Do whatever the scribes and the Pharisees teach you and follow it: but do not do as they do, forIt reminds me of a wonderful statement made by a beloved bishop of our church. He said, “there are two things you can count on when you become a bishop; first, there will always be a place for you to sit when you come to church, and, secondly, the other thing is that no one will ever tell you the truth again."
They do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others…They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces….
But these words about the scribes and the Pharisees could be said about the professional leadership of our churches today. The world of pastors and theologians might just be described as the modern day scribes and Pharisees of our time.
When I was the interim priest at St. Matthew’s in Eugene, a more conservative congregation then we are here at St. John’s, I was asked at an adult education class if I would prepare a statement about my own personal beliefs to share with the parish community. It was the watershed moment of my decision to either continue my interim ministry at St. Matthew’s or move on to another place to share my beliefs and gifts as a priest. And St. John’s became the recipient of my presence as the priest in charge.
And so, being one of those professional religious leader in the footsteps of the scribes and Pharisees spoken of by Jesus, I am going to stick my neck way out and share with you some of my own personal understandings of my faith and beliefs. I want to add quickly that these are personal. I don’t expect anyone else here to believe the same way I do or even agree with what I am going to say. Some of what I believe may be ideas that you share as an individual Christian, and other beliefs may not be.
So here goes.
Some people look to religion as that which answers all of our questions about life’s mystery, glory and pain; others, like me, see our faith as those truths which deepen the questions. And right there we have the two basic strands of religion. One strand is literal, the other strand is figurative. In my life there is no one and for all. I have no difficulties embracing biblical or theological contradictions.
Christianity, as I see it, is a pilgrimage into the unknown and is a process of continual conversion. As a young person the church for me became a love affair with all the ups and downs you would expect from any passionate relationship. I loved the stories. And I was and still am struck by the wonder of creation—even the wonder that there may not be anything at all beyond this world. Life after death is a very BIG question for me. And since no one has come back to clarify this for me, I live with that uncertainty.
I have always been on an intellectual adventure with the Bible. In college and in seminary the Bible was taken apart right in front of me. And because of that, I love the Bible because it communicates deep truths by way of grand images for me. I read the Bible as allegory and metaphorical truth, but not as literal truth.
God for me is an impenetrable mystery, but I experience God in a personal way. I understand that God is not a Christian (necessarily) nor was Jesus a Christian (necessarily). I believe that all religions hold within them truth, but that truth has limits because we don’t have the full knowledge of who God is. In terms of my own belief in Christianity it is the truth within this religion that has captured me. I see the heart of Christianity as an incredible love story; a love story of God lived out most perfectly by Jesus of Nazareth.
I believe myself to be on a journey with countless other men and women into the full religious experience of sin, doubt and longing. We don’t all follow the same road or path to that religious experience. We question. We have doubts. We get angry. We get lonely. And then, hopefully, we find ourselves yet again.
I have been blessed with the privilege of being able to stumble along the Christian way with some amazing companions and friends. My faith has sustained me through many upheavals, experiences of betrayal, shame and disappointment. My failures as a person and as a priest have taught me something of what grace is about. I treasure the friends and the people within the Christian community who can see through me, who challenge me and who love me nevertheless.
As a Christian priest, thinking about the future of religion and human kind fills me with equal parts of hope, dread and excitement. Having said this, I know that as I age I find more and more moments in my life when I feel unsure of what I think and what experiences of faith elude me. At the same time there are moments in life that are more exciting and more revealing than I ever imagined. I am more in love with my family, my friends and the people of the congregations I have served than I was at the beginning of my ministry. And I can hardly believe that I was ordained forty five years ago. I have served in parishes where I was absolutely overjoyed by being there and in parishes that have been disappointments. Having said that, I am fully aware that there are some of each of these things—joys and disappointments—in every place that I have been; in each of these parishes I find have found my faith experience as one in which questions and faith always go together; but I know that we do not need to be afraid of each other; and what unites us is far stronger than what divides us.
Being a Christian community does not mean throwing all of us with our various beliefs into a big blender so that our believing and belonging becomes homogenized.
An author named Gordon Jeff deals with some questions that I find intriguing, like: “do I have to accept everything Christians are meant to believe? Do I have to believe everything I read in the Bible? Why doesn’t being a Christian make me happier? And then he goes on to say: Belief, as I understand it, needs constant testing against the hard reality of experience….and it is becoming clear…that early Christianity was more varied than has often been imagined. (Am I Still A Christian).
I believe the Bible and the creeds but not literally. I view the creeds as 4th century creations and don’t necessarily speak to many Christians today. I realize that in saying this we’re going to recite the Nicene creed in just a few moments. I would like to ask you, as you recite this creed, what parts you clearly understand and what parts mean little or nothing or are not understood by you. I often wish they were considered to be historical documents. At the same time I love the church’s tradition and find myself nurtured by them. Beliefs when they reach the point of being absolute and dogmatic, however, seem to turn God absolutely upside down for me.
I want to say a word about literalism. Literalism, for me, cripples the imagination because it can’t fathom that something can be true on one level and not true on another. Literalism makes our biblical and theological understandings sour and it can easily make us sour people as well.
I know that literally God is not a real father—but I acknowledge that calling God “father” is an analogy. I believe in God, but I don’t have a clue as to the full magnificence, or function, or grandeur or purpose of God. I view the life of Jesus as an example of how I am to live, how I am to behave morally, how I am to understand love and how I am to accept all people who are seeking and striving to live a wholesome life.
We live in a time of unsettled meanings. Many people are no longer sure of what Christianity is about. Others are convinced that they know exactly what it’s about. I count myself on the side of those who lack surety. This doesn’t mean, however, that I wander through the world in a fog of mystery. I seek every day to try to understand what calls us to belief and commitment.
My role in my personal life is to attend to the hole that I have in my soul. The Eucharist often fills that hole, but I know that there will always be more to living a Christian life and, if I keep at it, I will find the unfinished quality of experience that is deeply satisfying and joyful and –hopefully—have a quality of being humorous at the same time.
St. Bernard says that there are two books other than the Bible: the Book of Nature and the Book of Experience. And he tells of a threefold method for living on the boundary of life:
- Be attentive and awake
- Be open to new possibilities because the spiritual journey is alive and dynamic
- Learn to discern the movements of your own psychology because the book of the human heart is complex and knowledge of God and knowledge of the self go together.