Today, in conjunction with Blog Your Blessings Sunday, it is my extreme honor and delight to present the first of what I hope will be a series of articles by Guest Authors. And it is my privilege to introduce you to my friend and first Guest Author, Robert W. Mattheis, Bishop Emeritus of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Sierra Pacific Synod.
I first met Pastor Bob, as we knew him then, in 1974 when he was called to serve as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, the congregation to which I belonged and served on the music staff for many years. In 1994, St. Paul’s loss was the Sierra Pacific Synod’s gain when Pastor Bob was elected to the office of and became Bishop Bob, overseeing 215 ELCA congregations from Porterville, California north to the Oregon border and as far east as Elko, Nevada. He retired in 2002, and continues to reside here in Lodi. He is now active in Way of Christ Community, described as “a unique and evolving community looking to live, believe, worship and learn in a new way,” which is led by his daughter and son-in-law, Pastors Amy Jo and Peter Mattheis-Holmquist.
I asked Bishop Bob to be my first Guest Author for many reasons.
First of all, as you will see, he is a gifted writer which is not surprising because he is also a dynamic and powerful preacher who delivered many memorable sermons during the 20 years that he was our pastor. He is not afraid to ask questions — including the most difficult and confusing — and I find that not just a refreshing, but an essential characteristic, especially among church leaders. On a personal note, he is one of the most patient and compassionate persons I have ever known and he holds a special place in the Siess family’s hearts as he not only married BigBob and me, but baptized our boys, presided at my father’s memorial service, and participated in many other family milestones with us over the years. He has been and continues to be a blessing in our lives!
Please make Bishop Bob feel welcome by leaving a comment after you read his thought-provoking article! Agree? Disagree? Why?
Rediscovering What I Believe
By Robert W. Mattheis
Faith is a life long journey. It is not once formed and forever set. It is reshaped by the events of our lives and the events of the world in which we live those lives. This has, at least, been the experience of my life in faith and hope. Where I am in faith and practice today is not where I expect to be tomorrow or where I have been in my yesterday. Faith evolves as I interact with the Spirit and the world around me.
Such a reality leads me to pay attention to my life every day. The good and the bad. The desirable and undesirable. All are a part of who I am and who I am becoming. It is a journey marked by change and excitement; also by some trepidation and yearning for the security of the past. It is where I am and where I want to be.
Where I am today is not familiar. I believe. What I believe, however, is still coming into view. As I have pushed and probed the emerging landscape, it has seemed that the best place to begin is by defining what I do not believe. Some convictions I have held dear at some point in my life; others I have always carried with a bit of discomfort. I begin.
Creation and the Domination System
The Apostles Creed begins “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.” I have recited that creed, often thoughtfully; many times I have repeated the word without giving thought to the meaning or content. The Bible speaks about God as the Creator of “the heavens and the earth.” Certainly they came about by some means. Lacking scientific insight and sophisticated scientific instruments, the people who gave us the Bible attributed the reality of the world around them to the God they worshiped. As have many cultures. The Hebrew/Christian tradition is unique in that the world does not result from divine violence. Rather it is the intentional creation of a Divine Being who also seeks to be worshiped and obeyed. The creed reflects this biblical conviction that the god of the Hebrews is the creator of the world. That sense of God’s creation is then tied to a divine order of creation which places God at the top of the pyramid supported at successive levels by males, females, children and the rest of creation.
The scripture tells us that harmony results when that divine order is followed. That is, when men obey God, women obey men and children obey both men and women. It is the domination system that assumes genitalia are a source of wisdom conferring the right to dominate those on the level below.
I no longer believe these things. I believe that the world, the universe or universes, came into being through a series of incidents which may or may not have been designed and guided by a Divine mind. The biblical universe does not begin to comprehend the scope of the galactic systems of which earth is a small, small part. The world is here and we are a part of it. It is natural to want to explain how it came to be. In the prescientific age it was faith in a supernatural being that explained these things. Today we search the outer reaches of our galactic system with space based telescopes and spacecraft sent to other planets. We cannot apply a biblical template from the first century to our contemporary situation.
In ages past systems of faith provided the structure that supported the domination system. Genesis makes it simple: God. Male humans. Female humans. Their children and then the non-human world. The Hebrew/Christian culture has interpreted this order of creation in such a way that it supports the domination of females by males. This understanding, reinforced by extending domination to God appointed Kings has resulted in untold suffering for the human family.
I no longer believe in a divine creation or the domination system that grew out of it. I choose rather to celebrate the gift of the world, a world that is both wondrous and awful. Wondrous in it’s beauty and diversity, in it’s resources and life giving ecological systems; awful in it’s earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and other destructive forces. To live in the world is to experience both it’s life and it’s death, and, it is to take responsibility for living wisely and compassionately as one fearfully and wonderfully made.
Are humans made in the image of God? That is our confession. I do not believe it is our practice. It is my observation that we tend to believe that ‘people like us’ carry god’s image, while people in other lands, of other skin tones, languages, religions and customs do not. As a nation we have been more than willing to do violence to those who are our enemy in fact or in imagination. Christians in this nation have mounted a powerful campaign against abortion because it supposedly takes the life of one created in the image of God. Yet we go to war and report body counts with pride. This history of violence is clearly reflected in the history of Christendom. When we do not believe people carry the image of God we feel justified in doing violence against them.
I am in awe of this world and the human person, the human body and the cultures that have emerged. I do not need to have strict doctrinal convictions about how it came into being. I eagerly consume information regarding the origin of the earth, solar system and galaxy as it
becomes available. No, I don’t understand everything I read, nor do I need to do so.
At this point in my life I can recite the First Article of the Apostles Creed only with my fingers crossed. This does not absolve me from responsible engagement with my environment. My familiarity with Jesus and his ways leads me to ask important questions as I interact with my world. As a consumer of non-renewable resources, what is my responsibility to future generations?
How do I live so that I value the lives of people in other nations, especially third world nations, as much as I value people in this country? What does it mean to follow Jesus who had “compassion on the multitudes” as he fed the hungry crowds? The challenge is to ask how I can be a responsible citizen of the world as I experience it in all of it’s complexity. What values will guide my life in relation to my fellow inhabitants on planet earth and to the planet itself? This, rather than doctrinaire, closed end statements about creation, is where I find myself today.
It is enough for me to say that ‘creation is.’ My task as a follower of Jesus is to discern what that means for me and the choices I have the privilege of making.
Prayer and Miracles
The Bible is a book of miracles. In the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) we read of the miracle of Josephs dreams and ascendancy to power in Egypt. (Genesis 39) This is followed by the miracle of the ‘parting of the waters of the Red Sea (Exodus ) and later, the waters of Jordan river. God had the sun stand still for Joshua in order to kill more people. Ezekiel and Elijah, miraculously fed people without food, healed the sick and raised the dead. Daniel, walked harmlessly in a lions den and a fiery furnace. Are we to believe that these events are literal renditions of historical events?
The New Testament is steeped in miracle from the “virgin birth” of Jesus to the resurrection. There are miracles of healing the lame, blind and mute. Miracles of Jesus feeding huge crowds with a lunch box of bread and dried fish, even as he also raised the dead and was himself restored to life, before he ascended into the heavens to be with God “somewhere up there.” I am not now going to dissect each of these miracles as Bishop John Shelby Spong has done in his most recent book “Jesus for the Non-Religious.” I do need to say that the credibility of these accounts has always been difficult for me, even as I preached many sermons on those texts. The resurrection texts are perhaps most challenging because they challenge the assurance that there is a physical resurrection for each of us. I have used the text of Lazarus’ resurrection in John 11 at countless funeral sermons.
Yes, I’m a lawyer, so here’s the disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are Bishop Bob’s and by publishing them here, I am not necessarily endorsing them in their entirety. Rather, I present his writing here in the spirit of this blog’s name, Colloquium, to inspire collegial discourse, debate and contemplation.