Friday, April 08, 2005

The Path of Faith

I have written about this some on my Raw Edges blog , as well as touched on this in this blog. I find myself in a interesting position both as prior of this small community and as co-pastor of Church of Jesus Christ Reconciler, and as Spiritual Director given the ways in which my faith has wandered through a deeply questioning period. I have read Spong, Dominic Crossan. I have defended the Jesus Seminar. One of my Professors at Long Beach State F. Stanley Jones, was a fellow of the Jesus Seminar. I am deeply indebted to him. Yet, I would not hold him up as an example of a person of faith. I have played in the waters of theological liberalism and found my faith refreshed, but looking back now, I must admit I never imbibed a "Liberal" faith. Even when I would defend Bultmann, Crossan, Tillich et al. to my fundamentalist and conservative friends and colleagues, I never had their faith. Oh, there was a time when I questioned the necessity of belief in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. But that was testing out how far was in fact the reach of historical critical scholarship and the techniques of historical inquiry. As long as I stood my self with in the field of historical scholarship I could not as historian affirm the virgin birth. The resurrection and the miraculous, well especially after Dominic Crossan's book where it was posited as plausible that something other than mythological reading into Jesus life was the source of the healing stories, it was clear to me that the methodology of history more came up silent in the face of what the Enlightenment labeled the "Supernatural". My belief in the Resurrection as something that actually happened as opposed to fable illustrating some abstract truth. Now I didn't label an historical event, because that rendered it within the realm of historical scholarship, and as far as I was and still am concerned, the historian has no tools to investigate the Resurrection. You can examine the documents but given the nature of the Gospels depending on where you begin the cards are already stacked for the historian one way or another.
All my positions now have changed. I am no longer a student, or an artist who happens to be a Christian. An individual who can play the gadfly to the confident atheist and/or non-Christian as well as to the hyper-certain fundamentalist Christian. I enjoyed the repartee, the confounding of people's impressions. No not all Christians are fundamentalists, yes I meditate according to Buddhist techniques, have been confounded by the spirituality of my Buddhist professor, a convert to Buddhism, and yes I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and that Jesus is both God and human, etc. I don't belittle that time nor would I claim that I was misguided. As a Student and then when immediately after Seminary I was waiting around wondering what was next, pursuing my painting, learning iconography, I had a responsibility to live out my faith in the particularity that was my life either as student and/or artist.
But something began to happen and it has been a slow development overlapping my time as student and artist, where my calling to lead in the Body of Christ to represent not only myself as a Christian but to be a representative of the Church as pastor of Christ’s flock, the Gadfly, the playing in the waters of theological liberalism slowly seemed less and less appropriate (do not misunderstand I have no interest in playing in the waters or imbibing the waters of Theological conservatism or Fundamentalism either).
It began for me in chaplaincy. In the hospital God awoke the priest in me, it made chaplaincy work very difficult on various levels. The obvious level is that I was a chaplain responsible for the spiritual well being of anyone in the hospital whether or not they were Christian. If they wanted a chaplain or needed someone to process a trauma or whatever, I was there to offer a listening ear. I never preached the Gospel per se in the hospital, and yet it was precisely there that I came to realize that liberal theology was mere smoke. If the resurrection wasn't actual, if Jesus was not God and human and yes if Jesus was not born of a virgin, I was lost as a chaplain. I either had to abandon Christianity or cling to it and Jesus Christ with all of my being or I was going to be overwhelmed by death and sorrow. Bishop Spong and Dominic Crossan ceased to be of any use to me in the hospital. They were and remain intellectual play mates, I still have a certain admiration for them and the risks they have taken, though I have concluded they have made the wrong ones. They are not the future of Christianity, despite Bishop Spong's proclamations to the contrary. Meditation slowly became prayer more than Buddhist meditation. Grand ideals, metaphors, fables representations of the good in humanity faded for me very quickly. The nice abstraction of Paul Tilich, and his philosophical speculations about Being, did not help me confront death and suffering on a daily basis. Carrying a crucifix, meditating on a painting of Jesus the healer (that was removed from the hospital half-way through my time at the hospital), praying, wrestling with God over all the pain and suffering I encountered, physical, spiritual, and psychological, those things carried me through. I suppose some can be carried by grand ideals in the face of suffering, for me only the suffering God, made any sense of this, because the suffering God overcame death. Without that belief I could offer no healing. I experienced the hospital as a place of death and suffering as much as a place of healing. Healing and health were a gift, death and suffering were facts unbearable and indisputable. Liberal theology had no answers for me. It was while in the hospital that I began painting my first Icons. Chaplaincy forced me to seek the faith once delivered to the saints. If I was going to serve people as a man of faith, I had better be fairly sure of what I believed and be sure it was in fact the faith I claimed it to be. It was in the pressure cooker environment of the hospital that I came to see both Liberal Theology and Fundamentalism as imposters of the faith. They both seek to in very different ways claim to carry on the faith once delivered to the saints but at best they are shadows of the truth. Powerless in the face of death and suffering.
This was my experience, and not everyone in my CPE group had the same experience though for all we had to clarify what we believed and why.
Practicing Spiritual Direction was another path towards this new way of having faith. In Spiritual direction I faced individuals whose questions (unlike in my years as a student and scholar) were damaging and unhelpful to their faith. In spiritual direction I found once again that both liberal theology and fundamentalist theology were enemies of vibrant mature faith. Neither lead one into the arms of Christ. They seemed to lead my directives either to a suspicion of having faith in Jesus Christ, and into belief in an abstract God, or some vague power called the Holy Spirit (in the case of Liberal theology) or lead one into a very personal and convoluted and conflicted relationship with a God who would do violence to you if you stepped slightly out of line. One simply celebrated questions without answers the other condemned even the sort of questioning exemplified by the Abraham and Jacob in the Old Testament. I began to find something different in the tradition of spiritual companionship and fatherhood/motherhood that is embedded deeply in the faith once delivered to the saints and is the origin of what we now call spiritual direction. I continued to write Icons and slowly came to realize that I was submitting my skills to something greater than I greater than my imagination or artistic freedom. I was learning to preach the gospel in pigment and form. That is to proclaim the truth of the incarnation.
Then as I lead a small group into life living in intentional community based in the monastic tradition, and praying the Daily Office, I began to have to admit that true liberation was found in embracing the Gospel fully and that faith once delivered to the saints, the tradition of the Church.
Now as Pastor of a church I am bound to preach not my words but God's. A fearful task, I must submit myself to something else, than my opinions and scholarship. Not that I deny my opinions or scholarship, they are important, but as a preacher and pastor I am responsible to the entire Body of Christ, and specifically to those God brings under my care (not unlike the individual care in spiritual direction.)
There is a weight of responsibility which the stole is to represent that I feel acutely and am currently struggling squaring that responsibility with what I believe was a positive time of questioning and playing in various waters. How do I both allow people their journeys and paths of faith and simultaneously say this is the faith this is Christianity this is the Gospel. Jesus Christ is God and human, Raised actually from the dead. Your salvation is in this act of God's self-giving it isn't metaphor or a sign of some grand ideal of human harmony and peace. It is God invading our reality, the totally other refusing to allow us our own way, because only in God is true life. I don't know the answer. Freedom and responsibility. My tradition talks allot about Freedom in Christ and keeping to the historic apostolic faith once delivered to the saints. And yet it isn't very good at this balancing act. For the moment it is my struggle, my puzzle, intellectually I know it is all in many ways a game and yet when it comes to life and death, the answer is faith not intellect not grand ideals and philosophical abstractions. As prior and pastor and spiritual director and iconographer, all the matter is faith in Jesus Christ. And I have returned to my childhood, and that simple trust in Jesus, with all the adult responsibility of knowing a world full of suffering and death. Suddenly all the good pietist hymns of my childhood flood in all hymns to Jesus and the name above all names. Precious Jesus. I feel this is odd but I think it is odd only because fundamentalists have convinced us faith in Jesus leads to hate. Yet, I know as a child that my simple faith in Jesus lead to love, all those old hymns about Jesus are about love. You can't love humanity, you can't love abstractions, Grand ideals do not lead you to love.
Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner.

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