Here are my thoughts for tomorrow, the 4th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scripture readings are Genesis 12: 1 – 9, Romans 4: 13 -25, and Matthew 9: 9 – 13, 18 – 26. This has to be one of the toughest posts I have ever written. Many things are going on in my life right now (and most of them are not good) and the crisis in faith that I see in the world is impacting my life. But I have not given up hope nor have I renounced my faith as many might have done.
The other day I was reading a report about problems with science education in this country. In response, one commentator blamed religion for the problems. This commentator then proceeded to list a number of references which, he claimed, proved that those who are religious are mentally ill. While I would say that I could personally be characterized as a “bit flaky”, I am not sure that I would go as far as questioning my mental stability. It is also interesting to note that this same commentator used the same exact comments in explaining why this country is having difficulty dealing with the idea of global warming. This commentator, along with many others on the extreme left of the theological spectrum, blames religion for the problems of society and the world.
Of course, while this is all going on, we have those on the extreme right of the theological spectrum telling us that we are in the “End Times” and that Armageddon is imminent. And it is all due to secular humanists and their agenda of decadence and immorality.
I cannot imagine that the problems of the world can be directly attributed to the various religions of the world nor am I willing to accept the notion that God is determined to destroy this world because some people do not willingly accept the notion of a omnipotent God. Yet, while I hold the views of those on both the extreme left and extreme right with disdain, I look around and wonder what is happening.
The cost of gasoline rises almost every day, sometimes by the hour, and we hear that the energy companies are making record profits and that tankers loaded with crude oil are parked off shore because there is no place to unload their cargo of “black gold.” We wonder who is benefiting from this because it doesn’t seem to be us.
And with the rise of the cost of energy comes the rise in other goods and services. We, as a country and as a society, have no real understanding of the relationship between the cost of crude oil and the cost of other materials that are dependent on the production of crude oil. We are watching the breakdown of airlines as they attempt to balance the desire of the public for low cost travel with the rising costs associated with that travel.
Our political system, once perhaps the envy of the civilized world, has turned into a 21st century equivalent of the Roman Senate, where every Senator seeks the power of Caesar and election is accomplished by coup d’état, backbiting, and conspiracy.
It seems to me that “conspiracy” has become the watchword for every event that has taken place in recent years. We are not willing to accept the obvious if we can somehow create a more sinister conspiracy. Pair “mortgage problems” with “conspiracy theory” gets 410,000 hits in a Google search; pair “rising oil prices” with “conspiracy theory” and you get 789,000 hits; “energy crisis” with “conspiracy theory” gets 1,420,000 hits; even “society problems” paired with “conspiracy theory” gets 2,490,000 hits. Granted that many of these results are combinations of the various words but it is clear that many people see conspiracies lurking in the shadows where there is nothing but discovery. Even religion and faith have become intertwined with the notion of conspiracy theories with the success of the DaVinci Code as a book and as a movie.
We are quite willing to accept a conspiracy theory as the answer for the problems of the world because it is easier to do so than it is to accept the real answer. The cause of mortgage crisis may be more related to societal greed than anything else. The rise in fuel costs may be more a reflection of the fact that we have lived with cheap energy for so long that we are totally unaware of it’s real cost. Our political process has broken down because we have let it fall apart; too many people have long accepted the idea that they could do nothing so they have turned a blind eye to the process. Now, with the process seemingly controlled by the rich and powerful and their special interests, it is breaking down.
We have longed placed our faith in a system. For many years, it was a faith well placed and it was a system that worked. I believe that the system still works but we, individually and collectively, must take action to fix the broken parts.
I could not help be amazed when people could not understand how Albert Gore, Jr. could win the popular vote in 2000 yet lose the election to George W. Bush. After all, have most people not studied the Constitution in at least high school? If they had remembered what they studied, they would have remembered that it is not the popular vote that decides who is president but the Electoral College.
People complain about rising fuel costs today and there are times when the complaint is justified. There are any number of reasons why the cost of energy is climbing in this country, but this country has always had relatively cheap energy and the rise in prices may just be an adjustment between what we are paying and what people in other countries are paying. But we are not ready, let alone understand, this explanation. We have long lived in our little world insulated from the outside and now the outside is somehow seeping into our comfort zone.
We see people living on the street. We see long lines of people outside food closets and hear how the lines get longer each week. We are told that we are the land of plenty and opportunity but the plenty is disappearing and the opportunities limited. We live in a world where we expect the answer to our problems now and when we don’t get the answer we want immediately, we question the system.
We are undergoing a process where our view of the world is changing from one where the answers all come from “above” (through religion) to one in which all the answers come from “below” (through science and rational thought). In doing so we, as individuals and as a society, have transformed God from what He is, was, and will be into what we want him to be. We have transformed God into our servant, coming when we need Him.
This transformation and change has not taken place overnight but rather has been slow and gradual over the history of the church, religion, and mankind. It is a transformation and change that began when the church became part of the establishment, not a thorn in its side. The transformation and change has, I think, only become more apparent in recent days because of everything else that has happened recently.
This change and transformation has created a world divided by and between faith and reason, a world where adherents of the faith proclaim everyone else doomed and without hope and where adherents of an empirical lifestyle proclaim that those who have a live in faith are hopeless mental cases. It is a world where you must choose one side or the other but not both. Those of us who live in both worlds are slowly being squeezed by both sides.
It is apparent that you cannot be a scientist and a Christian in today’s society. If you declare that you are a Christian, there are too many people who will proclaim that your scientific credentials are fraudulent (and that you may be slightly mentally deranged) while declaring that you are a scientist puts you in the realm of un-believers.
And as I write this piece, the state of Texas Board of Education is considering a new way to teach evolution. But this new way is nothing more than a disguised attempt to introduce creationism by circumventing the courts and their opinions concerning the teaching of creationism and intelligent design. All this will do is widen the gap between faith and reason, not bring it closer together.
But, as I have written before, a life based solely on empiricism and without faith is a life without vision. Albert Einstein put it this way, “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” You maybe successful in your life but you do not know where you are going or if you are ever going to get there. I also wrote that a life based solely on faith will provide you with a vision of where you are going but cannot give you the means to get there. (“Just a Thought”, 6 January 2007).
I wonder how society would react or respond to the three acts of faith that are given in today’s lectionary. What would the neighbors of Abram say today when he announces that he is moving from his established home and headed to places unknown because God has told him to do so? What would the people say when Abram tells others that he is to be the father of many nations when he doesn’t even have any children and his wife, Sarai, is beyond child bearing age? Would his neighbors seek to have him committed as mentally ill? We are a society that looks very cautiously at those who claim to hear voices telling them what to do so what would we do if Abram were our neighbor and fried?
What are we to say when a man loses his daughter to illness and seeks out a holy man to somehow bring her back to life? What are we to say when a woman, plagued by an illness for twelve years, desperately seeks a cure that will give a normal life? We see examples of those who proclaim that they have the ability to cure illnesses by a simple touch, just as Jesus did, but we are skeptical of those claims. Perhaps our skepticism is brought about the repeated exposure of such modern day holy men as fakes and charlatans; perhaps our skepticism is brought about because we have a greater trust in traditional medicine that we do in alternative forms of healing.
But is our skepticism justified? Remember that the miracles of healing proclaimed in today’s Gospel reading are not the first times that Jesus had healed someone. So the people are coming to Him for healing because they know that He can heal them. Keep in mind that the woman in this story, because of the nature of her illness, has been ostracized by society. She is no longer welcome in society because her illness has made her unclean. She, more than the synagogue leader, is desperate for a cure and she will do whatever she must in order to gain that cure. To venture out into society and come that close to Jesus is to risk all that she is and has. The leader of the synagogue most certainly had to risk the wrath of his colleagues by showing confidence in the Galilean preacher who was stirring up the countryside.
There are those today who are similarly desperate; they are quite willing to risk all in an attempt to find a cure because they have tried everything else or because society is not willing to try. And it is only natural that there will be those who will seek to take advantage of those who are desperate for their own benefit.
But the problem is not that there are those who take advantage of people’s desperation but that we let them take advantage. We do not challenge these charlatans and we do nothing to help those who seek help. We who truly believe have let those who do not abuse our faith and, as result, blacken our faith.
Faith requires some action on our part as well. Faith requires that we take a step outside of our comfort zone and go into areas that we are not altogether comfortable with. Faith requires that we put into action something so that we are able to obtain that which we seek. Those who seek must be able to find what they seek.
It is still a sore spot in my life that on a night when I was in the midst of the greatest crisis of my young life, a seminarian and would-be pastor told me that my baptism as an infant did not count and that I was condemned to a life in hell. I was seeking solace in a time of need and all I was receiving was further pain. Had I not had others who cared for my spirit, I might have walked away from the church that night.
But today there are too many others who act like that preacher-in-training, offering condemnation and rejection when love and grace is needed. When Jesus Christ was crucified that first Good Friday some two thousand years ago, two other men were crucified as well. One of the two rejected Christ, mocking Him as did the soldiers guarding them. But the other recognized the inequity of Christ’s punishment and begged forgiveness for his sins, the cause of which put him on the cross. Even in his own public and personal agony, Christ gave the grace that so many people seek today.
There are too many people today, who like the synagogue leader and the women, seek answers but are rejected by the church. These seekers do have faith but it is a faith that is being tested and it is the church that is testing the faith.
It certainly had to be by faith that Abram gathered up all that he owned and headed towards the unknown land. And it was on faith that Abram took God’s word that he, Abram, would be the father of many nations when he was ninety some years old and had no children.
Abram’s inheritance would only come about when he traveled to the place that God directed him. This required that he move from where he was settled and established and go to an unknown place at a unknown distance away. And society had virtually barred the woman for any societal contact because of her illness; for her to seek Jesus in any manner would have brought a greater response of wrath from society than anything the synagogue leader might have encountered.
If we do not understand what it is that is the basis of our faith, then we cannot act in faith. Too many people act as if faith were gained by following a series of steps, each one to be taken in turn. Faith is the reward for following and obeying each step. If living by and through the law was all that was required, then faith and any promise provided by faith would have no validity. And I think it would be safe to conclude that we may take Paul’s comment in Romans (Romans 4: 13 – 25) to hold true whether we are talking about any spiritual law or any physical law.
And those who proclaim the superiority of the law as the means by which faith occurs have to re-evaluate what it is that they are saying and doing.
Perhaps it is time that we as a church determine what it is that is the basis of our faith. I have written before, as have others, about the alarming lack of Biblical understanding among modern day Christians. This lack of understanding has a dramatic impact on how society views the church. Perhaps we need to undergo a massive Bible study so that we truly understand what it is that we are and what it is that we believe.
If we do this, maybe we will understand that the Bible is not a historical or scientific document but one that explains who God is and who we are. In doing so, we can show that the Bible is not a collection of lies, half-truths, or myths designed to cloud our minds as some on the left would have to believe.
Maybe, if we do that, we will understand that the Rapture is not a Biblical concept but rather the ideas of a nineteenth century Bible scholar. Maybe, if we study the Bible with as much conviction and effort that we put into determining who the next American Idol will be, we would know that Paul did not write all the letters that he is supposed to have written and we would better understand why he wrote what he, in fact, did write.
Maybe, if we began a new study of the Bible, we would find out that there are in fact other religions that believe in the same God as our God. And such belief is not bad or limited.
Maybe, if we began a new study of the Bible, we would find that the major emphasis of the Bible is the love and care we are to have for all mankind and to make sure that all of God’s children are fed and clothed. Maybe we would find that we are not to reject someone because their race, creed, or lifestyles are different from our own.
In these times, my faith is being tested; it is both my personal faith and my faith in a system in which I have lived. I trust in the Lord that He will not forget me nor let me down; but I also know that I must seek the solutions that He is providing for me. I will question my faith and, like Job, I will seek answers from God.
And while I wonder about the system in which I have lived and whether it will last, I realize that I can change the system if I try. After all, one man died on the cross to save my life and in that death the system was changed.
I am not asked to die but to work to insure that the change that was brought about some two thousand years ago continues to be made. But the church may die if it does not respond to this crisis in faith, if it does not look at the answers it offers to the people who seek answers and seek solace and comfort.
There is a crisis but it is a crisis that can be solved if we believe.