Benediction Online

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Doubting God

John the Baptizer was imprisoned for criticizing Herod. I have no idea what prison was like in those days but it was sure to have been pretty miserable. In his prison cell John must have been wondering about his ministry and about the man he had welcomed as Messiah. He had talked of one who would baptize with fire, whose winnowing fork was in his hand to separate the grain from the chaff, and yet Jesus didn’t seem to be winnowing, let alone bringing down fire. Perhaps he had made a mistake -- perhaps Jesus wasn’t the one who was to come. John was full of doubt.

Many of us are deeply discouraged when we look at the world and see the tremendous need and the apparent lack of political will to really make a difference. It is easy for us to doubt God’s active involvement in creation. We ask whether the church or even Christianity itself has any relevance today. Perhaps it is a religion of the past which no longer speaks to the needs of today.

Recently we discovered that Mother Teresa lived with doubt and an arid spiritual life for many years. She wrote to her spiritual director, ‘…there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started 'the work’.’ Her calling to work amongst the very poor came in a series of intense encounters with Jesus but then once she started the work, it seemed as though God abandoned her and she lived in fear of abandoning God.

Some writers are suggesting that if a modern day saint can experience such deep and long lasting doubt, it may be proof that God does not exist, or that if God does exist, she is not very interested in us.

It seems that people in the first century were having similar doubts. The letter of James tells them to be patient until the Lord’s coming just like a farmer waits for a crop to come up. This is very different from Paul’s letter. Paul thought that the second coming was going to be tomorrow or next month or at the latest, next year. Obviously by the time James was writing Christ had not come again and people were beginning to wonder if they had been fooled.

When our lived experience challenges our theology we have a choice; to abandon our faith or to re-examine our theology. James tells us to be patient, but the word he uses does not describe a resigned patience but a gallant spirit that can turn the tides of doubt and sorrow and emerge with even greater faith. This kind of faith is one which expands and changes; one which says I know that God is faithful so what does this new situation tell me about God that I didn’t understand before?

John expected the Messiah to be a forceful and powerful political presence. He didn’t expect a preacher and healer. What do you expect God to do or to be? If God doesn’t keep everything running smoothly, maybe God is not a mechanic. If God doesn’t punish the bad guys, maybe God is not a cop. If God didn’t show up for Mother Teresa, maybe God is not the perfect date. What exactly is the divine job description?

When Jesus replies to John’s doubts he describes what he is doing in a way that ties it into John’s framework – the scriptural prophecies. When our doubts make us question, our tradition is rich enough that we too can reconsider what we’ve always believed and find new understandings of who and what God is. This is not remaking God in the world’s image, rather re-finding those aspects of God which speak to our need and the need of those around us.

We need a God who brings transformation, a God who responds to suffering, a God who is active in empowering those who redress wrongs, a God who is present. The birth of Christ -- God taking on bones, muscle and skin – speaks to us of God with us, God in the here and now. But we don’t live in first century Palestine. We don’t get to spend time with Jesus in the flesh. We don’t see the same miracles where ‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.’

These things are happening today but they are happening through the agency of ordinary people. People have cataract surgery and see again, others have knee or hip replacements and can walk, modern medicines bring relief from leprosy and other skin conditions, hearing aids bring hearing; CPR can resuscitate those whose hearts have stopped and life support systems keep them going while their bodies heal. And with our help, organizations like Heifer and Episcopal Relief and Development bring good news to poor people.

Does this human activity mean that God is not active? Does it mean that God is not present? Does it mean that God is not necessary?

Did Mother Teresa’s inner darkness mean that God was not with her? Could she have done all that she did, and become a beacon for compassionate and selfless service if God was not with her?

Could St. Benedicts have continued to be a liberal and inclusive spiritual community through all the challenges of our life together if God was not with us?

God is with us. God is a vital part of our lives individually and as a people. Doubt is also an active player in our lives. It is doubt that keeps us moving onwards, seeking new understandings, new encounters with God. It is questioning that leads to new life, when we are willing to take the questions seriously, when we are willing to follow them where they lead. Mother Teresa’s faith kept her going, following the last thing she knew God had said to her. Our faith keeps us going, even when God turns out not to be the person we thought we knew.

We can help one another cultivate that robust faith that James calls patience. A robust faith which takes fear, pain and sorrow in its stride, not ignoring them but doing what can be done and leaving the rest in God’s hands. This is the call of Advent. We rejoice in our knowledge that the Messiah is coming. We long for God’s presence to break through into our world in an entirely new way, and we pray for the coming of God’s kingdom in you and in me. And we exercise and develop the muscle of our faith so that when doubts come, when God behaves differently from we expect, when things we have relied on fall away, we can keep going on until the darkness is replaced by light and God’s presence once again breaks through.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Birthing the Son of God - Mary Elizabeth Pratt-Horsley

All my life I have been told that Advent is a time of waiting – This year I’ve been thinking about the waiting we do in our lives…
There’s waiting in anticipation of a desire being fulfilled … I remember back in New Jersey in the late 70’s waiting in line for ages it seemed to take my kids to see the first Star Wars movie… Not too long ago people waited in line for hours and hours to be the first to purchase the new i-phones from Apple… Just two weeks ago people camped out in front of stores throughout the country --- so that they could push and shove and be the first through the doors on Black Friday.
Of course, there are many kinds of waiting – the nervous waiting of a student for exam grades … our anxious waiting as patients for the results of medical exams…
Yet Advent is a different kind of waiting – hopefully a more creative kind of waiting… it is more like the waiting of the gardener who has planted seeds, knowing that as he waits…the seeds are preparing … deep in the earth…to bring forth a living plant.
Advent waiting is like the waiting of expectant parents… They know that each day…or week… or month they wait… their baby is growing and developing in a life-giving and necessary process. Waiting, planning, loving, hoping … are all part of that process.
And then there is the waiting experienced by artists, musicians, writers, philosophers – a waiting characterized by mulling over new ideas. It is a fruitful waiting – totally necessary to the creative process…
Today it seems that we have no patience for that kind of waiting… and that Advent has been lost in the rush to Christmas…
It wasn’t that long ago – I can remember it from my childhood anyway – that the Incarnation… the coming of Christ as a human … really comprised three seasons that lasted about two months – Advent… when we prepared for the coming of Jesus into the world, the twelve days of Christmas… when we celebrated his birth and coming among us … and Epiphany … when Jesus was shown to the wider world as God incarnate. In many ways… that time of preparation and celebration seem to have been lost.
So what is the content and the fruit of our Advent waiting?
Our Advent waiting is not just a time for counting off the days to Christmas … it’s not just a quiet or barren patch we must go through to arrive at the joy of Christmas.
It’s a time of faithful preparation… In today’s Gospel from Matthew we find John the Baptist, who was given the task of preparing the way for Jesus. According to Matthew, it was Isaiah who spoke first of John the Baptist as the one who was to “make straight” the paths of the Lord as part of preparing for his coming.
How are we to prepare this Advent for the coming of the Lord? How are we to “make straight” his path? In the Gospel, John does not mince his words, or spare our feelings when he says that we must bear fruit. How do we bear fruit in the context of Advent… and preparing for the coming of Jesus?
Recently I came across a quote from Meister Eckhart, a German theologian and Christian mystic who lived from 1260 to 1328. I had read the quote before somewhere… but this time it really caused me to ponder. Meister Eckhart wrote:
“What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the son of God fourteen hundred years ago, and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and in my culture? We are all meant to be mothers of God. God is always needing to be born.”
How do we birth the Son of God into our world? First, we must prepare…
Like any artist or architect, we know that preparation means reflection, pondering, mulling over our options … It is only when we have gone through these stages… that we can begin to think of the actual planning and carrying out of our task… This is an extremely important part of the process. As we prepare and plan to “birth the Son of God, what are some of the questions we should be asking ourselves?
We need to ask ourselves – What do I know about the One who is to be brought into the world? At one point in the gospels, John the Baptist asks Jesus’ followers: “Is this the One I am to follow as Lord?” Jesus responds through his disciples… Tell John the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame and leper are healed, and the poor and oppressed are encouraged and supported…
So the Son of God to be brought into the world by us … right now… in our day … is a person of compassion … bringing light and wholeness to the dark and difficult situations in which people find themselves.
To facilitate the birth of the Son of God into our time and culture …we too are invited be compassionate … we too are encouraged to support the work of healing and wholeness that is taking place... We, too, in the many dark corners of our culture and world… are to keep vigil for the light … and bear witness to the wholeness of God in our brothers and sisters… and in our world…
What would that look like… bringing the Son of God into the world… in our own time? I would imagine it would look different for each one of us…. Yet how to begin?
One way is to truly take some time to reflect and ponder this Advent– asking yourself: “What is the darkest spot in my community or in our world … that area or problem or situation that I would passionately like to see brought into the light and made whole again? If you could wave a magic wand – and heal one thing … or solve one major injustice … or bring wholeness to one situation … What would it be?
For instance you might passionately like to see all the world’s children have the resources they need to both reach their potential and safely reach adulthood … clean water, food, education, healthcare, loving families, an absence of war and injustice in their countries… That is a situation that I am passionate about. Of course, we can’t do it all… but we can start somewhere …
We could sponsor a child in an impoverished country … we can be advocates and voices for health care for all children here in the USA … we can support world hunger relief programs … We can purchase alternative Christmas gifts that bring poor families resources they need to be whole… We can purchase fair trade goods…. which give small farmers a fair price for their products… thus enabling them to feed their children…
It seems to me that our Advent pondering and preparation can involve thinking about how to provide immediate relief to the situation we are passionate to make whole … and …it can also involve pondering how to change the structures that permitted the situation to develop in the first place… laws… attitudes etc.
A friend pointed out to me this week that this 2008 presidential election is the first one in many years where we don’t have an incumbent President seeking re-election nor do we have a sitting Vice-President trying to become President. We have a fascinating slate of candidates in both parties … As we look at each candidate’s integrity, gifts, and actions … rather than the spin and hype surrounding them … perhaps we will be able to discern, with the Holy Spirit’s help… the person who would best be an ally for us in bringing wholeness to that one situation we are passionate to heal… the person who would challenge the structures, laws and attitudes that continue to perpetuate the situation.
To bring the Son of God into the world in such a way in our day won’t necessarily be easy or risk free. We are always tempted to live cautiously… finding our security in the status quo … or in material protections … hesitating to make changes or take any risks…
Yet at this season… perhaps more than any other, we are reminded that each of us is created in the image of One who is above all a Creator… Like God… we are created to bring wholeness … the seed and impulse to be life-giving and creative lie deep within each human being…
We are also the creation of a God who was willing to risk enough to give each one of us free will… the freedom to make life-giving choices … or not…
We, too, are to be risk takers… universe-disturbers in order to bring well-being to others…
After our Advent reflection and pondering… our planning and preparation… let us …with joy and resolve… with creativity and courage … birth the Son of God into our world … at this season of the Incarnation.
By our compassion … by our love … by our risk-taking and willingness to speak up and step out for the well-being of others … let us rise to the Epiphany challenge … to show forth the wholeness of God to a world that is still broken. Amen