“I am spiritual but not religious,” she said. And they she went on to tell me her life’s story which included both being drawn to Christianity and repulsed by it. She is exploring Judaism and other faiths. I hear that a lot. And in fact, sometimes I resonate with her seeking spirit. When the media makes Christianity look like some repressive, narrow, old fashioned, no-fun religion I would rather go to Starbucks, or the gym or the mall. I would rather read a good book with a good story-line that engages me.
A study by the Pew Foundation reported that over 70% of respondents call themselves “spiritual.” Spiritual sounds freeing. Religion sounds binding. Spiritual sounds individual and private. Religious sounds communal and public.
In a way being religious does mean binding yourself to a particular story of how one looks at the world, at yourself and God. You are making a choice for one thing not another. But I must say that sooner or later you have to put your bags down somewhere and say “this is home,” You have to claim a story-line. Be it Christianity or atheism. Atheism is a religion too – an anti-institutional religion, mind you – but a narrative that binds people together nevertheless.
Sooner or later you have to tell your own story of how your life works. And stories are wonderful. There is nothing better than a good story.
“Dad, tell me the story of when you met Mom?”
“Tell me the story of when you were stranded on the elevator at the National City offices.”
“Read me a story Mommy.”
This last Christmas Eve – we all sat in the living room, with a roaring fire and read The Greatest Christmas Pageant Ever!
AMC – the television network trumpets in their self-promotion “Story Matters Here!”
For twelve weeks last spring, I was part of a small group led by Keith Logan. We read and discussed a book by Richard Peace, entitled “Holy Conversations.”
The purpose of the group was to help each of tell our own story of faith. How we got to where we were. We were to tell a story about who Jesus was or wasn’t to us. It wasn’t intellectual, it was narrative. It wasn’t from the head as much as from the heart.
Faith is a story – an unfolding narrative. The Bible is a collection of stories.
If you see faith as a series of propositions that you either affirm or deny – yuck. But when faith beckons to depth and dimension and the story comes alive – well then, now we are on to something completely different.
Luke writes a two-volume story to Theophilus, the second of which we are studying as church is a story entitled “The Acts of the Apostles.”
Who is Theophilus? Nobody knows. It is a good high-status Roman name. Luke might have been writing to someone he was trying to convert, or offering a defense of Christianity. Maybe Theophilus is no one in particular and everyone in general: Theo (God) and Philia (Love). For all we know Luke is writing to “God lovers” in general – the curious, In other words, a first-century “spiritual but not religious” persons.
I have been watching “Glee” on television. Most of the time I love the story. At the beginning of each episode there is a re-cap… “If you missed Glee this is what has happened.”
Luke, likewise begins with a short re-cap. He reminds, Theophilus – “in the first episode (volume) I told the story of all that Jesus did and taught.” You and I need to remind ourselves and those to whom we are encountering about issues of faith is that Christianity is not about doctrine, not about a system of beliefs – it is a story about Jesus. Being a Christian means being fascinated, focused by and then following Jesus.
Jesus is a fascinating charismatic guy. I am drawn to him.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem and raised in the backwaters of Galilee. Jesus kind of came kind of out of nowhere and taught a way of living that rocked people’s worlds. Centuries later Gandhi recognized this story as true. Martin Luther King Jr. shaped his life around the story. The story of enslavement and liberation, the story of death and resurrection – you don’t think those are true?
The Jesus story has empowered the poor, agitated the rich, and laid down a wisdom that is beyond us and yet beckons to us, “Come and see.”
Luke wants Theophilus (the spiritual but not religious man) to know that this story is one of encounters with the Risen Jesus. Encounters are funny. They are hard to describe – a little bit like a blind person with an elephant.
It is like falling in love. You can talk about love – but you don’t know what love is until you are in it and that usually means “over your head.” Vulnerable to pain, open to disappointment – as well as open to adventure and passion and unbelievable joy. People end up using poetry rather than scientific language.
I remember Deanne’s and my talks about being a parent – we were going to be good ones, do everything right – RIGHT. I understand what John Wilmont means when he said: “Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children; now I have six children and no theories.” But I know he has lots of stories!
I don’t know how Jesus is present at a death bed, I have never seen him but I remember the woman who told as she was experiencing death “Its awesome I just have to whisper.”
Luke’s story is about power. Baptism with water is fine – it is an initiation into the community – but what follows is something else beyond our ken – it is “the expulsive power of a new affection” – those are the words of the great sociologist of religion William James.
The power of the spirit causes you to take risks, and listen to your heart, and give more credence to your excitement than your doubt. It is funny – people put more faith in doubt and cynicism then faith in trust and hope.
Then Luke has Jesus say something that really resonates with me.
The disciples, the ones closest to Jesus – think that the whole point of Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension is about “restoring the kingdom of Israel.” I can’t help it but imagine Jesus heading off into the clouds shaking his head in a amazement, asking “That’s all you can imagine?” “It’s not for you to know the times or periods…you are my witnesses to the ends of the earth.” And the two men in white asking the assembled who are still gazing above: “Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?”
There is this tendency among Christians to limit the story – to think that faith is primarily about where you will go when you die, or who is going to be in and who is going to be out. We get so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good.
But the story is not about location, finding the right spot and standing there looking up into heaven – it is about locomotion; the story continues. It is not about standing upon the four spiritual laws or whatever – it is about movement in trust and hope and joy into the new day. It is not about fear of failing or fear of falling, it is about the freedom of flying – trusting that God has his eye on the sparrow and I know he watches me.
It is a determined trust that “tears might tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” It is moving in a disciplined way “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.” It is shaping your story by; “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, whatever is excellent.”
The Christian story is about involvement in the world and Jesus is so very clear about what this means: it is more than giving money to charity, it is more than redirecting dollars to other social service agencies – it is welcoming the homeless poor into our spaces and places, it is giving food to the hungry, and clothes to the naked, and visiting the prisoner, and preaching good news and giving sight to the blind, and speaking truth to power; about helping others tell their stories. Jesus was a storyteller after all – what is a parable?
Both in faith and in doubt we stand rooted, rutted, chained – but that is not the story of Jesus, not the story that Luke wants to share with Theophilus, it is not the story of the early church, it is not going to be the story of this church in this new year. The whole story of Acts is about the church on the move – from Jerusalem to Rome…. From Infinity and Beyond! As the German theologian Dietrich Ritschl once said: “There is no insight into God for those who do not move.”
We want to be grounded in certainty – but the Spirit of the living Christ moves us beyond certainty to creativity – the risk of faith.
We want to be settled in optimism – confident that things always turn out for the best. But we know that horrible things happen. But the Spirit of the living Christ moves us beyond optimism to hope – the power to imagine something more… our little story as part of a great big redemptive story.
Sure we want to believe in the goodness of all things – but the Spirit of the living Christ moves us beyond goodness into love. Love will find a way. Faith hope and love, these three, but the greatest of all is love.
You can’t talk someone into this. Luke will not talk Theophilus into this. Only the story matters here. The Jesus story matters here. The church’s story matters here – that is why we are reading the entire book of Acts together as a church – we need to know the narrative.
Your story matters here–your acts. Your story of encounter, your story of struggle, your story of desolation and doubt, your story of triumph. It matters – it connects, it invites, it interprets.
You don’t have to talk anybody into anything. You don’t have to prove anything to anybody. You just have to tell your story and listen to other’s stories.
We live and trust and hope and love and agitate others to take a look at their own stuff – all the Theophiluses, and the “spiritual but not religious,” all the doubters and the deniers… maybe yourself … and see where your story and the story of Jesus overlap…. Go where the narrative takes you. It is not about feeling. It is not about proof. It is about the story.
Story Matters Here! Can I get an Amen?