A few thoughts on the reality of God and faith as inspired by some reading, some praying, and some witnessing.
I’ve read several books recently, all of which contend – egad! – that faith and God are real propositions for real life. I offer the sarcastic egad! because I have wondered in recent years what we Main Line Christians (in general) and Lutherans (in particular) believe is real about God and faith. Perhaps this perception is little more than a mere reflection on my own lack of faith. Or perhaps I have picked up on a spiritual malaise that transforms church into a stained-glass version of The Lions Club, theology into an Oprah-esque type of life philosophy, prayer into a generic self-help activity.
This second contention is affirmed, in some way, by both Luke Timothy Johnson and Deborah Van Deusen Hunsinger. Both authors lament the misplaced influence of progressive/liberal thought on the practices of the church, creating a diluting effect on the treasures of our faith tradition. The critical method approaches the Bible as an object of historical study rather than as a life-giving, authoritative font of wisdom; prayer as a therapeutic resource rather than as true communication with God; Jesus as historical prophet two millennia old rather than as the living Word active today.
The books are:
- Pray Without Ceasing: Revitalizing Pastoral Care by Deborah Hunsinger (particularly chapter 1, A Theology of Koinonia, and chapter 2, Listening to God)
- Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels by Luke Timothy Johnson (particularly chapter 6, The Real Jesus and the Gospels, and the epilogue, Critical Scholarship and the Church)
- Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel by Luke Timothy Johnson (particularly the entire book – well, I’m not yet finished with it . . .)
Especially moving for me are two thoughts:
- Luke Timothy Johnson’s question: do we believe in a dead Jesus
who did many wonderful things 2000 years ago, or do we believe in a
living Jesus who continues to act today?
- Deborah Van Deusen Hunsinger’s contention that the practices of prayer and Biblical study have been subordinated, and thus robbed of meaning, by psychotherapeutic and historical-critical goals.
And so through this reading I am – for the first time ever, or at least for the first time in quite a long time – trying to reflect somewhat intelligently on what it might mean for God and faith to be real and active and formative in my life and in the world, not just an interpretive lens for life but a stop-me-in-my-tracks, life-altering, authoritative force.
In the midst of this conversation I can’t help but hear what a dear older member of my church told me before going to seminary – "Don’t go off to seminary and loose your faith!" And I also think of what The Reverend Wife said today to me: "The people in the pew usually have more faith than the clergy." I don’t advocate going the anti-intellectual route that some Christians choose. But there is a segment within the Christian academy that so de-constructs faith, the Bible and the Christian tradition (without putting it all back together) that it hardly seems helpful to the life of faith and the mission of the church. (But perhaps my intellectual friends can say more about this . . .)
I haven’t yet begun any kind of prayer practice or devotion to Mary or the saints. We’ll see about that . . .
But I have resumed in the past few weeks my daily prayer practice, even making an intentional effort to pray and read Scripture not only on the train to and from work, but also over lunch. As many of you know, I pray a modified version of The Suffrages from the new Evangelical Lutheran Worship (modified to include the Ten Commandments), including the three selections from the daily lectionary, and the prayer of the day. It is truly a special practice, one that grounds me in prayer and Scripture, and takes me through the primary catechetical texts several times per day. Through this practice my faith is nourished, and I most definitely feel more connected to the Church and the living Word that dwells within it . . . This practice helps make the Scripture, Prayer, Faith and God all the more real to me.
I witness a lot of stuff in the hospital – particularly death and life and variations thereof. In the process I get to see a lot of faith in action – people who find comfort in God, whose prayer practice is one of meaning making, whose piety and devotion toward the sacraments or the Scripture provide strength to them in times of pain and suffering. This is not to say that these folks also don’t feel pain or anguish – no, they do in very deep and real ways – but at the same time their faith in God provides them with a strength, a comfort, a hope that is awe-inspiring. Whether it is the Pentecostal Christian who prays enthusiastically for the power of healing, or the devout Roman Catholic who piously prays the Rosary, faith is real and active in the lives of many of my patients and their families.
I don’t have any deep summary paragraph to offer here. These are just some observations, a naming of the experiences that are converging to inspire in me an awakening to the reality of God and faith in my life. What does this mean? I’m not sure yet. Stay tuned.