Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Doubting Mary?

I’m glad that Protestants are giving Mary, the mother of Jesus, another look. Like most Protestants, I am very concerned about language that calls her the co-mediatrix. Likewise, I believe most Marian devotion draws attention away from the primacy of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Still, Mary remains a women of incredible faith. She is a model for all of us. She deserves to be praised. I don’t even mind when people claim her perpetual virginity. After all, Martin Luther and John Calvin claimed the same for her. Protestants should be able to echo her cousin Elizabeth when she proclaims about Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42).

In 2002, Christianity Today did a cover article on Mary by Tom Oden and J.I. Packer. It was a helpful recovery of Mary for Protestants. Only a few years behind, our own Presbyterians Today has recently printed an article by Jon Sweeney entitled, “Mary, the First Disciple.” Although I appreciate making Mary accessible to a Presbyterian audience, I was dismayed with the thrust of the article.

Luke’s Gospel tells the story. Gabriel came to Mary and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

And then came Mary’s various words of hesitancy: “But she was much perplexed…pondered…afraid…’How can this be?’” [ellipses in the original]

Sometimes after her shock subsided, she replied: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” She believed, and in so believing, became the first disciple of her as yet unborn son.

Even so, Mary was also the first person in the Gospels to demonstrate that belief does not come without some measure of question and doubt. Centuries of tradition have tended to erase that fact, making the images of Mary into unerring and unflinching gazes of certitude. Don’t believe it. Mary is the first and foremost disciple because she shows us how to wait on God, expect God, have awe for God, and hope for God, but not with an easy credulity. Hers was not an unquestioning belief; her mixture of doubt and faith is the sign of a mature disciple.

Now, questions do come up in the life of faith. As a pastor, I encourage my parishioners to wrestle with their faith, to ask tough questions. When I read the Psalms, I find the spiritual life to be a passionate one. The psalmist asks questions of God, he offers his laments to God, and he even gets angry with God. I don’t think that the psalmist is acting in doubt or outside the faith. Questions will come because conflicts come and choices are made. Jesus often asked difficult questions which shake our faith to the core.

Doubt seems to be a different thing. Rather than questioning how we should live or quibbling over a particular doctrine, doubt is about rejection or distrust. The model for doubt in the Bible is not Mary, but rather Job’s wife whose advice to her husband is “Curse God and die.” In fact, Mary’s faithfulness is placed in direct contrast to Zechariah’s distrust. After Gabriel foretells the birth of John the Baptist, Zechariah says, “How shall I know this?” Zechariah seeks a sign, and Gabriel silences him because of Zechariah’s unbelief (Luke 1:20). In contrast, Mary asks, “How will this be, since I do not know a man?” Her question draws out clarification rather than expressing distrust. With Gabriel’s response that this would be a virgin birth, Mary’s question emphasizes the miracle of the story. Mary is not a model for doubt.

Nonetheless, I do recognize that doubt does happen. The best of us have had those “dark nights of the soul.” Some of us would even argue that our faith is better for going through them. Still, doubt is not a preferable state. Although most of us can identify with the prodigal son, we should not pattern our lives after him. For those crippled by doubt, God will not forsake. He continues to love us even when we reject him. However, mature discipleship is never a mixture of doubt and faith. To think otherwise is projecting our thoughts and feelings on the mother of Jesus.

Newsletter: Fourth Down

I’ve had football on my brain. Maybe, it’s because our high school team is in the playoffs. Maybe, it’s just that autumn is the best time to play touch football in the backyard. Nonetheless, last week, I was fascinated when I heard about a book on football by a Berkley economics professor.

The book is entitled, “It’s the Fourth Down and What Does the Bellman Equation Say?” by David Romer. During a football game, every coach faces a decision at the fourth down. Should the players continue to move the ball down the field and hope for another first down, or should the team kick a field goal? Romer has collected historical data and has applied mathematical probabilities to that problem. According to his data, punting is often a bad call. Moreover, coaches regularly take the punt and avoid the risk.

Now, I’m no coach, but it’s clear that the particulars of a game or team make a difference. Coaches have to make tough choices on the field. However, it doesn’t surprise me that most coaches are like most people. We try to avoid taking risks. However, playing it safe often means that we rarely reach our potential.

I am reminded of the parable that Jesus told about the talents (Matthew 25). Remember the man who buried the one talent. He did the safe thing, and things didn’t end well for him. In our lives of faith, we are often called to take risks, to move outside our comfort zones. That might mean reading your Bible regularly, joining a prayer group, volunteering your time, loving the unlovable, or forgiving someone who has hurt you. None of these things are easy, but living to our full potential as the church is God’s calling. Punting is not always the right choice.

Wishing the our team all the best…

Monday, November 27, 2006

Lead us Not into Temptation

Sitting on the kitchen counter is a bowl containing what's left of my son's Halloween candy. Yes, he still has Halloween candy. Although I am thankful that he doesn't gobble the candy within hours like his father did, his resistance may be my downfall. The candy beckons me.

Today as I walked past, I noticed several "fun size" candy bars in the bowl. I remembered hearing Glenn Beck on the radio giving a commentary on Halloween candy. "Fun size" is not fun, he said. Full size, extra-large, 0r giant candy bars are the real fun size. Tiny, namby-pamby, tastes of chocolate are never fun.