Tag Archive | faith

Ulfila–Heretical Saint

ulfilas

Ulfila  311-383 C.E.

          There’s a new man in my life!  My husband probably doesn’t need to worry too much about him, though, as this “new” man is really a very “old” man.  In fact, he’s been dead for over 1600 years, and I’m not even sure of his correct name.  Ulfila?  Ulfilas?  Ulphilas?  Wulphila? 

          Whatever.  I met Ulfila when I was reading a church history book some time ago.  He was given only one brief paragraph, but his story intrigued me, so I did a little further digging.  Born about 311 in Dacia, a northern province of the Roman Empire that was primarily inhabited by not-so-Christian Goths, Ulfila was, nevertheless, raised as a Christian by some of the few Christians scattered throughout Dacia.  The faith he was taught, however, was a “heretical” faith, for the Christians of the region were followers of Arius, and Arius had taught that Jesus was a lesser god created by God the Father, and that he did not share the same substance as the Father.

          Nevertheless, Ulfila was a devout believer in Jesus, and after traveling south to Constantinople to train under an Arian bishop for a life of ministry in the church, Ulfila was in due course consecrated as Bishop to the Goths.  When he returned to his home in Dacia, Ulfila served his people and taught them in the Arian way.  Jesus was only “like” the Father.  Jesus was “lower” than the Father.  Jesus was not really God. 

          But Arian though he was, this little known heretical saint is well worth knowing about, as there is so much of value and worth in Ulfila’s life.  After spending about 8-10 years as a missionary in Dacia among the Goths, Ulfila was forced to flee south because of Gothic persecution of Christians.  While in virtual exile, he decided to translate the entire Bible into the Gothic language.  One big problem.  There was no Gothic alphabet.  That, however, did not deter Ulfila.  He simply invented an alphabet for the Goths and then proceeded to translate the entire Bible into their language.  Almost.  Ulfila decided not to include the Books of 1 and 2 Kings in his translation of the Bible.  The Goths, he reasoned, didn’t need any encouragement to exercise their often violent tendencies. 

          All this and only one short paragraph in a book of church history?  Probably due to his heretical Arianism.  In another church history book, I could not even find his name listed in the index!  But quite honestly, I rather like having a “heretic” among the great cloud of witnesses watching us as we “feebly struggle” while they “in glory shine.”  It makes me a little more humble about what I know and what I don’t know.   I grew up in a very fundamentalist church, and we were so sure, so very sure that we had all of God’s truth neatly tucked into our little God box.  But the older I get, the more I realize how incomplete, how inadequate my understanding of the faith really is.  And while, to be sure, I’m grateful for the creeds that emerged from all the wrangling in the church’s early years, I’m more and more aware that while these creeds point to the truth, they don’t fully define the truth.  So I’m quite happy to envision Ulfila as a part of that great cloud of witnesses worshiping and praising our Lord and at the same time cheering us on as we wend our way through life.

          A final note about Ulfila’s life and witness.  Sometime around 381, Ulfila was summoned to Constantinople for a discussion among the various factions of the faith regarding the person of Christ.  He did go, demonstrating an openness to talk with those who differed from him.  His participation in this discussion provides, I believe, a good example for our own time, and I suspect that Ulfila, who died at some point during these discussions, smiles down on all the attempts at dialogue within and beyond the church today on so many different issues.  I suspect he also smiles at all the attempts in our personal lives to keep open to new insights and to ever enrich and expand our personal understanding of the faith that shapes and guides our lives. 

          So on All Saints’ Day this year, I will be remembering, not only those near and dear to me who have gone on before.  I will also be remembering Ulfila, even as I recite the Nicene Creed with its clear denunciation of his Arian teaching.  I will remember him.  I will thank God for his life and for his witness.  And I will continue to picture him cheering us on in all our efforts to live out the challenges of our faith.      

Shadowy Faith

Nicodemus

Jesus and Nicodemus by Crijn Hendricksz, 1616–1645

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  (John 3:1-2)

Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”  (John 7:50-51)

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body.  Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. (John 19:38-40)

***

          He was an upstanding citizen, this Nicodemus.  A member of the religious Council of the Jewish people.  Respected.  Probably envied by many for his position among the leaders of his time. 

          But he was very much his own person.  A quiet man, it would seem.  Not one to make a big brouhaha about his position or about his faith.  Yes, he was part of the religious Council, and he probably kept all the laws and rules that were on the books.  But he had his questions, too.  And he wasn’t afraid of those questions.  A bit afraid, perhaps, of letting his fellow Council members know that he had questions, but not so afraid that he didn’t take himself to Jesus for that midnight conversation which is so well known and has been celebrated in numerous sermons and works of art down through the centuries.

          He doesn’t seem to have had all his questions answered in that conversation, however.  He did not become an open follower of Jesus.  He rather remained a member of the Council that was always suspiciously watching Jesus’ every move, always plotting to find a way to get rid of this Upstart who was undermining their dignity and their authority.  “Why didn’t you arrest him?” they asked the Temple Police after Jesus had stood in the Temple one day, inviting any who were thirsty to come to him and experience living waters flowing through their lives. 

          “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”  Nicodemus speaking, in response to the Council’s chiding of the Temple Police.  He wasn’t exactly proclaiming his faith in this Jesus, but he was certainly defending Jesus, even though it meant putting his own reputation at considerable risk. 

          Then came the cross.  We don’t know where Nicodemus was when Jesus was hanging on that cross, but my guess is that he was standing somewhere on the fringes of the gathered crowd, sifting through his conflicting emotions about this death.  Had the other Council members maybe been right?  Had this Jesus been merely a hoax and not really a teacher come from God as he had once believed—or at least wanted to believe?  Would God have allowed one of his prophets to die in such a cruel manner?

          Whatever his thoughts.  Whatever his questions.  Whatever his disappointment and grief, John tells us that Nicodemus teamed up with Joseph of Arimathea to help in the burial of the body of Jesus.  Made sure that this Jesus, whoever and whatever he might have been, was given a dignified burial.

          An interesting man, Nicodemus.  A man with a shadowy kind of hopeful faith in Jesus, but a faith filled with a myriad of questions.  A man with a deep longing for something more than what the Council and its religious observances and explanations offered.  A man who stood up for justice.  A man with profound human compassion.  A man who deserves our deep attention and respect.

          I have some dear friends whose middle names might well be Nicodemus.  They long for God and for a close and meaningfully deep relationship with this enigmatic Jesus of the gospels.  But they have so many questions.  So many deep questions.  So many profound questions.  So many questions, in fact, that sometimes their faith feels blown away by all the riddles that life presents.  Yet, like Nicodemus, they spend a good bit of time searching for Jesus, sometimes in the darkest nights of their lives.  Like Nicodemus too, they usually stand by and stand up for those who are being unfairly treated by others. And also like Nicodemus, they will often be found caring for the needs of others—visiting those in distress, serving at soup kitchens, loving a very difficult adult child, passing along gift cards to strangers, sitting with a dying neighbor.

          I don’t know if Nicodemus ever became an “open” believer.  I don’t know what happened to him after the night of the burial of Jesus’ corpse.  I don’t know if he ever learned about the resurrection.  I don’t need to know.  What I do know is that I wish there was more of Nicodemus in all of our lives.  More of his questing.  More of his courage and integrity in standing up for the just treatment of others.  More of his compassion. 

          In an age when so many seem so sure they have The Truth, Nicodemus and his questing spirit are so welcome.  In an age when defending The Truth seems more important than caring about justice and tending to the needs of others, Nicodemus’ words and actions point to a more humane way, a more Christ-like way, of being and believing in our oh-so-needy world.

          Jesus honored Nicodemus in that long night conversation.  John honored him in his stories of his later life.  I think we would do well to honor him as well in the way we live out our lives, in the way we live out our faith. 

Unholy Holiness: a Pastoral Memory

praying-hands-2

          I had heard the stories:  “N” barking on the telephone; “N” making outrageous demands on those who tried to help her; “N” lashing out at the clergy.  A very feisty, very angry woman.  “N” had good reason to be angry at life and the world, reason to be angry at God.  She had been widowed, left to cope alone with adult children who had physical and mental issues.  Added to this burden were her own physical problems that confined her to her home in a wheelchair.  Her mind, however, and her often acid tongue, were clearly not confined.  They continued to function quite, quite well!

          Sigh.  Serving as a new pastor at “N’s” church, I was scheduled to take the sacrament of holy communion to her.  “Be careful,” I was told, but all the warnings I had been given hardly prepared me for the shrill voice I heard screaming for someone to “answer the damn door” when I rang “N’s” doorbell.

          Heart pounding, I entered that “damn door” when one of her adult children opened it and then waited as he wheeled “N” into the living room.  She was disheveled and clearly in pain, her face distorted as she said her “hello”, which sounded much more like “what the hell are you doing here?”, even though I had made the appointment with her just a few days earlier.

          I introduced myself and made some comments inviting her to tell me of her illness and her pain.  She did.  With very few pauses to catch her breath.  She had a story to tell, and she would tell it, and I knew simply to sit and listen. 

          “We’re off to a good start,” I thought, and I was becoming more relaxed, when suddenly a second adult child exploded through the front door and virtually collapsed on the sofa.  Needless to say, I was very concerned and wondered what needed to be done for her.  But clearly “N” was not the least bit concerned, and the shouting match that ensued between mother and daughter quickly assured me that the daughter was quite okay, physically at least.  More okay, in fact, than I was at the moment.  I cannot deny that I was relieved when she slammed back out the door.  “N” simply shrugged.

          I opened the way for her to talk about the distressing episode, but no, she wasn’t at all interested.  She looked instead at my small communion kit, and I knew it was time to proceed to the business at hand.  I carefully opened my kit, filled our two cups with wine, and placed the cups and the paten with the wafers on a clean napkin spread on the table.  I read a passage of Scripture, we shared a few thoughts about it, and then I began the liturgy:  “In the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread and gave thanks…” 

          Again, I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.  Very solemnly.  Very thoughtfully.  Very reverently, “N,” who moments before had been cursing her fate and screaming at her children, brought her gnarled hands together and quietly bowed her head.  And with that simple gesture, I could feel “N” stepping into another sphere, into a holy space.  And the room, which moments before had been filled with such unholy venom, was transformed by that simple gesture into a hallowed, sacred place. 

          Amazing.  I had never before encountered such reverence in all the many home communion visits I had made as a pastor.  I had entered “N’s” home praying simply to be able to survive the visit.  But I left that day humbled by what I had learned.  For what I had seen and what I had experienced was the reality that the simple gesture of folding the hands and bowing the head could open up a sense of the holy, even in the midst of all the messiness of life.   

          All this was far away and many long years ago, but I still think of “N” now and then, resting as she is now in the nearer Presence of God.  And when I think of her, I often find myself bowing my head, folding my hands, and stepping into that sacred space that hovers just beneath, just above, just beyond all the scarred and fractured hours of our days and of our nights. 

          I really must think of “N” more often.  

Gems

pincushion protea

a gem of a flower

pincushion protea

***

a gem of a thought

“When devout Christians believe that only Christians of a particular doctrinal stripe have access to God, that, for example, God hears their prayers only, they stand in cosmic immodesty.  The Christian Bible more than once makes the point that God’s ways are not our ways, and that the mind of God is vastly different from our own minds.  Thus, when Christians categorically state that Jews, or Muslims, or believers in other faith systems are outside the provisions of God, they utter arrogant nonsense.  A respectful agnosticism is called for when often there is offered in its place a self-interested certainty.  If God is the God of all, and not just a tribal deity, then God has made provision, not necessarily known to us, for the healing and care of all his creation, and not simply our little part of it.”

Peter Gomes, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus

Overcast on Ash Wednesday

001 - Copy

 

Bare branches mere bones of

sorrow etching crosses black and

bleak against a heaven that has

forgotten how to smile.

*

Sky knits a seamless shroud;

the air is thick and still with

heaven’s grief for all the sadness of a

world of stitches dropped and patterns

gone awry; silence in my sagging pines.

*

Has God forgotten us? misplaced his

once delight in wind that tiptoes

through my chimes? in mischievous

white clouds that spill their joy into my trees?

*

My only answer is a Presence

brooding over all the tatters of this

wilted earth, pulling me to Silence

that has held within its womb

all that is, from dawn of time until this

solemn Day of Ash; bare-branched

crosses stretching high into the sky;

smudge of ashes burning on my brow;

enough; the Presence tender holds my

dust, rocks me in the empty trees.

??Blessing God??

001

(the attentive little cat on my prayer table)

          I’ve been puzzling about something lately. Puzzling about the psalmists’ frequent insistence that we should bless God. For example:

Bless our God, O peoples (Ps. 66:8)

Sing to the Lord, bless his name (Ps. 96:2)

Come, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord (Ps. 134:1)

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name (Ps. 103:1)

          Praise of God I can understand. Thanksgiving to God I can understand. But how, I wonder, how is it possible that we tiny humans might be able to give a blessing to the Creator of all that is? The Hebrew word for “to bless” is ברך (barak), and it usually refers to God’s blessing of God’s creation, the bestowing upon us and all of life all the goodness that God desires for us to experience. But now and then, the word is used “in reverse” as it were, referring to our blessing of God. My Hebrew lexicon tells me that when used “in reverse” ברך suggests “to bend the knee, to worship, to praise, to adore.” Such a sense of “blessing God” makes sense and fits with the notion of praise and thanksgiving. And yes, we (hopefully) do all of that whenever we pray in private or gather in worship to acknowledge, honor, praise and petition the One who holds our lives and our destinies in grace-filled hands.

          But I am coming more and more to believe that there must be something more to a real “blessing” of God, something more than worship, praise, and adoration, important as these practices are—for God and for us! Coming to believe that what might be more of a blessing, more of an endearment to God would be a deepening of our attentiveness to God and to God’s faithfully persistent presence with us. Such true attentiveness would, I believe, deeply bless, touch, and delight our God, a God who, in the words of John Buchanan “does have feelings and is hopelessly and relentlessly in love with the world and human beings,” a God who “yearns to be known” says Thomas Merton.

          Brother Lawrence, a lay brother in a Carmelite monastery in 17th century Paris, wrote a delightful little book called The Practice of the Presence of God, a little gem in which he urges an attentiveness to God’s presence with us in all the ordinary moments of our lives. An attentiveness to God as we sip our morning coffee or tea. An attentiveness to God as we go about our work, as we pause to read a poem or to contemplate a work of art. An attentiveness to God as we dry our tears. An attentiveness to God’s presence in the vast and often delicate beauty of creation.   An attentiveness to the reality of God in the faces and voices of our friends and even in the faces and voices of strangers. An attentiveness that is so beautifully illustrated by the little cat who greets me each morning as I light my candle for morning prayers.

          None of us likes to be invisible, unnoticed. We long to be seen. We long to have others acknowledge our presence in their lives, yearn for them to be aware of who we are.   We feel “blessed” when we know that we have been seen, when we have been called by the full name of who we truly are.

          Might not God, in whose image we are created, feel the same? Might not God, who happens to be hopelessly in love with all of us and with our beloved Planet Earth, feel more truly known, more deeply blessed, if we would daily, even hourly, open the eyes of our spirits to acknowledge the reality of God’s presence in our lives? In the lives of those around us? In the mysteries of this wondrous creation?

          Something to think about as we go about our lives in this new year.

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name (Ps. 103:1)

***

*John Buchanan, “Editor’s Desk,” The Christian Century, December 25, 2013.

**Thomas Merton, as cited by Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, p. 403.

Faith and Doubt

doubting_thomas

“The Incredulity of St. Thomas, ” Caravaggio (1571-1610)

Recognizing me as a pastor who sometimes preached at the church she seldom attended, the woman sitting beside me in the hair salon apparently felt she needed to explain her absence. So in a voice just above a whisper she confided, “I really don’t feel very comfortable going to church, you know, because I have so many questions and doubts.” A nagging reality for so many—doubts that sometimes lurk around the edges of our faith, doubts that sometimes question the very core of our faith.

Nothing new or strange about that. Even the disciples of Jesus experienced doubts in the heady days following the resurrection. Those disciples had known Jesus well. For three years they had worked and traveled with him. For three years they had watched in awe as he healed the sick, turned water into wine, and fed thousands with five loaves and two fish. They had heard his teaching, heard him tell that he would die and then would rise again. But when Jesus did just what he had predicted and then appeared to his disciples to bless them after his resurrection, St. Luke tells us that “in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.”* It wasn’t only Thomas who struggled with doubt. Faith for all the disciples was complicated and riddled with questions for which they had no clear and certain answers.

“Peace comes dropping slow, dropping from the veils of the morning,”** wrote William Butler Yeats. Perhaps the same is true of faith. Faith didn’t rush upon those disciples with a rock-solid, unquestioning certainty that never left them. It dropped more slowly into their lives. Required a certain ongoing patience. Required an ongoing openness to God. Required ongoing time spent with their risen Master. Required, as well, an ongoing honest openness to all their disbelief and wondering.

I’m fond of Emily Dickinson’s poem “This World Is Not Conclusion.” She begins the poem with a certainty that there is something more beyond this life:

                    This World is not conclusion.

                    A Species stands beyond –

                    Invisible, as Music –

                    But positive, as Sound –

A strong statement of faith. A bold confidence. But then, in the rest of the poem, she very honestly explores her questions and her doubts. Her faith “slips,” she says. “Plucks at a twig of Evidence.” Searches here and there. But in the end, her uncertainty remains, like a “tooth that nibbles at the soul.”

Faith and doubt. Sharing space in Dickinson’s poem and in her soul.   Sharing space in the hearts of the disciples of Jesus. Sharing space in most of our lives as well. Good to remember—when faith feels strained and stretched, when doubts nibble at our souls—good to remember that we are in good company. That we are very much like those early disciples of Jesus who experienced their faith, sustained their faith, grew their faith, slowly and erratically, amidst all their questions, all their doubts.

I wasn’t able to respond to the woman who whispered to tell me of her questions and doubts, as it was time for her to go and sit under the salon’s hair dryer. So I can only hope that she, and all of us, for that matter, will learn not to be afraid of our doubts. Learn not to feel that we must keep them very private, daring only to whisper them. Learn to engage in an ongoing and open dialogue with God and with God’s people, many of whom have questions of their own. Learn, in short, to accept the reality that faith, like Yeats’ peace, often “drops slow” into our lives, keeping us ever humble, keeping us ever alert.

***

*Luke 24:41

**from “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”