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How can such things be?

President’s Blog
March 12, 2014

Last weekend I attended a meeting in Dallas sponsored by the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry – specifically a training event for the Ministerial Assessment Specialists who do psychological evaluations for candidates and clergy in ordination processes. For quite a number of years, I’ve been a member of the Advisory Committee that supports this work. We knew that one of our members had been in a serious car accident a year ago and very nearly died. We learned during our meeting that though there has been major progress in his recovery, he suffered devastating injuries that have resulted in a future with severe physical and emotional challenges. The information all but silenced us as our committee acknowledged the news, but immediately recognized we were helpless to make what felt like any meaningful response. Flowers? A card? We were experiencing our own profound challenges in how to process this painful reality and our helplessness in the face of it. The subject was changed and we went on to discuss the business at hand.

The unspoken question for me, and I suspect for some of the rest of us, was, “How can such things be?” We had been faced with something about which we really just had no gratifying way to make sense. “Accidents happen” was not adequate. And yet, as Christians and as persons who have pastoral leadership responsibilities, we are obligated to struggle with these ambiguous realms of life experience and of our faith - experiences that we simply cannot take in, either because they strain our credulity, - they are not logical, or because they are emotionally overwhelming, for good and/or for ill.

Christ Instructing Nicodemus Crijn HendrickszI think this is essentially the realm of experience that Nicodemus found himself in as he met Jesus under the cover of night (we know that as a Pharisee he had to be careful about being seen with this controversial Jesus). Nicodemus was seeking further understanding about some of what Jesus had been teaching. There were questions about being born again by water and by spirit. And, I would add that we could be asking further questions about this passage and the meaning of God giving God’s only Son for the sake of the world, questions about the meaning of eternal life, and questions about how the world could be saved through this gift of God’s son. 

The story in John 3:1-17 is the gospel lectionary text for this coming Sunday. As I have prepared to preach the text this week, I have struggled with those aspects of our faith that do not readily make human sense to us – hence the questions, “How can these things be? How are such things possible?” And then the experiences of life that lead us to similar questions – experiences in which something is too good to be true, or something so painful and tragic that we plead, “Dear God, let it not be so."

To be perfectly honest, when I discovered the text for the week I squirmed around with it, wondering how I could find some other angle or focus in the story. I thought about changing the title, or choosing another text. I wanted to resist resorting to easy answers or the platitudes of faith to which we sometimes appeal hoping that if we say them loud enough and repeat them enough, that maybe our listeners will feel the spirit, get whipped up, and not really be thinking about what they are hearing.  So much of our spiritual language makes no real logical, human sense.

After indulging these escapist fantasies, I realized that I could not avoid the number of challenges I found at every turn. I resigned/committed myself to struggle with the text as an obligation of leadership. This doesn’t mean the results are worthy, but the process of “leaning in” to the work could not be turned away from. I know this struggle is a common experience for those of you who have to preach every Sunday, and from my teenage years on, I have always admired the weekly preachers for this dedication.

Working on the sermon brought me to the mysteries of our faith and the necessity to engage what Paul Ricoeur called the second naivete, that condition we may find ourselves in when after studying, learning, and coming to grips with the limitations of how much we really do not know and cannot not know in ways that will satisfy our human longing for certainty and understanding – after all this, we take that leap of faith that Kierkegaard described and we decide to believe anyway, as a child believes and trusts. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, NRSV).

We “see through a glass darkly” now, but as Christians we are called to believe anyway and to take responsibility, as did Nicodemus, for seeking understanding, and for living faithfully, trusting that even as we have to ask, “How can these things be?” that God is God and we are not. Let us have ears to hear, eyes to see, and hearts that trust God with these spiritual mysteries of the faith so that we might offer witness to God’s extravagant gift of love to the world in Jesus Christ.


# Lauren Padgett 2014-03-14 00:09
As a hospice chaplain for the past several years, I can relate to this. It is all about journeying with one another through the doubts, the questions and the fear. We may not have rational or logical answers that make sense. That doesn't always matter. What does matter is the love, the care and the covenant of companionship.
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# Dwight W. Vogel 2014-03-15 23:25
Thank you for sharing your ponderments with us. Escaping the platitudes is balanced in difficulty with embodying the truth of the insights/revela tions that come to us!! Blessings!
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