of course, being that even with the best of intentions and the most pure logic, it never works out to do something that God is not calling us to do. Elijah may have had the best of intentions in calling down a drought—we're not told what he was thinking and can't assume—but we do know that God's response was to take him to Zarapheth where he met a widow who taught him about obedience.

Imagine you're a widow in ancient Israel. You have a young son who has no way of supporting you yet, and caught up in the midst of a drought you have been scraping your last coins together to buy flour and oil for bread. Now imagine your thoughts when, out gathering sticks to make a fire to bake the last of your flour into bread, a strange man comes up to you and says, “Woman, make me a little cake.” The laws of hospitality might tell you that you should do this, but all reason is telling you that there is nothing dumber than giving your last bit of bread to a stranger. It's an utterly ridiculous request, asking for food from a widow in the middle of a drought, and Elijah must know how ridiculous it is. Realizing the insanity of his request, Elijah reassures the widow that she will have provision, but of course the woman has no idea who this crazy man is or why he's demanding bread, and she surely has no guarantee that he's not blowing smoke. Still, she goes off and rather than listening to her reason or good sense, she fulfills the request and Elijah witnesses this act of obedience.

Elijah, who acted presumably of his own accord to call down a drought, who didn't wait for God's word or trust that it would come, witnesses a widow's ridiculous act of obedience. Elijah must have felt pretty stupid watching this woman give up the last of her food to a stranger when he couldn't even wait on a God who he knew, whose character he knew, and trust that God's word would come. Because here's the thing: obedience is about trust, and trust is the basis of a loving relationship. Elijah is a prophet, and because of this we can assume that he probably had a pretty personal relationship with God. We see throughout the books of the prophets that God spoke to these people directly, that they had insight into God's will that others didn't have, and despite this relationship Elijah decided to take matters into his own hands and act without trusting that God would instruct him on how to handle the situation with Ahab and Jezebel. And yet a widow who did not know Elijah, who was likely a follower of Baal and didn't know Elijah's God, trusted a perfect stranger enough to give up her last bit of oil and flour on the off-chance that the stinky desert dwelling man spoke the truth about her oil and flour not running out.

How often do you fail to trust God's promise in your life? How often do you go your own way despite a clear sense of God's calling, or a clear sense of God's commandments? When you fail to trust that God loves you, that God has a purpose for you, it makes it pretty hard to be obedient. Obedience isn't about blind allegiance, because sometimes what you've been told to do really is ridiculous or even abusive, but it is about knowing that within a loving relationship such as the relationship we have with God, we submit ourselves because when we obey we become the servants that God is calling us to be. God loves you and has spoken a promise to you: to redeem you, to forgive you, to call you into a new future, and if you trust that promise and act in accordance with that trust, your act of submission becomes an act of freedom to live out your faith and the love that has been given to you in Christ.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Reframing the Problem of the Rich Man

Mark 10: 17-31

17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 18 Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: "You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.' " 20 He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. 23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, "Then who can be saved?" 27 Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible." 28 Peter began to say to him, "Look, we have left everything and followed you." 29 Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first."
This is a tricky passage for a number of reasons. The players are Jesus, a rich man, and the disciples, and the issue of concern is money. This is a big issue, especially for affluent people like myself. Now, that's not to say I'm wealthy (ha, I'm a graduate student / intern!) but that I live in the U.S. and have a place to live, food, a car, and many other amenities that make me one of the most fortunate people on this planet. If you have the internet to read this, you're probably in a similar position. It's really easy to take this text on in a manner far too concrete, and end up believing that Jesus is saying that it's not okay to be rich, or that in order to receive salvation you need to meet certain expectations, but I think a better answer can be found by reframing our questions about this text.

The rich man in the Mark text comes to Jesus because he is doing everything right, but something has compelled him to ask Jesus what else he needs. Either he's bragging about all his goodness and expects a pat on the back, or he has a sense that perhaps he's missing something in his faith walk. I tend to think it's the latter. To me, this sounds like the behavior of somebody who is trying really hard to live out his call but knows it's impossible for him. The man knows his heart, he knows he has many possessions and he probably enjoys them very much, just like we do. 

Thankfully, the story doesn't end after the man goes away grieving, but Jesus explains that what seems impossible is possible. Jesus says that a rich man (and all of us) gain eternal life because of God's work, which is great news. But I think it's also important to think about what it means to enter the kingdom of heaven. You see, the concern of the man was "eternal life", but the concern of Jesus was entering the kingdom of heaven. Eternal life is included in the "kingdom of heaven" but I don't think that's the whole concern for Jesus. Instead, Jesus wants us to receive the transformative power of his life, death, and resurrection now. The rich man was following all the commandments, but something was impeding him from entering into the present reality of Jesus' transforming life. Jesus identified the source of this impediment for this man: his wealth.

To me, the important question in this text isn't how we can earn our way to heaven, or even how we will be saved. The real question is, what's getting in the way of us being active participants in bringing the kingdom here now? And what can we do about it? The rich man loved his wealth enough that being told to sell it grieved him. How can you serve your neighbors when you serve wealth? We serve wealth and love wealth, but we also serve and love other things inappropriately--our jobs, our lifestyles, our spouses and partners, our status, anxieties, fears, pleasure, and tons of other things. We know that the way to fulfill the whole of the law, bring the kingdom here, is to "love God and love your neighbor" and we can't do that effectively if we're serving something else, can we? 

What this text challenges me to do is look at what exactly I'm putting my energy into that is preventing me from loving God and others the way that I should. Are you dedicating all your time to the mecca of sports and leisure? Are you more concerned with your 401k than the homeless guy on the street? Do you value your sleep more than prayer? What are your obstacles? We've all got 'em! The good news is, as always, that you're not alone in struggling against those things, because as we know from this text, with God all things are possible.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Rapture happens, or does it?

Thanks to my colleague Rusty for the use of this photo. No pastors were raptured in the making of this macro.

A couple months ago, there was a big media stink about a small sect of Christians claiming that the end is near, and we would be raptured in the spring or summer of this year. When nobody was actually raptured, rapturologists reported that they had been misinformed and the rapture would actually take place a few months later. It may not terribly surprise you that nobody was raptured that day either. A quick search of the internet yields results claiming the rapture will occur anywhere from a few years from now to a few days from now, with each site claiming to have deciphered God's secret message for the end of the days.

It can be pretty hard to take these claims seriously, but at the same time, doesn't the Bible reference the end times? People of faith often have a hard time sifting out truth from theological fiction. People who don't share our beliefs just kind of shake their heads and laugh, if they're polite. But the fact is, these questions matter to us. The study of the end times is called eschatology, and I'll spare you my long-winded explanation and let Wikipedia fill you in on the basics. One way or another, a lot of Christian theology is geared toward sussing out what happens when we die, what happens during the "last days," and what happens when Jesus returns, because knowing where we're headed shapes how we get there.

I'm going to be honest here: I don't know what to think about heaven or hell. It's something that's of huge concern to most people, especially people who are dying or have lost a loved one. Maybe it's simply because of a lack of serious tragedy in my own life, but to me it's okay if there is no heaven or hell, or if there is. The Bible is actually pretty ambiguous on this matter. If you want some discussion of how vague this really is, check out Rob Bell's book on the topic. You might not agree with him, but he shows you how open a lot of this really is to interpretation. For example, the Greek is the word we translate as heaven is οὐρανός, which we take to mean a place where there are angels and a council and God lives, but really can kind of just mean the sky. Also, the place we refer to as hell (devil with pitch fork, lake of fire, nine circles, etc) may have actually referred to a physical place known as Gehenna which was pretty much just a bad news bears place to end up. Basically, the texts might not be talking about what we think they're talking about.

And yet it's still a matter of concern for us. If you're mortal, it's probably something you've thought about, at least in passing. If you've been seriously ill or lost somebody, it's probably something you think about a little more deeply. The idea of death being a gateway to something better is pretty appealing. My fiance has remarked that the idea of staying here or coming back here kind of sucks, after all, there's a lot of suffering here, and a lot of crap has gone wrong. I have to agree--it does kind of suck here sometimes, and there's real comfort in the idea that the people we've lost are waiting for us. When I think about losing people I love, whether through their death or my own, the the idea of never having those relationships again is terrifying. Never speaking to my parents, siblings, fiance, friends again? It chills me. I want to believe that when we die we go to a lovely holding area where we will be together, but unfortunately the implications can be problematic.

The first implication of this heaven/hell-bound theology is that our destination is contingent upon our behavior. When we read verses saying things like "no one is righteous, no, not one." (Rom 3:10) and "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23), it leaves us with the idea that maybe we're all kind of screwed. If you keep reading, we hear the good news: we are justified freely. That's great. So then we're saying if you are justified, you go to heaven, but if you're a sinner and you're not justified, you go to hell, right? How are you justified? By faith! Wait, isn't faith something you do? Uh oh. My little Lutheran heart bristles at works-righteousness, even if that work is belief. So then we're saying that if you believe right, you get to go to heaven, but if you don't, you go to hell. Sounds like a super loving God to me. Yikes. The next implication is that if it's NOT contingent on works, some people may be elected for salvation and others not, and this gets even messier. What kind of God is it that would damn some and save others arbitrarily? Finally, I think all the focus on being sure of our own salvation (e.g. getting into heaven) can shift our attention from where the gospel clearly calls us to making sure we're scoring enough points or believing the right thing, so our focus becomes me me me me. That's a huge problem for discipleship and the church.

So what do you do with this ambiguity? Is it necessary to have a firmly defined eschatology to be a Christian? Here are three thoughts about how I handle this, which maybe will be helpful for you. 

1.) It's okay to not know. There are a lot of things we just can't know for sure. We can't know God's reasoning behind a lot of what has happened in scripture. We can speculate. We can't know why things happen in our lives. We speculate. We have little evidence to build a systematic theology of heaven and hell, and that's okay! Often, Christians think that not being sure about something means they either haven't thought about it enough or aren't faithful enough to just believe what they've been told. This is outright not true. In my opinion, it takes more courage and maturity to be open to the possibilities than to dig in behind a particular stance. Being able to say "I just can't be sure" doesn't mean you can't make up your mind, or don't believe, it just means you're open to the possibility that your interpretation may not be correct or complete. That leads me to number two...

2.) Not knowing doesn't mean not caring. When I was in graduate school at Kansas State, I spun my wheels over the free will/predestination problem for months. I would finally settle on some opinion and then another thought or idea would occur to me that would make my carefully crafted theology crumble. Finally, I had to say I just didn't have a way to know it, and actually felt a lot of relief. I care deeply about this issue, because it impacts how we teach people about God's love and salvation and choice and sin... but ultimately, the Bible is unclear on this topic, too. Using the Bible as a rule book to draft a set of guidelines by which we live is, in my opinion, a gross misuse of scripture. The Bible is a living text, which shows us the many ways in which God relates to us. Using it to cram our beliefs into a brick wall that we must defend moves our focus from a faith that's about love to a faith about rules. Ultimately, I believe that to call of the Christian is to demonstrate our relationship with God by how we live out our call in the world. Does knowing about heaven or hell change how we love? If our eschatology is a stumbling block, we need to reconsider it, which leads me to my last point.

3.) Shifting our focus can help us be better disciples. As I mentioned before, it's easy to get tied up in checking our own salvation status, or the salvation status of others (judging them by their works, for example, to see if they are "bearing fruit"). It's just a small slip from saying we hope for heaven to saying we are Christians for heaven. What does that say about who we are right now? God didn't put us here so we could live a pointless life and then die and live our real lives in heaven, did s/he? In the gospels, Jesus speaks again and again about ushering the kingdom of heaven here, about changing and repairing the broken system we already have, not tossing it out the window, saying 'this world is garbage' and waiting to get zipped somewhere else. God created this world... and it was GOOD! Surely goodness still exists underneath the brokenness. God calls us to follow these two commands: "Love God, and love one another." In doing the first, you do the second. In doing the second, you usher in a little piece of the essence of God (love) to this world. If we're living only for what's to come, we're missing out on all the gifts God has given us here, like wonderful friendships, spouses, children, the beauty of the earth, animals, joy, and growth.

If nothing else, I believe that heaven and hell exist here simultaneously, and that, to quote Steven Paulson: "The difference between heaven and hell is a moment in time." I believe that regardless of what happens next, we have a God who mends relationships, we have the here and now, and we have the hope for the resurrection. We don't know how that will happen, and I don't think that matters, because we have a promise of reconciliation made by one who always keeps promises. That's more than enough for me.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Marriage Equality.

My political views are not particularly opaque. I'm pretty liberal, and although I would never preach my political views from the pulpit, I do think that my theology impacts my discipleship, which is lived out through certain political stances in my own life. I respect people's rights to disagree, and even invite dialogue on the subject as long as we can be respectful. I don't like confrontation, but some of my closest relationships are with those who lean both further left and right than myself and we do talk about these things. I considered whether or not it was wise to lay all my cards out on the table too quickly in this new setting, but ultimately I feel like I need to write a response to a letter my supervisor received on behalf of our congregation, which touches on the issue of marriage equality. The letter begins:

Dear Pastor,
We  are writing as fellow pastors to ask you and your church to engage in a truly historic struggle for the soul of our culture--the battle to protect God's design for marriage from efforts to redefine marriage in our state.
If the Marriage Protection Amendment is passed, the amendment will secure the definition of marriage between one man and one woman in our state's constitution. There it will be protected from imminent threat of being redefined by the courts or by politicians promising to repeal our current law and legalize same-sex "marriage" at the first opportunity.
We didn't ask for this battle but believe bold, Christ-like leadership is urgently needed by our churches now more than ever: for the sake of the gospel, for the glory of the Lord Jesus, and for the good of our state.
The letter goes on to ask for financial support to this organization in order to match funds with organizations lobbying to vote down the proposed legislation. There are a variety of viewpoints on this matter within the ELCA, particularly in this town, but to send this type of letter to a church in a denomination which ordains gay men and women in committed relationships strikes me as a little funny. I actually find the entire letter somewhat funny, mostly because of the dramatic words such as the "historic struggle for the soul of our culture" and the "imminent threat" of redefining marriage, as if this amendment somehow invalidates or affects marriages between men and women. Unfortunately, when it comes down to it, this isn't a very funny topic because it bears directly on the lives of actual human beings, including some very lovely human beings that I am privileged to call friends. To them, this is not funny. To them, this legislation seeks to curtail a basic freedom: the right to marry who they love. I would call this "the pursuit of happiness." However, the thing that is most problematic to me as a Christian and a future pastor is the statement that this stance which limits the freedom of another is "for the sake of the gospel, for the glory of the Lord Jesus."

I will spare you the intense exegetical and historical exploration of homosexuality (or the words that we translate as homosexuality, anyway), and simply say that I don't think the Bible is talking about what these people think it's talking about in this regard. We can agree to disagree here. But aside from that, I want to break down the gospel of Jesus a little. The gospel lessons in the lectionary texts for this season have come from Mark. For those who aren't aware, the synoptic gospels cover much of the same material (the life of Jesus and his journey to the cross), but because they were written or compiled by different people from different sources, each offers a unique perspective that speaks to the concerns of the time. The gospel of Mark has a few noteworthy foci, including a sense of urgency about Christ's mission (it's jam-packed into 16 chapters!), but what has been jumping out to me in the recent lessons is the way that Christ is constantly kicking down barriers where humans put them up.

Read that again. We put up barriers between ourselves, based on social class, gender, age, status, race, sexual orientation, and more, but Christ kicks them down. In chapter nine, the disciples argue about who is the greatest. Jesus says that their ideas of greatness are backward, and he instead blesses children, whose value is seen as questionable at best. Later, the disciples chastise somebody for casting out demons in Jesus' name, and Jesus asks them why they think they need to stop somebody from performing acts of good in his name. In chapter 10, the pharisees ask Jesus about divorce and he again defies their social order by speaking in a way that protects women. Jesus blesses children again. Jesus tells a rich man to sell all his things. The disciples try to shut up a blind beggar--one who is not only physically handicapped, considered to be a sign of divine disfavor, but who also has no family who will care for him, and Jesus heals him. Jesus as he is portrayed here is not one who needs protecting, but is one that instead protects the weak, the sick, the marginalized, the hurting, the helpless, and those that society deems sinful or unworthy. And although he went to the cross as a criminal instead of a king, it was in his weakness, in his being humbled and suffering that he became strong. To quote Hebrews, "It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering." (Heb. 2:10)

I was talking to my supervisor about last week's text and his sermon on it, and he said "the gospel starts in Gehenna." In other words, it's in the places of weakness, darkness, sin, despair, or lack of perfection that God moves us from our brokenness into salvation, and that is something that he does by breaking through all the things that we put between God and us. The letter my supervisor received was baffling because it assumes that Jesus needs a defender; an army of pastors wielding heavily proof-texted Bibles and collection plates raising funds to fight against a cause which, face it, only erects another barrier. I think the thing I find most offensive is that these pastors seem to think their God-given calling is to put up walls. I don't think that's ever the calling of a Christian. God didn't wait for us to build a tower to heaven; God was incarnate and came to us, crashing through all the crap and evil and sin that had separated us from God for so long. The Spirit went among the apostles, and among us, and because of that we are to go out and be an active part of this world, transforming it by loving others through their brokenness, sharing the good news which is that all people are important, all people are created in the image of God, all people are equally broken and most importantly, all people are worthy of redemption.

It doesn't matter how you feel about gay marriage. I mean, it does. I think when you try to put up barriers to keep people from loving in consensual, committed relationships you are doing evil, because the world is a dark place and we need as much love as we can get. But it's not about politics and it's not about fighting a battle. Jesus doesn't need you to fight his battles. Jesus fought the ultimate battle and won. Being a person of integrity in whatever political arena you inhabit is about acting with justice, compassion, respect, and love for your brothers and sisters; it is not about waging war. So my suggestion is that, regardless of how you plan to vote in the coming election, make it a point to treat your fellow human beings with the dignity that Jesus would offer them. Rather than the kind of confrontation these men have in mind, I invite you, in your efforts to enact "bold, Christ-like leadership," to take a peek over your barriers now and then, and maybe poke them a little, and kick a little hole, and maybe eventually they'll fall over.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Youth ministry

One of the areas that I'm weakest in is in youth ministry. I can't say that I have been particularly enamored of children in my life, nor do I have much experience with them. Because of that, one of my goals in internship is to get seriously involved with the youth ministry here at my congregation. It's a large congregation (900 members) in a small town (1500 people), with a lot of kids and youth, but not a lot going on for them. My first week I visited with 8th and 9th grade confirmation and met with the Director of Ed. to talk about the programs outside of confirmation, and it turns out that there isn't much. The congregation is overall pretty healthy and involved in the community, but this area provides an awesome opportunity for me to learn how to work with kids and design programs for kids and youth.

The first step was to assess what's here. There's confirmation for 8th and 9th grade, and some things available for younger children, but 5th-7th and 10th-12th grades have more or less been neglected. The second step has been to recruit volunteers from the congregation (check, as of yesterday), and compose a letter to the senior high youth to get an idea of what they'd be up for (composed, but not yet sent). As part of my internship I will be doing a project, and mine will be in the area of evangelism (which is less about proselytizing and more about getting out and building relationships with people outside the walls). I think the senior high youth will be a perfect opportunity to try to do this, but I'm not entirely sure what direction to take it yet. Getting a group started where people can just come and have some food and fellowship is a good start, but ultimately I want the goal to be going outside of ourselves. I also want to gear 8th grade confirmation toward understanding who we are as Christians so that when they get to 9th grade and start to really learn missional theology from my supervisor, they'll have a good grounding and can transition into learning more about discipleship in senior high. I have more solid ideas for confirmation, but the rest is pretty amorphous, and I have no idea yet what we should be doing about that 5th-7th grade group. Ten to thirteen year olds offer a pretty big developmental spread.

Do any of you out in blogger land know of any good resources for such things? Or have any thoughts? This is a massive undertaking, and I know it's going to probably take all year to really get anything off the ground, but I think I'm up for the challenge! We'll see what happens.

A Prayer for Peace

Mark 10:2-16
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her." But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, "God made them male and female.' "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
There was another bombing today, in Khost. Twenty people were killed, and the violence around the middle east continues. It's pretty gut wrenching to watch. I know a lot of people taking a tack that says that the entirety of the middle east is reacting in violence and we need to do something about those violent Muslims, like draw a red line. But the thing is that in attacks like this it's not just Americans or westerners that are killed, it's the local people, who share the same communities and religion as the attackers, and the suicide bombers and people leading the violence as just as much victims of ideology as the rest of them. This kind of thing is daunting because it demonstrates how pervasive sin and evil is in the world, that people who could train up their children to kill themselves in order to kill others.

We're so steeped in violence in our world; and steeped in the tragedies of illness and loneliness and pain and death, and how can you fight a rushing tide like sin? It's pretty easy to get angry about it. I fall prey to this too. When I see inflammatory political bullshit like pastors advocating that we should incite the government to tax churches in order to make Obama look bad, it pisses me off. I won't lie and say it doesn't make me angry. Sometimes this shit makes me so angry I want to punch somebody. But it also breaks my heart, because it's so ugly and unproductive and detrimental to any sort of progress. P and I went to see The Campaign this week, which is a satire that aptly demonstrates the ridiculousness of campaign mudslinging and dirty politics, and it's funny because as ridiculous and over the top as it is, it's TRUE. We're so busy throwing mud at each other that we're not looking at the real, insidious problems like poverty, violence against women, religious fanaticism, and corruption. It's heartbreaking. How can we mend the world when we can't stop slapping each other in the face long enough to see what the real enemies are? Everybody wants to feed their children. Everybody wants to live in a world where they don't have to be afraid.

The Gospel lesson this week is Mark 10:2-16, which is a well known passage where Jesus talks about divorce, and then again talks about Jesus welcoming children. This passage is awful to preach on because half our congregations are divorced, and we don't want to further divisions among us at a time like this. David Lose wrote an awesome blog post about this, basically talking about what marriage was at the time. It was an economic relationship, and divorce was initiated only by men, which meant that it left women (who were valued less already) extremely vulnerable. Lose writes that this conversation on divorce is less about forbidding something and more about caring for the vulnerable. The rest of the passage goes on to talk about children as being valuable; again Christ gives value where humans don't. God values God's people, particularly the marginalized and victims, and wants us to sow love and compassion in order to care for the vulnerable. The vulnerable of Jesus' day were children, women, slaves, non-Jews or non-Greek citizens, the poor, the disabled. We have some of these same vulnerable groups today, but I think this passage goes beyond that in light of what's happening in the world today. Marriage inequality, economic hardship, terrorism, war, political violence and mudslinging, people whose ideology is hateful, people who hate hateful ideology… To be honest, we're all victims to sin. That's not to take away personal responsibility, because we ultimately do choose our actions, but evil is a part of this world. It's pervasive. People starve to death because their governments hoard and control the food. People get AIDS because sex education is so poor. People are brought up to hate their fellow human being because s/he isn't white, is of a different tribe or clan, is of a different political ideology. That's sin, and it's a terrible reality.

Where the Gospel breaks in for me is in watching what Jesus does to the rejected. Jesus speaks on behalf of the marginalized, Jesus gathers the weak up in his arms and blesses them, and most importantly on the cross, Jesus continues to pray for those who have persecuted him. Jesus' love goes beyond loving the 'easy' vulnerable, to loving the people who hate us, who we might also hate. He goes so far to love the people that killed him. Our enemies are the weak, too. Terrorism is, I believe, rooted in an extreme fear of the other--a fear that the other will not give him the proper respect, a fear that the other will persecute him if he doesn't persecute first, a fear that someone different is a threat. In light of the attacks, protests, and other continued violence in the middle east, I think it's more important than ever to understand that sin is pervasive and we all fall victim to it in different ways. Being intolerant of the intolerant is still intolerance. It's incredibly difficult, but we have got to start looking at those we fear as those who are also direly in need of healing. My prayer is that we may let Christ break our hearts open to feel not only anger at the evil perpetrated against innocent people, but also to grieve for those people who are suffering in sin and mired in a world of death as we all are. In the breaking of our hearts, as in the breaking of bread, Christ comes into us and transforms us.

The Peace Prayer of Saint Francis "O Lord, make me an instrument of Thy Peace! Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is discord, harmony. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sorrow, joy. Oh Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; for it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life."

On Receiving Faith

Genesis 15:1-6
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, "Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great." But Abram said, "O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" And Abram said, "You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir." But the word of the Lord came to him, "This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir." He brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be." And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
When we think of barrenness, we tend to think of a childless couple who desperately want a baby. Something that is seemingly natural, that happens to the unprepared by accident all the time, is out of reach. Genesis 15:1-6 discusses literal barrenness, but also invites us to consider God's response to other types of fruitlessness.

Have you ever invested a lot of time, energy, money, or emotions into something that just didn't work? Maybe you put a lot of time into a relationship that ended in a fight and a bonfire of the belongings they left at your place. Maybe in the prime of your life you got sick: you were supposed to be healthy, and now you're fighting cancer, degenerative disease, or chronic pain. Maybe you suffered through a failed business venture, depression, or addiction. Your life was supposed to go a certain way, and it just didn't work out, leaving you feeling bereft, lost, or hopeless. This must be something like what Abram and Sarai were feeling when at 100 and 90 years old respectively, there was no heir, no land, no hope. After receiving a promise that they would have a child, they were skeptical. God promised them an heir who would make them the parents of a great nation, but they were, shall we say, a little past their prime and still there were no pitter-pattering little feet. The more time passed, the more they doubted.

But like God tends to do, God intervened on this situation which was quickly degenerating and took Abram aside and showed him the stars, poetically describing a highly improbable future to an old man without hope. I think when we read this passage, a lot of times we're tempted to hold Abram up as an amazing example of good faith, and praise him for believing God's promise, and tell ourselves we should have just a little bit of faith like that because good Christians trust God. In reality, Abram wasn't exactly a paragon of faith. God called Abram out of his homeland where he and Sarai journeyed, but when they got to Egypt, Abram didn't really trust that God would keep them safe so he offered his wife to the king to protect himself. In fact, he did this twice! And despite this conversation in chapter 15, in the very next chapter we hear about the birth of Ishmael, Abram's son through his wife's servant Hagar. Abram is faithful in the same way that polar bears build bonfires. So why does God reckon his faith as righteousness?

 I think the answer isn't in Abram's words or actions, because his actions clearly demonstrate his difficulty trusting God. And who can blame the guy? When you're feeling physically, spiritually, or emotionally barren, it's pretty darn hard to trust that everything will be okay. You look into the future which is derived from your current barrenness, and see only more barrenness. I think in order to understand how Abram's faithlessness could be considered righteousness, we need to look at what God did. Abram did little or nothing to receive God's promise, and God not only gave them a son despite all Abram and Sarai's failings, but also gave Abram the strength to believe what God had said. In other words, even in the midst of impressive lack of trust, God appeared with a Word which imparted the faith that was needed for the promise to be received.

 So how does this relate to us? Mostly what I think it says is in what it doesn't say. It doesn't say just have faith and things will work out. It doesn't say that God expects perfect, obedient servants all the time. And it definitely doesn't say that we can earn our way to promise. What it says is that even those God highly favors are flawed, lack trust, and even disobey at times. More importantly, it assures us that even when we are in the midst of our barren times, God imparts faith so that we can take the next step when we don't have another ounce of strength, and so we can cling to hope when all seems lost. Theologian Walter Bruegemann writes: “The ones who are barren and hopeless become the practitioners of faith. They are the ones who do not doubt the promise and so allow the new age to surge upon them.” I think this paradoxical statement means that when we are the most faithless, when we have lost the strength to even doubt, let alone trust, that's when God finds us. We may not always trust God, but God knows what has been promised, and God will give us the faith necessary to carry us through our barren desert of death, hopelessness, illness, pain, or brokenness into a new future of health, joy, peace, and resurrection.