Learning to Float

learn-to-floatJesus said, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20).

If I were making a list of all the things I wish Jesus had never said, this saying would certainly be on the list. Not because it’s so bad, or so hard, but because it makes people think of faith as a quantity, as something you can have more or less of.  Usually people assume they have less and wish they had more. If they had more they could move mountains, right?

And sometimes there are mountains to be moved.

In Luke 17 the disciples beg Jesus, “Increase our faith!” but he says to them there essentially what he says to them here: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” And I don’t know that I’ve heard it this way before but when I read that passage this time around it almost sounded as if Jesus were saying, “Increase your faith? You don’t need more faith. You only need the tiniest little speck. No, it’s not about having more faith, it’s about putting your faith in the right place, or more specifically, in the right person.”

And that’s what I want to talk about today.

In a book called The Heart of Christianity New Testament scholar Marcus Borg devotes an entire chapter to faith. He claims that in Western Christianity faith has come to mean holding a certain set of “beliefs,” or “believing” a set of statements to be true. For most people, being a Christian means believing that there is a God, believing that the Bible is the revelation of God, and believing that Jesus is the Son of God, and that he died for our sins.

Borg (who grew up Lutheran in North Dakota) acknowledges that “for some Christians the list would be longer: believing that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God; believing in Genesis rather than evolution; believing that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he walked on water, that he raised the dead, that he himself was raised from the dead in a physical bodily form, and that he will come again someday. Sometimes the beliefs become very specific, Borg writes: believing in infant baptism instead of adult baptism (or vice versa); believing in “the Rapture”; believing (or not believing) in Purgatory. The list goes on and on, but as you have probably experienced for yourself believing “the right things” is very important to Christians.

But here’s the problem:

All this emphasis on belief can quickly turn faith into a matter of the head rather than the heart. And Marcus Borg would insist that it has happened rather quickly.

Back in the Middle Ages the word orthodoxy meant “right worship” (in fact, that is the literal meaning of the word). But during the Protestant Reformation it came to mean “right belief,” partly because all those Baptists, and Methodists, and Presbyterians were still figuring out what they believed. Should we baptize infants or adults? Is communion a sacrament or an ordinance?

And then there was this other thing, the Enlightenment, that changed the way we understood truth. In the Middle Ages no one questioned the story of Jonah and the Whale. It was in the Bible: of course it was true! But during the Enlightenment people began to ask: Could there really be a fish big enough to swallow a man? And could a man really live after three days in its belly? The only truth that counted was that which could be verified scientifically; in other words, truth was replaced with fact (which is a much smaller word).

And so, after being run through the wringer of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, faith has come to mean believing the right things, and believing them no matter what, even if they are not scientifically verifiable.  But it was not always so.  Marcus Borg helps us by looking back to the Middle Ages, and four different Latin words for faith:

1. The first is assensus, from which we get the English word assent, and it means pretty much what you would expect it to mean: giving one’s intellectual assent to a claim or proposition, that is, believing that it is true. The opposite of this kind of faith is “doubt” in its milder form and “disbelief” in its stronger form. For example: you might go from doubting that a fish could swallow a man to disbelieving it altogether. Marcus Borg says that when he was a teenager he had those kinds of doubts and prayed, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” Since then he has wondered, “Is this really what God wants from us: our intellectual assent to a long list of theological propositions? Our heads rather than our hearts?” He also notes that you can believe all the right things and still be in bondage, still be miserable, still be unchanged—that faith as assensus doesn’t have much transformative power. And yet there are some things we can and should affirm. At the bare minimum being Christian means a) affirming the reality of God, b) the utter centrality of Jesus, and c) the centrality of the Bible.

2. The second Latin word for faith is fiducia, and the closest English equivalent is fiduciary, which may mean something to the bankers and lawyers in the room, but doesn’t mean much to me. A better word would be trust, or the phrase “radical trust.” As Soren Kierkegaard might have said, “Fiducia is like floating in an ocean of God’s grace.” Borg says that once, when his wife was teaching an adult Sunday school class, she asked if anyone had ever tried to teach a child to swim. Several hands went up. She asked, “What was the hardest thing about it?” And they all agreed: getting the child to relax and float, to trust the buoyancy of the water. Fiducia is learning to trust the buoyancy of God, and the opposite of this kind of faith is not doubt but anxiety, or worry. In the middle of that storm on the Sea of Galilee, when they were afraid their boat was going to sink, Jesus asked his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Where is your faith?” A few chapters later he says, “If God so clothes the grass of the field, will he not clothe you, you of little faith?” In both cases he is talking about faith as fiducia: radical trust.

3. The third Latin word is fidelitas, which can be translated as fidelity, or faithfulness, specifically, faithfulness in our relationship to God. It means what faithfulness does in a marriage—being faithful to God in the same way you might be faithful to a spouse. The opposite of this kind of faith is not doubt or disbelief, but unfaithfulness or adultery. Another biblical word for this kind of unfaithfulness is idolatry—giving one’s ultimate loyalty and allegiance to something other than God. Borg says, “As the opposite of idolatry, [this kind of] faith means being loyal to God and not to the many would-be gods that present themselves to us. Christian faith means loyalty to Jesus as Lord, and not to the seductive would-be lords of our lives, whether the nation, or affluence, or achievement, or family, or desire.”

4. The fourth Latin word for faith is visio, and this one is fascinating. As you might guess, visio is a way of seeing “the whole,” a way of seeing “what is.” And there are three ways of seeing it.

a. One is to see reality as essentially hostile, as if everyone and everything really were out to get you. It may not surprise you to learn that there have been some forms of popular Christianity through the centuries that have viewed reality this way, as if God himself were out to get us, and that—unless we offered the right sacrifices, or said the right prayers, or did the right things—he would.

b. In the second way of looking at reality it is essentially indifferent. Someone with this view might say, “The universe is made up of swirling force fields of matter and energy, but is neither hostile to nor supportive of our lives and dreams.” And if God is the one who brought it all into being, he has long since stopped intervening or even caring. If you look at reality this way, you might not be as defensive as in that other view, but you might become rather selfish, looking out only for yourself and those you love, since obviously no one else is.

c. In the third way of looking at reality it is essentially nourishing and life-giving. It has brought us and everything else into existence. It is filled with wonder and beauty. It loves us and cares about us. This is the reality Jesus was talking about when he said, “Look at the birds of the air, the flowers of the field.” God feeds them. God clothes them. God sends his life-giving rain on the just and the unjust.

Can you see what a difference faith as visio could make in your life? What a difference there would be in seeing reality as essentially hostile, essentially indifferent, or essentially nourishing and life-giving? This last way of looking at reality can lead to the radical trust we talked about earlier. As Borg says, “It leads to the kind of life we see in Jesus and the saints, known and unknown. Or, to use words from Paul, it leads to a life marked by freedom, joy, peace, and love.”

There they are: four Latin words for faith—assensus, fiducia, fidelitas, and visio—and you may have noticed that all but the first are relational words. Fiducia describes a relationship of radical trust. Fidelitas describes a relationship of love and loyalty. Visio describes a relationship of life-giving nurture. Assensus is the only one that means giving our intellectual assent to a set of theological propositions and, as I said, that’s important.

But it may not be the most important thing.

“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,” Jesus said, “you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” And so we try to increase our faith. We try to believe more and doubt less. We try to believe things that are, frankly, unbelievable. And we do it because there are mountains that need to be moved.

But what if that’s not what Jesus meant?

What if he meant, “You don’t need more faith. You only need the tiniest little speck. No, it’s not about having more faith, it’s about putting your faith in the right place, or more specifically, in the right person.”  Because here is the truth: that little “mustard seed” is found only five times in the Gospels. It’s mentioned twice in reference to faith, as in, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed.” But the other three times Jesus uses it he talks about how, if it’s planted in the ground, this tiny seed can become a huge bush, even a tree, in which the birds of the air can build their nests. A mustard seed, in other words, is something small that can grow big—if you put it in the ground. But if you put it in a Ziploc bag, and bury it in the bottom of your sock drawer?

That mustard seed will always stay the same size.

What if Jesus is trying to tell us this: that we don’t need a lot of faith, we only need the tiniest little speck. But we need to put our faith in the right place—not in ourselves and our ability to believe—but in God, the One who gives us life and nurtures it, the One who loves us like a faithful spouse, the One we can trust completely, and, yes, the One who can and does move mountains. Let us put our mustard seed of faith in him; let us tend it and nourish it; let us water it with worship, study, service, and prayer;

And then watch it grow.

I keep thinking about Marcus Borg’s wife trying to teach her son to swim, helping him as he struggles and thrashes in the water, telling him over and over again to relax. And then I picture him finally listening to her, hearing her, and obeying her—stretching himself out on the surface of the water like you would stretch yourself out on a king size bed, feeling it beneath him lifting him up, holding him, even as his mother’s arms are beneath him, supporting him. I can almost hear him gasp with wonder as he realizes that he can float, and almost see the smile on his face as he lies there on the water with his eyes closed, rocking gently back and forth as his mother chides,

“O, ye of little faith. Why did you doubt?”

—Jim Somerville ©2015

“Don’t Mess with My Tinkertoys!”

TinkertoysDo you remember Tinkertoys, that set of wooden sticks and spools you could build things with, wonderful things as tall as you were when you were a kid? I talked about Tinkertoys at church last Sunday, when I facilitated a question-and-answer session following Art Wright’s three-week lecture on “Heaven, Hell, and the Afterlife.”

I talked about how all people build a “framework of understanding” to make sense of their experience. If you step outside and a bird flies past you say, “That’s right; birds fly,” and you hang that experience on your framework of understanding (this is where I always picture a Tinkertoy framework, with experiences hanging from it like Christmas tree ornaments). But if you step outside and a cat flies past you’ve got a problem; there is nowhere on your framework of understanding to hang that experience. You have to decide: “Did that really happen? Did a cat really fly past? Or did someone throw a cat across my field of vision? Or am I hallucinating?”

Birds? No problem. Cats? Big problem.

I said, “You’ve spent your whole life building and re-building your framework of understanding and it’s precious to you. You don’t want anybody to mess with it. But somewhere in there is your understanding of heaven, hell, and the afterlife, and I get the feeling that for some of you Art Wright’s lecture was troubling, that some part of it messed with your Tinkertoys.”

I saw heads nodding around the room.

That led into an interesting exchange about what we use to build our frameworks of understanding in the first place, and we acknowledged that much of what we have heard about heaven, hell, and the afterlife comes from books, movies, songs, and popular theology. Not all of it is authoritative. For believers, the Bible is authoritative; it’s that one source we can gather around and study together with general agreement that what’s in there is true.

My guess is that much of what Art Wright was teaching in his three-week lecture was biblical. He is a New Testament professor, after all, which means that he’s spent a good bit of time studying the actual text of the New Testament. I’ve done that myself, and I’m often surprised by what’s not in there as well as by what is. Sometimes it “messes with my Tinkertoys,” and forces me to rebuild some part of my framework of understanding.

I don’t like that.

My framework of understanding is precious to me. But it’s more important to me that it be right than that it be easy, and Scripture is the best way to ensure that. It is, in almost every way, the “blueprint” by which my framework must be built.

And I mean all of scripture: not just the parts I like.

Sharon Parks has a name for that framework of understanding: she calls it “faith.” I think that’s a good name for it, and even though there are ways to build frameworks of understanding that don’t include God, those are not ways I’m interested in. I want to build a distinctively Christian faith, one with Jesus right at the center of it. As far as heaven, hell, and the afterlife are concerned, I’m content to follow him. If I can trust Scripture on this (and I think I can), the Way that he is is the Way that leads to life abundant, overflowing, and everlasting.

Why would I follow anyone else?

KOH2RVA: Day 241

domestic violenceYesterday morning I had the fun of going to Glen Lea Elementary School with the church staff and surprising the teachers with a show of appreciation. We knocked on the doors of the classrooms and when the teacher opened the door we would burst in, say “Surprise!” and then tell the class we were from First Baptist Church where we had been trying to be good to Glen Lea all year long, but on that day, especially, we wanted to be good to their teachers. And then we presented each teacher with a rose, a huge Hershey bar, and a poem of appreciation. Each presentation took about two minutes, the teachers seemed grateful, and for the staff, as I said, it was fun.

But yesterday afternoon I went to police headquarters for the monthly faith leaders’ meeting, and that was no fun at all. I learned that in some of the same neighborhoods where those bright, beautiful children from Glen Lea live, there is an ongoing epidemic of domestic violence.

The place was packed, and Chief Ray Tarasovic began by saying, “The house is full today because we’re on a mission. We have some folks here who are in the business of saving lives.”

He said that when it comes to domestic violence we always know who did it. It’s not a stranger; it’s someone who lives in your own home. And so he asked us as faith leaders to “preach about it, pray about it, identify it, and refer it.”

Sergeant Carol Adams talked about her own efforts to rescue a Nigerian woman from abuse. Her husband had been keeping her locked up in a house on the south side of Richmond with the windows boarded up so she couldn’t see out or get out. He threatened and abused her almost daily. Carol talked about her efforts to get that woman out of that situation, including taking a day off from work to drive her to New York where she had family. Carol’s passion was evident; I got the feeling she knew exactly what she was talking about when it came to domestic abuse.

But Chief Tarasovic wanted to make sure that we knew, as well. He told us that simple assault involves slaps, kicks, punches, and threats. Aggravated assault is when a weapon is used or serious injury results. He said that so far this year there have been 39 instances of aggravated assault in Richmond.

I thought about the difference between what we had done that morning—surprising school teachers with flowers and chocolate—and the kind of surprises some people face in their own homes, when someone who has promised to love them turns against them in anger, even violence. I said a silent prayer for those 39 people who had been victims of aggravated assault, and for the hundreds more who have been slapped, kicked, punched, or threatened in their own homes.

Sergeant Adams said, “A lot of these situations never get reported because people are too ashamed to talk about them. But we ought to be able to talk about them. We ought to be able to talk about them in church,” she added. “If it happened in the first family (referring to the story of Cain and Abel), we shouldn’t be surprised that it happens in ours, too.”

No, we shouldn’t be surprised, but we shouldn’t shrug our shoulders and dismiss it, either. We should do everything in our power to stop it. And if we know of a situation where domestic violence is going on we should report it to the police.

We’re trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, on this year-long, every-member mission trip. Yesterday I was reminded that there are some places in Richmond that are much more like hell.

KOH2RVA: Day 178

winterYesterday morning at staff meeting we talked about whether or not to cancel our regular Wednesday evening activities this week.  It was a tough call.  None of the forecasters could agree on what the weather was going to be.  Some said we could get eight inches of snow.  Others said it would only be rain.  Eventually I asked, “What do we lose if we cancel Wednesday evening activities?”

We don’t lose money (Wednesday night suppers break even on a good night, and we don’t take up an offering at our Wednesday evening services), but we do lose choir rehearsals, discipleship classes, youth and children’s programs, worship, and one of the most important things of all: fellowship.

What happens around the tables at Wednesday night supper is essential to the life of our community.  We need some un-programmed time to talk with each other, laugh with each other, and tell the story of our day.  For many of our members who live alone, it is an essential mid-week boost.

I’ve quoted Gary Gunderson before, an expert on faith and health, but look at what he says about the effects of a faith community on health:

“Medical science has noticed that over a life span, people who have a faith community—not just a faith, but a faith community, a local congregation—it is as healthy for that person as smoking is unhealthy,” he said.

Because it’s not just fellowship we share around the tables: it’s love and concern.  We pray for each other, check up on each other, and when we’re sick we take each other casseroles.

The leading cause of death in the U.S. is almost a tie between an unhealthy diet and smoking. But according to Gunderson, if you ask the opposite question, “What is the leading cause of life?’ the data says the answer is “participation in a community of faith.”

We eventually decided to call off our regular Wednesday evening activities this week, but we didn’t do it lightly.  We knew that if we didn’t call it off some people would fight their way through those 1-2 inches of snow just to be at church, and someone might skid sideways in the road, or slip and fall in the parking lot.  We didn’t want to run that risk.  But Gary Gunderson helps me understand there is another risk out there, one that many people don’t consider, and that is the risk of not participating regularly in a community of faith.

I hope you will help me get that word out.  Maybe you could do it tonight when you’re not at church.  Call some people, post on Facebook, write some letters, send some emails.  Tell people that participating in a community of faith is as good for their health as smoking is bad.  And then, on Sunday, when it’s supposed to be 64 degrees and sunny in Richmond,

Come to church.

KOH2RVA: Day 25

The headline in yesterday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch declared September the “Deadliest Month in Richmond Since ’07.” The photo at right shows the Rev. Anthony Bagby standing in front of the home (right) in South Richmond where his cousin was a victim of homicide.

It’s discouraging, isn’t it? Here we are, trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, and instead of going down the murder rate goes up. It makes me think someone is working just as hard as we are–maybe even harder–to establish another kingdom. But what do we do? Give up? Throw our hands in the air? Walk away?

I don’t think so.

Last month I went down to police headquarters for a faith leaders’ summit where we talked about what the churches can do to help keep peace in the city. This month I plan to go again, at 3:00 on Tuesday, October 9. Maybe some of the other leaders at FBC will go with me, so we can reassure the police of our partnership.

In the meantime we can pray for the peace of Richmond, and as I said in Sunday’s sermon, praying really is something we can “do.” Maybe you could do it right now, as you near the end of this post. Maybe you could just say, “Lord, bring an end to the violence in Richmond. Don’t let there be one more killing. Help people find a peaceful way to end their disputes and, as St. Francis prayed, ‘let me be an instrument of your peace. Amen.”

Sometimes heaven seems a long way away. Today let’s pray it a little bit closer.

Must Death Have the Last Word?

The earthquake and tsunami in Japan have not only shaken the world, they’ve shaken a lot of people’s faith.  “How could a good and loving God allow such a thing to happen?” they ask.  It’s the oldest question in the theology book, and if there were an easy answer it would have been answered a long time ago. 

Some people answer it by saying there isn’t a good and loving God, and the devastation in Japan is evidence.  Some say God is good but not very powerful, and therefore not able to prevent such things.  Others say God is powerful but not very good, and therefore not interested in preventing them.  Christian theology, for the most part, has simply acknowledged the tension: God is all-loving; God is all-powerful; terrible things happen.

Maybe it would help to look at that word terrible.  We think it’s terrible that so many people died in this recent tragedy, but the truth is that everything in this world is finite.  Nothing lasts forever, and especially not something as frail and vulnerable as human beings.  So, it’s not a question of whether we are going to die, but only when and how

You could make a long list of all the possible whens and hows, but with the possible exception of dying in your sleep in extreme old age, none of the options is all that attractive.  And yet this is precisely the point at which we start shaking our fists at the sky.  “Why, God!  Why did  this person have to die at [choose one from Column A] from [choose one from Column B] ?”  The when and how often seem irreconcilable with the notion of a good and loving God.

But suppose a good and loving God is spending his time on that other question, not the when  or how but the whether.  And suppose it’s not the question of whether we will die that he is working on, but the question of whether or not death will have the last word.  The answer to that question is the gospel itself, and the answer is a resounding “NO!”

Maybe you could keep that in mind next time you read the obituaries, when you see all those people smiling up at you from the newspaper and read all those stories about when and how they died.  Maybe you could cling to the truth that  this is not the end of their story, nor will death have the last word.

“I just can’t accept infant baptism”

That’s what people often tell me after they’ve heard all my arguments for welcoming Christians from other denominations into our membership without re-baptizing them.  To them baptism is believer’s baptism by immersion, and therefore infant baptism is no baptism at all since it isn’t (usually) by immersion and since an infant is incapable of making a profession of faith.  They say, “We’re not re-baptizing these people; we’re baptizing them!” 

And the argument starts all over again.

But at the end of it I rarely have the feeling that I have been understood.  So, let me see if I can put it another way, a way that would make sense to lifelong Baptists, and let’s talk about those people Baptists often place at the opposite end of the Christian spectrum—Catholics. 

  1. Baptists baptize believers by immersion; Catholics baptize infants by pouring water over their heads three times in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. 
  2. As Baptists, we do not believe that infant baptism is sufficient (as some Catholics apparently do).  We do not believe that it “saves” the child or “washes away the taint of original sin.”  We believe that salvation requires our faith as well as God’s grace.
  3. This is why we wait to baptize until a child is old enough to profess his faith.  Then baptism becomes a celebration of salvation in which the gift of God’s grace is received through the believer’s faith. 
  4. This is why we believe that infant baptism—on its own—is unacceptable.

But (and you knew it was coming), when infant baptism is followed by an extended period of Christian formation, by a confirmation process in which children learn what it means to believe in Jesus and belong to the church, and by a public opportunity to claim their baptism and profess their faith, then it becomes one piece of a process whereby the grace of God that was celebrated in baptism is received through faith.  As Paul might put it: grace + faith = salvation (Eph. 2:8).

What I’m trying to say is that I can’t accept infant baptism either, not on its own, but I can accept it as part of a process of authentic Christian discipleship.  Understood in that way it is almost identical to our own practice of baby dedication, and I don’t think any of us want to do away with that.  What we mean when we say “I can’t accept infant baptism” is that we don’t believe water, by itself, does anything for that child, but we need to carry that thinking all the way out.  Water, by itself, doesn’t do anything for the person who gets into our baptistry, either.  It’s just water.  We use it as a symbol of God’s grace and our surrender to it. 

Which makes me think that being a Christian is a matter of the heart, and not a matter of how much water was used or when it was applied.

What do you think?