How do you talk about faith?

Despite Christians being called to share the gospel many of us feel inadequate to the task. It doesn’t help that most people have had strange and awkward experiences when it came to sharing faith.

This Saturday and Monday, as part of our study on having difficult conversations, we’ll be focusing on what it might look like to share one’s faith. The unhelpful reality is that “Christians have historically considered sharing one’s faith to be the exclusive practice of evangelism and have often bypassed normal conversational decorum to leap to the action of telling the gospel.” (Mary Schaller and John Crilly, The 9 Arts of Spiritual Conversations29). As with all difficult conversations, it rarely goes well when we enter the conversation convinced that we have all the answers and when we have limited desire to listen to the other person (and make space for their feelings or how any conversation related to faith might touch on their or our identity).

While it’s fairly easy to see how spiritual conversations can go wrong, it’s less easy to figure out how we might start good conversations about spirituality. How can be as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove in this matter (cf. Matthew 10:6)? Perhaps the question is better framed as how one might live out one’s faith (and share it) in a way that is authentic (innocent) and creative (wise). Robert Kaita, in discussing how he has been able to share his faith with his colleagues, challenges us to think of how we might creatively share our faith:

The relevant question becomes not how good we are at striking up conversations at the water cooler. . . . If “generic” ideas on how to share your faith are not for you, God has given you the ability to figure out creative alternatives. As He does not make mistakes, He expects you to meet this challenge based on the kind of person He has created you to be. . . Are you serving the body of Christ in a lockstep fashion that you would never tolerate professionally, or are you exercising your God-given creativity?

Kaita ended up working with his church to provide a class for high school students as part of their Vacation Bible School program. He “started each day with a Bible study on Genesis on the theme that God has “created us to be creative.” [He] then took the students to a different place on campus each day. [They] went to the art gallery, the geology museum, and some engineering laboratories where some Christian friends were teaching.” Such a program led to good conversations with the students who participated, as well as with his local church and the university community.

I’m hopeful that we will be able to encourage and challenge each other to be creative about living out and sharing the good news with others.

Difficult conversations

Conversations that matter are often difficult. Stone, Patton, and Heen do a good job of explaining what makes a conversation difficult:

“Anytime we feel vulnerable or our self-esteem is implicated, when the issues at stake are important and the outcome uncertain, when we care deeply about what is being discussed or about the people with whom we are discussing it, there is potential for us to experience the conversation as difficult.” Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations, xv.

By God’s grace, however, we can learn to have those difficult conversations through learning from the wisdom of others (like the authors of this book).

So maybe it is about economics?

In our studies on the parables of Jesus, I’ve been struck by how often the parables talk about money and economics. Perhaps, though, as Jesus’ teachings tended to make people upset, it’s not that surprising: nothing quite gets people as upset as challenging them about money, power, and their self-importance.

The parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20) challenges readers both about economics and their self-importance.

The traditional understanding of this parable is that of grace: like the day’s wage that each person is paid at the end of the day, all those who believe are given salvation (irrelevant of how long they have been doing kingdom work). Salvation by grace alone (not by works) is one of the often repeated themes in Paul’s letters, so while there is something wonderful about being reminded about God’s extensive grace, there’s not much surprising in this message. Nor does it fully explain the ending of the parable – the part where the landowner basically tells the ‘early’ workers to get over themselves and highlights the generosity of the landowner in making sure all those who’d worked received enough for their daily needs.

It helps to look at the context. This parable is probably being told to the disciples. The text surrounding the passage doesn’t give the best picture of the disciples: they rebuke the people bringing their children to Jesus, they ask what they’ll earn because they’ve given up everything to follow Jesus, and then two of them ask to sit at Jesus’ right and left in the kingdom (and the others get upset at their audacity). The parable then rebukes the self-importance and entitlement of the disciples, something that many of us ‘older’ Christians also tend to have. The challenge to the hearers of this parable is thus:

“Why do we find it so difficult to rejoice over the good that enters other people’s lives, and why do we spend our time calculating how we have been cheated? . . . Even while we speak of justice, none of us is satisfied with average. We always think we deserve a little more.” Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 378.

As the text surrounding this parable talks a lot about money and our desire to get what we deserve, it is also important to wonder what the strange economics in the parable might have to say to us today. Amy-Jill Levine does a great job of pointing out how the justice portrayed in this parable is a justice that is not related only to saving grace but also to every day life:

“The workers seek what they perceive to be ‘fair’; the householder teaches them a lesson by showing them what is ‘right.’ . . an economic lesson: the point is not that those who have ‘get more,’ but that those who have not ‘get enough. . . . If the householder can afford it, he should continue to put others on the payroll, pay them a living wage (even if they cannot put in a full day’s work), and so allow them to feed their families while keeping their dignity intact. The point is practical, it is edgy, and it a greater challenge to the church then and today than the entirely unsurprising idea that God’s concern is that we enter, not when.”  Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 213, 218

Why talk about difficult topics?

The studies in the second half of the spring semester focused on difficult topics in Christianity and the Bible. As many people avoid these conversations because of potential conflict, it’s not always obvious why we should talk about these things. Yet, studying these difficult topics can help us love God and those around us. Reading the Bible carefully, as well as listening to those around us, makes us aware that knowing and understanding the Bible isn’t easy. How could God command the Israelites to destroy all the Canaanites when they went into the promised land, an act that people today would consider genocide? Why would a caring, all-powerful God allow people to be attracted to people of the same-sex if it’s sin to act on those feelings? What about gender dysphoria? Hell?

These are hard questions that many struggle with. Not talking about them doesn’t make the struggles go away; in fact, it often makes it worse and may even cause people to question faith. Looking for answers to these difficult questions allows us to use our God-given intellect to know God better. At the same time, sometimes the answers are unclear, as witnessed by how differently Christians address these questions. The Bible also seems to suggest (in the book of Job) that as mere humans, it is not our place to understand all things. So sometimes the questions do not need to be answered so much as they need space to be voiced. When address the problem of suffering, Mike Wagenman, a campus minister at University of Western Ontario, notes that sometimes it’s not about answers so much as providing a “listening ear and open heart” in the middle of the pain and the struggles.

Worse than the nations around you

Ezekiel 5:6-7 says that Israel has been worse than the surrounding nations. Such an accusation seems strange, as it doesn’t seem merely to say that Israel was worse in not obeying the special laws that God gave them, but instead that Israel was objectively worse than those around them. How is this possible?

First, Ezekiel 16 and 23 provide a rather distressing picture of God’s accusations of what happened: Israel had rejected God and run after other gods. In no nation would it be appropriate to reject your own god.

Secondly, there is something about religious systems that allow for a certain type of abuse. The beginning of 1 Samuel speaks of how Eli’s sons, priests, were taking advantage of their religious positions to take the best meat and sleep with the women serving at the temple. In light of what we know about power (cf #metoo and #churchtoo movements) the sexual favors were most likely not consensual. All of the abuse scandals within the church show us how easy it is to turn a blind eye when we believe that good people wouldn’t do that sort of thing. So the words ‘you have been worse than those around you’ are distressingly applicable not only to the Israelites in Ezekiel’s time but also to the church today.

On top of this, many people who are not Christians have a distressing image of Christians as being judgmental and unloving, especially to LGBTQ+ folks. In other words, we are perceived as being worse than those around us.

The book of Ezekiel is trying to get the attention of the people of Israel so that they realize how bad they really are. What will it take for Christians today to recognize our own shortcomings? Furthermore, what actions can we as Christians do to help believe that we are not worse than those around us? Those are the questions that our study of Ezekiel left us with, questions that are not easy to answer.

Applying Ezekiel to today

We’ve started a study on Ezekiel. The stories in Ezekiel are fascinating and peculiar, and so it is a joy for me to talk about what is going on in the text.

However, the strange-ness of the text makes it difficult to see how the text might apply to our lives. Going out and being like Ezekiel is not exactly an option: in the first five chapters, Ezekiel eats a scroll, is told to lie on his side for more than a year, create a mini-enactment of a siege, and run around the city hacking at a chunk of hair with a sword. Doing any of these things today would more likely result in somebody wondering what is wrong with you than having people assume such actions are God’s way of speaking today.

And yet, there is something to the startling nature of Ezekiel’s actions. They make people wonder (cf. Ezek 24:19). When we think about applying Ezekiel to today, the question we’ve been asking is what sorts of actions (or even words) we can do that would make people wonder about who God is and what it might look like to follow God.

Perhaps, as in the book of Ezekiel, it will appear as if those around us do not hear us. Yet, “whoever would serve as the messenger of God must recognize that the calling is not to success but to faithfulness.” (Daniel Block, Ezekiel 1-24, 131). In light of this, we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves if we are not radically changing the world or bringing more people to Jesus. At the same time, we can trust the Spirit is working in the world around us (including the university) and that people will indeed ask us who God is and what faith and spirituality look like.

Just Job. Just Listening.

One way to appreciate any book of the Bible is simply to dig in and read it. The problem is, who has time and energy to do that? Even if it only takes a bit more than an hour to read, there is so much else vying for our attention and needing to be done.

We tried something different at Campus Edge during spring break (as we enter the last week this now feels like a very long time ago!). We sat and listened to the text of Job together. On the Monday, we listened together to Job 2-10; 25-28 (30 minutes if you use this link). On the Saturday we listened together to Job 28-41 (45 minutes if you use this link). We used the Audio Bible (NIV UK) from biblegateway.com. I appreciated the lovely British accent, but you’re welcome to use whatever version appeals to you.

Listening to a text has a less intense feeling to it than asking questions of it. The passiveness of just listening might mean that one misses some of the text. At the same time, pausing to listen to the words of the text creates space for God’s word to be heard anew and in a different way.

Experiencing the book of Job

One of the ways in which we’ve entered into the text of Job is through something called Bibliodrama. Bibliodrama invites people to place themselves into the story; one takes a specific moment in the text and explores what a character in the story might have been feeling or thinking at that time. We looked at the beginning of Job.

People were invited to put themselves in Job’s shoes after all the disasters had happened and Job’s wife told him to curse God. They could share thoughts, feelings, questions. It was harder than it sounds, mostly because of who Job is. How does one, after all, take on all the devastation that Job had experienced and his only words seem to be to praise God? It is like trying to imagine oneself in Jesus’ shoes.

It was easier to move away from Job to being one of those around him, whether friend, wife or bystander. His suffering could be experienced more from a distance, although the helplessness of the situation became even more obvious. How does one help someone we care about who has lost so much? But what if we’re not that close to Job? Regarding the question of what “others” will think, the response seemed more curiosity than condemning: less of a “he deserved it” to what do we make of his faith and this God now. Both of these questions are helpful to keep in mind as we keep looking at the book.

Learning from the book of Job

During Lent we’re focusing on the book of Job. As much as Job can be a bit of an overwhelming book, it’s also been good to get into it and ask questions of the text. Not surprisingly, it’s a text that seems to bring up a lot of questions.

The following are just some of the questions we’ve asked:

  • Does God do harm? Closely related, why is there so much suffering? In the book of Job, for example, why the apparently senseless death of Job’s children?
  • What picture of God is presented here in the text?
    • Can we trust this God?
  • What if the accuser/Satan of Job 1-2 is not actually Satan, the devil as we call him? Can it even be him – would God really be willing to give him that much power?
  • How does one understand Job’s wife’s response to what has happened?
  • Does Job have to really have happened exactly the way we have the book today? Does suggesting it is not historically accurate suggest that the Bible itself is not true and accurate? Does it make it harder for me to deal with difficult times if Job didn’t really go through this?
  • Why is the story so short and the poetical texts of the book so long? (3 chapters of narrative versus 39 chapters of poetical responses). Even if Job’s friends (and Elihu) had a lot of time to think about their answers, who really talks in poetry?
  • Job 28 is different: why?
  • How does Elihu fit in? At the end of the book, he is neither condoned or condemned (unlike Job’s 3 friends).
  • What do we make of God’s silence in the text? Even though God does finally appear at the end of the book, there’s a long time of silence before the response is given (and the response doesn’t really address Job’s questions).
  • The response to Job rests heavily on the fact that God understands how the world works and Job doesn’t. As we understand creation better (e.g., there aren’t really storehouses for hail), how does that change how we read the explanations in the text? Does our understanding change God’s might?!?
  • Is Job truly without sin? What then does he repent of in Chapter 42?
  • How is this book relevant to my life (and those around me) now? Especially in the context of the university?

Further thoughts on these questions will hopefully be posted here in the coming weeks. If you’d like to hear another perspective on the book (and read more questions, albeit this time with more answers), I invite you to go to a site we’ve been using as a resource for the study: “Musings on Science and Theology.”