Faith Takes Practice

Clouds - I, John cover

Ascension  |  Luke 24:44-53

Clouds Process 012In John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, the title character says, “Faith takes practice.” At that moment, Owen is talking about a man of his extremely small stature making a slam dunk on the basketball court. He is also talking about a view of life.

On Sunday the Christian world celebrates the Ascension of the Lord. Well, those Christians who pay attention to the liturgical calendar will. Most Baptists, for example, will not even know why they are hearing the passages from Luke and Acts describing Jesus being taken up into heaven on a cloud.

It may be just as well. The story is good and meaningful, but have you ever stopped to listen to church folk talking about it?

To a first century audience it was wonderful imagery, powerful and full of hope. We get the symbolism of it today, but there are some problems if we are going to offer the gospel to a modern world.

Here’s one: do we really think that heaven is in the sky? Do we really mean to say that heaven is “up there” just beyond the clouds, somewhere that jet airplanes and satellites and NASA scientists seem not to find? Do we really mean to say that Jesus rode a cloud into the sky?

Maybe not, but go take a seat in almost any church this Sunday where people are talking about this passage, and listen for a while. Odds are good you’ll walk out thinking Christians believe heaven is ‘up’ and that Jesus rode a cloud into the sky.

Consider another example. Most of the people in that first century audience had vague ideas about the shape of the earth. Some of them knew that the world was a sphere, but others still held onto the comforting notion that it was flat. All of them could hear the creation stories of Genesis and understand them. They understood that these are God-stories. Science deals with things that are true, God-stories deal with truth about God.

There is a difference.

I could count the paper money in my wallet and tell you how much I have. (It would not take long.) What I told you would be true, but it would not be truth, the kind that lasts and that has meaning for our lives. The dollar amount I count would be a fact; that these paper dollars have any actual trade value in the marketplace is more of a matter of faith.

Did Jesus ride up into the sky in a cloud? Maybe. I don’t know. That is what the story says, but it could be simply trying to convey the truth that Jesus went away, in a way that made it a God-thing. Mysterious. Hard to grasp. Passing all around us. Like a cloud.

In the end, it doesn’t matter how Jesus left. It doesn’t even matter where he went. The gospel message is that, in some God-way, God is always present in the world. Up or down, in or out, seen or unseen.

Maybe heaven is a time instead of a place—heaven is when we get there. And it won’t matter where ‘there’ is. What will matter is what we have become.

Faith is participating in that journey to somewhere. Practice is how we get there. If faith is a bicycle made by God, the pedals are called practice.

What We Do Not See

Sixth Sunday of Easter  |  John 14:15-21

Growing up in the countryside of eastern North Carolina, it is important to learn certain skills. When I was a boy, my father called me over to a pile of pine straw and fallen leaves and asked me what I saw. I knew there was a trick to it, because all I saw was leaves and pine straw.

Wild orchid 021“Step closer,” he said, and I did. I still saw nothing but pine straw.

“Step a little closer, and kneel down,” he said. Pine straw and leaves. Nothing else.

“Now lean forward, and stay there until you see something,” my father said. I did. I looked at the pile of pine straw and wondered what was there that I was not seeing.

That’s when I saw it.

Right in front of me, coiled, unmoving, perfectly blending with the pine straw and the leaves, staring back at me, was a snake, a copperhead. As you might imagine, it formed a powerful childhood memory.

More importantly, having seen that snake for myself that day, I can Green Snakesee them now, even when they are camouflaged in the straw, without having anyone point them out. My mind found the pattern of the snake, and that the pattern was burned into my memory.

As I said, being able to recognize poisonous snakes is a valuable thing when you live near the rivers and swamps of eastern North Carolina, and my father was an excellent teacher. A little scary, perhaps, but good. (Imagine what my childhood would have been like in Australia.)

In this part of the world, the snakes are always there. You may not see them, but they are there, and they can certainly find you.

I am not saying that God is like a snake. It is just that sometimes we notice only the things that we expect to see: sunlight, television shows, the faults of other people, the faults in ourselves. Sometimes we do not see the things that we are not expecting, even when they are right in front of us: a flower on a cactus, the love of a friend, the kindness of a coworker, our own abilities and gifts.

The gospel of John portrays Jesus saying that the world does not receive the Spirit of God because the world does not see God, does not even expect to see God. Those who know God do see the Spirit of God around them, within them, because they are watching. They know for whom they are looking. Having looked for God, they also receive the presence of God.

Maybe that is what the beatitudes mean—blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Maybe a pure heart is simply an expectant one. We see only when we are looking. And we see only what we expect to see.

Faith is sometimes simply a matter of seeing things that we did not expect and of expecting the things that we do not see. It is that simple.

Lean in. Keep looking until you can see it.


Fifth Sunday of Easter  |  John 14:1-14

We think we are working magic. You can hear it in our prayers: “In the name of Jesus we pray.”

The online Oxford Dictionary defines magic this way: the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces. Christians ask things of God in the name of Jesus, based in large part on John 14:13-14, “And whatsoever you may ask in my name I will do, in order that the Father might be glorified in the son. If you ask of me anything in my name, I will do it.”

Moonlight pine and planetAnd so we use the magic words, believing that if we say them, if we truly mean them, then God will respond. Such is the power of a name.

The ancient world commonly held that knowing the name of a thing gave one power over it. To the Hebrews (and to some modern day Jews), the name of God is so holy that it cannot be spoken. That, by the way, is why we have the word LORD, usually printed in all capitals or a mix of large and small capitals, in our Old Testaments—it is a placeholder for the name of God.

Names are powerful. Speaking someone’s name asserts a claim. If you think it does not, the next time you hear your own name shouted in an airport or spoken on a city street or called out deep in a forest, see if you can resist the urge to turn and find out who is calling.

There is power in a name, but surely that isn’t what Jesus is talking about. He is not suggesting that we practice magic. To pray in the name of Jesus is to pray in the person, true purpose and being of Jesus. God responds to the prayers of our hearts because we speak them from within the heart of God.

In the house of my Father are many rooms, Jesus tells us. He doesn’t mean it is the Hyatt, and before you say that we do not think of heaven as a hotel, may I ask what we do think? We might envision huts, or houses, or tents, or some other personally designated spiritual space, but that is really just a hotel in disguise. Dwelling in the house of God has nothing to do with space and time. Asking in the name of Jesus and dwelling in the Father’s house are the same thing: to do the one is to do the other.

Luke’s gospel put it this way: the kingdom of God is within you.†

In this passage we also hear Philip asking simply to see the Father. “And we will be satisfied,” he says. It is a simple request. Jesus responds that Philip has already seen everything he needs to see, but I don’t think those words were meant for Philip. Those words were meant for us. Don’t we have the same request, that the heavens open and give us some irrefutable sign, so that we can rely upon our senses and our reason and our memory rather than faith?

We have already seen everything that we need to see of God. God is beside us on a train, in a hallway, in a field, on a street, the face of a stranger, the call of a mockingbird. Why would we believe in God more for having seen God? We explain away all sorts of things. Given time and perhaps some therapy or medication, I imagine that we could tell ourselves that a vision of God was only a mental phenomenon, some sort of hallucination.

Having knowledge of a thing is not the same as having faith in it.

One of the most famous verses in scripture is John 14:6. “And Jesus said to him, I myself am the way and the truth and the life: no one comes to the Father except through me.” Many Christians have used these words to tell people of other faiths that they were outside of God’s grace—if you do not believe in our Jesus, then God will not have you. I think that once again we have managed not to hear what Jesus is saying. Jesus is saying that God is the one who determines who comes to God.

We don’t get to turn people away from the door to the heaven, whatever heaven may really look like. We are permitted to invite them inside. And when we find ourselves dwelling in the heart of God, we may find that our prayers are already answered, and that many whom we did not expect to see were already waiting there for us.

† Luke 17:21

Recognizing a Voice

Fourth Sunday of Easter  |  John 10:1-10

Sheep are usually trusting creatures.

Goats 2 017Sheep, goats, cattle, all of them recognize the people who care for them, and they recognize the ones who do not. They know the voice that they trust. Animals may have a deeper wisdom than we, an older wisdom.

My dog is wiser than I. He sleeps more often than I, and better. He enjoys his food and the sunlight and the joy of a friendly touch much more than I. And he knows my voice, though he sometimes chooses not to listen to it.

Jesus says that he is a shepherd, that his own will know his voice. He also says that he is the gate for the sheep, mixing the elements of the analogy.

Word pictures for God—John’s gospel gives us plenty of these. At different points, Jesus is described (or is portrayed describing himself) as light, bread, water, a man, the way, the gate, the shepherd, a vine, a servant, a fisherman, a king, other things. All of these images are true, of course. None of them is complete. If we take any one of these images, however beautiful and true it may be, and hold it to the exclusion of the others, we do not take away a true understanding of Jesus. The same is true of the other people in our lives. They are more, and sometimes less, than the way we think of them.

Take another example, the explanation of the crucifixion. In the gospels we hear what Jesus did, what was done to him, told in story form. Elsewhere in scripture, there are references, surprisingly brief descriptions of the crucifixion, comparing it variously to a sacrifice, or a ransom, or to a judicial penalty, among other things. Outside of scripture on the other hand, entire books have been written to explain what happened on the cross (often minimizing everything else), and Christianity has divided itself into camps based at least in part on one or another of these explanations, as though the others are untrue.

It is like trying to understand a home only by what we see on the outside, or the life of the deepest ocean by watching from the shore. Much may be learned that is true, as far as it goes, but we know that the rest remains a mystery.

It must be the same for sheep and goats. Their shepherds guide them, feed them, keep them safe, and so the animals know much about their shepherd. They know when the shepherd comes, what the shepherd does, and they know the shepherd’s voice. The rest remains unknown to them, but the sheep do not seem to dwell on it or let it displace their faith. They respect the boundaries of mystery.

If a sheep were to sit and to write a detailed explanation of the other aspects of the shepherd’s life, explaining the motives and reasons that the shepherd does what a shepherd does, it would make interesting reading. Other sheep may find themselves agreeing or disagreeing. Focusing on the explanations might even be enough to distract a sheep so that it does not hear the shepherd’s voice.

That is a problem with being immersed in religion. We become so distracted, and content, explaining God that we do not even perceive God’s presence. We exchange our faith in God for a collection of ideas about God. Christianity does not promise that we are saved by means of our understanding. The promise is that we are saved through the love of God, saved by means deeper and more mysterious than we can comprehend, and saved from and to something perhaps more profound than we know.

Jesus went to the crucifixion like a sheep to slaughter. As we have said, animals have a deeper wisdom than we. Even though the sheep’s trust may be misplaced, it remains more noble and more whole for trusting than does the person who betrays it. There is a mysterious power in trust and in submission, even when proven wrong, and how much more power when the trust is fulfilled.

Perhaps this Easter season is a good time to remember one of the oldest confessions of faith in Christianity. The Nicene Creed, named for the place where early church leaders met in the fourth century, doesn’t explain much. It does assert a great deal, but by way of sharing the story and preserving the mystery. We learn as much from the way it is told as from what it contains.

The Nicene Creed ª
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

ª This translation is from The Book of Common Prayer According to the Use of the Episcopal Church. You can find the online version here: