Faith Acts (VI): So That We Would Search for God
by Louise Westfall
The school teacher spoke sharply to a student: Craig, you just cannot sleep in my class. Craig responded, I know. But if you were just a little quieter, I could. (I’ve heard the same story told as a conversation between a preacher and a dozing parishioner).
Ah, yes, the eternal dance that makes up the teaching/learning enterprise! We laugh knowingly because we’ve been on both sides. Sometimes we are the eager teacher, ready to impart wisdom only to find sleepy resistance; and sometimes we are the student struggling to absorb the material bombarding us. I actually think it’s one of the reasons the church has changed the terminology for this important ministry from “Christian Education” to “Christian Faith Formation.” We recognize that learning to be Christian is more than receiving information. It’s a whole (and never-ending) process of experiences that form us, reform us and transform us, by God’s grace. It calls for attention–although as we talked about a few weeks ago it also allows for rest and trust in the One who holds this world in safe and loving arms.
During the summer sermon series on the Acts of the Apostles, we’ve witnessed a wide variety of teaching/learning methods–from deeds of kindness, shared meals, and healing minds and bodies, to dreams and visions, Scripture study, worship, singing, and public debate. The text today tells of the apostle Paul in his favorite role: proclaimer of the good news. Here he is, in Athens, the intellectual center of the Mediterranean world, home to philosophers and poets, cynics and whatever was the first-century equivalent of “nones.” To these educated and sophisticated people, Paul makes the case for Christianity–with words. To preserve the drama of this narrative, I’ve asked Tim and Evan to share the reading from the Acts of the Apostles in the seventeenth chapter, at the 16th verse.
Am I right that the contemporary church and society could learn a few things about public discourse from Paul? He’s the soul of respect even as he challenges perspectives he believes are in error. There’s no name-calling, no judgment, and he even seeks out common ground to make his case. He shows up in both the synagogue of the faithful, and the marketplace, and engages with whomever he finds there. He assures them that they are God’s children. With deep conviction, he acknowledges the universal nature of his message: God’s creation of all earth’s people, the human hunger for transcendence, and an invitation to everyone to follow the Teacher God has appointed and authorized by raising him from death to life. He meets with mixed reactions: some scoff, some express curiosity to continue the discussion, and some respond with dedication.
But the point is, the apostle shared the faith he knew, using words to convey meaning. The text indicates this wasn’t a one-off–he conversed regularly with the Athenians while staying in their city, listening as well as speaking. He didn’t bite his tongue or keep silent, wary of conflict or ridicule. Nor did he resort to hateful rhetoric or threats. We know that disrespectful speech can have a destructive effect on community. Despite the cheery nursery rhyme, words can break bones and spirit. But I sometimes wonder if we have underestimated the power of words as a formation tool–to share faith, to build community, to offer one another life-giving gifts. In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech (in 1993), the late Toni Morrison urged There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence.
“Doing language” is not a solitary activity. We talk with. We listen to. We learn from. Whether teacher or student, education is best carried out in community. We have to be educated by the other. We can’t teach our souls alone, but only as we choose relationship with other people.
Here’s the thing, friends. “Doing language” is not a solitary activity. We talk with. We listen to. We learn from. Whether teacher or student, education is best carried out in community. We have to be educated by the other. We can’t teach our souls alone, but only as we choose relationship with other people. What’s true for human knowledge is also true for faith formation. Someone has said that faith is not so much “taught” as “caught”–picked up through the words and actions of others. In relationship, we are able to be vulnerable about what we don’t know and where we have failed. We learn grace and humility and develop a resiliency that opens us to even greater learning.
We worship today on the threshold of a new school year, a new program year, and a new confirmation journey. Our children will skip (or slouch, depending on their age) off to school. Teachers will return to non-air-conditioned classrooms. The curriculum will include lockdown drills and safety exercises. We’ll bless backpacks and brief cases, but what we’re really blessing are the individuals who will engage in learning and teaching and formation experiences. In one way, everyone of us should come forward for a blessing (and please feel free to do so), since we never really graduate from the school of life until our dying day.
One day last week I “liked” a Facebook video post from Clayton Bartczak showing his young daughter riding her trike down the sidewalk as fast she could, smiling and mugging for her dad as he filmed her. The next day, the very same post showed up again, but this time it became a teachable moment–a story of wisdom and truth. Clayton wrote (and he has given me permission to share it with you): I have a confession to make so I’m reposting this video that got so many “likes.” Less than 12 hours after Maya’s joyful tricycle ride, I was yelling and screaming at her and her brother Miles about cleaning up their toys so we could leave the house in the morning. I think I posted this beautiful video to make my life look perfect again when I was feeling so bummed…I’m want to remember that our lives are not all filled with fun, beautiful moments as Instagram and Facebook would lead us to believe. It’s REALLY hard being a parent, a partner, an employee, a friend, a son, a sibling, and we’re all doing our best every day. Sometimes my best doesn’t feel like enough, like when I lose my temper with my family. And sometimes it feels better than I could have ever imagined life could be, typically when I’m not trying so hard and just let life flow. It is this juxtaposition of ups and downs, strikes and gutters that make up all our lives. . . As perfect as you all look on social media, I need to remind myself occasionally that we’re all messy humans, we all have tough days, moments of sadness and even despair and that’s okay. It’s easy to feel alone in hard times and I’m insanely grateful to be surrounded by loving family and friends. I know that uncovering the messy times in our lives won’t automatically create a better world but I do think being honest with ourselves and each other will help us all on our path to better, more loving and connected relationships. I truly believe that we can co-create a society where everyone feels valued and loved and it starts with honesty and being “for real” with each other. Love you all…for real.
I can imagine Paul responding to Clayton and to us with a reminder that nothing–nothing–can separate us from the love of God. Not the messiness of our lives, not ignorance, not boredom or sleepiness, nor anything else. It’s there, a solid and fertile foundation from which to learn and grow and face the vulnerability of every age and stage with courage and hope, together.