Dr. Casey Cerretani
“Some who think they trust in God actually sin against hope because they do not use the will and the judgment He has given them. Of what use is it for me to
hope in grace if I dare not make the act of will that corresponds with grace? Therefore, if I trust in God’s grace I must also show confidence in the natural powers He as given me, not because they are my powers but because they are His gift.”
“No Man is an Island”
Being religious – about anything– is risky. The notion that a process must complete on a regular schedule regardless of context or special circumstances risks elevating process over relationship, love and effectiveness. Think about a time when all events lined up and followed plans exactly. Keep thinking. Is it a stretch to call it an anomaly when plans and events line up perfectly? Breaks, cracks and gaps are the norm. Yet there is a strong pull to define and refine processes to address everything from behavior to the flow of traffic. We are process beings. What are we trying to accomplish?
There is something safe about repeatability. And good process is essential for a significant part of modern society. We need traffic lights to follow a process –green for one direction while red for the other is part of the contract. Medicine, science, technology, building trades, physical therapy, and musical composition – a process sits underneath routine tasks, novel creations and hybrid compositions. Narrowing complexity helps our minds organize and prioritize so that a distant end goal is attainable in a series of small steps.
But process adds risk. Steps one through five do not always work out as planned; expectations are dashed, projects are stalled, or, worse, ruined. And the famous insanity quote comes into focus (doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results).
What does this have to do with faith? As Merton said, our natural powers are gifts that we are to use with confidence. So understanding the balance of process and experience is important. How do we come to terms with the mystery of faith? There is the classic formulation:
“Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”
In that simple cadence we find the essential points of Christian faith, the principles if you will, without the process. We as the community of faith are left to appropriate those concepts to the arc of history in total and the arc of history that makes up our own life. There is no neat process for doing that work. It is an act of doing that requires judgment.
There is a section of the Gospel that has a failed process and two bad judgment scenes in succession. The whole scene is interesting because the motivation behind the conversations is first failure and then fear and then judgment. The conversations start in the wrong place – in the how-to mode – and end with mixed results. To set the context, Peter, James, John and Jesus had just wandered down from a mountain (likely a small hill for us Cascade dwellers) following the transfiguration of Christ, the visitation by Moses and Elijah and the hearing of the voice of God.
Process Failure #1: Using the Wrong Tools
And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”
(Mark 9:14-29 ESV)
The disciples are arguing with the crowd over their failure to heal a boy. That always goes well – two groups shouting at each other. It is not clear what the disciples were doing in their attempt to cure this boy but it didn’t work. Jesus comes in, demonstrates how to get the job done and provides an after-miracle training program. “This kind…” is a phrase that should have stuck in everyone’s mind. Saying “this kind” implies that there are other kinds of afflictions and there was some way to discern or identify the kind. Maybe I am overstating the significance but Jesus seems to suggest that there is a triage process but it requires a different kind of question and assessment.
Following the transfiguration and a healing experience, the process failures continue.
Process Failure #2: A Question must be Asked even to be Unanswered
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.
(Mark 9:30-32 ESV)
We are told in school that there is no such thing as a dumb question. But then we have all heard dumb questions so we know that is not true. Question asking is tricky. Some ask questions to prove their own intelligence, others to hear their own voice and still others really don’t understand. Faith is, by definition, an unanswered question. There is no failure in holding onto open questions; there is tension in doing so, but no failure. Maturing in faith is, in part, a process of acknowledging and carrying the unknown without any sense of impropriety.
Process Failure #3: Organization Charts do not help in Matters of Faith
And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?”But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them,“If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”
(Mark 9:33-37 ESV)
The all important org chart. What is the reporting structure, the decision tree, and the hierarchy of an organization. Does my title trump your title? Does my level of authority drive more effective work? Who gets the final say? Those of us working in a business, educational or non-profit environment know the over-stated significance of the org chart. PowerPoint has an add-in specific to the task of creating a chart with the leader at the top, executives on the next wrung and on down the line to the entry live “individual contributor”. Merit based promotions, signature authority and organization span appear to reflect importance.
Not so much in matters of faith. It is somewhat amusing that a group of guys with no credentials, no formal religious studies background, no church planting experience and no organization development training allowed their conversation to wander into the swamp of hierarchy. And it is refreshing to see the early church in Acts adopting a team leadership style.
Jesus reframes the process – up is down. Seeking last place is our process.
Process Failure #4: Judgment is Tricky
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.
(Mark 9:38-41 ESV)
A missed prayer, a fight with a crowd, a significant question unasked and an embarrassing power play conversation. What else could happen on this walk? How about some early denominational flag waving? Jesus doesn’t seem to need any brand protection and is not worried about idea infringement. In fact, Jesus
seems to offer a means to becoming a follower. Practice, experience, taste and see – it will difficult to speak ill of God when your natural gifts accomplish something extraordinary.
It seems John was working to protect the authenticity of the teaching. Historical texts suggest that then, as now, many claimed to have God’s ear on many matters. So one way to ward off false religions is to shut down those who cannot articulate an Orthodoxy that is approved. Jesus seems less concerned with formulations. Simple works, simple acts.
I like the notion of faith as improv. To improvise one must have some background, some skills or at least some guts. Performers who succeed at improv develop a deep well of creative ideas and learn to string them together quickly and then adapt to changing conditions.
“Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment.”
That quote is from one of the best mountain climbers of our time. In climbing, the bad judgment that doesn’t kill you today becomes the experience base on which you attain the next peak. Skills develop. Reflexes and muscles learn the drill. And yet there is always a push to a new first. And the ground under your feet is always in motion. Climbing is improv; preparation and training meet a dynamic set of conditions that require constant adjustments to the route, pace and plan. Is faith so different? Is there really a formula or process that encompasses all that we face as people of faith? Of course there is not. We adjust. We turn around sometimes. We persevere other times.
“Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
-Jesus (Mark 9:50 ESV)
Process is useful. But it can also be a trap that keeps us from maturity, from awareness and from relationship. Having salt in us is having confidence that is loosely held in the openness of the unanswered. Do we know for sure? No. But we can be willing to serve and act from a place of peace. That seems to be a path up the mountain that is both adventurous and maturing.
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