Guest preacher: Bobbi Fisher
In December my grandson emailed me from college telling me that he had questions about faith, religion, and God, asking if could we talk about it during the Christmas break when Granddad and I would be visiting. What a blessing is such a request from grandson to grandmother.
Colin and I took a walk the morning after we arrived. I tried to be a listener, but I had so much to say. It was hard for me to put beliefs into words without sounding dogmatic or defensive. So I took a deep breath and did my best to slip back into listening mode and hear Colin’s questions.
After our visit, I asked him to email them to me. As we listen to them we can hear the concerns and wonderings posed by a college junior, with a double major in philosophy and computer science. Colin is from a liberal, non-churched home in Lancaster, PA, on the edge of the Bible Belt with many ‘mega’ churches among the Amish farmland. We can also hear universal questions that each one of us, as human beings searching for God, might ask.
1) What role does God play in our lives? Does he/she/it choose to use power to influence our lives? If so, why is life so unfair? If no, then what is the point of God and praying?
2) What is the point of publicly disagreeing or arguing with anyone about religion or spirituality?
3) Is there a way to help people who have convinced themselves that the rules, even though they seem to be what we make them, are a certain way and that way brings them pain?
4) If we can’t truly know whether God or Heaven or anything is actually real, why believe in God?
What are your questions? Do you notice any similar themes between yours and Colin’s?
We just heard the one of the children ask, “What does it feel like in Heaven?”
What are your questions? Do you have any questions about Heaven?
I’d like to suggest that it is the questions of faith that keep us going. I’m not implying that answers aren’t important, but there wouldn’t be any answers if we didn’t have any questions; and by the time we form a question, we have already begun to live into the answer.
The advice that Ranier Maria Rilke wrote in Letters to a Young Poet is worthy of our consideration.
Have patience with everything
unresolved in your heart
and try to love the questions
The point is, to live everything.
Live the questions now.
Perhaps then you will gradually,
without even noticing it,
live your way into the answer.
What are your questions? What answers are you living into?
So far we have heard questions from the children in our church and a college student. But questions don’t stop at the end of one’s formal schooling. From my years teaching kindergarten and first grade, and then as the spiritual care counselor for hospice, I can attest that human beings asks questions from the day speak their first word to the day they take their last breath.
Our questions are never random. Although they arise from our particular life situation and the personal experiences that life presents to us, we can hear the universal questions embedded in them.
Thankfully, there are people who have written about how they lived their way into the answers to the questions that life presented to them. I’d like to share with you the stories of two such people: Rabbi Harold S, Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People: and Elaine Pagels, recipient of three MacArthur Fellowships, Biblical historian, author of many studies, including The Gnostic Gospels and The Gospel of Thomas, and most recently Why Religion? A Personal Story.
You may have heard about, or perhaps read Rabbi Kushner’s book. Since its publication in 1981 it has sold millions of copies. Why so popular? Because Rabbi Kushner poses a universal question and then offers his particular answer. Let us listen to his words stated in the preface to the 2001 revised edition.
“I met a lot of people who tell me that they have read my book, Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? I politely point out to them that the book is not titled “Why” but “When.” The really important question is not why bad things happen, but where will we find the resources to cope with them when they do happen.”
Kushner goes on to set the scene:
“Our son Aaron had just passed his third birthday when our daughter Ariel was born. Aaron was a bright and happy child, who before the age of two could identify a dozen different varieties of dinosaur and could patiently explain to an adult that dinosaurs were extinct. My wife and I had been concerned about his health from the time he stopped gaining weight at the age of eight months, and from the time his hair started falling out after he turned one year old.
“Just before our daughter’s birth, we moved from New York to a suburb of Boston, where I became the rabbi of the local congregation. We discovered that the local pediatrician was doing research in problems of children’s growth, and we introduced him to Aaron. Two months later—the day our daughter was born—he visited my wife in the hospital, and told us that our son’s condition was called progeria, “rapid aging.”
Kushner goes on to say, “Aaron would never grow much beyond three feet in height, would have no hair on his head or body, would look like a little old man while he was still a child, and would die in his early teens.
“How does one handle news like that? How could this be happening to my family? If God existed, if He was minimally fair, let alone loving and forgiving, how could He do this to me? Why should he (Aaron) have to suffer physical and psychological pain every day of his life? Why should he be stared at, pointed at, wherever he went? Why should he be condemned to grow into adolescence, see other boys and girls beginning to date, and realize that he would never know marriage or fatherhood?”
All those personal questions arose from Rabbi Kushner’s particular life situation, summed up in the universal question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” By in living into the questions, Kushner lived into the answers. He lived his way into the answers by being a father to Aaron, by studying the Talmud, by reading the works of theologians, by accompanying others in their sorrows, by speaking out about the bad thing that had happened to his good family, and by writing When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
What are your questions? Do you notice any similar themes between your questions and Rabbi Kushner’s?
Elaine Pagels proclaims her universal question in bold letters on the cover of her book, Why Religion? Clearly a universal question. Then she picks a subtitle, A Personal Story, implying that questions and answers about faith arise from our particular circumstances and life experiences.
Let us listen to Pagels, whose studies as a Biblical scholar address the universal, and whose particular situation catapulted her into facing the personal.
“More than twenty-five years ago, when the death of our young child, followed soon after by the shocking death of my husband, shattered my life, I never imagined that I would ever write about what happened. Those losses left a crater that loomed as large as the Grand Canyon, which I could not enter, and in which I could see hardly anything, like a black hole in space.
“Finally, though, I had to look into that darkness, since I could not continue to live fully while refusing to recall what happened, realizing that no one escapes terrible loss. And since everything we experience shapes what we are capable of understanding, I’ve interwoven this personal story with the work that I love; acknowledging such connections helps us understand the past and illuminate the present (xvi).”
What are your questions? Do any of them resonate with the experience that Elaine Pagels writes about?
In our Gospel reading today, Peter’s comment to Jesus implies a question. “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijiah” Luke’s add-on, ‘not knowing what he (Peter) said, makes it clear that the three disciples who went up with Jesus to the mountain to pray, were living into the questions and looking for answers.
This story of the Transfiguration comes a little more than a third of the way into the gospel. According to a quick Google search, in Luke’s Gospel alone 68 questions are asked, some universal, some personal.
In Luke 9:20, just eight verses before the transfiguration story, Jesus asks his disciples a universal question: “But what about you?…Who do you say I am?”
Then in the following chapter, Luke 10:36, in telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus shifts to the personal and asks, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
What are your questions? What questions is Jesus asking you?
I won’t attempt to answer Colin’s questions, and thankfully the children have a life time to live into theirs, but I would like to leave you with a few answers, namely those of Rabbi Kushner and Elaine Pagels, and then a couple of my responses to Jesus. More than being given answers, we are left with more questions, questions that are universal and yet embedded in the personal.
Rabbi Kushner writes,
“In the final analysis, the question of why bad things happen to good people translates itself into some very different questions, no longer asking why something happened, but asking how we will respond, what we intend to do now that it has happened.”
He asks, “Are you capable of forgiving and accepting in love a world which has disappointed you by not being perfect, a world in which there is so much unfairness and cruelty, disease and crime, earthquake and accident? Can you forgive its imperfections and love it because it is capable of containing great beauty and goodness, and because it is the only world we have?
…will you be able to recognize that the ability to forgive and the ability to love are the weapons God has given us to enable us to live fully, bravely, and meaningfully in this less-than-perfect world?)” (p.197).
Elaine Pagels ends her book with questions and answers that came to her as she was sitting with others waiting to receive an honorary degree at Harvard’s graduation, just a few months after the Boston Marathon bombing. Her grown adopted children had come to celebrate with her.
“Sitting there, feeling waves of revelry and emotion pass through that huge crowd, I was suddenly stopped: Where are they, those who aren’t here, now lost to us? But as the music blared and the prayers, introductions, and speeches echoed over the microphones, I saw Sarah and David sitting among the families. Suddenly a storm of tears and gratitude broke through me, as I felt, unexpectedly, that I was also graduating, along with those thousands of others. How, I wondered, had I somehow managed to pass the real tests?—the tests I never could have imagined surviving, those unimaginable losses? Yet the children left for me to raise were both here, alive and well, and so am I: How is that possible?
She goes on to finish: “I don’t know how to answer those questions. What I do know is that for moments, during that noisy and joyful ceremony, the pomp and privilege of that scene receded, and the invisible bonds connecting everyone there, and connecting all of us with countless others and with our world and whatever is beyond it, felt stronger than ever, echoing the words of an ancient Jewish prayer: “Blessed art Thou, Lord God of the Universe, that you have brought us alive to see this day.” However it happens, sometimes hearts do heal, through what I can only call grace.” (210)
I end with the question Jesus posed to his disciples before they went up the mountain.
“Who do you say that I am?”
Today, March 3, 2019, here are the answers I am living into. My universal response to Jesus: You are the image of the invisible God, which is love.“
My personal response to Jesus: You help me open my heart to live lovingly and with hope.
Who do you say Jesus is?