Scripture Passage: Romans 4: 13-17 (18-25) (Lent 2B)
13For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. 16For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) —in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.”
In our pragmatic 21st century minds, sometimes it is much easier to grasp at the obvious and to make that the basis of our belief. But, as Paul reminds us in his roundabout, run-on sentence kind of way, if our whole faith system depends on nothing more than adhering to the set of laws or interpretations that have been laid down by those that came before us, what good is faith? Remember that faith is about relationship. The law is not bad. In fact, it’s usually a necessary construct to help us understand, to help us point to that which we believe. But it is not the end all. It is not the God who offers us relationship.
Now, that said, I personally struggle with those who profess to be “spiritual and not religious”. Really? For me, it’s a little like traveling without baggage, which can mean that you are not weighted down and are essentially free to do what you want, but, chances are, at some point you’re going to find yourself virtually unprepared for what you encounter (or at the very least unable to brush your teeth!). To put it another way, how many of you really want to go to dinner with someone who always leaves their wallet at home? They may be fun to talk to and all, but is that really the way we live?
There is a story told among Zen Buddhists about a nun who one day approached a great patriarch to ask if he had any insight into the Nirvana sutra she had been reading. “I am illiterate,” the man replied, “but perhaps if you could read the words to me, I could understand the truth that lies behind them.” Incredulous, the nun responded, “If you do not know even the characters as they are written in the text, then how can you expect to know the truth to which they point?” Patiently the patriarch offered his answer, which has become a spiritual maxim for the ages: “Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?” (from a commentary by Daniel G. Deffenbaugh, available at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=3/4/2012&tab=3, accessed 27 February, 2012.)
Now I don’t think Paul would in any way dismiss religion or even the rules. He’s just reminding us that they have their limitations. They are not God. In fact, it is easy for them to become idols of worship in and of themselves (and last I read that was frowned upon!). But rules have their place. They provide a systematic way of at least attempting to understand something that, in all honesty, really makes no sense to us. (And, to turn it around, professing to be “spiritual and not religious” actually has a good chance of becoming a religion in and of itself.) An authentic faith, it seems, is one that weaves what doesn’t make sense into understanding, laughter into prayer, and a grace-filled encounter of the Divine into our everyday life. It is about both transcendence and meaning and, on a good day, the weaving together of the two into a Holy Encounter with the Divine Presence that it always in our life.
You cannot practice religion for religion’s sake. That would certainly be the death of your being. You need to somehow breathe life into it. That’s where spirituality comes in. But spirituality cannot stand alone because it has nothing on which to stand. They need each other. They breathe life into each other. They give each other meaning. G.K. Chesterton once said to “let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair”. I love that. It’s one of my favorite quotes. So, in this Lenten wilderness season, focus on the love affair part. Rules are important. Religion understandings are important. But they are only the thin boundary. They do nothing by themselves. Faith is not about rules; faith is about Life and understanding both mean that we open our whole being to the newness that God continues to show us. So, let go of what is not life-giving or, perhaps, allow God to breathe life into it. That is what wandering in the wilderness will allow you to do.
Religion is about transcendence, and spirituality is about finding meaning in the mundane. (Joan Chittister)
Grace and Peace,
One thought on “A Finger Pointing At the Moon”
As usual your column is a treasure trove of quotations. I have a three ring binder in which I write down quotations that I can use.
When we moved into our current house, there was an owl that nested in a tree across the street. I would often hear him at night. Then someone bought the lot and built a house and the owl moved on. Sometimes the price of growth is high.
Yours in Christ,