Posts Tagged ‘belief’

MARK 6:1-13

He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him.On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10 He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11 If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

Why is it that “prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house”? Simply because the immediate family, extended relations, and neighborhood community have accumulated too many memories and together decided the reputation of the prophet on the basis of what they remember about him or her, before the voice of God called them into mission.

Remember when he smoked cigarettes behind the barn with his friends, and then lied about it to his folks? Remember when she flopped among the boys during high school, and then left town in rumors of pregnancy? And now they’re back in celebrity lights? I don’t think so!

This is not to suggest that Jesus necessarily had a checkered past, but the scrapbook memories that curl and yellow in the album of our family archives always make it difficult for those who knew us to praise our turn-around life without so much as a friendly wink of suspicion.

Interestingly the story tells us that Jesus was “unable” to do a deed of power there in Nazareth – unable, not unwilling. Which reminds us of other Gospel stories, of the hemorrhaging woman, for instance, or the paralyzed man, whose faith had been instrumental in their healing. All the power in the universe could have resided in Jesus, but it depended on the belief of these people to be activated and released for their health and benefit.

Grace and faith are thus the two complementary powers in the experience of salvation. Grace is the supply and the offer; faith is the trusting heart.

MARK 6:1-13

He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him.On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10 He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11 If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

We might expect that a return to his hometown in Nazareth would excite the neighbors and townspeople to throw a party and organize a parade in honor of what God had been able to accomplish through one of their own. The reputation of Jesus had preceded him, and we can imagine the throng coming out to meet his arrival. No such luck.

When Jesus began to teach in their synagogue, these Nazarenes were immediately impressed by the power and clarity of his wisdom. But instead of attributing that wisdom to the providence of God, and then giving praise for its revelation in their midst, these friends and neighbors of the Carpenter family passed him off as the little scrap they remembered from years ago. “Where did he get this stuff,” they asked. “Isn’t that the kid who used to sand cabinets and sell chairs with his father?” Sadly, what they remembered of Jesus back then was preventing them from perceiving the truth in Jesus now.

Which brings up an important observation regarding the dangers of religion as well. Our religious instruction and churchly upbringing can establish such a strong set of familiar assumptions in our minds, that we become nearly impervious to the Truth.

PSALM 1

Happy are those
    who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
    or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
    planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
    and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

The wicked are not so,
    but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
    nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked will perish.

Religion traditionally specializes in stereotypes and absolutes. A stereotype – from the French referring to the “solid” or fixed plates used to set images for printing – is a preconceived notion of an entire class of things (like human groups) based on your observation of a few individual examples. In the passage above, “the wicked” and “the righteous” are moral categories applied across a wide range of characteristics, behaviors, and lifestyles. With a stereotype, you are either in or out of the category.

An absolute is something that stands apart independently of all conditions or limitations. An absolute judgment is true universally and in every case, not only in this or that situation. When the supreme reality is regarded as absolute, God is conceived as outside of time, above the world, unchanging, and perfectly unique. Logically there can be no relationship with something that is absolute, beyond merely standing there in worship of its perfection.

Stereotypes and absolutes are especially useful to us during adolescence, when the project of identity-formation can benefit from some unrealistic classifications of ourselves, other people, the wider world, and the deity-in-charge. To really believe that reality is divided so cleanly between “this” and “that,” or that some things (like God and the soul) stand utterly apart from the complications of time and death, serves to calm our anxieties and support the certainty we (think we) need to function in life. Just knowing that “the wicked” will get what’s coming to them, and that we (“the righteous”) will one day have our reward, is enough to keep us in the game.

But eventually we need to grow up, become more realistic in our appraisal of life in this world and take a more adult perspective on the gray-scale distribution of good and evil – if these categories are even useful anymore. “The righteous” don’t always prosper, nor do “the wicked” always perish as we hope they would.

Reality is not like that, and a genuine faith connects you to reality. Belief keeps you safe inside your world, but your world is not reality.

ACTS 17:22-31

22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,

‘For we too are his offspring.’

29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent,31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

It’s questionable whether a lot of religious “objects” – presumably temples, altars, and idols – directly translates into a population being “extremely religious.” We know from our own day that the paraphernalia and even the practices of religious life do not necessarily correlate to a vibrant spirituality. A religion can be dead inside, underneath all the elaborate display and outward activity.

The gods of Greek culture were associated with the wide range of concerns in daily life. There was a god of commerce and a goddess of marriage, a god of wine and a goddess of the hunt, a god of war and a goddess of love, a god of healing and a goddess of the harvest; on and on across many domains of nature and society. Each god or goddess was represented by an emblem or idol, and since most Greek deities were anthropomorphic (human-like) in character, their associated idols were commonly statues – “formed by the art and imagination of mortals” –  set up in temples or sacred locations.

The Hebrews, on the other hand, had been a nomadic federation of tribes in their early history. Carting around an idol would have been a logistical challenge – although Yahweh’s war-box (the ark of the covenant) did serve as, or at least slip into the function of, an idol during that time. Eventually graven images and artistic likenesses of Yahweh were prohibited and violently rejected as idolatry, which refers to worshiping an idol.

A danger for the Jews, and for the Christians after them, was more a conceptual than physical idolatry – becoming so enamored of and devoted to a particular mental representation of God (in idea and doctrine), that it effectively closes down access to the divine presence. This is the mystery “in which we live and move and have our being,” which is really a definition that defies definition when you think about it.

How can you picture this mystery? How do you symbolize being itself? It would seem that the mere attempt would amount to constructing an idol.

                                                                                           

Jewish religion was really the first example of what is called ethical monotheism, a belief in one god whose primary relationship to humans is as the absolute moral authority. Yahweh demanded purity, obedience, retribution and repentance; and at some fateful time in the future, he will judge all people according to their righteousness or sin, rewarding or condemning them as they deserve.

As Christianity began as a messianic sect within Judaism, this was its basic worldview and expectation as well. As the religion got going, Jesus was simply inserted into the existing program as the long-anticipated savior and final judge. His death on the cross had paid the penalty for sin, but only for those who believe. For everyone else – all those nonbelievers – things would continue as before, with them punished according to the principle “You get what you deserve.”

Had Christianity stayed true to the life and gospel of Jesus himself, this entire system would have been thrown off by the radical force of his insistence that we don’t get what we deserve – none of us do. Instead we get grace, love and forgiveness out of the generous initiative of God. Nothing has to be earned, paid, or believed; and no membership is necessary – if it’s even possible to talk of insiders and outsiders any longer.

In fact, it could even be said that our belief in God is the last idol to set aside.

ISAIAH 25:6-9

6 On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
    a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
    of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
7 And he will destroy on this mountain
    the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
    the sheet that is spread over all nations;
8     he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
    and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
    for the Lord has spoken.
9 It will be said on that day,
    Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
    This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
    let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

What is this “shroud” and “sheet” that covers human consciousness? It must have something to do with the “tears” and “disgrace” that the poet dreams will one day be wiped away by God.  And this? What’s at the root of this heavy anguish?

The answer is clear: death – or better, the fear of death.

Considered by itself, death is simply an end, the period at the end of our life’s sentence. Despite all the claims, no one knows for sure what’s after death. Clearly, the body that dies succumbs to decay and decomposes into inorganic compounds – the “dust to dust” of the old graveside eulogies.

The popular confidence in something, classically called the soul or “the real me,” that survives the body is actually quite recent in the history of religious belief. By far the most ancient and widely held notion is that when your time is up, you’re done. The personal ego that spent a lifetime (however short or long) managing an identity, collecting and casting aside the things of this world, and chasing all the while after an elusive happiness (or maybe running like hell) – that gig is up when you die.

When thinking human beings consider the prospect of mortality – and more specifically the certainty of their own death – a peculiar distress can come over the mind. Further reflection reveals that this life is characterized by pain, loss, and endings, along with the anguish these can provoke. The Buddha called this “dukha”: Life is suffering.

                                                                                              

What do humans do with this creeping realization of their approaching end? They busy themselves with other things. Countless distractions are instantly available to take your mind of the depressing thought. It can be therapeutic to throw your focus into something else – sometimes the more petty and trivial, the better.

Some people try to numb the distress with intoxicants. For as long as the cloud persists and the muscles are relaxed, the matter is as good as forgotten. But then, after the headache, it’s back.

Religion has done its part, with the invention of an immortal soul – “the real me” – that simply skips like a rock on a pond, from this life to the next. Or, according to Oriental theory, across many lives. In this case, the dark punctuation of death is but the briefest transition – the proverbial “blink of an eye.”

Critics have exposed the liabilities of such an eye-blink philosophy, noting how the minimization of death translates for so many into a disregard for the genuine (and passing) preciousness of life. In their hope and anticipation of a better life to come, they let this one slip by. If this one is particularly miserable, then such hope for the by-and-by can help you hang on till the end.

But here’s the point. Whether you are futzing around with meaningless distractions, finding solace in a drug, or pinning your focus on a paradise beyond, you are living (but not quite) under the shroud of a dangerous delusion.

While it’s not necessary to fixate on the real limits and final end of your mortality, living your life in full acknowledgement of this fact can be one of the most clarifying and liberating certainties there is.

Suddenly this moment, the one you were just about to dismiss and forget, is full of mystery and beauty. When this realization dawns on you, mark the day, for it is a day of resurrection. Fear is wiped away and you are finally truly alive.

PSALM 23

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2     He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3     he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
    for his name’s sake.

4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
    I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff—
    they comfort me.

5 You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
    my whole life long.

Faith is nothing supernatural, and even though it was named  a “spiritual gift” by the apostle Paul, it’s not something that God gives to some and not others. In its word origins, “faith” is not about knowledge or doctrines, or even your willingness to believe what the doctrines say. It is much more existential than that.

You can believe that God exists and still not have faith. You can even believe “in” God – meaning that you have a strong emotional allegiance to what (your) God stands for – and have no faith at all. In fact, as impossible as it may sound, it is frequently the case that individuals who lack faith are the most outspoken, “evangelical,” and aggressive about what they believe.

If it’s not believing that God exists or in what God represents, then what really is faith? Very simply, it is trust. But isn’t trust your willingness to believe what can’t be proven or doesn’t make logical sense? Yes, trust can mean that. Faith, however, is a different kind of trust.

You might trust another person’s word, the conclusions of scientific research, or even the testimony of scripture. In such cases you are choosing to accept a proposition (a statement or claim) as an instance of truth-telling. If the Bible says that God exists – or that heaven and hell exist, or that miracles happened, Jesus rose from the dead, and the apocalypse is coming – your willingness to believe it is based on your interpretation of what those claims mean and your determination of how trustworthy the source is.

But it still isn’t faith.

Faith is not a function of religion, and it really has nothing to do with religious claims. It involves what can be called spiritual intelligence, but you don’t have to be “spiritually smart” to have faith.

Faith is the act of releasing yourself in trust to the supportive and provident nature of reality. The alternative is not disbelief or atheism, but anxiety and the separation from reality caused by gripping up inside yourself and forgetting that you’re not alone.

Once upon a time, you knew this connection intuitively (if unconsciously) which allowed you to spontaneously and effortlessly relax into being. As the months and years passed, however, you learned how dangerous the world can be, how hurtful people can be, and how staying intact necessitates that you pull away and curl up inside a shell of safety and control.

At a certain point, what had once been effortless became effortful and risky, making the prospect of leaving this shell of identity and fully surrendering to reality seem like death itself.

This must be the “darkest valley” the psalmist writes about. When you’ve reached the limits of your control, when the bright path of purpose drops into darkness ahead of you and it feels like all security is gone, that’s when faith matters.

You die to the old certainties and let yourself fall into the gracious presence of “Thou.”