Breathing Life Into Our Faith
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” John 20:21-22
We contemporary churchgoers don’t face the kind of adversity that the first disciples faced: We live in a society that gives us freedom to practice whatever religion we see fit. We seldom have religious or political adversaries to contend with in our American culture. But the truth is that while we are free to choose how to express our faith, we are not exactly free to share that faith. Faith, and particularly, faith in Christ, is culturally understood as private. That means that while we may not have hostile opposition trying to do us harm, we may face the opposition of benign disinterest.
We may be free to express our faith—within the walls of the church, and behind the ladle at the soup kitchen—but we are not truly welcomed to share it with others. People who don’t go to church are uncomfortable when we try to share our faith with them. Maybe the topic just feels too personal. Or maybe the other truth is that we are so uncomfortable trying to share our faith, that we end up making others uncomfortable too.
But, the fact remains that Jesus nevertheless sends us: “So I send you.” And, if we hope to take our Easter faith seriously, it’s important for us to know what we can do to be ready to meet those to whom we are sent.
On the first Saturday in May your Council and a dozen-or-so other leaders will meet to talk about exactly that: With whom are we called to share the good news that God is at work breathing resurrection life into the world? And how can we best be ready to welcome them? Here are some thoughts….
Do you know any unchurched people? If the only people you associate with are church members, then this congregation may have a challenge. Church should be a place to develop deep and abiding friendships—and I know that Calvary has been the soil in which many important relationships have been cultivated. However, if all of our energy is directed inward (developing and refining ministries within the congregation and nurturing congregational friendships), then our members won’t have time or ability to get to know unchurched people. And if we don’t know unchurched people, how can we hope to have them feel welcomed here?
Are we ready to be non-judgmental? People who don’t frequent church speak a different language than people at church speak. They look at life differently. But change isn’t a precondition of baptism or church membership; change is something that happens as people grow in relationship to Christ. Jesus was ingenious in the way he approached people with very different life circumstances and beliefs than his, and loved them in a way that motivated them to change for the better. Are we ready to love rather than judge the unchurched?
Living with questions. We live in a world that raises more questions than we may have good answers for. We also live in a church that has been way too eager to give easy answers to tough questions. Are we ready to listen more and answer less quickly? Are we able to embrace people’s difficult questions, and by doing so embrace them?
Being honest about struggles. One of the most profound memories from when I was a teenager was hearing my pastor admit that he struggled in his faith. His honesty helped me to understand that I could struggle and still be part of the community of faith; that the church isn’t comprised of perfect people, and we know as much. Such honesty makes the church attractive to those who know struggle already, and know they need room for it in a place of worship.
Dump all assumptions. If we think that newcomers will walk through the doors of the church with a basic understanding of Christianity, or that they must “master” the basics before they become part of the fold, we will need to rethink that. Newcomers may know no more about Christianity than you know about Taoism. If our church hopes to grow, the question is not whether but how we will help newcomers to access faith within our community.
Embrace flexibility. If we hope to sustain new Christians in our midst, we will need to do more than host a rousing welcome and initiation into life at Calvary. Growth in faith is never “finished.” The more adaptable we are as a church community—particularly in our strategies for welcoming unchurched people—the better chance we will have of serving a changing community.
Having said all that, I invite your prayers and thoughtful consideration of how you might help to make Calvary a place of welcome to newcomers as well as those already here. Having served with you for 13 years, I can honestly say that this congregation has demonstrated an amazing amount of grace, adaptability, and resilience in the face of change. And I look forward to taking the ongoing journey toward being a community that welcomes others readily and makes Calvary a place of grace for all who enter here.
Your sister in Christ,
Pastor Lori Cornell
I Believe - Help My Unbelief
Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Mark 9:24
“I believe; help my unbelief!” This is the plea a desperate father makes to Jesus. It is startling in its honesty and its confession. There is a misconception that as Christians we can never have doubt, that our belief must be resolute and never waiver. The fact is that there are plenty of crises that we face on a daily basis that can challenge our faith. To be human is to encounter sickness, suffering, disaster, and despair. We ask ourselves why these things happen. We want to know why God would allow good people to suffer.
The kinds of experiences that shake our faith to the core are also the kinds of experiences that can shape our faith life and help it to grow stronger. In his book Messy Spirituality, Mike Yaconelli describes these kinds of events as opportunities for us to experience spiritual growth in a whole new way. We tend to label these times when we feel like we are low on belief as if they are a bad or negative thing. Instead of feeling God has abandoned us or isn’t answering our prayers, Yaconelli encourages us to think of those times as periods of quiet reflection, an opportunity to listen and discern what God would have us do.
Even with the attitude that a crisis of faith is an opportunity for spiritual growth, it can be difficult to believe that God is present in the midst of our struggles with fear and doubt. How can we find quiet and contemplation when our minds are racing a million miles a minute? We want to know where God is. We want to know the reason something has happened. Where is God in the midst of our suffering? God is present in the hands of a caretaker who gently nurses the terminally ill. God is present in the friend or neighbor who sits with us and shares in our suffering. Sometimes it’s our own fault for making poor choices. Sometimes, there is no good reason, no enduring explanation of why God would allow something to happen.
But God does not abandon us to doubt and pain. God does not let us suffer without hope of renewal. The God we know through Jesus Christ understands our suffering. Because Christ chose to suffer on the cross on our behalf, chose to put on our frail human flesh and walk along side of us, we have a God who shows us that there is possibility where nothingness once existed. The women who went to the tomb on that early Easter morning had lost all hope — until they found that the death of their hope for the future was alive and well and amongst the living.
We will face many trying times. Like the father of the demon-possessed child, we may feel trapped. But as we journey through the valley of the shadow of doubt and uncertainty, we know that we only need to cry out and ask for help, and we will receive it. We may not feel like we fully believe, but we will be provided plenty of opportunity to have our belief strengthened by a loving and compassionate God who brings life and faith and hope in unexpected places.
This WE Believe
I recently discovered a fascinating podcast series from NPR, “On Being with Krista Tippett.” Tippett is the granddaughter of a Southern Baptist minister who, after scrutinizing her grandfather’s certitude in his conservative faith, decided to seek out her own personal sense of faith. The result is a radio series that began with the title, “Speaking of Faith” and morphed into “On Being”—which is her insatiable pursuit of the mysterious and divine in the lives of people from around the world.
One of the people whom Tippett interviewed is a famous Christian historian, Jaraslov Pelikan, who taught at Yale University for four decades before his death in 2006, and who wrote prolifically on the creeds of the Christian Church. Among his many profound observations, he made two that I find particularly helpful to our conversation for Lent: 1) Pluralism is not relativism. In a pluralistic society (with two or more religions coexisting) it is imperative that religions respectfully distinguish themselves from one another, not that they blend together and become indistinguishable; the Christian creeds help us to do that. And, 2) the creeds help us who are part of the church community to voice our beliefs collectively, and this corporate act shapes us individually also.
This we believe. By now you know that our theme for this Lent is “This I Believe.” One of our major objectives for these six weeks will be to equip each believer with words to better express her/his personal faith. But, contrary to some popular Christian opinion, faith does not reside solely in the individual Christian, but is also at work within the whole community. As we confess in the Apostles’ Creed together in worship, the Holy Spirit uses the “communion of saints” as a means for us to experience faith. Jaraslov Pelikan emphasizes this when he talks about the power of the Church’s creeds to shape the church and the believer. Christian creeds have existed ever since the New Testament was recorded. Sometimes those creeds were as simple as “Jesus is Lord.” Other times they were more complex: “Have the same mind in you that was in Christ, who though he was in the form of God did not account equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5-8). In every time creeds were not only spoken, but often sung. (We all have experienced the power of memory when words are put to music.) And at least since the 4th century, when the Nicene Creed was developed, creeds have been spoken by whole congregations in their worship. Such corporate confessions of faith shape not only the community but the individual believer who worships there.
More must be said about how the Holy Spirit works in community though. When we say that we believe in the “communion of saints,” we are saying more than that we think it’s important to gather for worship at church. We are confessing that the mystery of God is in part revealed as the community of believers gets together to hear God’s Word, participate in the sacraments, and pray together. Consider the profound implications of this in Martin and Katie Luther’s own personal crisis of losing their beloved 10-year-old daughter, Magdalen: Luther writes his friend Justus saying that he and Katie are beside themselves with grief, so much so that they are struggling to believe and to pray. Luther’s request to Justus: “So you pray for us and believe for us.” Luther didn’t think that he had to muster up all the faith he could find within himself. He trusted that the Spirit not only worked within him, but around him in other believers, and in the whole community as it gathered in various capacities.
If the Spirit creates faith through the community as our brothers and sisters pray on our behalf, what’s to keep the Spirit from creating a more whole faith as believers corporately confess the Apostles’ Creed?
Nadia Bolz Weber, a Lutheran pastor in Denver, Colorado, highlights how she witnesses the Spirit’s work in her community as they recite the Apostles’ Creed in worship: No worshiper at House for All Sinners and Saints, she explains, believes every part of the Creed completely all the time. Some may struggle with confessing the virgin birth, others with what it means to say that Jesus judges the living and the dead. But as their voices are joined together and the Holy Spirit is at work in their midst, together they share faith in the one triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This Creed, in which Christians confess “I believe” together, is a means by which the Holy Spirit creates and renews faith in believers (for their own sake and for the sake of others). The confession, “I believe” is, by virtue of being spoken in the company of other believers and the Holy Spirit, also a confession of “we believe.”
Does the Creed say everything we need to say about our faith in God? No, of course not. But it is a good pulse on who we are as a community of believers (we believe), and it creates a firm foundation upon which our personal understanding of God is constructed (I believe).
May God bless and direct our conversation this Lent, so that we experience the rich distinctions of our faith, as well as the common bonds we can affirm with a world seeking to better understand God.
Your Sister in Christ,
Pastor Lori Cornell
This I Believe
A father came to Jesus and asked Jesus to help his son: “’If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief.’” Mark 9:22-24
One month from now we will be entering into the Season of Lent. March 5th marks the beginning of that season with Ash Wednesday, where Scripture reminds us that we came from the dust of the earth, and to it we shall return.
Lent is also a time, at Calvary, where we take up the study of a particular theme in our faith. This year we continue our walk through Luther’s Small Catechism, exploring the Apostles’ Creed. Now, wait! Before you yawn and set down this article, consider this: How many things do you believe? What do you have real convictions about? Think about it: About life, about family, about work, about education, about friendship, about suffering, about happiness, about God. Our beliefs shape how we approach life every single day. They influence what we think about when we wake up in the morning. They affect how we raise our children, interact with the world, and whether we can sleep at night.
Beliefs shape us. But we seldom articulate those beliefs. We rarely write them down. Or commit them to a mental file labeled, “This I Believe.” And too often we simply react to our life situations, not realizing how our beliefs have precipitated those reactions.
That said, it’s time for us to do some thinking in Lent: What do we believe? What do we believe as a Christian community? What do we believe as individuals? But also, what do we believe about life, about humanity, and about whether the world is a good or an evil place? All of these beliefs have an impact on how we live, and they inform the practice of our faith.
The story from Mark’s Gospel that is quoted above is one of my go-to passages in Scripture. In part because it’s such a poignant story of a father grasping desperately for whatever help he can get, and finding that help in Jesus. But more I love this passage because it is such a profound confession about faith and life. It’s not just that I admire this guy for his determination and honesty. It’s that I am this guy: I believe, and I wrestle with believing. I love Jesus, and believe he can do more for me than anyone else, but I need Jesus to help me with my unbelief. I believe that Jesus profoundly changes who I am, and how I perceive God and life, but I am still a sober enough Christian to see that there are lots of things that don’t make sense to me in the world.
So, what do you believe? Think about it now, please, because we are going to ask you to share your wisdom about life in Lent. Do you have a passionate belief about the impact that music can have on one’s life? What do you believe about money—is it a means or an end? What do you think about whether wealthy nations have an obligation to third world countries? Are possessions important to you, or has your life experience changed your perspective on stuff?
“This I Believe,” is the name for our 2014 Lenten Series. We shamelessly borrow this title from a series that is produced by National Public Radio and continues to be a popular venue for statements of belief. Listeners record their essays about how life experience has informed their choices; how their talents have opened up new worlds to them; how past adverse circumstances have shaped their present and future life pursuits and goals.
So, think about it. If you were asked to choose to make a single statement about something that you believe passionately, what would you say? Write down your thoughts. You likely have more than one idea that you believe passionately, so write down more. Then, be ready to share those beliefs with your fellow Calvary members. I think we will discover that exploring our personal beliefs alongside our corporate beliefs teaches us a whole lot about who we are as individuals, and how that shapes us when we come together as a congregation.
Looking forward to the journey.
Pastor Lori A. Cornell
Lenten: The 10 Commandments
The Old Self Wrestling with the New
If you want to know what the Christian life is about, read the church’s baptismal liturgy (from Romans 6): In Baptism, each of us is joined to Christ’s death and resurrection; from that time forward we live under God’s public promise of forgiveness, life, and salvation. God says, “You are a new person born in the waters of Baptim, sustained by my promises.” “Through these promises,” God says,”you are alright with me; you don’t have to do anything to fix our relationship. I’ve taken care of that already in Christ.” But there’s a hitch: The old self in us (see Romans 5-7) is determined to get a second hearing after God has spoken. So the old self lingers at the edges of our heart questioning whether faith in Christ is enough. The voice of that old self is distinct, saying things like, “Listen, I can handle this on my own.” Or, “Okay, so I don’t have to do anything to please you, God. But you don’t really mean ‘nothing,’ do you?” The old self doesn’t trust that God’s promises alone can effect the change in us that God desires. So the old self pokes and prods at God’s commandments and promises, saying things like, “Sure you are the Lord my God, but I still have to make sure I have no other gods. See, I told you I had something to do.” And the old self takes jabs at the new self–raised up in the waters of Baptism: “Don’t just sit there trusting that God has fixed the problem between you and him. Prove your faith to God by your actions.” The old self wants you to believe that God’s promises are good, but you’d better do your part too.
The new self, on the other hand, trusts that God will fulfill God’s promises. And, just as Christ told his disciples that he would rise from death–and he did, so we can trust Christ’s promises that we will also be raised from death. We don’t have to–in fact, we can’t–do anything to receive God’s salvation. It is pure gift. And what God wants us to do is simply trust that he’s taken care of things.
Over the weeks of Lent, as we listen to each of the Commandments, you are likely to find a wrestling match being fought in your conscience–between the old you and the new you. The old you will use words like “should,” “ought,” and “must” to motivate you to action. The old you will want you to believe that the Commandments are the To-Do list that you not only should, but must complete for a good relationship with God. But the new you–the you whom God is creating through Christ and his Spirit–will be offering a different, faithful approach to the Commandments. The new you will ask, “What can I do, now that I don’t have to do anything to have this relationship with God?” And, gradually, as you continue to hear Christ’s promises of forgiveness and new life with God, the voice of that new self will grow stronger, and the voice of that relentless old self will fade.
Rev. Lori A. Cornell