Sunday, April 18, 2010

On Not Being a "Good Christian"

On Not Being a “Good Christian”

Sermon on the First Lesson for the Third Sunday of Easter, Year C

The Lesson: Acts 9:1-20

The Sermon:

I’m going to focus on our first lesson today. That reading tells about Paul’s famous “Road to Damascus” experience.

Paul is on his way to Damascus to shut down this group that calls itself “The Way.” “The Way” is a group of people who believe in Jesus. Just before he gets there, Paul is struck blind and hears Jesus talking to him. Then he’s led by his companions to a place on Straight Street in Damascus. There, he spends three days alone without food or water.

Meanwhile, The Lord comes to Ananias, a believer, and tells him to go to Paul, lay hands on him and heal him. Ananias objects, knowing that Paul has come to Damascus to do harm believers like himself. But the Lord insists, and Ananias goes to Paul and lays hands on him.

Paul’s sight is immediately restored, and Paul immediately begins preaching that Jesus is the Son of God.

The “Road to Damascus” story was a particularly important story in the Protestant churches I grew up in.

First, Paul’s Road to Damascus experience is seen as the model Christian conversion experience. A bad person encounters God, sees the error of his ways, repents, follows Jesus and begins a new life. People who have had this moving and emotional experience often say they’ve been “saved” or “converted” or “born again.”

Second, after his Road to Damascus experience, Paul begins preaching a new Gospel of Justification by Faith rather than of Works. No longer do people have to be burdened by guilt for all they’ve done or not done; all you have to do to be guiltless and free is believe that Jesus died on the cross to save you from your sins.

Now, I have to tell you that for most of my long life, these understandings of Paul’s Road to Damascus experience have been very problematic for me. For me, they have not been a “good news” gospel. Instead they’ve left me feeling left out—an outsider in the Christian community.

Now you might be wondering how these bedrock Christian ideas can be so troubling.

When I looked around me at the Good Christians I knew, it seemed that there were plenty who had deep prayer life in which they talked with God or Jesus. And there were those who talked of having had their lives turned from bad to good in an encounter with Jesus.

I took these to be the normative experiences of Good Christians.

The problem for me was (and is) that I have never heard God or Jesus speak to me. I tried to have a personal prayer life, but nothing happened. I concluded that I didn’t have what it takes to pray right—that there was something wrong with me.

Nor have I ever felt like I had had that experience of being saved. “Just have faith and you’ll be saved,” they say. But try as I might to have faith and believe, I still felt bad about my sins. So obviously, I didn’t have enough faith. I wanted that faith that would save me from my sins, but I didn’t have a clue about how to get it.

When I was about thirty I joined the Grace Episcopal Church.

One of the blessings I discovered here was that we Episcopalians don’t do testimony much. If we’ve got a deep prayer life in which we communicate easily with God or Jesus, we don’t talk about it. If we’ve been saved or converted or born again; we don’t mention it.

So the heat was off--except I still knew that somehow I didn’t measure up as a Good Christian.

Happily, Episcopalians don’t seem to care whether or not the people sharing the pew with them are Good Christians. We figure that anyone who participates willingly in Book of Common Prayer worship is one of us and on the right track.

I asked Father Ray, who was rector here at that time, what Episcopalians thought about being saved He said simply that many Episcopalians believed in the sacramental life; regular participation in the sacraments of the church. Oh, I figured, Episcopalians get saved little by little each Sunday. Well, in the absence of a “real” Christian experience, I guessed that’d have to be good enough.

I think that this experience of not measuring up to the normative Christian experience is not limited to Protestants immersed in Road to Damascus theology. My high school girlfriend—a Roman Catholic--had a well-worn book about the lives of saints. She taught me about the appearances of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Bernadette at Lourdes, and to three shepherd girls at Fatima. I know that she thought that being a nun was a better way to be a Christian woman than staying in the world.

I suspect that there are a lot of people who go to church who may feel like they don’t have the beliefs or experiences that Good Christians are supposed to have.

I said earlier that the theology of the Road to Damascus experience as I understood it had been a problem for me for most of my life. That implies that it’s no longer a problem. That’s right. Let me tell you a couple of stories about what changed for me.

I was an Education for Ministry Mentor for eight years. At one point, a majority of the members of my Friday morning class happened to be professionally trained church organists. As a group, they were a rather sophisticated—even cynical--bunch.

There came a day when our discussion came around to the subject of being “saved,” or “converted,” or “born again.” The response to even talking about this subject was not just cool—it was downright frigid. There was not one student who would admit to having had any such experience, and they were suspicious of anyone who claimed to have had one.

They got to talking how they handled those strange people who come to your door or accost you on the street asking: “Are you saved?”

I could see that this conversation was going nowhere fast and I needed to do something to get it back on track. Something inspired me to ask the question differently: “Have you ever had a life-changing experience?”

Without hesitation, my most cynical organist class member surprised me by telling this story.

An organist friend had told him about a new pipe organ in a Baptist church up in Toledo (can anything good come out of Toledo?). It had been hand-built by a couple of guys in Cincinnati area using only the materials and methods that organ-builders of Bach’s time used. His curiosity was piqued.

His friend asked if he’d like to take a day off and go to Toledo with him to hear and play the instrument, and he agreed. They went up to Toledo and they played it.

“On the long drive home,” my student said quietly, “I realized that everything I thought I knew about how an organ should sound was wrong! That everything that I had been taught about how to play the organ—was wrong! I realized that I would have start over and relearn all my music. And I knew that I had to find a way to play my music on instruments like that one.”

That certainly qualified as a life-changing experience. That organist had heard something new and had experienced a great change of understanding—a great “aha!” And as a result, he not only realized that his life must change--it did change. There was no decision on his part about changing—he didn’t have a choice. Given his new world-view, he couldn’t not change.

I have come to believe that that organist’s experience has a lot in common with many of the Bible stories about encounters with God, including the “Road to Damascus” story. A person has an experience that changes his or her life. The experience is so powerful that is strains language to describe it, but the person has to tell about it. And they express themselves using their understandings and language that their culture has given them.

The communities that created our Bible—Christians and Jews alike—used vocabulary that grew out of their belief that God was close by and was running things; that when things happened—good or bad--God was behind it.

For whatever reason, many people today don’t have that understanding, and even if they do, we don’t have a way of expressing that truth on the tips of our tongues. That’s just not the way we talk in today’s society.

The Biblical encounters with God are life-changing, and that’s something I can understand. My faith is that God is behind life-changing experiences—whether or not “God language” is used to describe them. Now, when I study the Bible, I trust that the experience behind the stories is true. I don’t get hung up on the Biblical-era words used to describe the experience.

In my life today, I have learned to be on the alert for life-changing experiences in my life and in the lives of others. Mostly these are little “aha’s,” but sometimes they are big.

Here’s an experience that has been life-changing for me.

Remember that I had long labored under the assumption that I don’t measure up as a Good Christian, not having had what I considered to be the normative Christian experiences and beliefs.

Then something happened.

It was a few years ago in another Education for Ministry class. We were sitting on my front porch in the spring—about this time of year. We were talking about the first chapter of Genesis—the first creation story.

Each day, God creates part of the world and pronounces it “good.” When he comes to the sixth day, he creates humankind, and pronounces his work “very good.”

Suddenly it hit me that I’m God’s creation, and that He considers me to be good work. It came to me that God had created me like I am “on purpose,” warts and all. I realized that strange bag of skin that I am, containing this “interesting” mixture of gifts and contradictions, is exactly what God intended for me.

I realized that I no longer had to beat myself up over the things that I couldn’t do, and that I could focus more on using my particular God-given talents to make myself useful. I could stop trying to “push up a rope,” so to speak, and start “going with the flow”—my flow. What a relief!

During the preparation of this sermon, I even came to understand that my inability to hear God talk to me or to have the prototypical "saving" experience was also a God-given gift. It makes me sort of a missionary to those who have similar struggles.

My front-porch experience was life-changing for me. From that day on, I’ve been a happier person. I find myself freely jumping in to do the things that I can do, and I’m even able to say “no” to things that don’t fit who I am. I feel more fulfilled and I’m making a better contribution. Given who I am, I still generate ten times as many ideas for things I could be doing than I can possibly do, but it’s ok now. I do what I can, and try not to be too frustrated by what goes undone.

All of this leads me to talk about why I’m excited about the current series of Gifts Workshops that we’re doing at Grace Church.

It’s hard for us to see our own gifts. Gifts are what we do without thinking. They come so easily to us that we take them for granted. They’re fun, so they can’t be real work.

We need others to help us see our gifts--the things about ourselves that we can be using to live more meaningful, happier, more useful lives. To get a handle on our gifts, we need to get into situations where others can point them out to us.

I’ve participated in sessions where people told one another what they saw as their gifts. And I can tell you that it’s a great experience to be told that something we do easily without thinking actually has great value to those around us.

Right now at Grace, we all have an opportunity to have that experience in Grace’s Gifts Workshops.

Many of us participated in our first Gifts Workshop. That was sort of a warm-up exercise. If you didn’t make it to that one, don’t worry, the best is yet to come. Check your bulletin for the schedule of the next two workshops. Plan to come and be ready for a possibly life-changing experience.

Ken Lyon
April 17, 2010

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