FAITH, FEAR AND CERTAINTY

[A slightly edited version of a 2003 column by Bill Lewellis, published in The Morning Call]

When the religious "certains" have been many, they have harassed, persecuted, even killed the few. When the "certains" are few, they simply bore others to death with an ironic accomplishment: replacing the joy and richness of relationship with God with a drab and tedious version of "being right."

There is a presumption in the land of religion: that the opposite of faith is doubt,and that faith is about "being right." Jesus did not pray that his followers be ever right; he prayed that we be one. Lead us not into presumption.

The opposite of faith, some say, is fear. I agree. Fear that God does not love me. Fear that I might not "be right" about religion. So, somehow or other, I need to be certain.

Faith is a risky business, sometimes described as a leap. It has to do with questions. Certainty has to do with answers.

You may remember the old Peanuts comic strip that has Lucy shouting, "God is the answer, God is the answer." As she runs by Snoopy, he is left thinking, "What is the question?"

That's a profound statement. Greater religious faithfulness arises from asking insightful questions than from repeating one's own certainties.

The double-sided, classic religious question is first of all about exodus: emancipation, freedom, liberty, deliverance, passing through the river of death and life. It's about getting out of the box, a prison of our own making. It's the most secure prison one can imagine, a box we don't know we're in. In that context, "What's the question?" isn't so funny.

The other side of the question is about relationship, covenant, transformation, enlightenment, resurrection, new life. "You are a new creation in Christ," St. Paul often reminds us. Therefore - here I paraphrase St. Paul, -- be who you are, know whose you are, and live a life worthy of that calling.

The "certains" deal more in answers than in questions – quick to condemn the contemporary cultural target, e.g., persons who are gay as well as anyone who questions the answers about which they are certain.

Jesus “was not brought down by atheism and anarchy,” Barbara Brown Taylor writes. “He was brought down by law and order allied with religion, always a deadly mix. Beware those who claim to know the mind of God and who are prepared… to make others conform.”

“Our last experience of God is frequently the greatest obstacle to the next experience of God,” writes Richard Rohr. “We make an absolute out of it… All great spirituality is about letting go.”

Give me that old time biblical irony: "Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned."

As I've grown older, I've believed less more. My faith is focused on God's good news..

As I understand it, the good news is: (1) We're all sinners. (2) We're all forgiven/loved by God. (3) We're all forgiven/loved by God not because we've been repentant. Rather, we're repentant/transformed because we've been forgiven and loved.


Today We Remember Tomorrow

[A slightly edited sermon preached at Diocesan House by Bill Lewellis, Oct. 31, 2013, Vigil of All Saints]

From several of my classmates and friends and professors in Rome during the early 60s, I gained a love of good theology. But it wasn’t until some 15 years ago that I heard four words, right here, that captured the purpose of theology and the meaning of Eucharist.

Today, we remember tomorrow. My mantra.

I owe Jane Teter for this insight. It was September 13, perhaps 15 years ago. The next day was the Feast of the Holy Cross. Jane was our celebrant. She began to explain that on this day, September 13, not a special day on the church calendar, we would use the readings and prayers of the next day, which was a special day. Somewhere within those words, Jane got caught up in a circular explanation. She escaped with, “So, today we remember tomorrow.”

The words sang in my head. I wanted to applaud.

Today … We … Remember … That’s the heart of it. We remember. We make Eucharist, our Great Thanksgiving, by remembering. In our celebration together of this and every Eucharist, we give thanks by remembering the acts of God through the multi-millennial history of salvation … and the fourscore years of our lives.

Listen to some of the words we pray as we make ucharist. “We give thanks to you, O God, for the goodness and love you have made known to us … in creation … in the calling of Israel to be your people … in your Word spoken though the prophets, and above all in the Word made flesh, Jesus your Son … On the night before he died for us, he took bread … Do this for the remembrance of me. After supper, he took the cup of wine … he gave it to them … Drink this … for the remembrance of me …

Today … We … Remember … Tomorrow.
Imagine that. Remembering tomorrow! Remembering God’s acts on our behalf and God’s promises, we give thanks, we hope, we trust … we … remember … tomorrow.

We express our faith with wonder, hope and trust.

“There is but one fundamental truth for Christians,” Bishop Paul preached a few years ago on All Souls Day. It is that “in Christ we are tied to God and each other in a way that the circumstances of time and space cannot defeat.”

Or, we might say: Relationships trump doctrine.

Doing what we do in the words and actions and hymns of our liturgy, we “gently heal our past … and calmly embrace our future.” Today, we remember tomorrow.

Listen to the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer for All Saints Day. We pray this: It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. For in the multitude of your saints you have surrounded us with a great cloud of witnesses, that we might rejoice in their fellowship, and run with endurance the race that is set before us; and, together with them, receive the crown of glory that never fades away.

We saints look deeply within. We somehow find God. We see God as we squint through the smokescreen of our conditioned reality … and we allow the God within to transform us and the world around us.

We saints. “You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea. In Church, or on trains, or in shops, or at tea. For the saints of God are just folk like me. And I mean to be one too” … while today I remember tomorrow.


Like a prolonged Lent of six years

[Posted on Bakery by Richard Evans, March 5; uploaded to newSpin, with permission, by Bill Lewellis]

My friends,
I found the Episcopal Church about 15 years ago in Florida in an attempt to break away from the walk in the desert that comes after a divorce -- and what an oasis it has been!  I was fortunate to find the best pastor I am likely ever to meet, and he took the desert once inside me and gave my life renewed meaning in Jesus Christ.  Father Jim Shortess is with God now, lifted high by his own faith and the many lives he saved for Christ.

Just a little more than 13 years ago, I ran in a marathon, one of the great physical challenges in my life.  I had trained for it rigorously on a beautiful 5 mile course that looped around a chain of lakes in Maitland, FL.  The only variety in my training was whether I would run the loop once, twice, three or four times in a training session.  The run always ended where I parked my car at the Methodist church on the lake.  It had an outdoor worship space right on the lake.  It became a habit of mine to finish by stopping at the kneeler directly overlooking the lake and giving thanks while endorphins were still pumping through my body.  Each visit made me feel at peace with God and his glorious creation!

About 6 years ago, my financial and professional life burst apart in the great recession.  Trying to rebuild my net worth after divorce and parental duties and for a rapidly approaching retirement, I had earlier turned to real estate.  All was well until the housing crisis hit, and in Florida, it hit hard.  All of a sudden, my retirement plan was in ruins.  So back to Northeastern Pennsylvania with nothing but a car, a computer and a few personal possessions.  And back to living with Mom after all these years away.  And back to the weather that would make my arthritis agony.

Those who have come to know me in the last few years might not guess about my exploits as a marathoner, or my love of nature and backpacking, especially on the Appalachian Trail, because you watch me hobble along with my arthritic neck and hip and overweight frame, prevented from doing the hobbies I love so much.  So much has crumbled away in what I might have imagined my life to be about at age 60, but I am not sad.  It would be great to have health insurance and have my problems attended to, but I do not despair.  It would be nice to have enough money to file for bankruptcy and rebuild my credit rating, but there is more to life than a credit score.

In some ways, the last 6 years have been like a prolonged Lent for me, but I do not feel the privation as much as I feel sculpted by those desert winds of change, seeing the excessive parts of my former life blown away as so much dust, exposing an inner core of simplicity and peace, knowing that with Christ, our walk in the desert need never be a lonely one.  My focus is greatly narrowed, and in the simple life, I find so much wealth!

I walk among you, my fellow diocesan brothers and sisters, and all of the things I have lost in one sense are restored in another.  I am no longer employable in the traditional sense, but you allow me to serve on the Council and the Trustees and help with your parish audits.  I can no longer walk more than a few hundred yards, but together we embark on the most sublime journey.  I no longer can afford the finer things in life, but in worshiping together, I have found those precious rewards money cannot buy.  I had to leave lifelong friends in Florida, but I'm greeted by so many hugs at our conventions! The blessings in our Lenten journey together are greater than any material objects of desire.  Be not afraid: let the desert winds of Lent sculpt you!

Optimistically,

Rich Evans

[Rich Evans is a former Certified Public Accountant and Certified Management Accountant. He is a member of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Mountain Top where he serves on the vestry and finance committee. He is also a member of the Diocesan Council and the Incorporated Trustees. His ministry is helping parishes with their audits.]


Faith is golden – Beliefs are overrated

By Bill Lewellis
The Morning Call, May 26, 2012

Faith is golden. Beliefs are overrated. As are works.

When one reduces religion to either beliefs or good works, both are overrated. Reductionism (think "nothing but") usually destroys anything it attempts to explain, as in religion is nothing but belief or religion is nothing but morality.

Morality itself has for many been reduced to nothing but sexual morality. It is so much more, embracing personal, business and community relationships. And faith is so much more than belief, as in “I set my heart on” God rather than purely intellectual acts of belief.
 
Belief and good works are overrated especially when we think of them as prerequisites to being befriended by God.
 
Some 50 years ago, I sat in a university classroom in Rome when a professor introduced his course on the theology of revelation –– what we know about God because God told us –– with this image.

In a large lecture hall, accommodating several hundred students from perhaps 50 countries, he paced, slowly, along a raised platform.

He pressed one white dot with chalk on an enormous blackboard. After a dramatic pause, he said, in French-accented Latin, “The white is what we know about God. The black is what we don’t. What we know is little. But the little God has given us to know is precious.”

Among that precious little are two biblical themes: Be not afraid and you are loved.

A few years ago, as Monica and I walked through a subway corridor in New York City’s Port Authority, we passed a woman hawking literature near a table laden with posters proclaiming that judgment was at hand. Bold strokes. “Be afraid.”

I was embarrassed that anyone might think she and I were colleagues. As we passed her, to allay my anger within, I smiled and slowly shook my head.

She screamed. Threats of God’s wrath. God would get me. She followed us, proclaiming her caricature of God to everyone within earshot along hundreds of feet of subway corridor. Thirty seconds seemed like five minutes.

The irony is that versions of “Be not afraid” and “You are loved” appear throughout the Bible, the same Bible the tormented woman had deconstructed because she thought people had to be frightened into repentance before an angry and vengeful God.

Our scriptures, Jewish and Christian, tell the story of God’s love in many ways… from the Exodus story of deliverance from slavery to freedom to the Paschal Mystery of God in Jesus Christ demonstrating his love on a cross to God raising Jesus. In between are many stories of God’s love and our freedom to respond.

Those stories abound, I think, because the single, most difficult Christian belief is not belief in God as Trinity, nor that God became one of us in Jesus Christ, nor that God raised Jesus from the dead, nor that God continues to live in us through the Holy Spirit, nor that we too will be raised. It’s none of those. It is that God forgives and loves us even before we repent.

God’s Good News, as I understand it, is threefold. First: we’re all sinners. We stand in a long biblical line of negative role models.

Second: we’re all forgiven and loved by God. “You can’t conceive, nor can I,” wrote Graham Greene, “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.”

Third: we’re all forgiven and loved by God not because we’ve been repentant. We’re repentant and transformed because we’ve been forgiven and loved.

God’s relentless love will last. I promise you. I set my heart on God's incredible love. I do not rely on beliefs or works.

[Canon Bill Lewellis, blewellis@diobeth.org, a retired Episcopal priest, served on the Bishop’s staff of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem for 24 years and on the Bishop’s staff of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown for 13 years before that.]


Invited to believe, with your heart

By Bill Lewellis
The Morning Call, Feb. 17, 2011

"We are invited to believe." The line jumped out at me from the printed copy of a sermon a friend recently preached. It was on the Dorchester Chaplains. Two Protestant, one Roman Catholic and one Jewish chaplains, they gave up their life jackets and means of rescue to others on the Dorchester, a converted cruise ship whose boiler room was struck by enemy fire on February 3, 1943, one day from their Greenland destination. They are commemorated in an Episcopal book, Holy Women Holy Men.

Diocese of Bethlehem Archdeacon Howard Stringfellow mentioned "the ice and the horribly cold water," 19 degrees, in which they drowned. "We are invited to believe," he said, "that the Lord was there with them. We are invited to believe that theirs was the greatest love, for indeed they laid down their lives for their friends (John 15:13). We are invited to believe that their sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that is being revealed in them (Romans 8:18).

We are invited to believe. What a wonderful way to imagine the faith to which we are called. Not an obligation, not a should or a must, but an invitation. We are invited to trust, as much a matter of the heart as a matter of the head. Perhaps more a matter of the heart.

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