Tag Archives: questions

Questions in the Dark – Our Nicodemus Moment

John 3:1-17

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (read the whole passage)

Out of the wilderness and into the darkness. As Lent began last week, as it always does, with Jesus going into the wilderness to fast and be tempted… we come out of the wilderness this week only to come to Jesus by the cover of night. We leave the Gospel of Matthew behind of until the season of Easter, and we continue our Lenten journey with John’s gospel.

And John who is rich with words and images, where Jesus loves to talk and teach and preach, gives us the most famous of bible passages, John 3:16. Yet, in context, this famous passage comes in a long line of familiar images. The image of being born again in the spirit. The image of the spirit as the wind, blowing where it chooses. The image of the son of man being lifted up just as Moses lifted the serpent. And finally, “For God so loved the world…”

But when we pull back again, we meet Nicodemus. Nicodemus the curious pharisee. And while the rich and familiar images of this story stand out… it is perhaps the setting by which Nicodemus comes to have this conversation with Jesus that really helps us to understand where we are going on the 2nd Sunday in Lent.

So take a moment, and put all the familiar words and famous bible verses out of your mind and imagine this image.

It is the dead of night. Dim lamps burn here and there among stone walls and buildings. A lone figure, cloaked in darkness makes his way down deserted streets and alleys. The cicadas and crickets are chirping in the hot, dry nighttime air. Finally, the lone figure finds who he is a looking for. Jesus is appears in the darkness, standing among the trees and plants of a garden.

Nicodemus pulls back his hood and looks around to be sure that no one else is lurking nearby. “Rabbi” he says, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God…”

The story comes to life when we can imagine the background of this conversation. Nicodemus has come to Jesus at night to ask his questions. Nicodemus, a religious leader, needs the darkness to feel safe. He has much to lose in coming to Jesus: his standing in the community, his authority as a leader, his relationships with friends and neighbours.

Yet, here Nicodemus is, seeking out Jesus in the cover of darkness, to ask honest and real questions of the Rabbi… Nicodemus wants to know who Jesus is, what he means for all the things that Nicodemus believes about God and religion.

And curiously, Jesus begins by dodging Nicodemus’s question. He has been asked these questions before. The scribes and Pharisees and temple priest love to probe Jesus, they love to put him on the spot and see if he will withstand the pressure. How is Jesus supposed to know what Nicodemus’s intentions are? Even at night, even with no crowds to rile up, Nicodemus is still a Pharisee. Nicodemus is still part of a group that is suspicious of Jesus.

So Jesus answers vaguely about being born from above, prompting a follow up from Nicodemus. And Jesus goes on about being born of water and spirit, about the wind blowing where is chooses.

But still Nicodemus wonders, “How can these things be?”

Nicodemus and his questions are not unfamiliar to us. They are not the wonderings of children, nor the questions of someone new to faith. Nicodemus has old questions, question that come from a life time of sitting in the pew and weeks upon weeks, months upon months, years upon years of hearing the bible stories. Nicodemus knows the doctrine and theology. Nicodemus doesn’t need religion explained to him.

Nicodemus needs the answers for his doubts. He wants to know if all of this is real and what it all means. He wants to know if Jesus is the real thing. Are the thing Nicodemus has believed about God really true?

Our Nicodemus moments come from the same place. They are questions we are too afraid to ask in the light, the doubts we are afraid to share in public, the feelings of being silly for believing in a God that the world often laughs at.

I remember once sitting in on a bible study with a group at a bible camp. A group of volunteers: of retired men who came to fix the plumbing, to drive the tractor that mowed the fields, to chop enough firewood for a whole summer. Retired women who came to scrub kitchens, to sew drapes and to wash windows. People who were faithfully in church every Sunday and then faithfully volunteering at camp during their weekdays.

And as the group talked about prayer and how they could pray about anything to God and God would hear them, one of the men, a life long and faithful Lutheran, a gruff retired contractor asked the bible study leader a question. With tears in eyes he said, “But how can God hear my prayers? I am nobody to God.”

It was a Nicodemus moment. A moment for the deep questions of faith. A moment that we all come to know sooner or later. A moment when we wonder if Jesus the real thing, or when we wonder if Jesus will remember to include us in his Kingdom, or a moment when we realize that believing in Jesus is much riskier than we imagined. Believing in Jesus might mean risking our place in our community, it might mean accepting people we don’t want to accept, it might mean making room in our lives for new things like prayer, and bible study, and acts of service and worshipping God with a sense the world is transformed by that worship.

In Nicodemus’s conversation with Jesus, there is moment where something curious happens. As Jesus first doges Nicodemus’s question with vague and confusing talk of being born from above and the spirit doing as the spirit wishes…. Nicodemus asks Jesus a second followup question, “How can these things be?” And again, the question is not unlike questions often asked of Jesus by the religious authorities. But this time, Jesus seems taken aback, “Where not you, a religious leader, taught these things?”

There must have been something in the way that Nicodemus asked the question that stopped Jesus in his tracks. There must have been something honest and searching, maybe even something desperate in the way Nicodemus asks.

And so Jesus changes and adjusts.

Jesus moves towards to Nicodemus.

Jesus drops the confusing speech that he normally saves for pesky religious leaders questioning him in public.

And Jesus gives Nicodemus what he is looking for.

Jesus gives the assurance that Nicodemus is seeking. Yes, Jesus says, the son of man is following in the footsteps of Moses. And no, this is not an easy thing to accept or believe.

Yet, Jesus declares boldly, for God so loves the world that he gave his only Son…

Jesus gives Nicodemus the gospel in the clearest of terms.

This move towards Nicodemus is just a smaller version of what God has been doing all along. After calling the people to repentance, and the people always fall back into the sin, God decides to make the move. And so God move towards the people. Beginning with an announcement made to a young virgin that she will bear a child. And then with a voice Thundering over the waters of baptism in the river Jordan. And then a dazzling transformation on a mountain top. And then last week, as the tempter tried to get Jesus to return to the old pattern of falling into sin…

The movement of God became clear. God has moved towards creation and there is no going back. Jesus moves to Nicodemus, giving him the assurance and good news he needs to hear.

And Jesus makes the same move towards us.

Jesus assures us in our Nicodemus moments, that he is indeed the real thing.

That when we are worried about looking foolish to the world, that Jesus will accept our foolishness without hesitation.

That when we are worried that believing in Jesus may mean we have to accept people we don’t want to love, Jesus will love us and forgive us regardless.

That when we are worried that this whole faith business may mean changes in our lives in how we live, what we do, who we serve and what we value, that Jesus will keep moving to us, making up the difference in our half heartedness.

Nicodemus moments are something we cannot avoid. We will as people of faith have our questions, our doubts, our fears that would only dare ask in the darkness. But Nicodemus moments are also the moments when Jesus changes course and makes a move towards us. Jesus moves toward us in our darkness, in our confusion, in our hesitation.

And Jesus gives us what we need…. the Good News that God so loved the world, so loved us, that God gave his only Son.

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Christians are not good at asking, “why?”

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First off, if you are looking for more reading on Millennials there is a lot out there. If you are looking for some of the ones I find most interesting, click on “Articles on Generations” in the tabs above. 

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Questions are bad

Sometimes I forget that most Christians, most people even, think that questioning something is disrespectful or aggressive on the one hand, or a sign of weakness on the other. We have all been in group situations either at school, work or in the community where a leader, teacher or presenter asks if there are questions in regards to the topic being presented. Often no one does. And it is not because the material has been presented so well that there are no questions, but no one wants to sound like they don’t understand something or don’t know what is going on.

Well, in the Church and among Christians we take this idea to a new level.  In my experience, most Church members really don’t want to appear like they have faith related questions. Worse yet, when they do know something about the bible or faith doesn’t seem to make sense, many believe that questioning it might cause them to lose their faith. Often when I do pre-baptismal visits with families who are bringing their child to be baptized (too many times because grandparents want them to, not because they are active church folk) they end up asking questions about the Bible and God and the Church. Usually I am told that grandma and grandpa, other older relatives, previous pastors or other church folk have to told them not to ask questions – just “accept it on faith”.

A new generation asks why?

In an article I recently read on Hiring Millennials for tech startups, it suggests that Millennials are more likely to ask “why?” than previous generations, and therefore more valuable in helping companies finding focus and direction. I have no idea if this is true or even measurable, but some of my experience supports this claim.

As a strong ENTJ on the MBTI, my deep need and compulsion to ask “why?” may very well be a personality trait more than a generational trait. However, my need to ask “why?” is precisely why I am still a Christian. The fact that I asked “why?” and questioned my faith is at the foundation of why I became a pastor.

Even from a young age I had the feeling (or idea) that the Bible didn’t always make sense. As a teenager, I knew that things like creation, the flood, jonah and the whale, and many other biblical stories as presented by some fundamentalist church members didn’t jive with science class at school. Fortunately, Lutheran doctrine and a pastor who didn’t want to take a stand on anything, allowed the rest of us in my home congregation to feel like it was okay to be members and not buy into the literalism stuff.

But still, I could feel the questions beginning to stack up when it came to the bible and faith by the time I was finishing high school. I had great youth leaders who were introducing us to all sorts of ideas like helping the poor, the effects of poverty and our systems of wealth that enable it. They were one of the important pieces that kept me in church. I also stayed connected by being involved with music in worship, going to the Lutheran Student Movement in university, and working at Bible Camps in my summers.  My family was great, they left my questions room to be asked, even when my parents didn’t have the answers.

Questioning the questions

University was sometimes a struggle to keep up my faith. It seemed very ‘in vogue’ in 2001 for historians, political scientists and other liberal arts profs to dump on Christianity and the Bible. And if I hadn’t been fortunate to grow up in a church and family that was steeped in scripture, I might have believed their criticisms. But as much as my questions were stacking up in regard to the contradictions in the bible and contradictions in the church, the criticisms weren’t making sense either. I was taking history and religious studies, and I could tell that I wasn’t getting the whole picture. I would feel sick as profs described Christianity, not because my beliefs were being questioned, but because a fundamentalist Christianity, that wasn’t the faith I knew, was being questioned.

I soon became tired of religious studies and searched the course catalogue for something that I wanted to take, something about faith. And then I stumbled onto the small Roman Catholic faculty of theology at the University of Alberta. Half way through my Bachelor’s degree, I started taking as many classes as I could. Classes from professional theologians (not historians and religious studies profs). Classes on science and religion not science classes that referenced the bible. Classes on Christian doctrine and theology not a social science of Christianity. Classes on real biblical scholarship not English literature that included the bible. Classes on real church history, not history in which the Church was marginally present.

The profs and classes made me feel like I finally had a reference point for my questions. It was like they gave me the box with picture on it of the puzzle I had been working on. I finally knew what I image I was putting together.

Theology became a serious discipline. Biblical studies finally showed me a hermeneutic that made sense. Church history filled in gaps of the secular history I had been studying. But most importantly, no question was disallowed. Everything was on the table. And the questions we couldn’t answer, like “does God exist?”, were given a framework to know why we couldn’t answer them.

My last two years on my undergraduate degree were like the last half of a Survivor puzzle, everything was coming together faster and faster.

Questioning Faith

Add a Master of Divinity and 4+ years in the parish, and I know that I don’t have all answers, I never wanted them. What I do have is the tools to ask the best questions and then make my way through them… which usually leads to more questions.

What makes me so sad is meeting people my age who are only loosely connected to their faith because their questions were shut down. They were told to fall inline and stop causing trouble by questioning the bible, the church, faith. I don’t know if that tactic really ever works, but I think Millennials have wanted to ask “why?” more than our parents. I think it is growing up in a world where we have been bombarded with media, marketing and sound bytes. I want something deeper, something with meat. Something that has room for questions.

Ask Us Anything

The Church has led the way in the “Don’t question us” department for decades. Maybe one of the things politicians and corporations have learned from us is that it is a lot easier to suppress questions than it is to answer them.

Maybe it is time for the Church to lead the way in “Ask us anything” department for a while. Maybe some of my Millennial peers might find getting the chance to ask “why?” is a compelling reason to try church.

Just remember, “just accept it on faith” is always a bad answer.
“I don’t know, so let’s find out together” is always a good one.

If we are serious as about sharing our faith, it is time for the church to allow room for a lot of “why?” questions. Everything has to be on the table… and it is not just Millennials who need to have some “why?” conversations – we all do.

I don’t get prayer

20130716-215908.jpgThat may be an odd thing for a pastor to say.

In a couple weeks, the lectionary appointed Gospel lesson will be Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, and it has got me thinking about prayer. Now, maybe I should be more specific when I say, “I don’t get prayer”. Because I am am a pastor and I do pray a lot. And I get prayer in worship, at meal times, to open meetings, prayer with the sick and dying, with those who grieving, with those who are celebrating.

So what was my problem again?

Well, my problem is with a specific kind of prayer.

I don’t get prayer as practiced by most Christians these days, especially evangelicals. The kind of prayer that is extemporaneous, rambling, telling God to do things, prayer that all about emotion and experience, preferably euphoria. Something like this:

The prayer that so many are trying to practice is the prayer of results. There seems to be this sense in North American Christianity, that prayer can get you stuff. And yes, Jesus does say something to that effect, “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”

Yet, Jesus was speaking to 1st Century Jews who were fearful of God, and for whom prayer was very prescribed and formal. Jesus encouraging a very restricted audience to broaden their prayer horizon. He was NOT speaking to North Americans who are accustomed to getting everything and having what they want. He was not providing prayer as means to get the things, the outcomes, the results that we want.

So I don’t get prayer as so many of us do it today.

To me prayer is a space set aside to be mindful of the divine. It is an experience of the sacred. It is a chance let go of those things that we cannot control, instead of demanding God provide the outcomes that we want for things that are out of our control.

Prayer is acknowledging that God holds all of creation in God’s self, that God holds on all of my stuff, my issues, my problems. Yet, I don’t get to tell God what to do with them.

So… maybe I do get prayer… just not North American Christianity.