Sunday, March 6, 2011

(In)visible Witness

This Wednesday, March 9, is Ash Wednesday, and by the end of the day many Christians will be wearing a smudge of ashes on the forehead – a visible witness to the call for repentance.

It’s always interested me to see ashes on the foreheads of people who’ve given no other sign of interest in the Christian faith. It’s a good thing, isn’t it? A quiet acknowledgement of the life of the church, a reminder of the beginning of Lent, an expression of sorrow for the ways we’ve fallen short of God’s best.

I know there are non-liturgical Christians who find the ashes offensive. Acts of repentence are to be done in secret, right? In Matthew 6, the gospel reading for Ash Wednesday, Jesus says “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

He goes on to give specifics: “when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

And “when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

And “when you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

So, ashes are a bad thing?

Is faith meant to be private? Is it strictly an individual thing, between me and God?

In Matthew 5, Jesus says ““You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

If we live our faith in secret, how will our light shine before others? If we don’t let our right hand know what our left hand is doing, how will our good deeds bring God glory?

I think Jesus was talking about motivation. In the Jewish culture of his day, charity, prayer, and fasting were assumed. Everyone knew what was expected, everyone knew how to do it, but, as becomes clear as Jesus talks about the Pharisees in other places, these acts of obedience had become spectator sports, done to impress, rather than please God or encourage others.

The current problem is very different.

In The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior, Steven Garber wrestles with a question that has troubled me for years: how can young Christians grasp a coherent worldview, when they don’t hear one fully articulated? But even more, how can they learn to live that worldview with integrity, when they see few visible examples?

In hours of conversation with Christians who have come through the early years of career and family with faith and focus intact, Garber discovered, among other things, that “what I believe is deeply affected by my social experience: my family, community, city, society, and century.”

On one level that seems obvious, but consider a culture where
We believe that each man must find the truth
That is right for him.
Reality will adapt accordingly.
The universe will readjust. History will alter.
We believe there is no absolute truth
Excepting the truth that there is no absolute truth.
We believe in the rejection of creeds. (Steve Turner, Creed)

Garber discusses the work of Peter Berger, a sociologist who has spent forty years studying “the relationship between belief and behavior in the light of modernity’s power to shape how we see and live in the world.” According to Berger:

“Meaning systems …must be lived collectively; constant interaction with other people who perceive and interpret reality in the same way as oneself is necessary if one’s “nomos” [socially constructed ordering of experience] is to be automatically effective in embuing one’s everyday experience with meaning. But modern societies have largely dissolved these supportive systems. … So in the end the individual is in a certain sense alone with the task of making sense of the world and his own place in it out of scraps and oddments culled here and there in his differentiated life and contacts.”

How do we understand what’s real, what works, what’s of value, what’s worth pursuing, when called on to construct that reality on our own?

There are plenty of philosophies available, products to buy, anthems to sing. Have it your way. Do what feels right. Be fastest, smartest, prettiest, best. Run over anyone who gets in your way.

Who advocates for the life of faith? If the only time we talk about God, his word, prayer, giving, fasting, discipleship, compassion, is Sunday morning or evening, if the only place that conversation about faith and practice takes place is in church,  no wonder kids think it’s irrelevant.

Deuteronomy 11 says “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates . . . .”

That passage may be familiar. What may be less familiar is the rationale just before it:

“Remember today that your children were not the ones who saw and experienced the discipline of the Lord your God: his majesty, his mighty hand, his outstretched arm;  the signs he performed and the things he did in the heart of Egypt, both to Pharaoh king of Egypt and to his whole country; what he did to the Egyptian army, to its horses and chariots, how he overwhelmed them with the waters of the Red Sea as they were pursuing you, and how the Lord brought lasting ruin on them. It was not your children who saw what he did for you in the wilderness until you arrived at this place . . .. But it was your own eyes that saw all these great things the Lord has done.”

Moses was warning his people: what to you is real, clear, even obvious, in a different place and time will seem implausible, even ridiculous, if you don’t continue to share the stories of God’s work in the world. Daily, hourly, at home, on the road. God has demonstrated his power – now it’s up to you to keep that reality visible for those who haven’t seen it.

 We are surrounded by stories, voices, demonstrations of ways to live. More than any other culture, ever, we are inundated with ideas about what does and doesn’t work, what is and isn’t of value. The messages are non-stop, inescapable, wired into our children’s brains, popping up on our screens, pressing in from every side.

Who shares the message of faith? Who demonstrates what the life of faith looks like? Who makes the life Christ modeled visible, plausible, compelling?

If we have seen God at work, we need to tell about it, for those who haven’t seen it, don’t believe it, can’t quite imagine it. If there’s joy in giving, we need to share that, for those who can’t picture it, for those who worry about how they’d make ends meet if they redivided the monthly budget. If there’s power in prayer, we need to celebrate, testify, tell the story, affirm that yes, God is faithful, powerful, real. We need to talk about the realities of the Christian faith at the dinner table, driving to and from school, in quiet conversations before bed, at family gatherings with the extended family listening, with colleagues, friends, neighbors.

We also need to show what it looks like. I know many kids and young adults who have never seen anyone read a Bible except sitting in a church pew, who have never heard adults talk about God’s word in the context of a family decision. It saddens me to think of the times I’ve asked “who do you pray with about this?” and heard the answer, from kids, young adults, parents: nobody.

I am deeply thankful for the people who have been brave enough, consistent enough, to demonstrate the Christian life to me in a way I could see and understand. Family, friends, colleagues, faithful people who have shown me, bit by bit, what obedience looks like. What sacrificial giving looks like. What a life of prayer looks like.  What real repentence looks like. In real lives. In the real world I live in.

John Stott, in commentaries and study guides on the Sermon on the Mount, quotes the Scottish theologian AB Bruce: “we are to 'show when tempted to hide' and 'hide when tempted to show.’”

Too often, we’re tempted to hide, and to keep hidden what we’re called to make visible. We’re happy to express ourselves, but uncomfortable expressing the salt and light we’re called to live. We forget this amazing reality: we’re called to be like Christ. To make Christ known. In the particulars, the details, the dailiness of life.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.
                                                     Gerard Manley Hopkins

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