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.