On belief, unbelief, and grace

On any given day I believe in God. At least, I think I do. I mean, yes, I believe.

Usually. Maybe. Most certainly.

But there’s plenty of time I don’t believe. Or, perhaps better put, that I’m not sure what I believe. Or, maybe that my faith fails to provide the precision often demanded of faith, and I find myself in a gray area that few people care to occupy. Especially people of faith.

Certainly, faith is not a crib sheet for the tough questions of life. At least, my faith is not. When does life begin, and who decides? What is freedom, how far does it extend, and for whom? Are there any acceptable exemptions to the commandment “thou shalt not kill”? Is God all powerful and all loving? Do miracles happen? And if so, by what power, why, and why not more often?

If a man getting out of the burning car can thank God for his rescue, what role do we attribute to God in the death of three people who didn’t escape the flames?

Easy answers are hard to come by.

Sure, easy answers work for easy questions. But when you ask harder questions, second order questions, simple answers fail. Miserably.

This is not to say that I’m bound by the paralysis of theological perfection, unable to say anything with certainty without circling back to theology books I read back in seminary or to books I’ve purchased but haven’t (yet) read (if I ever will). I’ll gladly answer the questions above with a full and confident voice after some theological hemming and hawing. But I also reserve the right to say something different tomorrow. Or next Tuesday.

Because easy answers are hard to come by.

Now, there are some tough questions I’m better at, even as I acknowledge that they’re still tough questions and my answers might have more nuance than a slice of pizza has grease. For example, even though Jesus clearly and unequivocally teaches that divorce is wrong (Matthew 5:31-32), I’m ok with divorce. And by “ok,” I mean, I’m not advocating for a divorce in every pot.

No. I’m no fan of divorce, but I get that we need it. Broken people get themselves into broken relationships, after all. Some of those broken relationships really need to be undone. This is not willy-nilly disrespect for the covenant for marriage. It’s acknowledging that human brokenness is real, and that freeing people from bonds that might serve only to perpetuate pain and dysfunction may be necessary and good and even holy. And that’s ok. Divorce can represent the freedom that Jesus promises … even if the Gospels record that Jesus himself was no fan of divorce.

No Biblical literalist am I. Obviously.

Thank God. Otherwise I’d be worshiping a rock (Psalm 18:2), cutting off my hand (Mark 9:43), and as a minister of the Gospel condemning siblings in Christ to death for their acts of unfaithfulness (Acts 5:1-9).

Actually, no Christian is a literalist. The Bible is full of metaphor and hyperbole and story and wonder that conveys the truth and power of the grace of God. The stuff of the Bible is not meant to be forensic, scientific, literal truth, like an oddly written text book, or the transcripts of a eyewitness statement – which, we know, are not perfectly reliable. Instead, the truth of the Bible and of the church is meant to be like a supernova that unleashes an immeasurable grace into the community of the faithful for the sake of the whole world.

Let’s do another “for example.”

I embrace that yes, Cain, we are our brother’s keeper (Cain didn’t think so and killed his brother – see Genesis 4 for the juicy details). Jesus affirms that we are our brother’s keeper in his parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), wherein Jesus portrays a member of a much-derided religious group as an example of righteousness when this man gives generously to care for a neighbor in need.

We all love the Good Samaritan story. But let’s just pause here for a moment and let it sink in that Jesus didn’t just teach us about being good to our neighbors. He didn’t just use the example of Jane Do-Gooder. Jesus deliberately told this story using a member of a reviled, rejected religious group as an exemplar of righteousness. That in and of itself says something. Pay attention to Jesus’ storytelling – not just for the “moral of the story,” but for the way in which he tells the story. The form in which Jesus teaches us about caring for our neighbor itself teaches us what care for our neighbor looks like … especially for our neighbor who neither prays or nor looks nor acts like us.

James writes in a similar theme about care for neighbor, saying essentially that “thoughts and prayers” are a bunch of crap when we are instead called to actually provide for our neighbor’s human needs (James 2:15-16, and following).

So the Bible is abundantly clear. We are to care for our neighbor.

But then come the hard questions, for which I have no easy answer (remember, there are no easy answers). To what extent do we care for our neighbor? Give our cloak, and shirt, too (Luke 6:29)? Spend our last mite (Luke 21:1-4)? Offer up our own lives (Mark 8:34-38)?

There are no easy answers to these questions. Anyone who says there are is trying to sell you something, or justify themselves, or both.

We live in a broken world full of sinners, and I am chief among them.

People in dire need visit churches all the time. During the week, usually, when only the church staff are there. It’s the safest time for someone beaten and kicked to the margins by all kinds of human brokenness to make their way to a church door. And for all the times I’ve been able to help someone, how many more times have I turned away such people, dear children of God, from my church?

There I am, sitting in my air conditioned office, with my well-maintained car in the parking lot that drives me to and from my home in a fairly affluent community. I turn her away, I turn him away, because I, because we, didn’t have enough to help with an electric bill. Or groceries. Or rent.

Bullshit. Lord, have mercy on my soul.

This is the stuff I worry about. I rationalize it enough to get by – I’d go nuts if I didn’t – but I seriously wonder what that conversation will be like with Saint Peter at the pearly gates when he asks me how I’ve lived my life, what I’ve done with the Gospel entrusted to me, how I’ve cared for the least of these? Oh, Lord have mercy upon me. I believe in grace, but not so much that it frees me from the sense of responsibility I have to the Gospel and to my neighbor who bears the very image of God (Genesis 1:27).

And so forth and so on. I could write for days about the conundrums I find myself in when it comes to being a disciple of Jesus Christ. Because easy answers are hard to come by. And if we live as Jesus lived, as he calls us to live, we’d end up where he did, dead on a cross. But I actually like life. So, there’s that.

Which is why my favorite verse in the Bible these days (yes, it changes from time to time) is Mark 9:24.

“Lord I believe. Help my unbelief!”

In this story a father brings his son, who is tormented by a demon, to Jesus’ disciples for healing. Jesus was up on a mountain with Peter, James, and John at the time, so the other disciples decided to try their hand at it. But they couldn’t cast out the demon. They couldn’t heal the child.

Anxious father. Sick child. Frustrated disciples. And naysayers – the legal experts – arguing with the failing would-be miracle workers. What a chaotic scene.

Then comes Jesus. After a mountaintop experience in which the three disciples he hand-picked to join him didn’t really understand the revelation they were privy to and were just plain awkward when they encountered the enveloping presence of God (and to be fair, wouldn’t we all be a bit afraid and awkward in such a situation?), Jesus approaches the bickering crowd and begs, perhaps with an eye roll and a sign, “What are you arguing about?”

The worried dad of the sick child tells Jesus the whole desperate story. My kid is possessed. I brought him to your disciples. They couldn’t heal him.

Jesus scolds the crowd. “You faithless generation! How long will I be with you? How long will I put up with you?” But then Jesus goes on. “Bring the child to me.” Jesus doesn’t let his anger get the best of him. He doesn’t make the suffering of the child and the faithlessness of others become a moment for finger-wagging. Instead, it becomes a moment of grace.

Jesus examines the suffering child, and then asks the father how long this has been happening. “Since he was a child,” dad says, the long-suffering angst surely hanging in his voice. “If you can do anything, help us! Show us compassion!”

Now, this is one of those scenes where stage directions would be great. Does Jesus respond to the father with a scolding tone? A generous tone? Was he incredulous, or matter of fact? I’ll leave that to you to imagine.

Jesus answers the desperate father. “‘If you can do anything‘? All things are possible for the one who believes.”

“Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” dad responds. Tears, I’m sure, are streaming down his face.

And to the desperate father’s statement of faith and non-faith, of belief and unbelief, Jesus says nothing. No grumbling about “this generation” or “kids these days.” No push-back to the dad, “So, what is it? Do you believe, or don’t you? You can’t be on both sides, bucko.” No. In response to this amazingly honest statement of a faith that both is and is not, Jesus acts. Jesus casts out the evil spirit from the child, and the child is restored to health.

The disciples couldn’t heal. The father couldn’t bring himself to believe, fully. And all throughout this scene the know-it-alls were mocking them for their failures.

This is the setting of my faith, dear friends – somewhere between belief and unbelief, with fellow followers who struggle to make it all work according to the teachings of our Savior. I keep trying, hoping, expecting, yearning, believing even when I don’t believe, that grace will show up. Because that’s what the Bible and the ministry of the church has shown me – that grace shows up.

Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.

Amen.

Onomia, Oh My!

Today I visited Camp Onomia, one of the outdoor ministries of the ELCA, located just two hours northwest of Saint Paul in the Mille Lacs area. And I am so glad I did!

Camp Onomia is set on beautiful Shakopee Lake, and is surrounded by state park land. As you look across the lake, you don’t see other camp grounds or resorts or anything … just lakewater and trees. Standing in the middle of the camp, all you hear are children playing and exploring, and birds chirping, and squirrels scurrying. It is truly a beautiful getaway.

The center of the camp is a fire pit with a large concrete cross, where morning and evening gatherings can take place, and where the all-important camp fire burns at night. Surrounding the fire pit is a wonderfully shaded grove area with picnic tables and space for children to run and play. Lining this area are several camp buildings, including a chapel, a mess hall, dormitories, and the retreat center. Uniquely, this camp doesn’t have traditional camp cabins, but instead offers dormitory-style housing … something that family campers with young children, and those not accustomed to “more rustic” camping experiences, might really appreciate!

Amenities aside, I’m thrilled at what this camp can offer as a place of holy encounter – with God, with God’s creation, and with God’s people. Getting folks together for a weekend church retreat, or kids for a week of summer camp, can truly build relationships and nurture the gift of faith through intentional experiences of Bible study, prayer, and divine encounter in community and creation.

Camp Onomia, along with many of our Lutheran camps, has experienced some level of decline in recent years. Parenting styles have changed over the years, and fewer families are sending their children to “sleep-away” camp today than a generation or two ago. If parents are sending their children to camp, it is often for a specific skill – to help their children with soccer or music or art. Also, church finances are changing, and the ability of congregations and synods to fund camps, or for congregations to subsidize campers, has declined.

While our outdoor ministries may not see the enrollment numbers return to their heyday of a few generations ago, I know that I am eager to have my own children participate in summer camp at Onomia, and to see my congregation renew a relationship with this camp. Indeed, in talking with a few parents at my church, I know there is interest in this kind of ministry. There is incredible value in a fun, faith-filled experience of camp that is not skill-based or achievement-oriented, but focused on fostering a unique experience of Christian community and encounter with God.

Years ago my congregation sent youth to Confirmation Camp and other programs at Onomia, and I can see a new partnership with Onomia as a “back to the future” kind of thing … returning again to an experience that once nurtured the faith of our youth and church.

But this is not just “doing again” something we’ve tried before. Times have changed. More than even a generation ago, we live in an era when the formative experience of regular Sunday morning church is diluted by the many family, work, educational, and recreational experiences and responsibilities that demand the attention of our church members. In recent decades the definition of “regular attendance” at church has changed – from three times per month to once per month. Thus, the opportunity to establish strong church-based relationships and nurture faith through special experiences is one that all congregations should seize.

Many thanks to Camp Onomia Executive Director Jim Schmidt for showing me around the camp today. I look forward to more visits to Camp Onomia in the months and years to come … with my family and with my church, to draw closer to God and to each other in a setting that truly inspires awe of God’s creation.