Thursday, November 19, 2015

Faith in the Face of Fear

Pundits and politicians on the far right continue to use the propaganda of fear to capture the imagination of their audiences and to fuel irrational political agendas. The latest round of fear mongering concerns the resettlement of refugees fleeing Syria.

I am not going to claim that there are easy answers to this human crisis. There are not. Moreover, I am not going to suggest that we simply open the borders and let anyone into the U.S. We need secure boards.

But, from what I understand, the U.S. has a strict vetting process for those who seek asylum. Indeed, as a study by the Cato Institute has stated, “The security threat posed by refugees in the United States is insignificant.” The piece goes on to say, “The current refugee vetting system is multilayered, dynamic, and extremely effective.”   

Any action taken on the part of these refugees should take a balanced approach of securing the borders but also acting compassionately toward those who are running for their lives in hopes of finding safety, as Zach Dawes argues in a recent article at

Yet, as history has shown us, fear often leads to extremist reactions such as exclusion, isolationism, xenophobia, and hate-filled violence. Moreover, fear suppresses our desire to live boldly as messengers of the gospel of peace.

One of the more interesting biblical stories detailing the contrast between faith and fear appears in Mark 4:35-41, where we find Jesus and his disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee in a boat. In the midst of their nautical journey, a raging storm quickly arises and threatens their lives. While the story shows Jesus as a miracle worker who has power over creation, the impact of the story on its readers speaks directly to the empowering strength of faith to overcome the crippling force of fear in the face of evil.

A deeper understanding of the force of the story rests on the ancient belief that the sea was the place of chaos that threatens God’s good creation. Simply put, people of the ancient world held the view that the sea was under the power of evil and the unpredictable storms on the sea were a challenge to the creation and a threat of the return of chaos. 

In the context of the early Christian movement in the Roman Empire, the followers of the crucified Jesus may have identified this story as a narrative about their own persecutions at the hands of an oppressive regime. Feeling lost in a sea of violence and oppression, and longing for Christ’s victorious return, these early believers may have felt that God had left them, that Jesus was asleep.

The crux of the story hinges on the juxtaposition between the fear-filled disciples and Jesus, who calmly sleeps as the storm rages. In the disciples we witness a dramatic picture of human fear in the face of evil’s most powerful force, death. In Jesus, however, we discover a peaceful composure and the assurance of God’s presence, even as evil seems to be winning. 

The disciples' fear is brought out most clearly in the only two sentences spoken by the disciples in this story. 

Faced with fear of death, the disciples, seeing that Jesus is asleep, call out, “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?” Their question exposes the volatile situation of the disciples, and the shock, even the distress they feel because Jesus is sleeping during the onslaught of evil’s power.  They are overcome with the enormous propagation of fear; a fear that blinds them to the quiet presence of divine power that is with them in the midst of the storm.

In response to this fear, Jesus asks two extremely profound questions: "Why are you afraid?” and “Have you still no faith?"  Through these questions, Jesus expresses disappointment and anger at the fear his disciples have, and he questions whether they have faith at all.

Yet, for Mark’s audience, Jesus’ query switches the natural human reaction to evil from fear to the divinely empowered response of faith. Jesus’ questions assume that his followers should have responded to the life-threatening storm with the faith that he himself had; a faith that gives abiding and confident assurance.   

But where does Jesus find such faith in the face of fear?   

The answer can be found in another dramatic scene from Mark. We are very familiar with the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane, where we see Jesus at one of his most human moments, a moment of vulnerability, despair, and fear. The intensity of the scene cannot be overlooked, as the hot breath of fear breathes down Jesus’ neck as he comes closer to facing evil’s worse action, death. 

Yet, Jesus does not let the manipulative power of fear overtake him, and he turns to the God in whom he places his faith. This faith leads Jesus to reject the force of fear, to reject the violence that fear produces, and to embrace the calling of God to go to the cross. Jesus’ faith overcomes his fear.

 Again, in the face of the continuing threats from ISIS/ISIL/Daesh I am not advocating open borders and no vetting of refugees. We have laws and a process that can work to keep our nation safe.

Yet, as the richest and most powerful nation in the world we cannot ignore this human suffering. We are a country that values freedom and human rights. Our county is bigger when we live up to these values. And, for Christians, our faith should be bigger than our fears. We cannot succumb to fear that denies our faith. 

Fear is a powerful force. But if allowed to have control, fear draws us from God and God’s call for us to live peacefully and courageously in the world. Fear that controls us will only lead us to irrational conclusions and intolerant, and even violent, responses. Faith, however, is the divinely given power that combats and defeats our fears. Faith leads to the hope that we can love in the face of fear.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Necessity of a Critical and Relevant Faith

The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of my book, Reframing a Relevant Faith. You can purchase the book from the publisher at or through Amazon at An e-version is also available at

If a relevant and progressive Christianity is to survive and bear witness of God’s love to the world, the adherents to such a faith, those who seek to follow Jesus, must embrace a critical approach to the Christian faith.  Critically thinking about the faith is not equivalent to criticizing the faith, as some may think, although that may be part of critical thinking.  Rather, thinking critically about the faith is to continue to ask questions, to inquire about the history of the faith, its present relevancy, and its future hopes.  It is also to admit its flaws and weaknesses with honesty and transparency.
For this to happen with any degree of success, any question about the Bible, theology, and the practice of faith must be taken as a valid question.   In dealing with the mysteries of God, we should never be completely satisfied with the idea that if the Bible says it, then that settles it. Nor should any of us be entrenched in our own interpretations of scripture.  We should always be open to new ways of thinking about the Bible and theology, for to do so leads us toward the truth and the realization that, in the words of Jesus, the truth will set us free. 
I have no doubt that many readers of this book will quickly identify with what I have to say. At the same time, I have no doubt that just as many others will find what I have written to be difficult to accept, and they may even reject these ideas outright. I am not so bold as to think I have figured it all out. However, I would like to offer my own story that has led me to many of the ideas I am arguing in this book.
Readers of this book will find out rather quickly that I am a person who seeks always to ask serious questions about faith.  I don’t ask these questions to be provocative, and I am not simply playing the “Devil’s Advocate”.  I am also not seeking to create a straw man that I can easily attack.  I am asking such questions with a great deal of honesty about my own interpretation of the Christian faith that has evolved over many years.  There are specific reasons why I asked such critical questions, and why I encourage others to ask challenging questions.
One reason for my determination to raise critical questions about faith, and why I encourage others to do so, is that I grew up in a fundamentalist tradition in which queries about the Bible and faith were not appreciated.  This was particularly true when one tried to ask questions about the inconsistencies found in the Bible, or when one tried desperately to harmonize a belief in a good God with the reality of suffering.  As a teenager, I was told that such questions are not important, and even heretical to ask; only knowing Jesus and believing in him were necessary.  I was satisfied with this answer until a later time when I began to discover the intellectual obstacles one encounters when approaching the Bible for definitive answers.  It was then that I returned to ask those serious questions, which opened more questions, and which eventually led to evolutionary, and indeed revolutionary changes in the way I view the Bible and the Christian faith. I can say with all honesty that this shift in my thinking did not come easy and it took time. In fact, I fought this for some time until I realized that venturing into unchartered waters, at least uncharted for me, led me to a deeper and more satisfying faith.
A second motive for my critical look at the Bible and Christian faith is that I have perceived an insufficient education in our faith and in the Bible on which our faith is based, particularly in churches.  By this I don’t mean that churches are doing a poor job at doing Christian education.  Many churches are doing a fantastic job at providing training in the faith to their members.  But there may be a bit of shallowness to the education we provide, in the sense that we are not always struggling with tough questions. There is no doubt that asking tough questions may lead us down paths that we dare not want to travel, but such questioning may be necessary if we are to make our faith our own.
This deficiency in the kind of Christian education that promotes critical thinking has led not only to biblical illiteracy, but more tragically, to ignorance when it comes to biblical interpretation and theological thinking.  Many Bible study groups do not seriously consider the complexities inherent in reading ancient texts.  Rather they focus only on what these texts say to us as individuals, as if the books of the Bible were written with our needs in mind.  Furthermore, churches are not providing tools to help folks think theologically.  Instead, theology becomes a separate box of propositions we always believe, without critically assessing their value for our context.    
Of course, much of the fault lies with those who print such materials for church groups.  Some materials produced for the purpose of Christian education are often so insipid and limitedly focused that they only serve to heighten our emotional experiences without moving us into a deeper and more thoughtful understanding of God and humanity. While finding personal meaning from the Bible and from our faith is vitally important for Christians, it is secondary to and flows from delving deeply into the text of the Bible to discover something outside ourselves and our own narcissistic needs.  The popular idea that God wrote the Bible for me needs to be stamped out.
Failure to do so will only lead us to assume what the Bible says, or will cause us to make the Bible say what we want it to say without giving careful thought and attention to the text itself.  Moreover, such Bible readings will limit our understanding of our faith to simply a personal spiritual experience.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Audience's Experience of God in Hearing Mark's Gospel

In what sense does the hearing of Mark’s narrative convey the divine presence of God? And, if the narrative does convey the divine presence, what might this mean for the audience of Mark’s story? These questions push us to consider the force of Mark’s Gospel, and particularly the presentation of God in the narrative, on the audience of the first century. 
Much scholarly ink has been spilt on the discussion concerning the audience of Mark’s narrative. Mostly arguments have revolved around finding either the geographical location and situation of an historical audience or the implied audience a modern interpreter gleans from the story itself. While both are legitimate pursuits, both begin at opposite ends of the question, yet are primarily dependent on the same story. Thus any hope of identifying the Markan audience must be dependent on Mark. We have no one to tell us what it was like to hear Mark’s story.
However, what we can say is that the Gospel of Mark was a story that was to be read aloud in order to cause a response from its audience. The shear fact that the author tells this story in such dramatic fashion, using vivid language and imagery, and quick movement, leads us to consider how the audience is drawn into the narrative. Moreover, the vilification of certain characters, the exaltation of others, and the ambiguous presentation of still others, forces an audience of the narrative to judge these characters, and to emulate those worthy of emulation. 
The upshot of enticing an audience into this story is that they see it as not just past recollections, but also as their own story. The stories of the past events in the life of Jesus are told not for nostalgic purposes, but to cause the audience to understand their own lives in relation to the story they are hearing. The very fact that this story is told in their hearing lends credence to the idea that in some way their own story fits into the story Mark narrates, and at the same time, the story of Mark’s narrative fits into their own lives. As they engage with the complexities of the narrative, they engage with their own stories, processing how these stories fit together.
The privileged position of the audience gives them a distinct advantage over the characters in the story for they are able to know and see things that others cannot. They know the scheming trickery of the enemies of Jesus. They are able to comprehend the fullness of Jesus’ divine mission to go to Jerusalem and be handed over for death. They are also able to process this mission as God’s will and even God’s action. But most importantly, they know of the divine presence of God in and beyond the narrative. 
The audience also understands this story in the larger framework of Israel’s story. They hear the opening of the narrative as a fulfilment of what was spoken by the prophet. They hear the voice from heaven proclaiming Jesus as the Divine Son in the baptism. While others question, “Who is this?” or “By what authority does he do these things?” the audience of Mark knows. They are present with Jesus in the garden as he, burdened by the coming suffering and death, prays to his God for relief, but receives none. And although the women are present at the tomb to hear the message of Jesus’ resurrection, the audience is the only other character to experience this scene. 
Their experience of this narrative is their experience of the God of this narrative. The narrative subtly draws the audience into the story, and into an experience of God through the telling of the story. The audience is forced to decide on whether they will be outsiders or insiders. Outsiders join with the evil of the world, and those who set themselves in opposition to God, while insiders are those who do the will of God, primarily in their following of Jesus. 
If Mark was written for a community under persecution, then the strength and hope they must gather to face these persecutions without failing is found in the God of Mark’s narrative. But even if one cannot satisfactorily argue that Mark’s historical community was under persecution, the narrative certainly does not hide the fact that those who choose to follow Jesus are faced with the great potential of being persecuted.
In all times and places, then, the Markan narrative serves the community who needs corrective teachings and further encouragement to remain faithful to the gospel of God lived and proclaimed in the coming of Jesus. 
As the disciples were confounded by their own incomprehension of who Jesus was, and confounded by their own human failures, so the Markan audience lives in the reality of human things and not divine things. But through hearing the narrative of Mark, the audience in all times and places experiences the continual divine presence communicated through the story and are able to fit this story into their own human existence, and equally their own human existence into this story. 
The theology of Mark’s Gospel is that the God who is the God of Israel and the Father of Jesus, is the God the Markan audience has experienced in the hearing of Mark’s story. This is the God who is present with them as they seek to do the will of God. And, despite their failures and the persecutions that persist in deterring the movement of God’s rule and the proclamation of God’s gospel, God will remain forever faithful. 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Sacred Time and Space Invite Us into the Worship of God

One of the beliefs shared by the great religions of the world is the importance of sacred time and space. Throughout the Hebrew tradition, sacred days and seasons recalled and celebrated what God had done in Israel’s life. Of prime importance was the celebration of the Passover and the Day of Atonement. For the earliest Christians, the first day of the week was a reminder and celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. 
Likewise, there are certain places that are considered sacred.  Isaiah’s vision of God took place in the temple, the sacred space for the Jews. But geographical locations were also important. Mountains and deserts often served as places where God appeared to people in the biblical narratives. Thus, both sacred time and space are vital to authentic worship and can function to draw us into the experience of God.
One aspect of sacred time is the holy seasons that have always been significant to the worship of the church. While our daily calendars structure our time of work and leisure, the Christian calendar structures the year of worship. The seasons of the church such as Advent, Christmas, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost create a sense of sacred order and serve to move us to the center of our faith; the work of God in the incarnation of Christ. 
Furthermore, celebrating sacred seasons in worship connects us to the eternal church throughout the world. When we celebrate the sacred seasons we are participating in the eternal and universal language of the gospel that crosses the boundaries of gender, ethnicity, nationality, and culture. Yet, these sacred times are not merely celebratory reflections on the past; more importantly, they shape our symbolic world in the present, revealing to us the reality of God for our own lives and the hope we and the creation have in God’s good future.
We can even speak of the specific day of worship as sacred. Christians have designated Sunday as the Lord’s Day, the day set aside for the church’s worship of God. While there is no prescription as to the specific time on Sunday that corporate worship should take place, it is important to understand that whatever hour is set for community worship there ought to be clear demarcations that separate sacred time from secular time. Periods of communal worship should open by calling the people to the sacred time of worship, thereby designating the reason the church gathers. 
The value of sacred time also necessitates a sacred order to the worship service. Worship that incorporates singing songs of praise, praying prayers of confession, celebration, and intercession, reading Scripture, confessing our faith as a community, passing the peace of Christ to others, sharing the Lord’s Supper, and hearing the proclamation of the word creates a sacred rhythm to the communal worship experience. This kind of worship values the importance of the theological drama of the gospel and functions to move the people of God to leave the sacred time of communal worship and to go and live out their faith in the secular time of the world. 
Sacred space is also essential for worship. While the experience of God can occur anyplace, the sacred space of a church sanctuary can create an atmosphere that invites us to worship God. Sacred space would include the design of the structure itself; however, the use of specific objects in worship is also important to authentic worship. 
Symbols such as the cross, and fixtures such as the pulpit, the Lord’s Table, and the baptismal fount or pool function to remind us of the foundations of our faith: the word of God, the sacrifice of Christ, and the renewal of the Spirit. While these objects should never be the recipients of our worship, they can and do serve as focal images that point to what God has done for us in Christ.
In efforts to be relevant, however, some churches have lost a sense of sacred time and space. These movements argue that the use of sacred time and space is outdated and does not create an atmosphere of spontaneity in worship. In some of these churches, traditional sacred seasons have been pushed aside for more topical themes and the sacred rhythm of worship has been replaced by appeals to emotionalism. Moreover, church sanctuaries have taken on a more contemporary decor in which the front of the church looks more like a concert stage than a sacred place. 
But in an attempt to be relevant to our culture, these approaches to worship have dismissed the historical and theological importance of sacred time and space for worship.   Much more than relevant to worship, sacred space and time can create worship experiences that draw us out of our egocentrism and invite us into the authentic worship of God.
Among the 6th century Celtic Christians of Ireland and Scotland the importance of sacred space and time were given the designation “thin places”. Thin places are places or times in which the barrier between the material world and the world of God become so thin that we can experience the presence of the divine. While the thin places in our personal worship can appear anytime and anywhere, the reverent use of time and space in shared worship can create thin places that invite us into the worship of God.