Sunday, February 25, 2018

Peter and Stage 2 Faith

            There’s a scene in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar that sticks with me more than it seems to do with others. It is the set-up for the Last Supper, but- of course- the disciples don’t know that. They’re eating and drinking together, reminiscing about what they thought being an apostle would entail. Harmonizing, they sing, “Always hoped that I’d be an apostle/Knew that I would make it if I tried/Then when we retire, we can write the gospel/So they’ll all talk about us when we die.” (Ah, yes, apostles- a gospel message should always leave people talking about the writer. This tells us that they still didn’t understand what Jesus was about.)

            When we, the present disciples and apostles, examine our forbearers in following Jesus, we have information they did not have. In the depiction in Jesus Christ Superstar, as well as the depictions in some of the gospel accounts, Peter, James, John, and their brothers in faith continued to expect that Jesus would turn out to be the Messiah of their dreams.

            As children, they had heard stories of the One Who Was To Come. This One would greatly overshadow his ancestor, King David. The One Who Was To Come would be powerful and mighty, overthrowing oppressors and righting all wrongs. People would rise at the call of the One Who Was to Come and, renewed in fervor, the pain of oppression and ignominy would be eliminated. (At least, it would be for those currently oppressed, preferably so they could extract revenge.)

            Yet, Jesus doesn’t deliver in the way that they’d expected or hoped. He brings a world-changing power, but the unfairness of grace and the irresistibility of God’s mercy to all who hear of it was just not what the apostles were prepared to accept. When you combine these realities with Jesus explaining that he was going to die- in one of the most shameful ways possible- who can blame Peter when he blurts out, “Jesus, you quit talking like that!”

            It’s too much for Peter. In this framework, Peter is an excellent example of Stage 2 faith (a continuation of our sermon series). People move from Stage One to Stage Two when they begin to seek and find acceptance, teaching, and identity beyond their immediate family group. Larger group identification begins to matter- by way of school, sports, language, gender expression, social activities, and other ways people group themselves. In this stage, called in psychological terms: “mythic-literal faith”, a person learns the stories of their group, without much larger meaning, and accepts them as the facts of the tribe. It is in this stage that exposure to ideas about inclusion, varieties of experience, and differences as being useful matter. Children at this stage, usually ages 7-12, are predisposed to accept information from (to them) trustworthy sources as absolute. Anyone who has seen 8-years-old arguing about whose family does something the “right” way can understand this.

            Thus, we find dear Peter illustrating Stage 2 faith, where adults can be stuck. He has unlocked the discipleship level- finding a trusted leader, feeling included in a group, and arming himself with a sense of rightness and righteousness in recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, God’s anointed. Now, Jesus’ disclosure of how he will die is threatening Peter’s security. How will Peter respond?

            If he stays with Jesus, he is gradually learning that it might not be the kind of glory that he imagined for himself. There will be no triumphant parades, no special robes, no Romans fighting to curry favor with him. He’s not likely to get rich or, apparently, even to die old. Following Jesus will mean moving beyond retiring to write the gospel and seeking responsibilities and opportunities to witness to the good news of Jesus.

            What do we do, when the narrative that we learned as children or even as young adults no longer fits? What do we do when retiring to write the gospel, so that we might be talked about is not the stewardship or the life of seeking justice or the evangelism to which we are called? A person in this congregation, when speaking to me about the issue of racism, once told me that the hardest thing to wrestle with is doing something differently than your mother did it and recognizing that she, your beloved mother, might have been wrong.

            That is the crossroads of growing in faithful action. Being willing to learn, to know better, and to do better, to paraphrase the poet Maya Angelou. Peter is standing in a place where he is faced with real truth. He can embrace it, following Jesus, or he can deny what he has experienced, close himself to what he’s seen and heard, and live a half life, always wondering in the back of his mind, “What if?”

            Nearly all of us find ourselves in a world we didn’t imagine as children or even a decade ago. Overwhelmed by more information than we can process, we retreat to our tribes of comfort and little challenge. Our biological or logical families, our known television channels or websites, our favorite artists, writers and musicians, our own denominations- even as the world has increased in diversity, we are more tribal than ever, distrusting the ones who are outside our group.

            Therein lies the challenge of taking up the cross. In order to carry the cross and all that it symbolizes- self- sacrifice, love, and forgiveness- we have to put down what we hold close to keep ourselves safe. Those false security blankets create more division than unity. What are you willing to put down in order to take up the cross?

            When I listen to how people talk about God the Father or God the Son in certain ways, I seem to learn more about the person talking than about God. Divine violence seems to justify human violence. Divine exclusion begets human exclusion. Divine hardness of heart creates some of the most closed communities ever. Even in supposedly broad-minded circles, people can be edged out if they are not quite as free as the community seems to demand.

            What if we take up the cross of Divine forgiveness, of holy listening, of Spirit-driven patience, of Jesus’ welcome of the outcasts, of celebrating diversity in all its forms? “Always hoped that I’d be an apostleThe difference between disciples and apostles is in the roots of the words. Apostle comes from a root meaning “to send out” or the ones who are sent. Disciple comes from the roots for student or pupil, a learner. It is said about Jesus’ followers in the Bible that all apostles were disciples, but not all disciples were apostles.
            When we stop at Stage Two in our faith development, we continue to cycle through being a disciple. God’s call to us, though, is to grow into being apostles- sent out to share hope, love, and grace with all whom we encounter. We have the benefit of knowing more than Peter does in this story. We read it, knowing about the resurrection, knowing about the joy of the early church, knowing that the Holy Spirit hasn’t quit working. And we also know that Peter was ultimately martyred for his faithfulness to Jesus, but not without having overseen the spread of the gospel that he grew to trust and comprehend.

            How could the song be different? “Always hoped that I’d be an apostle/ Trusting God is right here by my side. Each new day's a chance here to share Christ's gospel/ There is more to his life than how he died.”

Friday, February 23, 2018

Noah and Developing Faith

This is the first in a six-part sermon series in the stages of faith. The stages of faith have a
couple components. James W. Fowler mostly famously wrote about stages of faith, but others have contributed to the body of knowledge. They came about as a result of psychologists and sociologists, with theologians, coming to understand that our faith does not remain the same through our entire life. In the past 150 years, we have come to understand, scientifically and otherwise, that the way children and adults grow and change has an impact on how they think, on their emotions, and how they react to the world. Everyone understands that they currently are not the way they were when they were four.

However, for a long time, faith was treated kind of like the multiplication tables- separate and apart from any kind of higher math. Simply memorize a basic set of facts and one knows all that is needed to be faithful. Faith or spiritual development, though, is just like our physical, emotional, psychological, or physiological development. It continues to grow and to be affected by the things that happen to us and happen around us.

     It is important to realize that we cannot separate faith and life without denying one or the other. If we say that what happens in our life has no impact on our faith, we are saying one of the two is not as important as the other. When you have a belief in something beyond yourself- for most of us here, that’s God, revealed through Jesus- that belief affects every aspect of your life. It could be through the effort to keep them from interacting or through the reality of how you see them interacting.

     When an adult becomes angry or frustrated, we are able to recognize if they are acting like a young child. We recognize that it is a problem if they continue in that behavior, but we are also sympathetic to moments of behavior reversion. What becomes problematic, with regard to the stages of faith, is that we have so individualized faith and the experience of faithful living. As a society, we have set up ways of being faithful such that where you are different from me in faith practice and experience, you must be wrong.

     Regrettably, faith leaders, including myself, speak about God, about Jesus, about the written Word so definitively, that if one doesn’t see eye to eye with the presenter or has a different perspective- the one who is in disagreement with the leader is treated as incorrect and sometimes pushed out of the community. The reality of stages of faith, just like other stages of development, means that we can be at different stages at different times. Someone who is our age peer may be in a different stage than we are.

     Part of advancing and maturing in faith is coming to understand how one’s own faith is the product of a wide variety of experiences and learning and the work of God. That same work of God, however, is happening in other people who have very different experience and different exposure to information. What I want us to consider is that Lent [the liturgical season] is six weeks. It is not a journey; it’s a trip with a set purpose. We start at Transfiguration and we end at the resurrection. That is the trip of Lent. The life of faith, however, is a journey. We may make the trip of Lent many times in the journey. Like a movement is only part of a symphony, Lent is a section of the music of the whole life of faith.

    Let’s move into Stage One faith. James Fowler suggested that there is a Stage Zero, which is birth to age 2. What happens to a child in Stage Zero can have an effect on how that child later thinks about God. Those thoughts can be rooted in how good, bad, or indifferent the care is that one receives in this stage. One’s experience of love and those who are caregiving as warm, nurturing, accessible, forgiving, and apologizing for mistakes or withdrawn, withholding, and frustrated or neglectful… these make a foundation for how someone comes to think of God. Stage Zero also builds the foundation for the experiences of Stage One.

     The Intuitive-Projective stage is from ages 3-7. People in ages 3-7 draw conclusions based on information at hand and then apply those conclusions to themselves using their imagination. So they look around, they consider what they hear about good and evil, what they see, how others talk, and then they apply that information to themselves. This is a very self-focused stage and very literally-minded.

     For example, consider a crown. A crown is a recognizable symbol of power. The people who wear a crown get impressive titles and are able to control what other people do. If I am five years old and I have a crown, I am a princess (or a queen). I am a princess because I have a crown. As a five-year-old, I understand what a crown is symbolically and I am applying its symbolism to myself literally.

     From a more theological perspective, Stage One is characterized by a
- sense of awe (wonder in learning, seeing connections, and intuiting connections)
- sense of need (awareness of wants or things necessary for well-being and that there are people who can be counted on to provide them)
- awareness of nature (Many of us may associate this with the experience of being outdoors, relaxed, and deeply aware of something beyond ourselves. This feeling goes beyond the awareness to the understanding that we neither produced the feeling nor the experience ourselves.)
- perceiving greater meaning in life (By the end of Stage One, you are aware that there are things (people, places, situations) that you are not and cannot control.)
- a sense of innocence
    In Stage One, a person may also have the first experience of God in one’s life- either by experiencing God or by becoming aware of a need for God.

     To make this clearer, and to actually connect it to Jesus, let’s talk about the story of Noah and the flood. How do we talk about the flood to children? (I personally have no idea why we decorate nurseries and playrooms in symbols and scenes from a divinely- caused genocide.)

     We usually start with the animals, entering the ark two by two. We don’t usually go so far as to say that God was, through Noah, saving the animals from the rain that God was sending. The two giraffes, the two elephants, the two lions, the two mice- all make a nice picture entering the ark together, the original peaceable kingdom in children’s Bibles. (We never discuss what the lions eat, how the ark smelled, the frustrations.)

    How do we talk about the rainbow to children? It’s a promise- God’s promise to not cause that kind of destruction again. Does God call it a rainbow? No, God calls it a bow. We also teach children that the people were making bad choices or at least everyone but Noah and his family. God looked around and was displeased with what had happened. God decided to start again from scratch, except for keeping Noah as his human sourdough starter. We also talk with children about the dove returning with the olive branch, which makes its own nice picture.

    Since the Noah story doesn’t appear in the Revised Common Lectionary, we don’t often discuss the story of the flood, along with its before and after scenes, as adults. Rare are the word studies, lectio divinas, and multipart Bible reflections on Noah and his saga.
Reactions from adults:
- the whole story seems like a lot of work (to build a boat, to start again from scratch, to be in the ark with the family and the animals)
- Noah lived a very long time
- God reuses the canvas- painting over it again
- The celebration afterward by Noah and the way his children reacted

     I think about God’s commitment to non-violence, or at least a specific kind of non-violence, at the end of the story. If I want to shoot a bow and arrow, as a right-handed person, I hold the curve of the bow in my left hand and draw the string back with my right. The curve of the bow is pointing away from me, aimed in the direction in which I want to shoot.

     So if the curved part of the bow points in the direction one wishes to shoot, when God hangs up the Divine bow- it is pointing away from creation. God puts the bow to rest in a peaceful position, aimed away from the world we know and what we understand God to have so loved. The bow at rest also is not in the sky as a reminder to us, but as a reminder to God. It indicates that God may once again feel that this was a bad plan, that it might be better to start over, that our human failure to uphold covenant isn’t worth the Divine energy. This story, however, tells us that God has created a non-violent image as a reminder to God’s own self, a holy Post-It note about commitment to a different way of being in relationship and upholding covenant.

    We teach this story in one way to children and that way of understanding the narrative is appealing. It is, however, generally unsatisfactory to us as adults, given our reactions to, thoughts about, and feelings toward the same story through our life experiences. For a comparison from a different field, it is a like a Twinkie compared to black forest cake. A Twinkie is satisfactory if one has a sweet tooth or if rich, dark chocolate is too much for a person's taste buds- usually the case for kids. Many, if not most, adults, however, will choose the complexity of the black forest cake over a Twinkie as a dessert. It’s not as sweet, but a little of it is more satisfying to a palate that has had more exposure to different tastes and textures.

   (Of course, there are times when we may want a Twinkie as an edible symbol of a simpler time in our life. Similarly, we may occasionally return to an earlier stage of faith exploration to find stability and hope in a difficult time.)

When we are at a stage of faith wherein we trust that
- God provided safety for animals
- God made a way out for people
- God made a covenant, with the bow as a sign, against destroying all life by flood…
we are in a place of safety and security in our faith and our relationship with God.

     Regrettably, we are not able to remain in the place of security. If we remain, faithfully, where we are as children, it affects our stewardship, our evangelism, and our other ways of being in the church and being church in the world- our ways of imitating Christ. On the one hand, our approach to anything of these things as children are sometimes more open. On the other, the world needs to be met by adults who have grown in faith, moving further along into ways of trust in God that are less rooted in certainty and more grounded in trust amid mystery.

    This affects our stewardship by changing our understanding of Who contains and provides all things. It alters our evangelism as our story becomes deeper and broader in our more mature contemplation of who God is and what God’s grace has done for all people and us. Our faith is made more complex and useful to God by being layered with what we have wrestled with and the blessings with which we have limped away from our dark nights of the soul.

     As we consider what it means to imitate Christ, the Holy Spirit will not let us believe that it is enough just to do what Jesus would have done. Instead, true imitation of Christ is rooted in being open to whatever God wants to do in our lives, just as Jesus was open to what the Holy Parent wished to do in his.

    Moving out of Stage One faith means moving out the stage where what I understand about God and faith is all related to me. We move from childish (different than childlike) faith to a new stage. Moving into a new stage gives a fuller understanding, not just of Divine mystery, but of the grace of God, which we have not earned and cannot do so. Instead, God pours it out freely. When we are in a world where there are school shootings, addictions, grief, theft, struggles for power that don’t actually seem rooted in positive change, it is very important to have our faith at an adult level, not to remain at a childish view of trust and faithful action.

    Such an adult view might reflect on: What does it mean to worship a God who has hung up the Divine bow? What does it meant to imitate Jesus by being open to whatever a non-violent God is going to do, direct, or demonstrate in my life and to know that holy grace will be sufficient for whichever of my needs arise in that situation? What does it mean to know that at one point the Divine frustration level was so high that it seemed preferable to start again? What does it mean that God has regrets?

     We can separate life and faith without disregarding one or the other and the Holy Spirit will not release us into that negation. This is why being in community matters. Most of us can only handle do this work, maturing in faith, a little bit at a time and in a place where we feel safe, where we know questions are acceptable, and we also know that it is okay not to have all the answers.

     We move into more mature faith as we come to trust that God is enough. Enough in our grief, enough in our frustration, enough to meet our efforts, and enough when we need to pause for a time and simply remember animals being saved, two by two.

     There is a world beyond the doors of Lutheran Church of Hope that needs people who are imitating Christ to show up. And when they show up, they must be prepared to be open to how the Spirit is going to use them, in their adult faith, to grow, to stretch, to heal, to protest, and to making clear that God’s commitment to non-violence extends beyond the story of Noah into the creation today that God so loves.

     Most of us have left Stage One faith. We can revisit it in times of need, but we don’t get to stay there. We don’t get to stay there, not because it isn’t sufficient, but because the restlessness of the world and the irresistibility of the Spirit’s call will not let us stay there. And God’s grace goes with us into the world that is watching for us to imitate Christ.


Saturday, February 17, 2018

Unthinkable, But Required

I am a pastor of a small church- a church full of people whom I love and whom I greatly trust that God loves. On Sunday mornings, there may be any number of children and older people, this includes my own children and some of their best friends. 

I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I would do if someone came in and began shooting.
I've analyzed what I could throw, how quickly I could get to any part of the sanctuary, and how much time I could buy for others by engaging with a shooter- hoping that my death through that engagement would buy others time to attack unseen, hide children, or escape. 
I move my cell phone around in the sanctuary- to be within my arm's reach- so that my last act prior to engagement would be to call 911. I worry about if I don't have time to do this and I may not, but it's part of my mental plan. 
I am a gun owner. I'm an okay shot, better than okay at close range. My husband has asked me, on more than one occasion, to keep a gun with me at church. 
In the pulpit next to the Bible? 
In my pocket?
In a shoulder holster, under my diaphanous robe? 
In my purse, carrying said purse with me everywhere like Queen Elizabeth? 
I can't bear this. I cannot bear the thought yielding to my fears. There is making a plan and then there is introducing another problem into the situation. 
My need to have this plan and think these thoughts is not because God "isn't allowed in schools" or because of the use of psychological drugs or even because we have culturally determined that child sacrifice is preferable to some restrictions on gun ownership. 
The need to have this plan is because we have chosen as a culture to make guns our idol of choice. Believing their false promises of safety and self-determination, we have put them on a pedestal and worship them at the altar of unrestricted access and personal freedom. Our call to community living as a nation, cities, and smaller groups has been sublimated to believing that we are entitled to having what we want, when we want it and to extracting revenge and never dwelling for long in feelings of discomfort or pain. 
This is the direct result of patriarchy, white supremacy, and rape culture.
Let me be VERY CLEAR that I am not saying that everyone who owns guns rapes or is a white supremacist. 
I am, however, saying that we (almost all of us) have contributed to a culture where many people, especially white, cis-gendered, heterosexual men, have been socialized to an unhealthy level of entitlement regarding other people's bodies, property, and opportunities. And, through our gun idolatry, they see a cultural worship of tools that allow them to respond with deadly force when they do not get what they have been taught and believe they "deserve". 
This is a complex issue, but it isn't actually that complicated and it's not impossible to improve. 
But we have to want to. All of us have to want to. 
And until that happens, I will be preaching with a phone nearby, thinking about how far I can throw the large rock that sits on the altar, and praying that most of the congregation will be saved, even if I am not. 
How's that for your thoughts and prayers?