Theological Tap Dancing (or dancing around the center)
One of the skills I developed after being ordained was theological tap dancing. It happens when you have to preach about something that you yourself may not hold to be true, and rather than share your truth, which might be upsetting to others, you tap dance around it. You don’t exactly tell the truth, but you don’t exactly lie about it either. As I started to question the teachings and practices of my denomination, I found myself tap dancing on Sunday mornings more and more. And let me tell you, it wore me out.
When I came to Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Charlotte, I put away my tap shoes. I put them so far away that I don’t think I could find them now if I tried. The love I have known within this faith community has actually freed me to do that. I trust that they will continue to love me, even when I might say things that disturb them. That’s not only liberating for me as their pastor, but it’s liberating for them as well. For my role is not to make good little Lutherans out of them or to tell them what to believe or how to think. I’m here to mess with their minds so they don’t stay stuck in a place of comfort with easy, pat answers but move forward in their faith journeys. You might say my role within our faith community is to be an irritant.
That being said, I’m going to be honest with you about a part of our traditional Lutheran worship that makes me squirm like a worm on a hot skillet. It's the Nicene Creed. Historically, it's been the definitive word on how we Christians are supposed to understand God. My discomfort with saying the Creed in public worship increases with each passing year. It feels like a different flavor of fundamentalism. Fundamentalists have the definitive answer to every question. Fundamentalists must have certainty and they can’t deal with ambiguity. Fundamentalists tell us that there is only one right way to believe. Reciting a creed feels that way to me. It feels like we’re saying, “Here’s what you gotta believe about God.”
Creeds are not about faith; they are clusters of beliefs. There’s a big difference between belief and faith, although most people seem to use those words interchangeably. In Harvey Cox’s book, The Future of Faith, he does an excellent job of making the distinction. He cites a story by the Spanish writer Miguel Unamuno, that goes like this…
A young man returns from the city to his native village in Spain because his mother is dying. In the presence of the local priest she clutches his hand and asks him to pray for her. The son doesn’t answer, but as they leave the room, he tells the priest that, much as he would like to, he cannot pray for his mother because he does not believe in God. “That’s nonsense,” the priest replies. “You don’t have to believe in God to pray.”
The priest in the story recognizes the difference between faith and belief. Faith is more at the core of our being than belief. Beliefs, you can argue about. But not faith. Faith is putting your trust in something or someone. It’s a way of life. It’s a relationship. It’s of the heart. It’s fluid. It grows. A belief is more like an opinion. It’s of the head. It’s concrete. It’s possible that it may one day be discarded, but it never changes.
In his book, Cox separates Christian history into three eras. First, there was the Age of Faith which stretched from Jesus to the time of Constantine in the fourth century. Then, from the time of Constantine until now, we’ve been in an Age of Belief. The history of how that happened is too complicated to get into here, but it’s fascinating and I would recommend that you pick up a copy of Cox’s book to read about it. In a nutshell, there was a shady collusion between Constantine and the bishops that was all about power. Each wanted to use Christianity for their own purposes and it culminated at the Council of Nicea, which gave us the Nicene Creed.
The original purpose of the Creed was to unify the empire by weeding out anyone who didn’t agree. It became the law that led thousands of heretics to be tortured and burned at the stake. Over the next 1500 years, although most Christians quit executing those who disagreed with them, Christianity became all about believing in the right way.
Most of us lifelong Lutherans were educated in the faith by memorizing the right answers handed down to us from Luther himself in the Catechism. We weren’t nurtured into the life of faith so much as told what to believe. Our Lutheran way of indoctrinating children hasn’t served the church well. Is it any wonder that so many people ran from the Lutheran church as soon as they were confirmed? Should it surprise us to see the mess our denomination is in today when we continue to come at the life of faith as if it’s all about rooting out who’s right and who’s wrong?
But now, Cox says, we’re entering a new age, the Age of the Spirit. Much like the early church, it’s an age of faith. We’re returning to a time when doctrinal questions aren’t all that important. There were lots of different beliefs about God floating around in the first centuries of Christianity, and no need to agree on every point. The important thing was not belief, it was faith. Not identifying correct doctrines, but experiencing a relationship with God. In the early church there was never a single Christianity. There were many. It wasn’t until the time of Constantine that we got so hung up on rooting out heretics.
The fact is, despite the church’s attempts to root out heretics, they have always been with us. Thank God! For without them, where would we be? Heresy is healthy for the church. It’s always been the heretics, the ones traveling on the fringes, who have moved the Christian church to a new place. Those are the ones who have been God’s agents of transformation.
It seems to me that if there is any purpose for the Nicene Creed, it is that it gives us a center. We don’t have to agree about everything. But the Creed reminds us where the center has been for the Christian church over the past 1600 years or so. That center remains significant for us as we find our way on the journey of faith. We may be far from the center, but there’s value in knowing where the center is because, in some way, I suspect it’s that center that holds us in community even as it holds us in God’s presence.
My favorite definition of God is: God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. Our Trinitarian understanding of God isn’t the only way God is experienced in the world. For us Christians, it is our center, but there are other centers for other peoples. And while our centers may be different, often our circles overlap so that those of us who have moved far from the center may find ourselves in more than one circle at the same time.
Way back before the Nicene Creed told us what we have to believe about God, the metaphor of the dance was used to describe the Triune God. It’s a dynamic faith image. It’s relational, it moves, it grows, it includes. Father, Son, and Spirit are inviting us to dance with them. And maybe, that’s the key to saying the Creed together on a Sunday morning. It’s not to trap us so we’re forced to tap dance around the truth. But it invites us into a circle dance. Perhaps it’s something like dancing around a maypole. None of us is required to stand in the center and make a statement of belief that is a litmus test for God’s people. But we can dance around that center, some close to it, some way out on the fringes, some weaving in and out. The important thing is that we’re all in the circle; we’re all in the dance.
I so prefer a circle dance to tap dancing.
Rev. Dr. Mary Lautensleger
Isaiah 6:1-8 (9-13)
Who Will Go?
Ken had not realized there was a shoplifter in the supermarket. He had been standing in the checkout line, “blissfully unaware” of any suspicious activity going on nearby. That all changed dramatically as a security guard, “three hundred pounds of corpulent fury, came barreling like a cannonball out of the security surveillance room” and down the next aisle.
That human behemoth of a security guard swooped down on the culprit, grabbed him by the belt at the small of his back, and lifted him off the floor. With his prey in tow, he vanished beyond the pickled okra, back into the secret recesses of the doors marked “Employees Only.”
What security force would not be delighted to have such a huge embodiment of dedicated loss control on its staff? Later as he was reliving that disturbing scene, Ken thought to himself, “Shoplifting is a serious crime, but that security guard is a man uniquely suited to his calling.”[i]
We are all aware that a call does not always come at a convenient time in our lives. Think about those annoying sales calls. Three things give away telephone solicitors. First, they call during a meal, or at some other equally inconvenient time. Second, if your name isn’t Smith or Jones, they will probably mispronounce it. Third, they don’t understand phrases such as, “No, thank you,” or “I gave at the office.” They are persistent, and have a prepared counterattack to any excuse we offer for not buying their product.
The national “Do Not Call” Registry has helped that situation somewhat. Unfortunately, people also place God’s name on their “do not call” list and block God’s address from their email in-box.. But, unlike the telephone solicitors and spammers, God knows our name and acknowledges our right to say, “No.” God has our best interests at heart instead of someone else’s bank account.
Just as God called the prophet Isaiah, God also calls us and can be very persistent. We may try explaining to God that this is not a convenient time for a call. We offer all manner of excuses to God, too. “But God, I like my current job.” “I have young children still at home.” “I can’t afford it.” “I simply cannot do that thing.”I don’t have the right training, background, experience, education…” The excuses go on and on.
God has a special job for each one of you. Fringe benefits include on-the-job training, impressive growth opportunities, and an extravagant retirement in a uniqueParadise. Experience is not required, but you will find all prior experiences to be helpful.
There are no age requirements, since you are never too young and never too old. Having physical impairments is no obstacle whatsoever. And, the Son of the Top Boss is in charge of job training and human relations. He will help you attain the skills and abilities you need to accomplish what you are called to do.
Although your call will probably not be recorded the way Isaiah’s is, being chosen by God is an awesome responsibility. Some seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, Isaiah is serving as a court priest, a position comparable to today’s Senate chaplain. Isaiah’s call comes in temple splendor, preceded by a six-winged rustling in the air.
Isaiah feels a strange numbness in his lips as he watches the seraph descend with a live coal in its hand. Isaiah’s lips are unclean because he, like the rest of his people, has been guilty of deception.
God wants Isaiah to speak only the truth of God’s own word. The live coal is like the fragment of a meteor, and Isaiah knows at once that his lips are to be purified by fire. His impurities of speech will be burned away by the seraph who has two wings over the eyes, two over the feet, and two with which to fly. Even the seraph is blinded and rendered impotent by God’s holy radiance.
Isaiah, who would be the prophet and servant of the Most High, bends his mouth upward as though a lover awaiting a kiss and closes his eyes. His lips burn with cosmic, creative pain, and then the coal is taken from his charred lips. The seraph places the dying ember in Isaiah’s hands and it becomes an ordinary coal.
The seraph returns to the air and the six-winged rustle, like a gentle breeze through an oak tree, disappears. Isaiah has not yet proclaimed the word of the Lord. Then, from his black lips and tongue, he begins to speak the words of a poet, holy, holy, holy words. Smelling the burning flesh of his own face, he goes to his people to speak.[ii]
More often than not, prophets call us to accountability through a message we would just as soon not hear. No prophet has ever never been known to win a popularity contest.
The call of Isaiah excites us because it is stimulating to see someone so dramatically caught up in the purposes of God. God calls all of us to be ministers. It is indeed an honor and a privilege to be called by God and to serve God.
The ones you call “Reverend” are actually those who give order to our common ministries. An individual’s suitability and competence cannot always be measured, even through testing and interviews. The disciples Jesus chose would be unlikely candidates for ministry in today's world, just as they were in their own.
In the matter of seeking our calling, the “destination” is not always clear as we begin our journey. Our calling is, by definition, an expression of our spirituality, and occurs in the context of living out our faith. Ways of fulfilling our calling are as varied as the individuals who are called.[iii]
Today most people don’t think of their work as a Christian vocation. They refer to it as their “profession,” their “career,” or simply their “job.” For some, their work is a means of making a living, putting food on the table and a roof over their heads. You do not have to be employed by a church in order to serve God in this world. God expects you to be of service in whatever vocation you choose to follow. Your work, whatever that may be, is also caught up within God’s work.
In the midst of a dejected and lonely existence, Helen felt the call of God on her life. Helen had suffered from depression and alcoholism for years, and was finally institutionalized for several months. After being discharged, she was sober, but also frightened and lonely. She sat alone in her mobile home in despair, without work or friends, with nowhere to go and nothing to do. She feared that it would only be a matter of time before she would be worse off than before.
With nowhere else to turn, Helen began to pray. Hands in her pockets, she felt her car keys and pulled them out. In that moment she knew where God was leading her. “I can drive a taxi,” she exclaimed. Helen organized a taxi service in the little town where no public transportation was available.
Many people, especially the elderly, had no way of getting around. Her taxi service developed into a fleet of old but reliable cars driven by people much like Helen. The taxis would pick up prescriptions at the pharmacy and deliver them, take people to senior citizens’ activities, and shopping, enabling many to get out who could only sit at home before.
Helen’s story reminds us that God is still speaking to us today, as God spoke to Isaiah in the temple. In such holy moments, ordinary people hear their names called, and their lives are given purpose and direction.
God doesn’t tell us “the rest of the story” to begin with. That is where faith comes in. God tells us to walk by faith and not by sight. If we could see the entire picture, faith would be unnecessary. We don’t know what may happen next year, or even next week. In all likelihood, we will not see a burning bush or even a six-winged seraph.
We all have a calling to which God has summoned us. God uniquely equips each of us with gifts and graces for the special calling that is ours. This is how we actively fulfill God’s plan for our lives as we work among God‘s human family members.
At a young age Rick Curry felt called to be a Jesuit priest. As he pursued holy orders, he was told that the priesthood was not open to him. The reason? He had been born without a right hand and forearm, a handicapping condition that would render him incapable of elevating and breaking the communion bread during mass. The Jesuits did welcome him as a monk, however.
While studying for his Ph.D. at New York University, Brother Curry was surprised to learn that several of his classmates were supplementing their incomes by acting in television commercials. This was in the old days when you did not have to be a famous superstar to act in commercials. An “average Joe or Jane” could get paid to brush their teeth on national television.
Curry was living in New York City under a tremendous financial strain. After obtaining approval from his Jesuit superior, Curry scheduled an appointment to audition for a mouthwash commercial. He thought he would be wonderful gargling nationally.[iv] Arriving at the agency prepared to audition for a mouthwash commercial, he was greeted by a receptionist who burst out laughing at the man with the empty right sleeve. She was sure her boyfriend had put Curry up to this as a joke on her.
When Curry assured her that he was a serious applicant, she replied, “Please leave. I couldn't possibly send you upstairs to audition. If I send you upstairs, I could lose my job.”[v] Curry felt deep hurt and anger. Painful as it was, that moment of looking directly into the face of prejudice changed his life. “Nothing had prepared me for this rejection,” he said.
Two days later, Brother Curry decided to begin the “National Theatre Workshop for the Handicapped,” which has now been in existence for over thirty years. This theater experience has been transforming the lives of performers and audiences alike for over three decades.
Brother Curry urges all people to celebrate their differences and to use their imaginations to change the world. “Artists,” he explained, “have the gift of imagination, and imagination has no physical boundaries.” Prophets are like artists, helping us to see what we had been looking at but had not noticed.
Jesus did not call any rabbis or priests to be his disciples. He called laypersons exclusively. God calls disciples from all walks of life to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. The church is called to equip disciples and to send them into the world to accomplish God’s work.
Some of you, I know, have found your ministry among us, while others are searching for a way to use your gifts. Some of you even believe you don’t have any gifts God can use, but let me assure you that God can use you.
God empowers and equips us for the work within the church and community. Prayer is important. Take time to pray and take time to listen. Each one of us is an integral part of the body.
God’s working in our lives is not entirely contingent on our knowledge or even our agreeing to work for God. Throughout your lifetime, God has always been at work within you. Examine your skills, interests, the needs of the Christian community, and even the needs of the world. Each of you is invited to participate in God’s work of reconciling the world to God.
When Holiness comes calling, what will be your response? God is calling you right now with a special job that only you can do. Is your spiritual cell phone turned on? Listen to God’s call. Along with Isaiah, we hear the question, “Whom shall we send, and who will go for us?” And, can you say with Isaiah, “Here am I, Lord. Send me?”
[i] Kenneth L. Waters, I Saw the Lord: a Pilgrimage through Isaiah 6, (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1996) p. 83. [ii] James Dickey, “The Calling of Isaiah,” God’s Images, (Birmingham: Oxmore House, 1977), non pag. [iii] Waters, p. 84. [iv] Br. Rick Curry, S.J., “Life’s Bread,” The Santa Clara Lectures, Vol. 7, No. 3 April 8, 2001, available online at http://scu.edu/bannancenter/eventsandconferences/lectures/archives/curry.cfm, [accessed September 1, 2005]. [v] “Standing Ovation for Brother Rick Curry, S.J.” at 50th Commencement, Fairfield, CT (May 21, 2000), available online at http://www.fairfield.edu/x6750.html, [accessed September 1, 2005].
Rev. Bryan Jackson
In a sense, we are all adopted. The old saying, “God has no grandchildren” is probably true. Paul speaks of “debtors” and “flesh” and “spirit.” His message here appears to be “Fear not, for you are covered.”
I like to think that’s the case. I would like to think that I am a “joint heir” with Christ. I recall a seminary professor who said “We are called to suffer with Christ.” Perhaps that is so. But every time I look into the face of a dying person (a frequent occurrence) I wonder: Hasn’t there been enough dying? Is this not why Jesus came, ministered, left, and returned?
I suppose that depends on one’s religious perspective, and how one views what we call death. If one is Jewish, for example, then the above is unlikely and unhelpful in its ideology. For many faithful persons—Islamic, Hindu, some Native Americans and Unitarians, for example—this type of theology makes no sense and provides little comfort. A Trinitarian viewpoint may not make the sale.
I like to think that each of has some type of universal adoption that allows us to believe with all our heart—that we “are covered.” When I was ordained at Wedgewood, the first persons we had come forward to lay hands on me were the children. I still believe that to have the faith of a child is an honorable objective.
How is your “adoption” informing your own theology?
Psalm 29 is clearly a poem praising the power of God. That much is obvious. God’s people are urged to ascribe to Him glory and strength, to worship him in holy splendor. God thunders over mighty waters, He breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He shakes the wilderness. The Lord sits enthroned as king forever.
This past week I was having lunch with my mother in the Alzheimer’s unit where she now lives. At the next table Dr. W. was having his lunch. Dr. W. was a professor of psychology in his hometown of Chicago. He has written a number of textbooks on psychology including which are still widely used in colleges today.
Dr. W. sits in his wheel chair at his table. He can’t quite hold up his head and sits slumped with his head bobbing. He does drool. He gathered his strength and said to his attendant, “I’m thirsty.”
“Professor W. you have a glass of iced tea in front of you.”
“Oh…what do I do with it?”
“Here…Let me help you. You drink it.”
The attendant gently holds the glass of tea up and places the straw in Dr. W’s mouth. He drinks. As his Alzheimer’s progresses, Dr. W. will forget how to swallow.
My mother’s disease hasn’t progressed to the point that Dr. W’s has …but it will. What she has lost so far is incalculable. She has lost her core memories and her ability to live independently. She is no longer the intelligent, frustrating, difficult woman I knew and loved all my life. Her self fades almost monthly into the shadows of forgetfulness.