LATEST PODCAST. Preachers are like manure. When you spread us out, we can do a lot of good. But when you pile us up all together it can be almost unbearable. On a preachers tour to Israel I found out why.
Category: Theology and Life
Faith and Vaccines
This week I remembered a conversation I had with a woman many years ago. I had gone to teach a series on the family at a friend’s church in another state. She came up to me after the presentation and asked to talk with me. Of course, I said.
“What’s on your mind?” I asked.
“Well, I feel like such a failure in my faith. I suffer from depression. It was affecting my marriage, my children, and most of all, my faith in God.”
“Why did you feel it made you a failure?” I inquired.
“I’ve tried everything. I prayed and prayed for God to take it away, but it didn’t leave. Finally I went to a psychiatrist and he put me on medication.”
“Did it help?”
“Oh, I started feeling better soon.”
“Are you still on it?”
“So why is that a problem, spiritually?”
“Well, it makes me feel like a failure, like I don’t have enough faith to overcome this on my own.”
“Ah, I see. Well, let’s consider this another way. First, when the book of James encourages those who are sick to call for the elders to pray over them and anoint them with oil, anointing might be considered ancient medical treatment. In other words, pray and see the doctor. Then, let’s consider Jesus’ healing example. His healings were instantaneous. Nevertheless, I would never consider it to contradict the natural order, not if God created that order. Sometimes I tell people that doctors now do routinely and every day what Jesus did instantaneously and miraculously to their way of thinking.”
“I never thought of it that way.”
“And then, think of this. The Apostle Paul had the same problem with something he called ‘his thorn in the flesh.” Was it depression? Vision issues? Epilepsy? Scholars don’t really know. And he prayed and prayed but God only said, ‘My grace is sufficient for you.’ He believed, but he was left with trust. Not every question ends with an instant answer. He had to keep holding onto his faith. But the failure to solve it did not mean he had no faith in God. He was humbled by it.”
“Now, let me leave you with one more thought about this. Who created this world?”
“God, of course”
“And who is Lord over that world?”
“So who is responsible in this creation for the beauty of a creation where the body can heal itself through knowledge, insight, medicine and care? You see my point. Medicine, including anti-depressants, are not a substitute for faith. They are a gift of God. Think of taking your pill as a daily reminder, a humbling one, of the grace of God. Grace is the truth that we cannot save ourselves, heal ourselves, solve every problem or make it alone. Grace acts before we do. So think about your medicine as a daily act of faith, not a failure of faith. Your faith is not the problem. It’s a theology, a belief, that isn’t large enough for the truth. Open it up, and see God’s hand of care. You like your psychiatrist?”
“Oh, he’s wonderful. Talking to him helps me so much.”
“Then I would suggest you rejoice. God has answered your prayers. Take your medicine and thank God for it. If we could conjure up a miracle every time we needed one, we’d have replaced God I think. God has given us thinkers and researchers and people who give money and authorize systems of healing, all kinds of wonderful gifts. Or as folk theology sometimes puts it, we are His hands and feet in the world. This applies to science and medicine as much as anything else.”
And to paraphrase the gospels, “she went on her way rejoicing.”
I think if I know someone who is struggling with whether to take the vaccine or not, especially as an issue of faith, I’d have the same kind of conversation. I wouldn’t ridicule them for believing inadequately in magical religion any more than I would make fun of my granddaughters for believing childish ideas of God and the universe. What is the point of that? Besides, after all these years and education I’m still haunted by a magical idea or two myself.
I would try to help them think about their faith in a more mature way. I would try to understand which of the many anxieties was at the root of their fear. I would gently listen and offer some antidotes to bad religion with the real thing. And I would never stop caring for them.
I hope that’s what I would do. They are struggling with all the bad actors and shallow theology out there confusing the issue. The truth is this: this is God’s world as people of faith understand it. We are not simply waiting for the End, whatever that will be. Life is God’s gift, and medicine is one of God’s many blessings sent to us all in the lives of those who live it as a calling. Listen, learn. Pray about it if you need to, but be sure you pray in openness to the idea that what might need healing is not just the problem but a faith that needs to grow up some more.
That’s what I might do. How about you?
Ranting the Deadly Sins
My friend LaMon Brown reminded me of this quote from a book i read many times and loved over the years, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC by Frederick Buechener.
“Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back–in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
Perhaps it bears reflection as we continue devouring one another with our mutual condescension and distrust. Our leaders in America today look like us: they play to our outrage because it seems to work. Except it doesn’t. There is no room in continuous rage for discussion, understanding, listening, calming ourselves or self-understanding. The immediacy of social media is the most striking feature that is most unlike anything in my upbringing. You didn’t have millions of people potentially responding to you. And why should you?
Somehow anger, like gossip, is not longer seen as a negative force in life. It has its purpose, but the ancient traditions understood that rage, like fire, could consume, and had to be contained. The important question to ask myself is, “Why has this made me so angry?” If I cannot answer I should wait to speak until I can.
Reframing to Blessings
When I first began to preach as a pastor it was in small churches in Central Texas. They were mostly blue collar and working folks, farmers, retired people who had moved out from the city, an assortment of people who end up in a church together by virtue of geography.
As I was just beginning my ministry, I desperately read books about how to preach and how to be an administrator and how to do all of this and that. But I particularly remember one preaching book that encouraged me to try to turn my main point into a positive affirmation. This became central in my life, even if I didn’t always do it well.
Having trained academically, I had a disposition toward thorough analysis and preface. It meant that I could spend a long time, and in those early sermons I surely did on those poor people, explaining why it was I was going to tell them what I was going to tell them. That usually meant 8 or 10 reasons why the world was going to hell and why they needed the one good thing I was going to slip in right before the final hymn. Only later did I learn to move more consistently to the affirmations of the gospel. people don’t need nearly as much analysis as we are inclined to give.
I find that to be generally true, though, these days. If you look at the Twitter feeds of sports teams, you would believe that every coach is an absolute disaster every player incompetent and no team having any idea what they were doing. We are heavy on criticism and analysis and a little short on blessing. It is a difficult exercise to begin to turn your negativity into affirmation. It goes against the grain of so much of our brokenness.
I preached plenty of sermons that were heavier on analysis and what needs to be fixed. But the best ones were always the ones that moved to the extraordinary good news of hope and transformation. The latter were what Jesus brought to the world, as has every other great religious leader who has ever lived and for that matter the best people in our lives. They have the capacity to take something that can be cast in the negative and turn it into an fresh affirmation. There is a place, an important one, for analysis and criticism. We need to evaluate and reconsider. But one of the great failings of our time is the predominance of the negative. Too much is centered around what’s wrong with the other person or those people or this or that bogeyman created by our collective fears.
Dr Samuel Proctor was a wonderful African American preacher, educator, theologian and scholar. He honored me by contributing a chapter to a book that I helped edit once. He once said of a contemporary, “Well, his “whereases” are pretty good but his “therefores” are a little weak.” It’s the therefores that finally make the difference.
You always remember when someone has forcefully taken familiar and empty concepts and words and recast what had seemed a dark and empty time into something surprisingly filled with hope. This is the genius of authentic leadership and authentic servanthood.
“Reframing” refers to taking something and recasting it so it can be seen afresh. In pastoral conversations, it can convey great power to respond to some statement of despair with, “Of course, another way to look at this…” and to see a light go on in the eyes. Blessing has great power. It is not denial, and it is not romanticized optimism. Blessing comes from Truth. It is an ultimate statement of “the way it is,” beyond our filters and negative predispositions.
Someone once said to me, “It can help to begin to use new words, to state things differently, when we are trying to change.” So, this might be a powerful spiritual practice. Take your dread, fear or hopeless assumption and begin to speak of it anew. Invite a larger perspective, one that allows for blessing, not curses, to be the final word for you.
Turning the Page to a New Day
Some people can look at the big picture and take it in. Others of us have to plant down on the earth and focus on digging the one hole that is ours to do. When you’re trying to get it together, simple is best. You can’t fix the entire universe, but you can fix a healthy breakfast. You can’t answer the question of suffering humanity, but you can lend a hand to one person hurting.
We live in time. It’s different for each of us. But what we do with the hand dealt us will finally determine how the story is written. I don’t even engage in the teacup tempests on social media anymore. I finally realized I can’t correct every misperception out there. And you can’t argue with a stump, unless that pleases you. Some of those online rants remind me of the Calvinist predestinarian fellow who fell down a flight of stairs and got up, dusted himself off and said, “Whew. Glad I got that over with!”
Nothing changes from the arguments. You have to get up and do something to get your life back. It can be a movement, or a cause, but a lot of folks are struggling on a more basic level. I had a wise spiritual director named Ron who told me that when he encourages people to try journaling he sets a goal of two sentences a day. He knew that they would overwhelm themselves with trying to write books (he was talking to me!) for the ages. “Just write couple of sentences.”
It is the little things not the big ones that really get you where you want to go. For stability and peace we look out for the things right by us to get us there. Set simple goals. First thing everyday, get up and do the same things. Make your bed. I read that that is one of the real indicators of depression, surprisingly, and just the simple act of doing that little thing is a discipline that begins to move us out of the funk and into control of living. Find something good to do as soon as you can. Once Basil Pennington was asked the secret of prayer. He said, “First you have to sit down.”
Maybe when you’re struggling you need to lower your own bar a little. One item on the list? Check it off. You’ll sleep better. Tomorrow we’ll try two.
Psalm 131 (New International Version. Copied from biblegateway.com)
A song of ascents. Of David.
3 Israel, put your hope in the Lord
both now and forevermore.
1 My heart is not proud, Lord,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
2 But I have calmed and quieted myself,
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.