Today I want to talk about something that I actually referenced in one of my talks in over the summer, and that is how my life was changed learning more about how to pray and pursue God the way the Eastern Church has historically taught people to. Which is very different from what I (and likely almost all of us here) would have gotten in any sort of exposure to religion here in America, in the “Western World” (as it’s often called). Whether you’ve had lots of exposure to religion or little, if it was in an American context, then chances are it was Western, not Eastern.
Let me tell you what I mean, by telling you about what I personally grew up with, SLIDE because it is a pretty typical example of Western approach to religion. Growing up going to church questions of IN vs OUT, SLIDE right vs wrong, SLIDE acceptable vs unacceptable, SLIDE were how I thought about faith. My experience was focused on figuring out what is in and what is out, and who it in and who is out, and how I can stay in and how I can manage dealing with all those who are out. I understood that other things mattered to some degree, like justice and caring for those with need, but, nothing deserved the my attention, my energy, my focus more than figuring out and defining questions of IN vs OUT. If you’re one of the many people here in our church who didn’t grow up in a highly-religious environment, perhaps you met someone like me?... I’m sorry Because, really, this lead me into... a deeply unsatisfied place. A place that left me fed up with faith and fed up with church. I thought I had all the answers, but those answers left me troubled and unhappy. And It only got worse as I grew older and interacted with more people and learned more about the world A lot of my clear answers felt like they broke down against my experience of reality. I was having a hard time and was looking to the friends around me and it felt like my Christian friends, who were “in”, were more shallow and mean and judgmental, less there for me, and actually weren’t doing much to make the world around them better While my friends who had no faith, who were “out”, were present in my life, caring, supportive, understanding, and often actually doing things in their life to try and make the world a better place. And then I did some traveling and starting to connect with more and more different kinds of people and churches in particular.
And one thing I really struggled with was that the more I got to know people that came from different Christian traditions -
Methodists, Catholics, Presbyterians, Evangelicals, Vineyard etc.
I really struggled with the reality that most of these churches, like me, spent a great deal of their time talking, thinking about, and defining issues of IN and OUT.
SLIDE And, also like me, arrived at answers with a great deal of certainty.
However, each church was arriving at different answers of what was essential for being in. And what one church was so certain about, would exclude another church
SLIDE If you were with us over the summer here at BLV, you’ve heard me explain these struggles and tensions before. I’ve described it as a crisis point, and it’s a crisis I’ve heard many others express. Wanting to be a person of faith, a spiritual person. Really being drawn to Jesus, BUT what seemed to be communicated as the crucial part of faith or following Jesus was other things that we can’t stomach: namely having to present some front of certainty in our answers about a whole host of things that didn’t actually feel certain at all!
So, I so I decided I was done with the whole church thing.
And it was at this moment that I met a man that profoundly impacted my life, Dr. Brad Nassif.
He was a professor at North Park University, where I was in college at the time.
He taught intro to theology, and one day after class I stayed after to talk to him and I started to tell him about some of what I was struggling with. And he said something to me that totally changed how I thought about things, pretty much every since. He said, “I wonder if figuring out the right answers is not the real problem for you, I wonder if it’s whether you are asking the right questions.” Then he said, “let me tell you a bit about my background.” You see, Brad Nassif was raised Eastern Orthodox, he was actually the only Professor in the United States that had a degree from an Eastern Orthodox University, an Evangelical Christian University, and a public State University. So, he suggested to me that I might be really helped by learning more about Eastern Christian Tradition. He said, it’s not so much that the Eastern tradition comes up with different answers, It’s more that it asks different questions. SLIDE You see after the Eastern Church separated from the Western Catholic Church in 1054 AD. The two traditions developed very differently. You see the Western church that existed primarily in Europe and then in North America. Got more and more hyper-focalized on the Certainty of faith, the knowability of God. SLIDE As the western tradition advanced in the context of the Enlightenment, it became more known for defining correct belief and behavior. This belief that we can and should understand God fully, and that in following him, one of our primary purposes is to clearly define and understand what that should like. Just think of all of the questions of IN or OUT or Right vs Wrong that my very western experience of faith as a child was obsessed with. And this kind of focus on certainty and the knowability of God, and the inevitable reality that people end up disagreeing on these certainties is a big reason why in the western church has somewhere between 10,000 and 35,000 different denominations today. This kind of thing just didn’t happen in the same way in Eastern church. Yes, there were divisions, usually because of geography and political rule, like the Serbian Orthodox and the Romanian Orthodox but this division was nowhere near what happened in the west And Dr. Nassif credited much of this to difference of emphasis in the Eastern in church. Where in the West we looked for the certainty and knowability of God. The East focused on SLIDE the mystery of God and limit of human understanding.
For example, the Bible captivates and animates the East and the West very differently. The East leans into passages like.
Ecclesiastes 8 16 When I tried to gain wisdom and to observe the activity on earth— even though it prevents anyone from sleeping day or night— 17 then I discerned all that God has done: No one really comprehends what happens on earth. Despite all human efforts to discover it, no one can ever grasp it. Even if a wise person claimed that he understood, he would not really comprehend it.
SLIDE Do you hear the “mystery” and “unknowablness” of God and of life in that? To the East, that’s not a threat that needs to be snuffed out. That’s just life. We must learn to embrace it.
Or, from the life of Jesus, the East leans heavily into the way John’s Gospel reports Jesus saying very mystical things like: “I am the truth” (which is different from “I teach the truth”) -- truth is a person, that’s very curious to Western minds (and even shifty sounding to some perhaps), but it’s very attractive from an Eastern perspective
The power in this is that God is so much bigger and grander than we humans could ever understand.
And that we find god, and we find a mystical encounter with him, when we surrender control and our desire to understand all.
We find God because we don’t have the answers, not because we have it all figured out And this shift in focus made a massive difference in the kinds of questions one asks about faith. It moves away from the in v out, correct v incorrect, acceptable v unacceptable. And instead it moved to a focus on Journey. It is not about understanding all the rules to the game, or knowing all the correct answers. It is about looking to a living God for help moving forward today. There is a big Concept in the Eastern church called divinization. From the word Divine, as in God. Divinization is the task of humanity, to become more and more like God each day. And in the end we join in his holy union becoming one with him. In short, it is asking the question, How do I become more like Jesus today than yesterday? In this journey of life, how do I keep taking steps forward in maturity. It’s not about being saved or not saved, or crossing some threshold of conversion. Those are silly questions to ask because we can never truly know the answer. And the goal is not to reach some magic plateau. No, it’s to keep moving forward each day. Towards being more like and with Jesus.
SLIDE As I learned more, Dr. Nassif was right about this. This was grabbing me in a way all of my years of being focused on certainty had not.
And so I started to try and lean into Eastern tradition a bit. I even tried going to an eastern orthodox church, but as much as the ideas were interesting, the actual service wasn’t quite what I was looking for.
That’s okay though. I could still learn from it and apply it to how I tried to live and pray.
So I started to try and lean into the mystery of God, the mystery of life, the uncertainty of it all.
That the best questions I can ask aren’t about understanding how things work or what the absolutely truths are, but rather asking how I can be a healthier, more compassionate, more mature, a more resilient person today than I was yesterday.
How I could, in interaction with Jesus, find his help to become more like him.
And let me tell you how that has played out for me.
It has changed my relationship to uncertainty.
And it has changed the way I pray.
So here is a reality that we all know to be true.
Life is full of uncertainty. SLIDE Uncertainty in our job - will we get that job? will we like it? Will we get that promotion? Or will we get fired? Uncertainty in relationships. Will I find someone? Will this relationship work out? What will the struggles be? Uncertainty in our health - Will we get sick? Spoiler... we don’t know. Right now, we can’t know. Uncertainty is not something we can avoid, it is an inevitability.
So, what do we do when we feel uncertain?
When I feel uncertain
I tend to try to fix things I can’t fix.
Oh, you’re upset with me, I’ll make up for it, I’ll say sorry. That is all great and well, but I can’t actually fix you being upset with me.
I can own my fault, say sorry.
But, it is not in my control to change how you feel.
Or another thing I do when I struggle with uncertainty is that I try to take control in other areas, I feel like uncertainty is the epitome of encountering our lack of control.
And so if I feel uncertain about at work or a relationship. I am far more likely to take that uncertainty out on the the customer service person I am talking to. I will get a lower rate for my internet, I may not be able to control my relationship, or control my promotion, but I can and will get you to extend my promotional period. Or, what was most common for me when I was younger - I would overcompensate in declaring certainty If I felt uncertain about life, about God, about anything, and I would deal with it, but declaring certainty.
Like I maybe I will feel more certain if I say it loud enough, and firm enough I don’t know if you have encountered this, but I am always a little wary of people who seem to be so certain of everything. It makes me wonder what question or uncertainties they are trying to drown out and are not actually dealing with.
Now, today, thanks largely to my efforts to lean into this Eastern perspective. I deal with uncertainty quite differently.
When I feel uncertain, I try to let go of control. Not grab for it, not fix it, or control something else.
I try to let uncertainty lead me to surrender, lead me to humility, let it be another example that I don’t know everything, that I need help.
And I actually use that feeling of uncertainty as my number one signal that I need to pray.
And what I pray for is different than I used to Before my efforts to lean into some of the uncertainty When I prayed about my life, I almost always prayed for God to change my circumstances.
God I am not sure about work, would you help me find favor with my bosses so that I would get the promotion. However, after this I have started to not just pray for my circumstance, but pray that I would find peace and not feel alone in the meantime. You see uncertainty is isolating, scary, and so rather than just praying that the future would work out, which I won’t know to be true until I get there. I began praying that I would also feel peace in meantime and as things were still uncertain I would feel God’s company with me. The result is that I end up praying for peace and company with Jesus more than anything. Because the uncertainties change, but my need for peace and connection never do.
This has been super powerful for me, because I end up feeling like God is alive and cares for me, even when things don’t work out like I want. And feeling like God is there for me even when things don’t go how I plan, makes it easier for me ask God to show me what he has for me that day, rather than just asking him to give me what I want for the day.
You see one of those is full of uncertainty, but also full of possibility The other is finite with either a positive and negative outcome. And I think my prayer life has felt more vibrant and alive. It feels more interactive and less like a check-list
And just to say, SLIDE I don’t think that Western tradition is bad. Or the Eastern is all Good. I don’t think pursuing answers and knowledge is bad. I don’t think trying to understand as much about God, and what is good and true is bad. The knowability of God CAN make him feel closer more accessible, pursuing answers and truth CAN push us forward. I actually think those things are very good. I just think as Western Americans we are just going to default to that way of thinking without even trying.
Growing up in America, or for those of us growing up in Catholic, or Protestant, or Evangelical churches, our mind is just going to always gravitate to that kind of focus on certainty and the knowability of God.
So, by leaning into the Eastern tradition of mystery, by challenging ourselves to ask different questions, I don’t think we are really at any risk of leaving the good stuff of the Western tradition behind. I just think we may have a more balanced and more helpful approach to faith. SLIDE
And when I think about what, big picture, has lead to me feeling the most uncertain or most uneasy over the last year. I think about our country.
There are times when I feel hopeful, like with the rise of the Me Too movement. I feel for a moment like we are moving forward.
But, then there are times like this last week where I see people blaming victims of sexual assault, or people very seriously talking about the problem of the Christian White Men being under attack in our country.
And in those moments I feel afraid and uncertain of what the future will have for all of us.
So, if you resonate with that at all.
I would invite you to join me in praying that the circumstances would change, that the way power and privilege work in our country would shift.
But also praying for peace and sense of not being alone in the meantime.
I actually think that the uncertainty that we feel in times like this, particularly if we are someone who has been personally affected by sexual assault. I think it can be incredibly isolating, and I think if we could felt less alone, Then we could advocate and speak out, pray for God to show up, but also not let the uncertainty of what going to happen in our country rob us from hope that change can happen.
So, if you would stand with me I would love to pray about that