Tag Archives: Faith

Steadying the Ark (2 Samuel, Matt. 8:24-27)

There is a brutal little story tucked away in the book of 2 Samuel. I encountered it for the first time as a child, when my grandmother was reading the Bible aloud to me, as she often did. I stopped her when I heard it and wanted to know “why?” It seemed to me so ruthless and unjust. It still does rather.

King David was bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The progress was surrounded with great joy, with the king and all the house of Israel dancing and singing before the oxcart that carried the sacred ark, accompanied by diverse instruments. And then in the midst of the fun disaster struck:

“When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it. The anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God” (2 Samuel 6:6-8).

It says that David was “angry because the LORD had burst forth with an outburst upon Uzzah,” and we too are bound to find the story disturbing, to say the least.  And it doesn’t help a great deal for us to be reminded that for ancient Israel the ark was the preeminently sacred object, the seat upon which God was thought to sit, the symbol of his presence with his people. It was surrounded by the strongest taboos. When it had to be carried, it was lifted with long poles, and under no circumstances was it to be touched.

But the oxen stumbled. The ark swayed. What if it had fallen? Uzzah thought he was responsible for it, and he reached out to steady the ark to save God from indignity of seeing his throne crash to the ground in a pile of rubble. If you have been around churches as long as I have, beloved, you can imagine what sort of person Uzzah must have been—in charge of the property, a bit possessive and officious, kind of a fuss budget, actually.

In any case he reached out and touched the ark and the fury of the LORD burst out upon him. A moment later he lay dead. As a child, his story both fascinated and appalled me. I asked my grandmother if he had been electrocuted. She said “sort of.” I wanted to know “why?” It all seemed to me so grossly unfair of God. That someone could be struck dead for trying to be helpful. This is certainly not a story for children to whom you’re trying to teach responsible behavior. Nor is it likely to show up in any Sunday school curriculum with an accompanying picture to color.

But it is an adult story and speaks to an adult problem. Those of us who love the church are often feel dismayed and helpless by the disarray into which it has fallen. It is a mess; who can deny it. Looking at it, we feel humiliated for God, and we would like to save him the embarrassment of the Church as it is. Not that we ever could—in our hearts we know that–but we try anyway, criticizing, worrying and fretting, getting fussy over small things, treating the church itself as an idol. That’s what Uzzah in the story did—he treated the ark as an idol, not a seat for the invisible omnipotent God, but a thing made with human hands to be worshipped in itself, and he reached out his hand to steady his god.

But the living God does not want or need to the saved by us.  He can take care of himself. Uzzah didn’t need to steady the ark. God was always in charge; there never was any real danger of its falling. In this regard you will recall another story, this one about a storm that came up suddenly on the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 8:24-27). The disciples were terrified by the wind and the waves, but we are told that Jesus was fast asleep. So they woke him to say, “Lord, save us!  We are perishing!” But they really didn’t need saving. They were safe—as long as they were in the boat with the Lord. And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you little faith people.” Then he rebuked the winds and the sea, and we are told that there was a dead calm.

These days Church is being tossed about in rough seas—I’m sure you’ve noticed that. The ark is shaken by controversy and scandal. There is a fussy part of us that feels that we should be doing something about it. But we are at a loss as to exactly what. We lament that things are no being done as they used to be. We lament the indifference of the young and the shortcomings of the clergy. We think that if we were in charge things would be better. We feel as if we should steady the ark or wake the sleeping God to keep the boat from sinking.

But what we need to remember that at the threshing floor of Nacon the oxen stumbled, but the cart didn’t overturn nor did the ark fall. And on the Sea of Galilee the boat was tossed by the storm but it did not capsize. “We have this hope,” as the writer of Hebrews says, “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul. . .” (6:19).  And reliant on that hope we need to calm ourselves to let God take care of himself and his coming Kingdom in his own way. He is our Savior—not the other way around. He gives each of us something to do, and we should by all means do it, but with the recognition that we can’t do everything or even what is most necessary. Only what we can as well as we can.

In 1906 Winchester cathedral was in danger of collapsing. The south and east walls of the great building were sinking slowly into the ground beneath, which consisted principally of peat. Great cracks had appeared in the fabric of the building. But there was a dilemma. In order for bricklayers reinforce the foundation, the groundwater first had to be lowered. And without support, the removal of the groundwater would cause the complete collapse of the building.

The problem was solved with the help of a quiet bravery of professional driver by the name of William Walker. 235 pits each about twenty feet deep were dug around the walls of the cathedral, and they immediately filled with turgid water. Walker descended into each one of those holes and using 25,000 bags of concrete, 115,000 concrete blocks, and 900,000 bricks he shored up the walls of the church so that the water could be pumped out and the job completed by masons. He worked in complete darkness owing to the sediment suspended in the water. The job took years.

But before he died of Spanish flu in 1918, Walker was credited with having laid the foundation of the whole cathedral, which stands today as a monument to his courage and determination. I have a photograph of William Walker in his diving helmet, rubber suit, and weighted boots hanging over my desk. It reminds me that the Church has to be shored up from below by men and women who do what they can do, diligently and in obscurity. But they don’t delude themselves into thinking that it depends upon them. They don’t fuss. They do what they can. They feed the hungry and care for the down and out, and preach the good news, generally keep the world from ending, which it would if it were not for them.

But it is the Lord the Spirit that gives permanence to the Church, not human beings. As St. Paul writes: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; and that foundation is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11).  And we need to pray that the Spirit will save us from our all too human tendency toward fussiness, that presumption that makes us want to steady the ark when we see it shaken. It will not fall, and we couldn’t stop it if it did. In that regard we are as helpless as we feel. The Kingdom does not rest upon us. What does depend upon us are the things, great or small, that we called to do in the Kingdom—that’s all and that’s enough.

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Living by the Spirit based on John 6:51-69

August 16, 2015

In the Gospel of John the risen Lord says to his grumbling disciples: “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.”

I grew up on a cattle ranch in western North Dakota, and my father spent a lot of his time and energy building fences and then mending them. Good fences are necessary for raising cattle, to enclose pastures and pens, and they keep the stock from wandering off into the wilderness. But strangely enough cattle don’t seem to mind being penned up–for the most part they appreciate fences. They prefer to stay inside with the rest of the herd, even though they could break through their barriers if they wanted to and be free.

Fences are actually quite fragile human constructions of posts and wire, and beef cattle are big, strong, beefy animals. They could walk right through their confines at any time, but for the most part they respect the barriers that keep them in, because they feel safer there, with a barrier of posts and barbed wire between themselves and the wide world with its manifold dangers and uncertainties. And although the comparison may not be very flattering, many people are like that–they fence themselves in with their limitations.

You know some people like that–folks who build up barriers to confine and narrow their lives. You can hear them saying–Oh I can’t do this! Oh I won’t do that! It’s too scary! It’s too difficult at my age. I suppose I could but I’d rather not chance it. On and on and on. . . .

Our human lives are by nature finite and limited—that’s very true. We can’t be or do everything. But we have infinite God, and his Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to be more than we are and do more than we do. By his transcendent power we are always able to transcend the confines of our situation, whatever that situation may be, if we let him.

This week I got a note from a woman named Rachel from my congregation in Savannah. She is in a nursing home. Her body is crippled by arthritis. “I’ve been in bed for years,” she writes. “I don’t count. I just love and enjoy life.”

Some people magnify the constraints of their flesh, and other people, like Rachel, transcend their limitations by the power of the Spirit, who gives life. And asked myself when I read her letter—Do you magnify your restrictions and constraints, or do you rise above them? And I must admit that at times rather than trust in the Lord I use my limitations as an excuse. It is a natural tendency for all of us to dwell upon the restrictions our flesh places upon us, and that tendency grows stronger as we get older, and we experience more real incapacities. It’s easy to come to relish them, even enjoy them. So you hear them saying–Salad makes me windy. I get heartburn from onions. Waiter, does this salad contain eggs? I can’t have eggs. And red wine makes me nervous. And asparagus disturbs my sleep. But then I don’t like to go out after dark. And I would never fly! Never, ever! And so on and on and on, to anyone who will listen, dwelling upon what they cannot eat and what they cannot do.

But then young people can be just as bad, making up excuses to keep from attempting what is tough or complicated or scary. All of us have a tendency to do that, beloved, glorify our limitations, magnify our obstacles, and build up the fences between ourselves and wide world with its manifold dangers and uncertainties, and then live inside the barriers we build for ourselves, like cattle in a pasture.

It is what the risen Lord in the Gospel of John calls living by the flesh, letting the limitations that our humanness places upon us—our scruples and our fears and our incapacities–rule our lives. And Jesus is always contrasting our tendency to live by the flesh with another, better kind of existence–life in the Spirit. “It is the Spirit that gives life,” he says in our Gospel lesson, “the flesh is no help at all.”

And the risen Lord Jesus is here right now asking us a searching question–What is governing your life—your obstacles or your faith in the power of God to transcend them? And all of us…all of us, if we are absolutely honest with ourselves, will have to answer him—Lord, in the past I have often let my limitations triumph over my expectations. I have sometimes preferred to hide behind feeble excuses rather than live in the freedom you died on the cross and rose again to give me.

Now our lives are finite and limited, this is most certainly true. But that is not a good enough reason for us to spend our finite days like that, in a pen of our own making. As St. Paul writes to the Galatians—“It is for freedom Christ has set us free.”

School started again this week for our grown-up son Paul, who is the vice-principal of an elementary school in Memphis, Tennessee. It’s a charter school in a poor neighborhood and the staff of Georgian Hills Elementary has to exploit every opportunity to make the students care about their school and value the education they receive there. The children are all required wear uniforms, and Paul stands at the front door in a suit and tie to shake to hands with each student every morning and greet him or her by name.

And as a way of expressing school spirit, he acquired as a school mascot a little yellow hamster. The children named the hamster “Little Griz,” in homage to Memphis Grizzlies, the wildly popular local professional basketball team. And Little Griz is also wildly popular.

She visits the classrooms on a regular basis to observe progress. She gives out prizes and when the children try to pet her she seldom bites. But Little Griz does not like living in a cage. In fact, she is an escape artist par-excel-lance. She is a veritable hamster Houdini. She regularly trips the fasteners and jimmies latches of her cage and goes on the lam for days at a time. She is a hamster of seemingly limitless imagination and ingenuity.

Now hamsters don’t live long—two to three years at most—and Little Griz seems to sense this. Her life is finite, and she seems determined not to spend it in a narrow cage if she can help it. And although her daring escapes drive the staff of Georgian Hills Elementary School crazy, everyone is forced to admire that hamster’s spirit. The word “impossible” is not in her lectionary.

But how about us? Life can become a narrow cage if we let it. And the difference between those who live by the Spirit, and those who are still trapped in the limitations of the flesh has to do with their ability to imagine things they have never seen and trust God to accomplish in their lives what seems impossible. Those who live by the Spirit may be frightened, but they are not afraid.

Now I would suspect that in your life, as in my own, there are a multitude of issues that are still pending. We all each carry around with us a thick file marked IMPOSSIBLE PROBLEMS– DO NOT OPEN MORE THAN ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY. There are seemingly hopeless tangles we struggling to undo. There are walls that stand before us in which we are trying desperately to find an opening. There is a wide, swift-flowing river at our feet, and we stand on the edge of it, waiting for it to run out before we try to cross it, but the river never, ever does run out.

So we need to hear the words of Jesus to his grumbling disciples—“It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.” We can’t do everything, beloved, it’s true, but God can—and will do something if we if we give him room.

You and I often read the miracle stories in the scriptures, and then wonder at the lack of miracles in our ordinary lives. But if we don’t see miracles it is because we don’t expect any. Actually wonderful things are happening all the time, all around us, in this world where literally anything can happen. But our hearts are not expectant. We do not see the glory of God, we do not see the Son of Man ascending, because our eyes are always fixed on the ground, upon our limitations and our barriers.

But the Lord is always calling us to imagine what he could do, and then he is ready to accomplish even more than we can imagine in our wildest daydreams. He will address the problems that we have long ago marked IMPOSSIBLE. He will show us the low door in the wall, and he will unlock it for us. But for our part—in the Spirit of Jesus and in the light of his example—we need to step forward into the swift-flowing river of life at our feet and stop hiding behind our limitations.

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Who Is This? Job 38:40

January 5, 2014   (My Birthday, by the by)

“Who is this?”

                When I was a child I was an avid collector of stones. It commenced early. My mother said that as soon as I could walk I started picking up rocks and stuffing them into my pockets, and from then on I was never—night or day–without at least one stone on my person at any time. I suppose there must have been some deep psychological significance to my compulsive rock collecting. Who cares? All I know is that there was something in the beauty and the solidity of stones that I found comforting as a kid. They are dependable and companionable—in their own reserved fashion. And since mine was a solitary childhood—we lived miles away from our nearest neighbors–they became my silent playmates.

The badlands of western North Dakota were silent, empty place back then–the oil boom that has changed all that, and not altogether for the good. But back then McKenzie County where my father’s ranch was located was rapidly hemorrhaging population. There were few people—and every year fewer—but there were lots of stones everywhere. Wonderful stones. My father’s pasture with its deep gorges and coulees was rich in fossil life. There were petrified stumps taller than the tallest man and sandstone slabs printed with the most beautiful, delicate falls of Paleocene leaves.

                We didn’t see other people that often, out there back then, and when visitors did come to the ranch I always wanted to show them my fossil collection. “Don’t bring out those old stones, Billy,” my mother would beg, but I did anyway. The stones were part of me–the most interesting part, I thought. Most people were kind and pretended to show as interest, even if they didn’t feel it. But then once when I was ten years old or so my great uncle Dwight came to see my father on some matter or other, and I brought out my fossil collection to show him.

                  That was a big mistake. I really should have known better. Everyone knew what Uncle Dwight was like. To say he was zealously religious is the grossest understatement possible. Dwight was besotted with religion. He was God-intoxicated. A twice-born fundamentalist, an ardent adversary of “demon rum,” a fanatical puritan in every sense, he was the author of several religious tracts which he published at his own expense condemning women for wearing pants and “scent,” and putting forth the idea that if they ran around seductively dressed and smelling like harlots, it was their own fault if they got themselves raped. Shameless seducers, it was they and not their attackers who should be put in jail. You get the idea. It is hardly worth saying that he never married. He lived alone and devoted his spare time to the study of the Book of Revelation. He was as thick as two boards nailed together and just as rigid.

                And it was to this zealous old Pharisee that I presented my fossil collection for inspection. As I said, I should have known better. It gave him the perfect opening. He stood up like an Old Testament prophet and denounced my lovely, innocent stones in no uncertain terms as satanic imposters. They weren’t millions of years old as they pretended to be; they were lately forged by the devil himself in an attempt to mislead people into believing in the hell-inspired theory of evolution—which he persisted in mispronouncing “evil-ution.” The world was created in six days only five thousand years ago and loose change. The Holy Bible (KJV) said so.

I can see him yet, glowering down on me and my fossil collection with unmasked hatred, his eyes burning like coals of hungry fire. He looked as if he would have cheerfully stoned me to death with my own rocks, if he had been able.  I was ten years old—no more—a lonely, backward kid in thick glasses. And of course I could find nothing to say in reply to his tirade. Children didn’t “sass” their elders as much back then, and when stirred up great Uncle Dwight was indeed a very intimidating sight. For one thing, he turned a succession of nasty colors, one after another, his eyes bugged out, and the veins in his forehead stood out like sash cords. Sometimes in the heat of passion he would stamp his feet and do a sort of war dance. It was enough to frighten anyone.

So I just stood there, holding my box of fossils, and took it. I feel sure that in heaven I will forget Dwight completely for what he did to me that day, but I’m not there yet. No child needs to be humiliated like that—I certainly didn’t. It wounded me where I was most vulnerable, at the heart of myself.  But even though I stood there mute before his tirade, I knew Uncle Dwight was full of it.  

At ten years of age I already knew that the world wasn’t just five thousand and some odd years old. I knew my fossils weren’t the works of the devil intended to deceive anyone. They were the imprints left by ancient life forms laid down in sedimentary rocks millions and millions of years ago. I had a book with wonderful pictures that explained it all. The book compared those layered sedimentary stones to a book of wonders, its pages recording the epic story of life on our planet, how it evolved to greater and greater levels of complexity and awareness. And I believed what the book of stones said about the evolution of life on earth. I believed it instinctually, as one is drawn to the truth.

I believed in the Bible too, the ultimate book of wonders. I grew up in a household saturated with the Bible. My parents were both enlightened and devout. As a child I heard the Bible read and quoted constantly. It ordered our existence in this world, and drew us steadily toward the next with the monofilament line of grace.  We knew the risen Lord was with us, even in our obscure corner of the world, and his presence brought light into our wintery darkness and spoke peace to our loneliness. As a child I couldn’t see any real conflict between those two books, the Bible and the book of stones.

I still can’t.  Both are books of great mystery and beauty, and what binds them together is a sense of awe and wonder at our world—that it is—that we are in it—and that there is a Real Presence hidden in all things, like the bread and wine of Holy Communion. And that our world is so very, very old—so many millions of years that only God can count them—was a source of admiration and wonder to me as a child. And it came to me as a profound shock to discover that not everyone felt the same way. It still does.

                Here in Florida my wife and I usually worship at the Greek Orthodox cathedral up the street. But this Christmas our kids were with us and everyone felt the need to hear the familiar carols. So we celebrated Christmas Eve at a Lutheran church near where we live. I won’t burden you with its synod affiliation—some of you will guess it anyway. And the congregation made no bones about what they believe and teach. In the bulletin I found a list of affirmations under the title “OUR FAITH,” outlining what they believe and teach. And there is nothing wrong with that. They should know what they confess, and everyone else should too. But among their espoused doctrines, together with the redemptive suffering and death of Jesus Christ and his resurrection, I found this statement—“We believe and teach that man is not the product of evolutionary development but was created by Divine design in the image of God.” And suddenly through the candlelight, I saw the face of Uncle Dwight glaring down at me, his eyes still burning with hatred for the hell-inspired theory of “evil-ution.”

                My Uncle Dwight is long dead, but his point of view lives on in churches and flourishes. According to a recent Gallup poll, 46% of Americans believe that God created human beings in pretty much their present form at one moment in time, less than 10,000 years ago. And in the face of the efforts of scientists and educators to convince them otherwise, the percentage of Americans who believe in what has come to called “creationism” has increased by 2% in the last thirty years. Uncle Dwight hasn’t won his battle with the devil, but he certainly hasn’t lost it either.

                Of course, we Americans are free to believe anything they jolly well want to. The right to be contrary is enshrined among all the others. I read the other day that there are people out there who believe America is 2014 years old. The Constitution protects stupidity as well as wisdom. So here in America churches can believe and teach that the world is flat and the moon is made of gorgonzola—and some of them do pretty much just that. But here in America I also have a right to speak my little piece—thank God. And it is a sad thing for a fervent believer like myself who loves Jesus very much—and I do, each day more–to see something that is demonstrably untrue as creationism affirmed together with the Lordship of Jesus, as if one must accept the first affirmation in order to embrace the second.

Which, of course, you do not. According to the same Gallup Poll, thirty-two percent of Americans subscribe to what the pollsters call “theistic evolution,” a belief that human beings evolved over millions of years, but that God was present to guide that process. But those moderate souls, who believe in the Bible and the book of stones, make up a fairly small minority of those who attend church regularly—only about 25%. Virtually everyone else who goes to church believes that God created the world in six days in the not too distant past and that fossils are creatures that drowned in Noah’s flood, or other such nonsense.

And of course they are free to believe that. This is America, after all. Who cares? I do, actually, because when they believe and teach something that is demonstrably false and lift it to the level of revealed truth, they call the whole Creed into question. That is the kind of willful ignorance is what gives our Christian faith such a bad name among those whom Friedrich Schleiermacher called “the cultured despisers of religion.” They like to style themselves champions of the truth. But in fact such incorrigible ignorance arises not from courage but to cowardice. People who hide behind the wall of fundamentalism are afraid to face the facts. Now facing the facts is often tough. I know, because I have struggled to do it most of my life. It forces us to acknowledge that we don’t know the answers to the greatest questions—and never will.  It forces humility upon us, and humility runs counter to our human nature. But as Albert Camus wrote somewhere–“The most incorrigible vice [is] that of ignorance which fancies it knows everything.”

In the Old Testament book that bears his name, a man called Job learns the painful lesson of humility. By the end of the book the Lord has lost patience with prideful humankind in general, and in particular with Job’s presumptuous questioning of his ways. In chapter 38 comes the showdown. God addresses Job out of the vortex of a desert whirlwind and demands- “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up you loins like man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” (38:1-7)

Where? Who? The questions keep on coming and coming, with no space for an answer. And no space is necessary because the answer to every question is the same—nowhere and nothing. We were nowhere when God created us. We are nothing compared with such majesty and power.  But the grilling continues relentlessly through the next four chapters of the book, until finally poor Job, who represents us all, exhausted by so much close interrogation, cries out, “I know that you can do all things, and no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you will declare to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:1-6) 

And that is essentially where the book ends, with Job crushed by the magnificence of the created universe and reduced to his proper place in it, to dust and ashes. He is humiliated, but at the same time he is exalted. It is the paradox that runs through all of scripture. The mighty are pulled down and the lowly are lifted up. Pride and the pretense of understanding makes fools of us. But humility restores to what we intended to be, the creatures through whom God experiences his creation.

                And as for all the answers to the questions we ask about that creation—Where did it come from? Where is it going? What came before and what follows after?–revealed religion doesn’t have them all. It can’t explain how the world came to be, only celebrate the Creator in poetry and song and in service that imitates his faithfulness and love.

Science doesn’t have all the answers either. In certain realms it can lead us to the truth, but its method simply does not work when it is applied to the question of, say, what is beautiful? Or what is good? Or why is there anything at all?  Religious fundamentalism simplifies things that cannot be made simple, but science often does the same thing. It “murders to dissect.” It persists in asking the wrong questions, as if when confronting the “Birth of Venus” by Botticelli, we could explain its effect upon us by analyzing the chemical composition of its pigments.

The truth is that no one understands how the things that are came to be or why they are, not the atheistic scientist or the literalist believer. What makes us what we are is a mystery that goes beyond us all. Anyone who pretends to grasp that mystery, whatever his or her faith or lack thereof, is pathetically deluded. The best we can do is get close enough to that mystery to feel its warmth. In one of the apocryphal gospels Jesus is reported to say—“Whoever is close to me is close to the fire.” Did he really say that? Who cares?  It is true. And it is also true that nothing becomes us better in the presence of the mystery of What Is than to adopt an attitude of humility and there is nothing wiser we say about it than—I don’t know.    

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