Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘humility’

What’s Faith? Trust and Healing…

Luke 7:1-10

Question: What is faith to you? Can faith lead to healing? If so, how?

I start by saying that faith is sadly misused–both as a word and a concept. I’ve had plenty of experiences in which people were told that they did not have enough faith, or, if a person was going through a really difficult time [or dying of some disease, illness, or injury] that she should just have faith in God and all would be fine.

Faith-healing-630x398

True story. Years ago, in my clinical pastoral care work as part of a Master’s program, I was at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in NJ. A sixteen-year-old kid was in a terrible car accident. He was brain dead. His mom, however, kept him on the machine that kept him, well, “alive.” Meanwhile, the doctors encouraged her to take him off the machine. He was suffering. But she had faith. She believed. She brought in faith healers and called in the kid’s friends from school. They gathered around him in a circle, with the healer, and were told to pray and to have faith. If they didn’t have enough faith, maybe this kid wouldn’t survive. I was mortified. I looked at those HS kids, standing in that circle, and I thought to myself: what are we doing to them? What’s wrong with us? If this is faith, I want nothing to do with it!

This is a challenging topic, and so, I invite you to interact with me on this blog or to email me. Let’s talk about faith in an authentic way. And now, let’s look at a story in the NT Gospels that may help?

We pick up Luke’s Gospel story right after Jesus of Nazareth’s sermon on the plain, and now it appears that he will be headed to the town of Capernaum. This is one of those rare times [at least in my view] when Luke’s author makes it clear that there is a literary agenda. Luke’s Gospel is kind of a bridge—trying to help Jews and non-Jews [called Gentiles] find some common ground as it pertained to Jesus. So at times, Jesus is portrayed as quite Jewish, but in such a way so as to attract Gentiles to his message. Enter the Centurion, then.

A Centurion was a man who commanded soldiers and servants. He was an authority figure. He was a Gentile. He was most likely someone considered non-religious. But the Centurion, for some reason, loved deeply one of his servants, a servant who happened to be seriously ill. Maybe for the first time, this Centurion felt helpless.

He had no authority; he had no control over the situation.

So this Centurion, who obviously had heard of Jesus, understood only one option: have Jesus, another authority, heal his servant. So yes, it’s a story about authority. One hundred percent. Notice that the Centurion didn’t face Jesus, one authority to another. Notice that he sent Jewish elders to talk to him. Huh? Jewish elders. What in the world?

Well, Luke’s author gives us a clue. Apparently, this particular Centurion “loved” the Jewish people. He even helped them build them a synagogue. Okay, I get it. The Centurion was calling in favors. The Jewish elders obliged. They went to Jesus. We don’t know if these particular Jewish elders were “for” or “against” or “neutral” as it pertained to Jesus’ teachings. Apparently, for Luke, that didn’t matter in the story. The Jewish elders came to Jesus and asked him to go to Capernaum to help the Centurion’s servant.

So Jesus did, of course. But on the way, another twist. Jesus was just about to arrive at the Centurion’s house, and then, the Centurion sends someone else to mediate. This time, it was his friends. The message is:

Jesus, don’t come. I’m not worthy to receive you in my house. But, if you just speak a word, my servant will be healed.

The Centurion isn’t willing to meet Jesus face to face, but he is willing to accept Jesus’ authority to heal. Just as the Centurion was used to ordering people to what to do, perhaps this Jesus could order sickness to leave a person?

Whatever the Centurion’s motivation, Jesus, in Luke’s version of this story, is moved. He marveled at the Centurion.

Then, he turned.

Why is that significant? Because each time that Jesus “turns” it is important. This time is no different. Jesus said he had not seen more faith than that of the Centurion, even in Israel. Does this mean that there was no faith in Israel, in Jesus’ people, the Jews? No, of course not. What it meant was that this Centurion—a non-Jew, non-religious person, surprised everyone [including Jesus], by having faith.

And then, almost like an afterthought in the story, the sick servant got better.

allbetter

At first glance, this story is all about faith. But I don’t think it is—at least not in the way we often talk about faith. The story is about perceived authority and humility. The Centurion realized that he was not in control. He found humility. In this case, that was faith.

So, from my perspective, faith, in this case, is about giving up our desire for control, realizing that that there are some things out of our hands.

What do you think?

Teaser for next week: Luke 7:11-17: A young man had died in a certain town, a mother’s only son. Jesus had compassion for the woman, and…Have you ever felt that you were dead? Why? Can we rise from the dead in this life?

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Humility: the Path Home

Luke 18:9-14, NRSV

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Gallen.TaxmanPeter Gallen, The Tax Collector and the Pharisee

The other day I was talking with someone about prayer. He told me:

I don’t really pray.

Okay, I thought, but why don’t you pray?

God has enough to worry about. There are kids who are dying of hunger. There are people who die of cancer. The world is full of problems and suffering and my problems seem too small to bother God with them.

I paused. He had a good point, after all. Sometimes our petty problems and situations are not really that urgent or dramatic—by comparison. And certainly, I remember many times in church worship services when the prayer concerns and celebrations seemed quite silly or insignificant.

God has enough to worry about. Why should I bother with prayer?

Right. Why should we bother with prayer? I mean, without question, prayer is confusing. Lots of churches think they know how we are supposed to pray. There are formulas and step-by-step prayer books sold to us. Some people pray the Lord’s Prayer in a pew where there is stained glass. Some just sing the Kyrie. Others cry their eyes out and jump up and down, hands extended in the air. Sometimes a choir sings with the prayers, creating an emotional response. Others kneel down. Some fold their hands and close their eyes and are silent. Others chant, whisper, roll over beads of a rosary, or burn incense.

Is God at all impressed with this prayer pageantry? Are God’s ears tired of hearing about our small problems?

Why pray at all?

And so, we find a story in Luke’s Gospel that seems to spell it out for us.
Aha! THIS is how we should pray!

In fact, our brothers and sisters in the Eastern Orthodox Church have taken this to heart.
jesusprayer
The Jesus Prayer [literally, The Wish], is a short, formulaic prayer:

Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, Υἱὲ τοῦ Θεοῦ, ἐλέησόν με τὸν ἁμαρτωλόν            Greek

ܡܪܝ ܝܫܘܥ ܡܫܝܚܐ ܒܪܗ ܕܐܠܘܐ ܪܚܡ ܥܠܝ ܚܛܝܐ.       Syriac

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.            English

The prayer is based on the tax collector’s words in this Luke story. Many believe the prayer to have originated in the Egyptian desert in the 5th Century. It is often repeated continually as a part of personal ascetic practice. It is a prayer method called Hesychasm, to keep stillness.[1]

Now to some, this prayer may seem to be a bit of self-loathing.
Woe is me, woe is me—
I’m such a bad dude—
God have mercy on me,
and I’ll be in a better mood.

Perhaps that is why any formulaic prayer has its limits.
And that is just what Jesus was trying to get across in this story.
Every formula, doctrine or dogma, church tradition or rite that tries to tell us that a particular prayer is putting us on the holy fast track is only holding us back.

Like I said–prayer can be confusing.

But prayer is supposed to be liberating.

Nowhere in scripture do we find limitations on prayer. Jesus does not hand out evangelism tracts with the “Jesus save me/sinners prayer” attached. Instead, Jesus holds up two people as an example of prayer: a Pharisee and a tax collector.

On paper, this story seems black and white, doesn’t it?
Pharisee=bad. Tax collector=good.
We’re done! Let’s go home!

But wait a minute—remember that whenever a parable of Jesus seems black and white, we’ve just been trapped. And this time it’s a prayer trap. We see ourselves just like the tax collector, or at least, we really, really want to.

I’m humble. I can beat my chest and say that I’m a sinner. Thank GOD I am not like the Pharisee. Thank HEAVENS that I don’t brag about how much money I give to my church or how often I go to worship or how many committees I have led. Thank the LORD that I would never stand up in front of people and say how religious I am…

Trapped.

By claiming that we’re not like the Pharisee, we become the Pharisee.

The thing is…we like to be exalted. We enjoy a pat on the back for a job well done or a duty fulfilled. We even go so far as to think that giving money to the church, doing religious things, having a good reputation in society, earning a respectable salary—we think that this justifies us. And in doing so, we distance ourselves from certain kinds of people who we see as lesser than us. How much empathy do we have for others when we pray? How often do we pray for those on the other side of society? Like the distance between the Pharisee and the tax collector, we create distance between ourselves.

Trapped.

You see, I think this story tell us that prayer is about so much more than we typically say and believe.
Prayer is not about checking something off of our to-do list for Christianity 101.
Prayer is not dumping a laundry list of anxiety, hang-ups, and annoyances.
Prayer is not selling something or buying something.
Prayer is not reminding God of how great we are and so reward us, please.

Prayer is about paying attention

to the world, to others, to the trees, to the animals.
Prayer is about paying attention to more than just ourselves.

Prayer escapes our sanctuaries, temples, books, rituals, and words.
Prayer moves through each day, hour, minute, second—each breath.

Prayer does not make us more holy or even better people. It is not some self-improvement program. Neither is prayer about crying our eyes out, feeling bad for ourselves, or focusing on our faults. We can do all these things, thinking that this will get us closer to God or somehow impress God with our humility, but just when we think we’re closer to God and that we’ve got prayer figured out—we are farther from God and our prayers are hollow.

Because in the end, God doesn’t give a flying fig about our accomplishments.
God doesn’t read our online bio or our Facebook profile and say:
Wow! You are really successful. Keep it up! Heaven awaits you!

Instead, God awaits our true humanity.

masksTake off the masks.

masks2

Shed the pompous clothes.
Get rid of the religious piety.

God sees us as we are.
We are tax collectors and we are all Pharisees—all of us.

But mercy and grace await humanity; and humanity is humility.
This is good news for you, me, and even for the guy who refuses to pray.

Humility is recognizing that we don’t have all the answers. Humility is seeing other people as they are with open eyes, not judging them or creating distance between us or classifying them. Humility leads us to the most human and divine of all places—home.

Home is where addicts, the depressed, the lonely, the angry, the sad, the mentally and physically challenged, the lost, the sick, the hungry, the beaten, the forgotten, the abused, the mourners, the bullied, and the marginalized can all be themselves and can all be accepted and loved.

This is prayer’s home. It is by open invitation. All Pharisees and tax collectors welcome.

So friends, pray in whatever way you need to. Pray with eyes open to the world and the people, trees, and animals in it. Pray with hand and words and breath and beads and bowls and chants and songs and service and hugs and smiles and tears.

But pray as a human being. Recognize humility as the path home, and then your living will be driven less by your need to be applauded, recognized, and given high status; instead, may your living be driven by grace and mercy.

May you find your way home.
Amen.


[1] “Orthodox Christian Study on Unceasing Prayer Part I – John Kotsonis – Theandros – An Online journal of Orthodox Christian Theology and Philosophy”. Theandros. Retrieved 2010-07-03.

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