There is so much death in this world. I’ve come to think about death broadly as anything that diminishes life. I’ve borrowed the term “deathliness” when referring to that which threatens, disrupts or damages life or wholeness. When face to face with the pain of deathliness, it is common for us to experience a dissonance that feels like it could rip apart our life and world as we know it. If we believe the world is one way and we are confronted with something that suggests it is not the way we believe it to be, we may feel threatened. Our anxiety may be triggered when faced with incongruence because it reveals a crack in the certainty upon which so many of us build our faith.
American evangelicalism seems to crave and protect certainty to such a degree that many have deemed certainty its idol. Pete Enns, in his book, The Sin of Certainty, identifies this impulse in the way we think about and use the bible. How many of us have heard, “I don’t follow man’s interpretation; I follow the bible”? What about “The bible clearly says…”? If you disagree with me about something I hear the bible saying, then you are either deceived or willfully rejecting the bible’s authority.
As I said, there is so much death in this world, and as our experience of dissonance intensifies, our anxiety is increasingly triggered. Thus we find ourselves desperate for security, a sense that “it is going to be ok,” and when our security is dependent on certainty, it becomes a matter of life and death to restore or protect that certainty. Enns writes:
Our beliefs about God – which is to say our thoughts about God – are precious to us because they give us a sense of who we are and our place in this chaotic world… And so when our beliefs are threatened, the instinct, understandably, is to guard them fiercely, to resist any move as long as possible, to make the stress go away, and to stay in the comfort of our familiar spiritual homes.
But in resisting, we may actually be missing an invitation to take a sacred journey, where we let go of needing to be right and trust God regardless of what we feel we know or don’t know.
The key to seeing this unsettling discomfort as a sacred rather than damning task is to decouple our faith in God from our thoughts about God. That way faith doesn’t rest on correct thinking…
No one just “follows” the Bible. We interpret it as people with a past and present, and in community with others, within certain traditions, none of which is absolute. Many factors influence how we “follow” the Bible. None of us rises above our place in the human drama and grasps God with pure clarity, without our own baggage coming along for the ride. We all bring our broken and limited selves into how we think of God.
Anyone getting nervous yet? As someone who has spent much of her life dependent on intellectual performance for a sense of self-worth, of “being ok,” this strikes a nerve. Enns continues:
Here is the temptation: we can forget that we are human and delude ourselves into thinking that we can transcend our tiny place in the human drama and see from on high, as God sees. It turns out that is not really one of our options. Walking the path of faith means trusting God enough to let our uh-oh moments expose how we create God to fit in our thinking. But that is hard work. And that is really the deeper problem here.
When we are held captive to our thinking, moving to what is not known and uncertain is automatically seen as a fearful development. We think true faith is dependent on maintaining a particular “knowledge set” and keeping a firm grasp on a tightly woven network of nonnegotiable beliefs, guarding each one vigilantly, making sure they all stay above the water line no matter how hard the struggle – because if what we “know” sinks, faith sinks right down with it…
[T]his fear of losing a handle on certainty leads to a preoccupation with correct thinking, making sure familiar beliefs are defended and supported at all costs
Aligning faith in God and certainty about what we believe and needing to be right in order to maintain a healthy faith – these do not make for a healthy faith in God. In a nutshell, that is the problem. And that is what I mean by the “sin of certainty.”
It is sin because this pattern of thinking sells God short by keeping the Creator captive to what we are able to comprehend – which is the very same problem the Israelites had when they were tempted to make images of God (aka idols) out of stone, metal, or wood. For ancient people, images made the gods present for the worshippers, something tangible to look at to let them connect with the divine realm. But Israel’s God said no. Any images shaped by human hands limit God by bringing God too far into alignment with ancient conceptions of the divine…
When we confuse God with our thoughts about God, however, those thoughts can become idol-like – getting in the way of the real thing, hindering rather than aiding a life of faith.
During the years I taught the Jesus & the Christian Community courses at Fresno Pacific, many students experienced deep anxiety when faced with a challenge to what they had always believed or been taught. If I’m not sure of this, then what can I be sure of? For many, “being sure” is their only way of holding on to “truth.”
This kind of experience is akin to what Brian Walsh describes as “worldview crisis”:
[I]f the gap between our worldview and our actual experience becomes too great – if actual experience seems totally unrelated to our worldview – then we have a worldview crisis on our hands… In such a situation the very ground on which you stand is uncertain, you are no longer sure of who you are, what the meaning of life is, what you are to do or where you are going. Ultimate questions that once had some form of ultimate, faith-committed answers are reopened and such a reopening is usually horrific.
Walsh outlines three basic responses to this kind of crisis: the first is “reformation.”
The reality of life leads an individual or a community to a refocusing or a reforming of their worldview. At best, this refocusing can occur in such a way that the initial faith is left mostly intact. In fact it might even appear that the reformation brings the worldview even closer in line with the founding faith.
Sometimes, however, such a worldview reformation is not possible because the gap between reality and worldview is simply too great and the worldview seems to be compounding the problems, not being a creative source of their solution. In such a situation, a culture (or at least sensitive members of a culture who do not allow their worldview to be ideologically co-opted into further legitimation of intolerable socio-historical conditions) suffers a crisis of confidence and identity. And as the worldview suffers collapse, the entire world seems to come crashing down with it. It is at this point that all reformations and adaptations seem to be mere window dressing, not really addressing the fundamental problems.
This brings us to the second response Walsh outlines: conversion.
[C]onversion [is] the abandonment of one worldview for another. In other words, the reality which has discredited a particular worldview also dismantles the faith which underlies that worldview… [and] one is necessarily set on a quest for a new faith.
The third response Walsh identifies is the one I see at work in our current socio-political context. Christians on one side of a given issue are fighting against anyone on the other side of that issue, including other Christians, claiming that the Bible is on their side, proving them right. There is simply no other way to see things, and anyone who questions or threatens their positions are marginalized as morally corrupt and inferior. Walsh writes:
[The] third possible response to a worldview crisis… is perhaps the most prevalent and, in the context of a declining culture such as ours, the most dangerous. It is what we could describe as entrenchment. In a time of crisis we often witness a conservative backlash and entrenchment. Rather than creatively dealing with the crisis, cultures (and individuals) tend to dig in their heels and hang on to what they’ve got. A survivalist mentality emerges, and we witness a culture-wide recommitment to the very worldview and the very faith that seems to be discredited by one’s historical reality. At times such a recommitment takes on the character of a revival service – “give me that old time religion of faith in human progress and the American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Sadly, this stance of entrenchment has characterized much of the cultural response of evangelicalism. Many of the calls “back” to the Judeo-Christian heritage of our culture, which we hear from many an evangelical/fundamentalist pulpit, are, in fact, thinly veiled calls to recommit ourselves to the Western worldview and way of life that is presently crumbling.
An especially egregious example of entrenchment can be seen in certain Christian responses to the tragic events of September 11. Anne Graham Lotz said in an interview*:
[O]ur nation… seems to be shaking its fist in God’s face and telling him to get out of our politics, get out of our schools, get out of our businesses, get out of the marketplace… it’s just stunning to me the way we are basically abandoning God as a culture and as a nation.
Lotz specifically identifies LGBT rights advocacy and teaching evolution in schools as proof of a culture that has abandoned God. She said:
I think that’s why God allows bad things to happen. I think that’s why he would allow a 9/11 to happen… to show us that we need him…
The chaos on every level [in America] is just God turning us over to ourselves… There is silliness, there is craziness, there is the most illogical rulings – the one in North Carolina on HB2 – which is to protect our children in bathrooms and locker rooms, has become something where the justice department is suing us for something that is just common sense… To me it is evidence that God has backed away, and he has removed his hand of blessing, favor, protection, and he’s just turning us over to ourselves. That’s a very frightening place to be. But the Bible says, that… if God’s people would humble ourselves and pray and seek his face, and if we would repent of our sins and stop pointing our finger at everyone else, if we as God’s people would get serious about the sin in our own lives… he will heal America.
This kind of worldview is not new. In fact, I hear it in the words surrounding our Old Testament reading from Lamentations. Chapter 1-3:21 is filled with deep anguish over the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians. The poetry sounds like a funeral dirge:
How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations1 (1:1)
Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress. (1:3)
The Babylonian exile was one of those world shattering events that pushed God’s people into a worldview crisis. How does God’s chosen people make sense of their defeat, the destruction of their temple? If Israel’s God is the Creator and King of the universe, how is it possible that Babylon won? Doesn’t that mean that their god is actually the sovereign god? If the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob can be defeated, the entire identity of Israel collapses. What’s the answer?
Jerusalem sinned grievously, so she has become a mockery; all who honored her despise her, for they have seen her nakedness; she herself groans, and turns her face away. (1:8)
How the Lord in his anger has humiliated daughter Zion! He has thrown down from heaven to earth the splendor of Israel… The Lord has destroyed without mercy all the dwellings of Jacob; in his wrath he has broken down the strongholds of daughter Judah; he has brought down to the ground in dishonor the kingdom and its rulers. (2:1-2)
As I prepared for this morning, I read through Lamentations to try and situate our section from chapter 3, and I found myself very troubled. Today’s text, 3:22-33, if read alone, reminds me of the encouragements many Christians offer those who are struggling in one way or another. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (3:23).
Seriously? Jerusalem is burning to the ground and God’s people are being taken into captivity, and this is where you turn? This is what you sing in your worship services as you remember this tragedy?
The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. (3:25-26)
The author of Lamentations has done nothing but weep and wail over the horrific devastation Israel has experienced, and all of a sudden he’s spouting nonsense about waiting quietly for salvation? Where is a lament psalm when you need one? Or how about a psalm calling for God’s vengeance on Israel’s enemies? I suppose that comes later:
O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock! (Psalm 137: 8-9)
Somehow, our author finds solace that even though God is responsible for handing his people over to his enemies, “the Lord will not reject forever” (3:31). Just a few verses earlier, we hear, “He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the LORD’” (3:16-18). And now we get, “‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him’” (3:24). Our passage ends with, “Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone” (3:32-33).
After reading Lamentations through, I turned to Psalm 30, and I have to say, I didn’t feel any better.
Imagine with me. We’re living in the time of Israel’s united monarchy, and our great king David’s psalm is the worship song chosen for the dedication of the temple:
I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me. O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit. Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name. (30:1-4)
Standing before the temple, we probably feel a sense of security we’ve never known before. We remember that we were slaves in Egypt. We remember the wandering in the wilderness where a generation died. We remember crossing the Jordan River and memorializing God’s deliverance and provision. We remember the battles we won in order to take our land: the walls that fell before us, the men, women, children and livestock whose blood we spilled. And now, our little kingdom that’s surrounded by foreign powers, can finally rest easy because we have a king, and we built a house for God. If God isn’t going anywhere, then we’re safe.
The song includes an interesting dynamic in David’s experience of God:
For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. (30:5)
By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed. To you, O Lord, I cried, and to the Lord I made supplication: “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness? Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be my helper!” (30:7-10)
David connects his suffering to God’s anger and turning away. He tries to bribe God with future praise in order to get him to deliver him. “If I die, God, who will praise you?” He makes an appeal to God’s character. “God, if you let me die, how will that make you look? It certainly won’t uphold your claim to faithfulness.” Basically David is saying, “God, if you are who you say you are, if you want us to continue to worship you, be on my side.”
This is the worship song we’re singing as we dedicate this temple. Might we be bargaining with God as we sing? “God, look what we did for you. We built you a temple. We will worship you. Now, remember, you have to keep us alive, you have to keep your promises, if you want us to keep worshipping you.”
For the last several months I’ve been studying about inclusive justice, and a large focus of that study has made me more aware of power, privilege and oppression. I’ve been able to further develop ideas I’ve been wrestling with since I encountered scholars like Walter Wink in college. I think the experience I’ve been wrestling with while reflecting on this morning’s texts has to do with the ways my ears have been tuned to listen lately.
The lectionary selection from Lamentations largely isolates the statements of hope and praise from their context of deep crisis and dissonance. What we’re left with is:
Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father; there is no shadow of turning with thee; thou changest not thy compassions, they fail not; as thou hast been thou forever wilt be. Great is thy faithfulness! Great is they faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see; all I have needed thy hand hath provided. Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!
At what point does our worship attempt to silence or control painful reality or God? In such cases, who is put at greatest risk? Who benefits? What rhetoric do we employ to protect our worldviews and avoid uncertainty?
I am not saying that hoping in God, praising God, or expecting God to provide and save is misguided or wrong. What I want to say is this:
Our thoughts about God shape the worldviews we use to make sense of life, so we need to be aware that our desire for security, often via certainty, tempts us to absolutize those worldviews. The deathliness that results from the ideological wars being fought every day should remind us that our certainty is not the foundation of faith: it is not what will save us from the anxiety we feel when the world does not make sense; it is not what will heal injustice; it is not what makes for peace. The kind of entrenchment we see by religious leaders desperate to maintain power and security through certainty runs counter to Jesus’ gospel. His life, teachings, death and resurrection expose our all too often upside-down thinking.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)
The gospel reading for today is the story of Jairus, a synagogue leader, begging Jesus to come heal his deathly ill daughter. On the way a woman suffering from twelve years of bleeding is healed when she touches Jesus’ cloak. Jairus’ daughter dies, and when Jesus arrives, seemingly too late, the mourning has begun.
When deathliness presses in on us, threatening to destroy the world as we know it, faith reaches out beyond what we think we know, beyond what options seem possible, beyond the systemic injustices that seek to sacrifice those on the margins so that the privileged can maintain their power. Faith reaches out for Jesus whose healing brings new life in the face of death. It is the story of Jesus that prompts me to wonder – how did the contextual limitations of the author of Lamentations influence his thoughts about God being an angry diety unleashing his wrath on his people? Is that understanding of God and interpretation of Israel’s experience true to the God revealed through Jesus? How do we wrestle with the tension between what we find in our Old and New Testament texts? How might that tension inspire us to evaluate our worldviews and seek to learn from a diversity of perspectives? If our faith was released from its dependency on certainty, how might we be freed for new life? Might Jesus be taking us by the hand, saying, “Little girl, get up!” There is life beyond what we see and know. May we have eyes to see and ears to hear.
Sermon given at First Mennonite Church, Reedley on July 1, 2018, the 6th Sunday after Pentecost.
* I listened to audio files posted to a website that does not seem to be working at the moment. I could not find the entire interview online. I will try to fix the link or find another source soon.