Tuesday, September 15, 2009

GIFTS: Faith

For the past week or so, I have been corresponding with a relative of mine who is studying religion in college. The conversation began at a family wedding and has continued electronically. Our latest exchange centered on salvation and what different denominations offer in reference to our "getting saved" [my words]. Is salvation something we experience in exchange for devotion, a sort of reward for sacrifice and devotion to God in Christ? Is salvation something we accomplish through confession and submission to Christ, accepting him as savior into our hearts (again and again and again....as needed)? Is it something else? Each interpretation of what salvation means is, I am beginning to think, more derivative of a religious organization's zeitgeist than anything else. This is not to rob those perspectives of meaning or impact, rather my point seeks to honor that perspective. For each group, their understanding of salvation and more importantly, how it works, defines them both in relation to God and in how they relate to others within and without their perspectives.

Perhaps this illustration will assist: As priests-to-be prepare for ordination, one requirement is that we complete a 10-week residency in clinical pastoral care training. In those days, my unit was at Brooklyn Methodist Hospital which, despite its name, was a point of health care service for a large population of Orthodox Jews living around the hospital in Park Slope. It was a great, challenging environment to work in. One of my primary duties was to offer pastoral care and support to patients resident on the oncology floor of the hospital. I had a patient who was being treated on that floor who was effectively in for the duration. He was quite ill, and was receiving intensive treatment. Getting to know him, I learned that while he had secular work he was also a trained rabbi. Our talks ranged from stories of his childhood in wartime Holland to his life and work in the New York metro area. Inevitably, our conversations turned to those of faith, life and death. What precipitated that transition, though, was an innocuous exchange one day as his lunch was delivered during our regular visit. He complained of the kosher menu at the hospital, that it was too salty. I confessed that aside from the basics, I knew little of what keeping a kosher diet entailed. "Not this much salt," was his reply.

"So why keep kosher, if it is unpleasant?" I asked. Why keep the Law?

He was gracious and patient with that question. I phrased it, I hoped, in an open way. My luck, he took it that way. His response was that it was a good question. Why no lobster? Why no cheeseburgers? Why check labels, making sure that something has been passed by inspection for adherence to the strictures of Torah practice of the preparation of approved foodstuffs?

"Because," he offered, "When I keep the Law, when I seek to follow God's will through the Law and when I reflect and study on the Law, I return God's love for Israel. God loved us, and gave us Torah. We live Torah in response to that love."

Another precinct heard from.

This whole complex question continues to work at me.

Faith should be a simple thing to resolve. Tied to belief, faith should be "easy:" Jesus said, "Believe in God, believe also in me." But, given the complexities of diverse ecclesiological means and perspectives, all we seem to be left with is a relativistic mishmash compromise of "you go your way and I'll go mine...and we'll meet in heaven by and by."

Don't know how you feel about that...but I brace against the idea in which that sort of relativism exists. It ties dramatically into the Episcopal Church's Presiding Bishop's idea that the greatest Western heresy is individualism. I have my Jesus...you go find yours!

There is a new imperative incumbent upon us Western Christians. The days when we think we can stand individually before Christ, or insist on walking alone "on our own path" to salvation are ending. Not that this is a new age for the Church. Actually, I think it is just our way of working ourselves back to understanding that the main reality of the human condition is founded not in one person's probing the universe for understanding and control, being certain that they have the "right" path over and against others' ways of being. It is instead the people of God (all created, all people) being willing to sit down and talk to one another...to be in community, willing to be affected and changed not only in our experience of each other...but in extension by the manifestation of the Spirit of God in our midst. The "I" does exist...but it can't exist in a vacuum. We need others, for without them we are naught.

So, in that light...let's identify "faith." The standard understanding of faith is that it is our response, our "yes" to God's favor toward us, to God's grace. Makes great sense. Still, faith like anything else, requires continual renewal, exercise, and further opportunities of expression. James tells us in his Epistle that faith without works is dead. Sure...but he also posits that any action taken in this life without faith is basically an affront to the one who creates, redeems and sanctifies all that is, was and will be.

Faith is both our posture toward God in response for all we receive and experience in life as well as the determinative results of our choices in dealing with each other in the most mundane of circumstances. All you know about the hard world "out there" and the skills, talents and abilities you possess "in the world" won't amount to much if you insist on importing them into a life of faith without placing a paramount emphasis on God's grace toward you and ALL around you.

In the kingdom God intends for us, there will be no win/lose. There isn't even a win/win. There is only God, and us in relationship to God and to each other. I learned that from my rabbi friend. There is no "success" in being faithful to Torah. Being faithful to Torah is a response to being loved by God. Immesurable, but also immutable. God has already loved us, we can only respond.

What matters is not method, madness or what have you when it comes to practice. What matters is relationship, that faith we all struggle to articulate. If you can't relate to your neighbor as you would relate to God, then you lose out on both relationships.

In the Book of Common Prayer, we quote Jesus who when challenged to identify what part of the Torah was MOST important and essential instead summarized it by saying that the greatest commandment is to love God with all of our being...and then, to love neighbor as self. "On these words hang all the law and the prophets."

Faith rises not from mechanical action, ritual confession or physical practice. It comes from an understanding that all of these things are simply vehicles, postures that we take in order to dial down the noise of our individual lives and get to a place where we-with a more open heart and mind-might begin to acknowledge God's Grace and formulate a response. Then, I learned from my rabbi friend, even food that is too salty will still taste sweet, for it is taken in the presence of One who loves us, and whom we seek as the Beloved in return.

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