An Ash Wednesday Meditation delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Sr. Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, February 25, 2004, The first day of 40 days and 40 nights of Lent, dedicated to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and always to the glory of God!
(Part I of VIII in the series "The Heart of Christianity")
This day begins a sermon series that will take us through Lent, to the cross, and eventually to the empty tomb of Easter. It will be a journey through many, but not all of the foundations at the Heart of our Christian faith. My sermons will focus on Faith, the Bible, The Kingdom of God, God, Jesus, Sin and Salvation, The Passion of Christ, and Christ's Resurrection. Love, Forgiveness and Grace, the Holy Spirit and other key elements may be woven into this series, but will not featured - although through the years I have spoken to each one of these.
I invite you to join me tonight on this journey to the heart of Christianity. Along with author Marcus Borg, upon whose writings I base this series, I believe Christianity is going through a paradigm shift. On the one hand we have The Earlier Paradigm. The Earlier Paradigm has moved us through the first 1900 years of our faith tradition. It has deeply rooted teachings which have evolved into the present day - not without many struggles. The Emerging Paradigm has a different vision of Christian tradition and Christian life. It has a different way of seeing the Bible and the life we lead in Christ. I believe both paradigms have tremendous value and I will speak to the value of each. But, you will find that I am deeply touched by the heart of the emerging paradigm - a heart, if you will - that I believe will continue to grow and lead Christianity is powerful and positive ways far into the 21st Century and beyond. So, the journey begins . . . with "Faith."
Let us pray: may the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock & our salvation. Amen.
For me to address faith, I would like you to know something about my faith background. I was born and raised in this United Church of Christ. My mother carried me in her womb during the convening meeting in Cleveland in 1957. My grandfathers were both ordained pastors in one of our predecessor denominations - The Evangelical and Reformed Church. My parents were the oldest children in these pastors' families and grew up in the fishbowl of parsonages (most located adjacent to the churches).
Both parents, now in their 54th year of marriage, have been active lay leaders in the church all their lives. My father served as editor of Youth Magazine from 1950-1981. Youth was our denomination's monthly news magazine for youth and young adults. When he finished at Youth in 1981, he went on to serve the Penn Southeast Conference as a commissioned minister for another nine years. Mom was always involved in church. We were usually the first family in and the last family out on Sunday mornings. The pastor's family was long gone when we finally headed for the door.
All my aunts and uncles (and all of my further extended family in that generation) married Protestant Christians. Their children, my generation, have branched out and a few have married Catholics. But, in all cases, my family on each side, has been Christian from generation to generation. Most of us are deeply involved in the church. Some of us are Sunday worshipers only. All of us go to church. I belong to a "Churchy" family. In this context, growing up, my questions about my faith always were in the context of following Jesus. Jesus was, has been, and always will be central to my faith. But, when one grows up in such a familial faith context, it is often difficult to clearly question the faith, without seemingly questioning the family - because they are so intertwined.
But, in recent years, for a variety of reasons, I have found my faith deepening because I have examined many questions about the Christian faith. If you are like me, sometimes your questions about Christian Faith get all tangled up in your questions about the Christian Church. I say this as one who has a "lover's quarrel" with the church. I find myself identifying with Jesus Christ, but I struggle to figure out how all the folks who call themselves his disciples have ventured so far from his "Ground of Being." I like his message of grace, love, justice, and healing, but those who are given the task of its care and proclamation can really mess me up sometimes. Substance gets lost to style. Jesus' faith gets sidetracked by fast-moving sound and light shows, high tech worship in which lip-sinking is called gospel singing and million dollar movies which become the newest version of the oldest story. As one person who leads a large mega-church told me, "it's all about flash and money." I couldn't disagree more.
I believe it all about Faith. That is why I begin with faith. In the words of Swami Prabharananda, "True faith is not like a picture frame, a permanently limited area of acceptance. It is like a plant which keeps on throwing forth shoots and growing." For too long, much of Christianity has been more concerned about the frame around faith rather than the seed planting, nurturing, and sustaining nature of the faith.
In his book, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, Marcus J. Borg delves into the Christian faith to help bridge the growing divides between has been and what is coming into being. Borg writes, "Most people today, in the church and outside of it, take it for granted that Christian faith means believing a set of Christian beliefs to be true" (p. 25). In fact, "faith" has become for many an extensive list of "beliefs." This preoccupation with "believing" turns Christian into faith into a "head matter." Faith becomes primarily a matter of what beliefs are in your head. For some conservative Christians, this translates into "the right set of beliefs" which determine whether or not you are a true believer, or a real Christian.
But Borg points out:
The twin notions that being Christian is about `believing' in Christianity and that faith is about "beliefs" are a modern development of the last hundred years. Prior to that the Christian meanings of the word "faith" were not matters of the head, but matters of the heart. In the Bible and in Christian tradition, the "heart" is a metaphor for a deep level of the self, a level below out thinking, feeling, willing, our intellect, emotions and volition. The heart is thus deeper than our head, deeper than our conscious self, and the ideas we have in our heads . . . Faith is the way of the heart, not the way of the head. (p. 26).
Borg identifies four meanings of the word faith in Christianity. The first meaning comes from the Latin word, "Assensus." It is the closest word to faith as belief. In English, the word is best defined as "Assent." It means the giving of one's mental assent, or believing a faith claim to be true. The beginning of this emphasis stretches back to the Reformation. As denominations tried to define themselves, their distinctive doctrines were laid out. There became "right" beliefs and "wrong" beliefs. This is truly an odd notion. It is based on the premise that God really cares about Beliefs in our heads.
Think about it. You can believe all the right things and still be unchanged and unchanging in your behavior. Believing a set of claims has little transforming power (Ibid,p. 31). But, if you follow this logically, "assent" to a clearly defined set of beliefs will exert power to control the group.
Faith as "Fiducia" means faith as a radical trust is God. This faith is like learning to swim. It is trusting of the buoyancy of God to keep us afloat in the sea of life (an image first shared by Soren Kierkegaard). And like that experience, the more you thrash around in the water, the more you are anxious, the less likely you will be to stay afloat. Similarly, the less you trust, the less faith you have, the more likely you are sink, rather than swim.
Faith as "Fidelitas" is the faith of fidelity. This is the life of "Faithfulness." Rather than a statement of faith saying, "I promise to be faithful," this faith is about radical centering in God. We are faithful to God through developing loving relationships, being attentive to those relationships. We are attentive thought worship, prayer, practice, and a life of compassion and justice. This faithfulness includes an ethical imperative to be full of the pieces of faith.
Finally, Faith as ""Visio," is a way of seeing. H Reinhold Niehbuhr speaks of this faith in The Responsible Self. "In it he speaks of the central importance of how we see the whole of what is, for how we see the whole will affect how we respond to life. Hence . . . the responsible self refers not to the especially dutiful or conscientious self, but to the responding self" (p. 34). In other words, if we see God as generous, as loving, as life-giving, and nourishing, then we respond as responsible beings to God and our neighbors in similar ways. We become selves actualized by responding to God presence in and through us.
Faith in three senses of radical trust, fidelity, and as a way of seeing God, opens up the doors for living our lives and facing our deaths in a new way. Seeing, living, trusting, and centering all our relationships are interrelated in complex ways. They are matters of the heart, not the head. (Paraphrasing Borg, p. 37).
Christian Faith in this way means, affirming the reality of God, affirming the absolute centrality of Jesus, affirming the centrality of the Bible, and knowing that following God in Jesus Christ is about "giving your heart to God," not simply thinking about God and speaking creeds about God. In fact, the word credo means "I give my heart to you." Faith is not a picture frame. It is a garden.
Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel wrote of faith:
To have faith is to perceive the wonder that is here, and to be stirred by the desire to integrate the self into the holy order of being.
Faith does not spring out of nothing. It comes with the discovery of the holy dimension of our existence.
Faith means to hold small things great, to take light matters seriously, to distinguish the common and the passing from the aspect of the lasting.
It is faith from which we draw the sweetness of life, the taste of the sacred, the joy of the imperishably dear. It is faith that offers us a share of eternity(Found in Day-By-Day, edited by Rabbi Chaim Stern, Beacon Press, Boston, 1998, pp. 111-112).
In this season of Lent, may you grow with a heart of faith. Amen.
Copyright 2004, The First Congregational Church
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