The Greatest of These
The Grace Letter/Christmas Message
I know it's been a long time between contributions to the Grace Letter, but I hope this will have been worth the wait. At this time I'm not sure there will be further Letters. Perhaps inspiration will happen, but it seems to me that what I have to say is summed up here. I hope it will meet your needs at this Christmas Season.
1998: Christmas Remembered
1999: What's In A Date?
2000: Peace On Earth
2001: Dark Days
2002: The Little Things
2003: Shop Till You Drop
2005: What Are You Waiting For?
2006: Peace In Our Heart
2007: The Greatest Of These
And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 13: 13
What gets you through the night?
The news coming in from all over the world is so frightening. A war that will drag on without end is destroying our young men and women and exhausting all our resources. Our economy deteriorates as the value of the dollar continues to drop. Here at home there are still persons who are willing to sacrifice our legal protections in order to ensure their own. We feel powerless in the face of all this stress.
No doubt Paul had a lot of stress of his own. He, and the men and women in the Corinthian church, faced opposition on so many fronts. They were ridiculed and ignored by their secular Greek neighbors, and lived in fear of imprisonment and death at the hands of their Roman oppressors. How could they remain calm?
Paul spoke of faith. We hear this word in our age and we do not feel calm or secure. "Faith-based" programs are administered by government agencies; the personnel running these programs are hired because they have the correct faith background. It's usually not a progressive background.
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.
Hebrews 11: 1
A "leap of faith" implies a belief in something that cannot be proven. Sometimes such a faith defies logic. We may call it "blind faith." We see examples of such faith every day. It is not confined to Christians quite the contrary. Most religions expect belief which supersedes logic and reason as a prerequisite for true faith, and they believe they will be rewarded for this faith in the afterlife.
Some people who claim the title of "Christians" seem to base their faith on the actions they take to attack persons they consider to be the enemies of God. So they carry picket signs identifying persons they claim will be "in hell" according to their faith. This "faith" leads to hatred of other human beings and encourages violence and dehumanization.
Others are not so overtly violent, but their actions can be just as harmful. These persons carry an unshakeable "faith" that a couple of Bible verses can be taken to condemn other persons. It's easy for them to adopt such an attitude since they aren't the ones described in these verses. But for those who are so described, even beloved family or friends, there is only rejection in the name of "faith."
This type of faith can be deadly. It may give peace and contentment to some of the "faithful" but at the expense of those human beings whom they have rejected.
But there is more to faith. Even a completely secular person has faith when she boards an airplane, for example, or orders a meal at a restaurant, she has faith that the person to whom she is entrusting her safety knows what they are doing. I'm very aware that my patients have faith in me when I am performing a cardiac procedure. We have faith in others, sometimes in person we have never met or whose qualifications we haven't researched. How much of a "leap" is it, then, to have faith in a power greater than ourselves?
In some ways, it's quite a leap. First we must assume that there is a power greater than ourselves; and that assumption is a leap not everyone is willing to make. I was brought up to believe that there is a power greater than myself. The events of my adult life have caused me to question all my presuppositions, and this is one of them. Such questioning is not blasphemy. An omnipotent God will be secure enough to welcome questions from sincere seekers.
I am acquainted with many persons who have absolutely no doubt of the existence of God. They have experienced comfort in times of trouble or grief. They have been given courage, patience, a loving spirit. Changed lives are readily observed, but are the changes due to spiritual intervention, or to internal psychological changes brought about subconsciously by the need for comfort, courage, or love?
A person can be one hundred per cent certain that God is acting in his life, but does that certainty make reality?
In the above cases of changed lives, the changes speak for themselves. Whether from divine direction, or personal behavior modification, the result is obvious. This "faith" was productive.
Of course this is the problem faced by a transsexual (or gay) person who has identified as a Christian. In the past we had no modern understanding of the biological causes of our "difference," and we believed what we were told: we were sinful and needed to change! We had faith that God would bring changes in our lives. We prayed for change, and we consciously tried to facilitate the changes to make ourselves "normal."
The changes never came. Was it because we didn't have enough "faith"? Did God ignore our prayers? Was anyone even listening? Or were we simply mistaken in our quest for "normalcy" when we would have been better served with understanding of our issues and help with reconciling them?
It's not difficult to understand why many GLBT persons become disillusioned and never return to their faith.
But still there is more. Beyond the faith that God will change us in this life, there is the ultimate question, which demands more of our attention with the passing years.
To be or not to be, that is the question;
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.
"Hamlet," William Shakespeare
To die, to sleep, to end the heartache.
Kate Bornstein gave a presentation at this year's GLMA Conference based on her new book about alternatives to suicide. She asked for a show of hands how many, in this room of health care professionals, have ever considered suicide? Close to three quarters of the room raised their hands. I was one. I remembered those thoughts in 1992-93 of a running car engine in a closed garage.
Unlike a few of the conference attendees, I never made an actual suicide attempt. Perhaps it was cowardice, or the expectation that life really would get better, or the feeling I had at the time that "if I take myself out, they win." But there is also the uncertainty expressed by Hamlet. What are those dreams that come once we sleep?
This is where we go past faith and into hope.
You see, I still have hope. Even if faith has been diminished by the pain of rejection and seemingly unanswered prayers, there is always hope for the future. Hope, to me, is more of a legitimate reality because it retains the element of uncertainty. Even though I do not yet experience certain desired outcomes, I can continue to hope for them and to work towards them.
I hope I will reunite with my son one day. I hope I will meet my daughter in law and my grandchildren, and enjoy a loving family relationship. I will never stop hoping for this as long as I draw breath.
There are other reunions I hope for, and these are reunions which will not occur in the space and time limitations of this earth. In order for these reunions to occur, there must be some continuation of conscious existence after this body ceases its functions. There must be a part of me which survives physical death. Some spiritual traditions speak of the return to the collective consciousness, such as the Zen waterfall I mentioned in an earlier blog. The Christian tradition believes in the unique, eternal existence of the individual soul.
It's very comforting to think that I will exist in a conscious form in a life to come. I don't know it with absolute certainty, but I do have that hope. Of course, most Christian tradition also teaches that such a life to come is going to be rather hellish for those who haven't bought the party line while on earth. There's where I part company with them.
It should be evident by now that I have moved away from an acceptance of every word of scripture as literally true. But I still call myself a Christian. My faith is not in a book. It's in a person I first learned about from that book, but I've moved into my own understanding of Jesus.
I think the human writers of the Bible put a few words in Jesus's mouth the "cast into outer darkness" for a fear factor but his message of love in words and deeds (see below) transcends human weakness and deserves my loyalty.
I very much want this Jesus to be alive today, to comfort me and give me courage. I have faith that he does these things. I have hope that when this life is over, I will experience a relationship with the supreme force of the universe - God - and will commune with Jesus, with my parents, with Lee Frances, Lloyd, Cheryl, and all my friends whose bodies no longer breathe this air.
Here is why I am a Christian. Here are Jesus's words about love:
You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.
Matthew 5: 43-45
Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
John 15: 12-13
Jesus's life, from what we read, was lived in agreement with his teachings about love. He loved his friends enough to sacrifice himself for their benefit. This love is the pure, visible heart of the Christianity I retain. No condemnation, no rejection. Love is the greatest of these.
Faith is demonstrated without evidence. Hope is inherently filled with uncertainty. But love is tangible. Love can be expressed, can be seen in action, can be demonstrated at will. Love is what gets me through the night.
Love is real. You can take that to the bank.
Warmest wishes for love for you at Christmas and always,