Tag Archives: Christianity
We celebrated the Ascension of Our Lord last Sunday, which we haven’t regularly done here before. As far as I remember, I’d never preached on the proper texts for it, though before my suburban captivity I was reliable in observing it at some church or other. It’s easy to get hung up on visualizing the […]
In other words, there’s a reversal: the character who looks like he’s on top of the world is really not, not in the ways that matter, anyway. And the character who looks like she’s on the bottom, on the outside, is really at the top in the ways that matter.
Now it may or may not surprise you to know that this reversal is a very Christian thing. It’s something that happens over and over again in the Bible and the history of the church. It happens a lot especially in the Gospel of Luke and its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles.
I didn’t stay there. If I were assured of a hundred more years to live I don’t know that I would ever read Niebuhr again. Part of the problem with the blazing sunset era of high Protestant theology was that its authors sought to provide us with a place to stand–where faith and reason, revelation and science all worked together–when all they could offer was a point of transit. From the perspective of one moving out of Christian faith, however defined, those points of transit seem feeble and dishonest. For one moving into it, they can seem necessary and providential. Christians have a tendency to ask for kinds of assurance, whether from theological faculties, great collections of bishops, or second-century papyrus, that none of these can give. Our needs and our doubts give shape to the theories of revelation or ecclesiology or whatever else that we may then point to in order to meet them.
All the disciples devoted their lives to this story. At first, the people who believed the resurrection were fewer than are in this church today. But they suffered exile, violence, hunger, and worse to tell that story to anyone who would listen. Because why not? If God’s power is so great and glorious, why not risk everything to share it? If God’s power is so close at hand, why not ask anyone at all to imagine it? What are we afraid of? To believe this story is to be changed by it.
As the big day of confirmation got closer, my anxiety increased. Everything I was preparing to say I believed became harder and harder to swallow.
But you would not know any of that from the people who had been willing to accompany me on this journey. I had been away from church for a long time, but I was welcomed back with open arms. I was skeptical, but people were eager for me to believe. Where I was sarcastic, my friends and pastors were patient, tender, and completely without religious snobbery. They willingly invited me to see and touch and ask and test everything they believed. People I came to admire, trust, and love passed on the gift of faith to me wrapped in their own good work and faithful witness. And someone they admired, trusted, and loved passed it on to them. And someone else passed it on to them. And someone else to them, and on and on, a great chain of gift-giving that goes all the way back to that locked room. This weekend we even add a new link to that chain, as the children of the parish are invited to take this great gift of faith in their hands, to enjoy it, and to some day take up their own role in passing it on.
A colleague of mine, writing about the process whereby adults are received into the Catholic Church, reports that most people go through it for their spouse or spouse-to-be. But she has met others who have started inquiring about the church out of their battle with an addiction, or because they read a novel by Graham Greene at an impressionable age. People discover yearnings that they never learned a vocabulary to express; or they might need a new beginning, or a way to identify with something outside of themselves. Whatever you may think of those motives, they are perennial. Whatever you may think of the church, it has a ritual in which they can be given a place.
And yet now, having known the consolations of a loving marriage, pursued the full course of my formal education, tasted the vocations that define my life, and treasured the unspeakable joy of fathering a child, the prospect of a parting sometimes fills me with far greater bitterness than it did back when my life was still a blank canvass. I’ve had to explain to skeptics that when Paul says, rhetorically, “where grave is thy victory; where O death is thy sting?” he is referring to the final resurrection, not to our own mind here and now. Here and now the grave wins its victory and death inflicts a palpable sting, to those who leave too soon and to those who are left. Yet youth is perhaps innocent even of this.
God is strange. You can glimpse him once, in a flash. You can sense his presence for a season of your life, and then spend years chasing after him. You can feel him, almost see him plain as day. But then, while everything looks the same, you can’t see God any more. The living room is exactly the way it was, but dad is gone. I’ve met burned-out veterans of this chase for God. They wanted to see what they believed in, or had been told to believe in. And they tried. They tried hard. They tried to guess the password that would open the door, they tried to push the right buttons in the right order, they tried to find the missing clue that would solve the puzzle. But the door never swung back open, the lock never unbuckled, the puzzle never snapped back into focus. A lot of them give up. I don’t blame them.
At the beginning of Lent, I invited the participants in our new member/baptism preparation groups to ask any question they had about church or faith, and I would try to answer them as best I could over the course of our meetings. I didn’t get to all of them in the six weeks we spend together, but a commitment is a commitment and I emailed the answers to everyone. It made for the kind of long, burdensome email I almost never write anymore. But they were big, important questions that, I realized, I often spend very little time answering.
Jesus is steering himself straight into the heart of that great fear that lurks in the human heart: not just of death, but of humiliation; not just of pain, but of abandonment and rejection; not just the fear of failure, but the fear of breaking the solemn silent code among humans: you stay seated, and you stay seated, and you stay seated, and you stay seated, and I stay seated, and all of us will stare at the floor together. And whatever happens, happens.