Preacher – Susan Tang
7 Jun 2015
GOD IS/IS NOT THE ANSWER
Today, Pauline tells me, I have been given the liberty to depart from Brian McLaren’s book and to refer to the lectionary text instead, or do my “own thing”. Today, I have chosen to “do my own thing”.
No scripture will be quoted or studied – and that sometimes is good – for sometimes the text gets in the way as illustrated by this incident I am going to tell you about. The late Peter Gomes, black and gay Professor at the Harvard Divinity School and Minister of Harvard’s Memorial Church, once spoke of a time he was in a bible study group with an all-white group of Southern Methodist pastors when one of them said he had a very important question to ask the group. He said, we’re all about the same age – 60 to 70 years – when we were growing up in the South, it was assumed that the social segregation of coloreds and whites was ordained by God, sustained by the Bible and maintained by the Church. It was right and just supposed to be. Just 50 years later today, hardly anyone will hold this view. Just think – not a single book has been removed from the Bible, not a single book has been added, there has been no change in the translation. The Book is virtually unchanged. What happened? How do you explain this transformation in our very own lifetime?
Peter Gomes offered this answer. He said, he believed that for one wonderful moment, the Bible got out of the way. “We transcended and rose above the text to allow God’s good news to shine through. In that one moment we were freed”, he said. If you really think about it, they were not so much freed from the Bible’s hold, they were freed from one fixed (misguided)interpretation of the text. So sometimes, the Bible just needs to get out of the way. Likewise sometimes the pastor just needs to get out of the way. And oftentimes the Church just needs to just get out of the way.
Which provides the background to my sharing this morning. I won’t even call it a message, much less a sermon; it is more a venting. I’m at a stage where I just want everything religion has been teaching me to just get out of way. And to let me start afresh.
This has been on my mind for a long time, a long time – and more so since I stepped down from the FCC Council (as the Board was called in the old days) and that was almost 3 years ago when I was relieved of the duty to “be a hero” for everyone. But really this stuff has always been on my mind for as long as I can remember, needling and poking me. So let me say from the beginning that this is just me venting to you this morning, So please just bear with me ….
How many of you were told that if you become a Christian, your life will be transformed, you will become whole and complete and fulfilled? You will find the meaning of life, and the meaning in your life. Just look at what posters outside churches cry out – “Searching for the meaning of life? Try Jesus. Are you thirsty? Come to the living waters. Is there more to life than this? Got questions about life? Try Alpha”. Books shout out – “What on earth am I here for?
How often have you been told “Jesus Is The Answer!”? Are you familiar with the old Sunday School joke where the teacher asks, “What is furry, brown, and eats nuts?” One little boy raises his hand and said, “I know the answer is Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me!”
Selling answers, certainty, satisfaction and salvation is the way to make money. Selling guilt on one hand and redemption on the other is what has kept the church in business – I first heard that said in a movie years ago but can’t for the life of me remember the title of it – it was some obscure movie. But you all know how one can make a real business out of selling the secret to the meaning of life. You can fill Rock stadiums with people who want to believe. People who are searching for this elusive product called meaning or happiness or God. The church starts to look like a store, the pastors start to look like the sales people and the worship, the sales jingles. And if you look at the numbers that throng the Rock stadium or the mega-store you’ll see that getting people to believe is easy. And if you look at the numbers that throng FCC you’ll see that getting people to question beliefs is much harder. To be a church that asks you to question beliefs is much more difficult than to be a church that provides certainty and answers. Why? It’s obvious. We all want to hold on to beliefs because it gives us security, it tells us why we are here, where we are going.
Another Peter – Peter Rollins tells us “There is no secret, we can’t be satisfied; life is difficult, we don’t know the answers. Stop selling God as the answer to uncertainty and dissatisfaction in our lives!”
Peter Rollins is a young Irish theologian whom I once spoke of in Sep 2010 in my message titled The Fool. He was brought to my mind again some Sundays ago during a conversation I had with Ollie, who said our sermons are becoming predictable. Ollie mentioned his time in Scotland and his affection for the Iona community – an ecumenical Christian community from different traditions seeking new ways of following Jesus. Which reminded me of the Ikon community that Rollins founded. By the way, Ollie won’t know the real meaning of “predictable” until he attends a mainstream church for a while – forgive me, mainstream church preachers who may be listening to our podcasts – you can’t help it (or maybe you can). After all, we grew up in the same Sunday Schools!! We all memorized the same answers!
So I went back to re-visit Rollins’ work and am excited today and eager to share with you his thinking on God and religion – so none of what follows are my original thoughts – they are all revelations from Peter Rollins that spoke to me because he sort of answers some of my questions – I say “sort of” because he believes there ARE no answers! You’ll see what I mean shortly.
Rollins identifies himself as neither evangelical, conservative or liberal. He transcends all labels and describes himself more as part of the emergent church dialogue. He sees conservative Christianity espousing too much certainty, yet liberal Christianity, although willing to doubt in the mind, still embraces certainty in their structure – in songs, in prayer and the liturgy. A certain God is very much there in liberal churches too. And we all know liberals can be just as adamant about their way as the conservatives. The challenge I think is the ability to hold our faith lightly – what a tough thing to do when we are usually called to be sure of our faith.
What Rollins challenges us to do really is to try to transcend the usual preoccupations of Christians, and re-think the long-held assumptions of Christianity.
He redefines God, sin, church, beliefs, the meaning of Jesus’ death and many, many other long-held assumptions of the Christian faith – deconstructing them for us who are fearful to let go of what we have been taught by the Church (FCC included). He says, “There is another, more radical form of freedom hinted at in the Gospels – not the freedom to pursue what we believe will satisfy us, but freedom from the pursuit of what we believe will satisfy us”. When we are freed from this frenetic pursuit, we will find a deeper joy …
If you are sensing that Rollins borders on the heretical and you do not want to hear any more of this, feel absolutely free to take your leave or go have a coffee – I won’t be offended, Peter Rollins won’t be offended. In fact Rollins has said he offends himself all the time with his thoughts – and worse than us, he cannot take leave from himself! Someone asked him what he finds most difficult in his theological journey – he says, listening to myself! He also worries that it may just be his insecurities acting up and he may be getting it all wrong! If only we could be as honest. But isn’t it the truth, that those who stand up in pulpits every Sunday in every church all around the world to preach are almost forced to sound convincing and tell you what you should or should not be, or do. That is what congregations expect anyway. But preachers could well be hiding their own securities, and could well be, not practicing what they preach. I am certain I speak for myself and I am very well aware how hot the preacher’s seat is!!
So, anyone who wishes to leave may do so now … or forever hold your peace!
Let’s listen to Peter Rollins first-hand – listen carefully because you need to hear beyond his Irish accent.
Hear this again – we need not so much to be free to pursue what we think will make us happy; as to be freed from the pursuit of what we think will make us happy. The pursuit of happiness that we are bombarded with daily by the media, by magazines, by drugs, in shopping malls, by friends and not least, by the Church.
On the other hand, you would have also come across statements like – You can’t be happy but you can embrace your unhappiness. Or, the more one pursues happiness, the more unhappy one gets. Oscar Wilde has said, there’s only one thing worse than not getting what you want, that’s getting what you want.
Let me add, we do this in relationships all the time. We think that once we get that perfect partner, we will finally be happy. Yes, there may indeed be happy moments, but there will also be difficult and sad moments in a relationship. Our real lives are really not like our Facebook lives where we only see the exciting, happy moments and photos. We very much have also the humdrum and mundane, the down and out parts of our lives.
Happiness and joy, despair and sadness; sickness and health; youth and growing old – just every day wear and tear – exists in all our lives. God is not there to rescue us from illness, from aging, from sadness – these are all parts of life and must be borne whilst trying to live fully within our different circumstances and life stages before death. Why do people say Rest in Peace when you die? It’s because that’s the perfect peace – death! But before death we can only do the best we can.
And Rollins includes the pursuit of God in our never-ending pursuit of happiness. He says don’t seek God to make life all better for you like a pain-killer. Besides, a pain-killer makes things bearable, it temporarily makes life better but does not fix the problem, or address where the pain is coming from.
This is much like our Saturday nights when we go on our drink and drug-bingeing just to escape from our brokenness, pain or depression. But the next day the pain and depression comes back. And you have to go out and party again to feel better. But this doesn’t help us work through our issues. This is also much like Sunday church for many of us. We sing our songs, we feel great, we ride on a spiritual and emotional high – but what happens after we leave? I suspect for many of us, the following week is one of continued brokenness and pain, till the next Sunday at church. So we are always looking to the next worship service, the next worship conference, the next high, while the in-between of our life is terrible!
Instead Rollins believes church should be the place where our brokenness can be reflected back to us – where we can go to sing about our pain and suffering (sing sad songs, like Brian’s songs), acknowledge and articulate our sadness, mourn and lament and cry – and even if we don’t cry we feel the cathartic release of crying, and in the process the pain is robbed of its sting. Kierkegaard said, what is a poet but one who screams and cries in agony but whose lips are so formed that when they cry our beautiful music is created.
His provides this other analogy. It is like going to a therapist hoping he/she will make us better, make us whole. But a good therapist will not give you what you want because she can’t. All she can do is help you, over time, come to terms with your brokenness and embrace yourself. Just like people who come to Church to become whole. A bad pastor will say yes, we can do that – just believe in Jesus, join a cell group, read the Bible, or say these prayers, or give more money. A good pastor will not do that. A good pastor will gradually help you face your brokenness and confront your demons. For when we confront the truths about ourselves, the truth will make us free! That’s what good therapy or a good church does!
I do admit that, unlike me perhaps, many of you are comfortable with the way things have always been. I like things the way they are, no need to be so complicated – which is fine. No one is being coerced to think the way Rollins thinks, or the way your pastors think, or cell leader thinks. I am not up here to get you to think like I think. Besides, I don’t really know if I agree totally with Rollins. Does he go too far perhaps, I wonder? So please bear this in mind – I am merely exploring aloud with you, offering you a new and different (at least to me) but extremely interesting (at least to me) approach to our Christian faith.
“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.” A.A.Milne
Perhaps others of us are like Christopher Robin’s bear, Winnie-the-Pooh being dragged down the stairs and thinking there may really be another way to do life, if we could just stop bumping along for a moment and think about it. Or, in our case, if we could just stop pretending for a moment and dare to ask those difficult questions.
Let me also defend Rollins first by reminding you that Church history is full of debates and disagreements and calling into question various faith assumptions. We can go all the way back to the founding of the Church and the issue of circumcision. There was heated and controversial debate about whether this outward sign was a requirement for Gentile converts. A decision was made, an old law was removed — new converts will not need to undergo circumcision to participate in the life of the Church. It was a revolutionary decision but it established the unique identity of Christians. Moreover, it brought to the surface the idea that faith involved an inner transformation of life rather than some outward mark (or even a set of beliefs, let me add). And there have been many other debates since that time leading to the splits we find in the different denominations.
So Peter Rollins challenges us to re-think some of the things we hold precious, to not be afraid to burn our sacred temples in order to discover what, if anything, remains. Like I shared on a previous occasion – how Dr Gordon Wong, our Methodist OT scholar challenged a pastor-in-training to tear down his shaky foundations that depended on whether or not Daniel literally survived the lion’s den or furnace, and re-build a stronger one.
The main crux and jarring message from Rollins is that he tells the Church to stop selling God(or Jesus) as the answer to our search … don’t make finding God the goal of our lives, nor the crutch. Rollins is telling us not to search for or look for God because God is never the object of our search — but always the subject – the ultimate subject, the absolute subject before whom we are the objects.
To Rollins, like to Paul Tillich, God is not a third person out there somewhere. God is the very ground of our be-ing. So God is … the ground beneath us, on which we stand, the air around us, spirit within us, the voice in our head … what/where/who the heck is God?
And that is a question Peter Rollins asks too. All this God-talk or talk about God is the most difficult and dangerous subject. So much ink spent, so much blood spilt in God’s name, you would be well to just acknowledge that God is the “I am Who I am” and heed the advice of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who wrote in 1921 – “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”
But Rollins says he is unable to keep silent because of his evangelical charismatic upbringing. He wrote in 2006 in his book, How (Not) To Speak of God – “God is the one subject of whom we must never stop speaking”.
His dilemma is how to embrace the wisdom that “that which we cannot speak of is the one thing about whom and to whom we must never stop speaking”.
To him, God can never be reduced to human understanding because God overflows and overwhelms both our understanding and our experience. So this calls for God-talk which gives a proper place to ambiguity, complexity and mystery. And he has come to realize that the Christian mystics have known this all along – they realized that the unspeakable was where the most inspiring language began – it was these mystics who wrote and spoke so eloquently in poetry, ritual, liturgy and music – not as a way to define God but as a loving response to God. So Rollins envisions a faith community that engages in highly creative forms of religious activity – within the full range of sensual experiences in worship. One that will leave all our being crying out in response.
There are many writings of Christian mystics no doubt, that I can offer as examples but I am captivated by this beautiful poem by the spiritual Sufi poet Hafiz (Sufism is the mystical arm of Islam) who lived in the 14th century, and who describes where to find God in this particular poem –
You Say, I Say
“How can I find God?”
“The Friend is lining your pocket…
the curved pink wall in your belly…
Steady you aim,
Turn the Universe and
The Beautiful Rascal
“That sounds perposterous….
I really don’t believe God is in there.”
Why not try the Himilayas….
You could get naked
And pretend to be an exalted yogi
And eat bark and snow for forty years.”
And you might think,
“Hey, Old Man,
Why don’t you … go shovel
God is in “the lining in your pocket”, “the curved pink wall in your belly” and Hafiz says to just reach in and turn the “beautiful rascal” inside out! If you read the poetry of Hafiz, you’ll see his wonderful descriptions of God – Beloved, Friend, Father, Mother, the Infinite are familiar – but he also calls God, Sweet Uncle, Generous Merchant, the Immediate One, The Problem Giver, the Problem Solver, The Clever Rascal, Beautiful Companion, Dancer, the Music, Wine – he writes a lot about being inebriated with God! Read his poems and you will be transported, I swear!
Anyway, back to Rollins – what he says about God as mysterious, ambiguous and unspeakable, is not very helpful is it? Then what do I do with all my questions? That’s my question!! What is the role of the church if not to provide answers? What is the purpose of bible study or a sermon if not to give a clear explanation of a passage in scripture or an area of Christian life? We can’t just be reading poetry, dancing and singing, drinking wine every Sunday right? Although it does sound quite delightful to me! And surely deserves further thought!
So what to do with all my questions? Well Rollins advises me to live with the questions without expectations of ever receiving any answers but to enjoy the exploration or journey as we often say. And he says the role of the church is to provide a sacred space for this exploration. A space to –
- Open up thinking
- Offer hints rather than orders
- Be a question rather than an answer
- Be aroma rather than food
- Be a desert not an oasis – offer silence, desolation and space amidst the sickly nourishment of capitalism
But the place of uncertainty and unknowing is often a scary place to be. Where is this church/God that is supposed to comfort the afflicted? Be assured Rollins says, that this uncertainty is not without a certain comfort – for while we cannot grasp God, faith is born amidst the feeling that God grasps us.
The question we should naturally ask then is, if we cannot grasp God my dear Peter Rollins, then how do we know it is God that grasps us? Well, he retorts, then you misunderstand the role of doubt within religion. You see doubt as something to reject or tolerate – whereas he sees doubt as part of life and even to be celebrated as a vital part of faith. He contends that only when we doubt can real decisions be made. For example, if a couple has no doubt that their marriage will last as long as both shall live, no real decision needs to be made. But if they see that their future together may encounter difficulties or hardships, and that there are no guarantees, then a real decision to marry needs to be made.
Similarly, serious doubts which do not shake your faith, only serve to affirm it. Meaning, if you are so sure of victory in Christ, that Christ has conquered death for you, that you no longer need fear hell because you’re headed for heaven, thatyou lay down your life because you are sure that’s how you’ll find it – the decision to become a Christian is a no-brainer. It requires real faith to lay down your life with no regard as to whether you will in the end find it.
And he continues, while God is impossible to grasp, this does not mean that God has no impact in our lives, for we are transformed by our very desire for God and the spiritual. Which I find hard to understand, I admit – how to be transformed by our desire for God when for on the other hand he says to not pursue God for God is not the answer.
Well, what he is really trying to tell me is that God doesn’t need to be pursued because God is already present – in the wall of my belly, in the lining of my pocket. I am already grasped by the one I seek to grasp. He tells this fable to illustrate what he means by being transformed by our desire –
Peter Rollins, How (Not) To Speak of God, Paraclete Press 2006, p. 47-48
(Fable of the princess who seeks wealth and riches and in a vision is told to look for this particular young beggar, whom she eventually finds and who gives it to her without a moment’s hesitation. Having now the gold and diamonds in her possession, instead of happiness, her mind is in turmoil and she ends up throwing the wealth into the deep sea. She seeks out the young man to ask what his secret was that enabled him to part with such riches without hesitation.)
We see in this story the search for material wealth transforming into the desire for spiritual wealth. We don’t know the young man’s answer to the princess’ question of what spiritual wealth he possessed that allowed him to give away his worldly wealth without hesitation. But we can imagine him saying, “why it is the same wealth that allowed YOU to throw it away without hesitation”. It shows how the princess’ desire for spiritual transformation was itself spiritually transformative. The seeking of spiritual wealth was itself evidence of this wealth’s presence. Similar to our search for God. If I am truly seeking God – my desire for God is the evidence of having already found God. It is a present continuous tense – your seeking is your finding, your asking is your receiving, your knocking is the opening. Not two actions but both occurring at the same time. Have you ever thought of these actions this way?
To put it another way –
We often think that our desire for something or someone arises from the absence of that which we seek. For example, we long for food because we are hungry and we are satisfied when we eat (an analogy often used in Christianity – spiritual food). However, Rollins asks us to think about a loving relationship with someone – where it is apparent that our desire often arises from his/her actual presence, not just absence. In love, the presence of the other (unlike food that fulfils our hunger) actually deepens our desire. He equates this with our religious desire for God – it is never satisfied by finding God but rather our desire is deepened there. We cannot grasp God not because God is absent but because God is always present in excess of our ability to grasp.
Similarly, in life, if we follow the way of LOVE, Christ’s way, we cannot help but find meaning and joy. Do you get what I mean? If the world is full of meaning but you have no love, then the world is meaningless. If you believe the world is meaningless, but you are in love with life or a person, then you cannot help but experience meaning in your life. It really does all boil down to love. As John says, if you know love, you know God; if you don’t know love, you don’t know God.
I don’t know about you but I find this so basic yet so moving. ut Rollins is not one who just preaches or writes. Rollins is not doing his theological work in an academic institution or seminary, but he is rooted in a faith community he founded called Ikon. He emphasizes that people who are engaged in real communities are uniquely prepared to speak meaningfully of God. What he does in Ikon services are disturbing and uncomfortable to some – while inspiring and moving to others.
I will describe some of these shortly but in reading about Ikon, I was reminded of some past uncomfortable FCC services, for example one where Tuck Leong asked us to come to the front and stomp on the cross that he had placed on the ground – he recounted the story of a young Jesuit priest in Japan in the 16oos when security officers were ferreting out the underground Christians and forcing them to renounce their faith by trampling on a ‘fumi-e’ (carved image of Christ). Those who refused were killed. As this young priest watched the Christians one by one lay down their lives, he was told that if he the priest trampled on the fumie, his flock would be released.
At the climactic moment when he looks down at the fumie, he hears Christ’s voice order him:
“Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share man’s pain that I carried my cross.”
The priest obeyed, and the Christians were released.
So Tuck challenged us to re-enact the scene. It was curious – not a single person stomped on the cross. Some bent down to touch it, others walked by it, some bowed, I remember that Molly went down on the ground to kiss it. How we are just unable to bring ourselves to trample on the cross even when Christ says do it. I also recall when Rev Ouyang threw his Bible on the ground and stepped on it during one of his sermons and asked if we were offended, and if so, why should we be offended — unless we treat the Bible as an idol. We had some pretty heretical moments in our church.
So let me describe some of the ministries the Ikon faith community engages in-
OMEGA course (his answer to the ALPHA course): instead of teaching people how to get into Christianity, the Omega course teaches people how to exit Christianity, toxic Christianity. The Alpha course is a 12-week program that introduces newbies to Christianity – each week the Alpha course will take a different theological theme and discuss it over some food, and at the end draw everybody to a specific doctrinal conclusion. The Omega course does the same but instead of one single answer, it introduces everybody to the variety of answers, and to the debates that exist in Christianity. They show that it is not important that everyone comes to one correct belief, but that they all remain in the conversation and listen to each others’ perspectives, even celebrate differences. The Omega course is designed for the discovery of a richer, deeper, more diverse form of the Christian faith.
EVANGELISM Project – that helps people experience the encounter of the “Other”. They approach other faith communities – they go to say, an Islamic Society, and ask their members to evangelise them. And not only to learn about their beliefs but also to ask them what they think of Christians. Our own beliefs and practices may create certain impressions, perhaps even misperceptions in others that we may not be aware of. And could possibly set us thinking.
THE LAST SUPPER – 12 meet in an upper room, over food and wine, and they often invite a guest speaker whom they don’t quite agree with. So as to allow a dialogue of differences to occur. Symbolically, the guest sits where Christ sits – they listen to him/her as if he/she is going to bring them some truth. Playfully speaking, they say that if by the end of the evening they still don’t agree with him/her, it’s the guest’s last supper (:
LENT – giving up God for Lent. They listen and study works of atheists or the greatest critics of Christianity. Which in turn sets them to think more deeply and ask pointed questions about their Christian faith.
NON-MEMBERSHIP classes – for those people who attend church now and then. They take this 12-week course to receive a non-membership card (; Seriously, it teaches us to not always look our leaders to tell us what to do, what to believe, but to take responsibility for our own lives. In the same vein, Ikon’s LEADERSHIP Training is about raising leaders who will refuse to lead. Similarly, so that people will take responsibility for their own learning — so that we can’t simply rely on, or blame our leaders.
Isn’t this just so unique what they are doing? Rollins has even more fascinating thoughts that we have no time to get into – he talks about INTREPRETING THE BIBLE – how we should remain faithful to the text, by following Jesus was who always interpreted with a bias for the poor, weak and marginalized – not reading from a position of power. You can find in the Bible many ways to respond to various commonplace daily situations. BUT there are so many situations that arise in life today in our modern world that were not directly faced in the past. We sorely need to interpret texts with great care. He talks about TRUTH – if the Truth is God, then Truth too can never be fully grasped. How Truth is not to be defined or described in some doctrine, but to be experienced. Truth is never to be found in doctrines but always in its incarnation in our lives.
In the end, when asked what his vision of a church is, Peter replies that he envisions a place where we are confronted with our brokenness – BUT not so that we despair – but so that we come to realise there is the GOOD NEWS that frees us from the oppression of thinking there is something that will make us whole and happy. But rather we face the fact that life sucks and we don’t have the answers. But that together we acknowledge and accept our brokenness and suffering, work through them and fess up and face up to our humanity.
We can do this through a whole range of sacraments, spiritual disciplines and rituals, and with the full range of human emotions and lamenting just as the Psalmists did. And in the process he believes we will become more loving, more beautiful and more grace-filled people of God.
If you find Peter Rollins’ thoughts as intriguing as I do, please seek out his work and explore further – in addition to his books, there are several clips on youtube of his speaking engagements and interviews as well.
And in the end, even if you or I don’t agree completely with him, maybe it does make us think about how sometimes all this religiosity, bickering over doctrine, arguing and debating over differing interpretations, – all just get in the way. Maybe those who claim to be “spiritual but not religious”, those who leave the church, leave organised religion, those who don’t identify themselves with any one religious faith – the ‘nones’ as we call them (the origin being from the box they tick when asked for their religion – none of the above) – perhaps they have more than valid reasons for being “spiritual but not religious”. They are merely disenchanted with the church and are simply looking for a new way of being community – it gives us lots to think about.
SO – have I today comforted those of you who have always questioned some of the long-held but troubling assumptions about our faith? Have I today afflicted some of you who have held these assumptions about your faith without question? I hope I have done a little of both, all credit and thanks to Peter Rollins. Amen.