Category Archives: Theology
During the Thanksgiving season, which at least on social media begins on November 1, we often get to hear what so many people are thankful for. We get a daily dose of thankful words from our Facebook friends with hashtags like #NoticingGrace. The “Living” or “Religion” sections of our newspapers and online news services have opinion pieces on thankfulness – “20 Reasons to be Thankful” “How to be Thankful Around Your Disagreeable Family Members” “Being Thankful in a Time of Terror” “How Being Thankful is Good for Our Bodies”…and the list goes on.
Thinking about thankfulness has made me wonder what exactly we are overcoming with our gratitude. Unlike the authors who are excited that gratitude lowers blood pressure (which, yes, is fantastic), I was more curious about what gratitude, and not just the November short-term version, does for our souls. What is it about our human struggle that thankfulness helps?
The answer is: probably a lot of things. But one in particular came to my mind that I think influences much of our spiritual and bodily lives, one I struggle with daily – Anxiety.
I read the Matthew passage above and very much want to be consistently non-anxious, knowing how much God provides and is among us. I want to be able to trust that much. Yet, life throws curveballs: I am busy, I get overwhelmed, tragic and frustrating things happen. And off goes any hope of that non-anxious existence.
Theologian Paul Tillich says that a major function of being human is our tendency toward anxiety. And he says it is not just about anxiety given to us by life’s circumstances, but that our very existence is anxious about its being. In his book The Courage to Be, Tillich tells us that anxiety is a deeply-rooted problem of humanity grounded in our fear of nonbeing – that we have an end. This leads to feelings of meaninglessness and emptiness. We are inherently worried creatures.
But there is hope.
Being anxious is not the end game, and there are ways to accept our anxieties of nonbeing while simultaneously moving toward fully being. But how do we do this?
Jesuit theologian Anthony de Mello said, “You sanctify whatever you are grateful for.” In other words, cultivate that which is not anxious; be thankful. By doing this, you make holy and important those things instead of your anxiety.
This kind of gratitude does not come easily, though, especially when we are already in the throes of anxiety. It likely will take small steps of movement toward gratitude before we begin to slowly turn away from our worry. Taking moments every day (and not just every day in November) to be thankful for the small things – birds, lilies of the field, fluffy dogs, sunshine – can provide little movements toward a wholeness of being that keeps us from focusing our anxiety of nonbeing.
Jesus wants us to take time to notice what is right here in our midst. He calls us to believe that God is among us in everything, providing daily reminders of our relationship to God’s hope in the small parts of life that provide us joy and hope. By being thankful for these small things, we take steps toward wholeness that decrease the anxiety in our souls and make living a more joyous undertaking.
Being thankful is the antidote to our worry – by placing our attention on that which is holy and wonderful, we look away from that which we cannot change. By seeing the birds, lilies, food to eat, homes to live in, friends and family – we look away from the sickness, struggle, depression, and death.
May we be a grateful people, able to heal our souls of anxiety through the grace of gratitude, this season and all year round!
 Note that I and others are fully aware of the legitimate need for medical and therapeutic intervention for anxiety and depressive disorders that keep us from being able to find gratefulness – but once someone is able to be grateful again, perhaps after talk therapy or medication, the advice to find small moments of gratitude to move toward fullness of being still applies as we tend to our souls.
[Cross-posted from RRCB Pastor’s Blog: http://www.rrcb.org/2015/11/overcoming-anxiety-with-gratitude/]
Notes from Epiphanies, 5-9-12
We worked in small groups to talk about faith, doubt, and how we integrate these in our Christian communities.
Question 1: When you think about faith, what does it look like? Is it a steady flow of understanding/feeling? Or is it an ever-changing and evolving process?
Describe faith. Is it Belief? Knowledge?
Dictionary Definition of Belief: “Mental acceptance of a proposition, statement, or fact, as true, on the ground of authority or evidence; assent of the mind to a statement, or to the truth of a fact beyond observation, on the testimony of another, or to a fact or truth on the evidence of consciousness; the mental condition involved in this assent.”
Is it more than that?
Lauren Winner, in her book Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis says this: “Faith…meant more than intellectual assent to a set of doctrines. It was a commitment of the whole self, a hope and trust that, if genuine, ought to be the foundation of an entire way of life and vision of the world.”
“On any given morning, I might not be able to list for you the facts I know about God. But I can tell you what I wish to commit myself to, what I want for the foundation of my life, how I want to see.”
Question 2: What do we do when we are personally confronted with unbelief?
Lord, I believe; help me with my unbelief!
Read this article and think about how faith and doubt are interwoven in our lives:
Perhaps faith is more like a promise (a quote, also from Still): “What you promise when you are confirmed is not that you will believe this forever. What you promise when you are confirmed is that that is the story you will wrestle with forever.”
In small groups, we discussed a time in our own life when doubts overcame faith (much like the story above, we all had moments of severe doubt). We concluded that our doubts are as much a part of our faith journeys as our moments of strength and unwavering dedication.
Question 3: If, as we have seen and read and heard, doubt is simply a part of the faith journey, how can we help those in our midst who are “in the middle of things”?
Lauren Winner Calls this our “Mid-Faith Crisis” as Christians – she means there is a point at which we are no longer giddy about our new faith and eager to learn more. But neither are we at a point of peace and wisdom.
“The enthusiasms of my conversion have worn off. For whole stretches since the dream, since the baptism, my belief has faltered, my sense of God’s closeness has grown strained, my efforts at living in accord with what I take to be the call of the gospel have come undone. And yet in those same moments of strained belief, of not knowing where or if God is, it has also seemed that the Christian story keeps explaining who and where I am, better than any other story I know. On the days when I think I have a fighting chance at redemption, at change, I understand it to be these words and these rituals and these people who will change me. Some days I am not sure if my faith is riddled with doubt or whether, graciously, my doubt is riddled with faith. And yet I continue to live in a world the way a religious person lives in the world; I keep living in a world that I know to be enchanted, and not left alone. I doubt; I am uncertain; I am restless, prone to wander. And yet glimmers of holy keep interrupting my gaze.”
Questions to ponder:
- What brought you to mid-faith? Was it a crisis? Was it multiple crises? Was it just a “whole life of straight-forward churchgoing” or a life of wandering?
- What has church done to help you through the middle?
- How can you help others in the middle?
Perhaps the simple answer is that by realizing we all have doubts in the midst of faith and we also have faith in the midst of doubt, we move closer to understanding and supporting our fellow humanity in their wrestle with the Divine and what it means to be faithful, even when it seems impossible. We then know we have to take the time to understand that faith has steps, and one cannot move from step to step without moments of deep turmoil and struggle. [Nerd check: A good (yet a bit tedious) book on this is James Fowler’s Stages of Faith, which incorporates both psychology and theology to discuss the “stages” we go through in our faith].
Many thinkers before us have helped us better understand the intricacies of faith and doubt and how they both nurture and deliver us. God can and does meet and love all of us whether we are new, eager Christians, in the middle of a Mid-Faith Crisis, or we have moved to a deeper, more profound faith – and that is a promise worth celebrating!
I hope we all can avoid the pitfalls of describing the doubtful as weak or faithless and instead celebrate their struggle to understand and walk alongside them as we seek to understand the nature of God and how we should live as Jesus did – together.
Notes from our Epiphanies lesson: Wednesday, 5-2-12
What does it mean to be committed – to faith, to relationships, to community? How we are committed in our own faith community today? Or are we?
During a packed 3 days at the [Baptist] Sexuality & Covenant conference a couple of weeks ago, the idea of commitment and covenant formed a basis for thinking about Christianity, Community, and Relationships in ways I hadn’t even imagined before. We are continuing the conversation together in Epiphanies.
If you’re interested in viewing the conference sessions (and I wholeheartedly recommend them), you may find them here: http://www.thefellowship.info/conference
Question 1: What is covenant in scripture? Name a few.
Answers: Biblical covenants: agreements, contracts – or more/deeper, Hebrew berith, mostly God-contracts with God’s people – God kept the covenant, people didn’t always. A vow. A self-giving promise.
Examples: God’s covenant with Noah – rainbow. God’s covenant with Abraham – descendants: Isaac, Jacob, Joseph. God’s covenant with Moses – Ten Commandments. The priestly covenants – Aaron. Israel’s covenant to return to Mosaic law. God’s covenant with David – his family will be rightful kings. New covenant in Jesus – between God and all people – Jew and Gentile.
Question 2: How to commitment and covenant relate? Are we commited in our society? How/Why/Why not?
Read: Malachai 2:
13 Another thing you do: You flood the Lord’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer looks with favor on your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. 14 You ask, “Why?” It is because the Lord is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.
15 Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring.[d] So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth.
16 “The man who hates and divorces his wife, ” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,”[e] says the Lord Almighty.
So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.
At the conference, Dr. David Gushee gave us some ideas about what covenant is, and should be, as God designed it. We looked at his thoughts:
Covenant should be a moral norm, a standard – not just an ideal.
Here are some thoughts about what interpersonal covenant in the Christian tradition should look like:
- A voluntarily entered sacred pact between two persons and between those persons and the God to whom both are committed. Freely entered between two persons equal in power and who are under no coercion.
- Once entered, the freedom of its participants is henceforth constrained. It is a FREE DECISION TO MAKE ONESELF NO LONGER FREE.
- It is an exchange of promises. These are fully binding.
- It is a transition in status and responsibility.
- Promising a certain quality of interpersonal relating to each other: love, cherish, comfort, honor, and care.
- Promising to offer this even when they don’t feel like it (richer or poorer).
- Offer such relating only to each other and not to anyone else (forsaking all others). For a lifetime as well.
- No conditions or time limits (unlike regular contracts).
- Each person is making a covenant as an individual moral agent.
Coventalism corresponds with our nature and highest potential, as well as taking care of our sinful nature. We need sacred promises or we might not stay together when times are hard. This is a divine provision for sin. It is the best possible arrangement for binding human lives together. Our vows keep us; we don’t keep our vows. Covenants are better for both adults and children.
The main issue is not who is eligible for covenant. The main issue is whether the church is committed to rescuing the concept and practice of covenant in accountable community before it disappears all together – not just in society, but within our own congregations and homes.
THE PROBLEM: We live in a consumer society – no commitments are permanent. We are always trading what we have for something better. We do it in every context of life, including religion. Do we remember church covenants? People stayed in churches for life – “this is my church, I’m committed.”
How do we teach younger generations to make covenants when we’re not committed to much of anything? Churches should be better covenant communities. Not casual, drive-by consumer products. Covenant communities of brothers and sisters in Christ, there in good times and bad. Only such communities are in any position to talk to emerging adults about lifetime covenants.
How do we understand and live this, then? (i.e., How now shall we live?)
“The Lost Art of Commitment: Why we’re Afraid of it, and why we shouldn’t be” (Article in Christianity Today) Notes:
- “A Christian without commitment is an oxymoron.”
- “In 1979…a study using extensive interviews was conducted to understand what ‘habits of the heart’ defined average Americans. Many had no sense of community or social obligation. They saw the world as a fragmented place of choice and freedom that yielded little meaning or comfort. They even seemed to have lost the language to express commitment to anything besides themselves…Since then, we’ve seen an almost uninterrupted march toward self-focus, affecting all of our institutions but especially crippling work, marriage, and family” (and church!).
- “How can you begin as a Christian without death to self and total commitment to Jesus Christ?”
- “When we obsess over ourselves, we lose the meaning of life, which is to know and serve God and love and serve our neighbors.”
- “By abandoning commitment, our narcissistic culture has lost the one thing it desperately seeks: happiness. Without commitment, our individual lives will be barren and sterile. Without commitment, our lives will lack meaning and purpose. After all, if nothing is worth dying for, then nothing is worth living for.”
- “With commitment comes the flourishing of society – of calling, of marriage, of the church-and of our hearts. It’s the paradox Jesus so often shared when he bid us to come and die that we might truly live.”
From “Preaching the Life of Covenant and Commitment in a Time of Transition” by Rodney J. hunter, Candler School of Theology, Atlanta, GA:
“Commitment understood broadly may be viewed as a social and psychological praxis that gives human life depth, definition, and stability of purpose over time, for both communities and individuals. It is commitment that gives us identity, creates and defines patterns of continuity and connectedness in the flux and conflict of events, and gives our lives whatever trust, security, meaning, and purpose they enjoy. So to whatever extend committing falters or fails, our lives and communities become disordered, insecure, and deprived of meaning and purpose. Theologically, commitment and covenant go to the core of our existence and reflect the very character of God and of God’s covenantal involvement with us and with the entire cosmos.”
Questions to leave you with:
- What is an expectation between a church member and a church? Is there a covenant community vow there?
- What is the expectation personally in interpersonal covenants?
- How does God covenant with us? Who is doing the work?
- How do commitment an covenant differ?