The following is from something I shared with my friends at Kittamaqundi Community Church in Columbia, Maryland. I never really intended for this to be a post -it’s way too long for one thing – but I like WordPress’s editing software. And if you are still reading this blog I am flattered, and puzzled.
29When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the LORD. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them; so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and he spoke to them. 32 Afterward all the Israelites came near him, and he gave them all the commands the LORD had given him on Mount Sinai.
33 When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face. 34 But whenever he entered the LORD’s presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the LORD. (Exodus 34: 29-35)
8About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. 29As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. (Luke 9: 28-29)
Moses comes down off the mountain transformed, his face shining so brightly that he hides it from the people with a veil. They aren’t ready to see even the reflected glory of God and are terrified at the prospect. So Moses becomes a stand-in for God before the people and the people’s advocate before God. But, he continues to wear the veil, this time to hide his fading glory – he does not want the people to lose their faith in him and therefore their faith in God.
When Jesus has his moment on the mountain, his face also shines with God’s glory, but he does not hide it from his friends. Because of this and things that he says throughout the Gospels we get the message that we too can experience God firsthand and survive. There is nothing to fear.
We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away. 14But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away.15Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. 16But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. 17Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect[a] the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:13-18)
Many Christians believe that Paul’s spin on this is something called Supersessionism; the idea that everything in the Hebrew Scriptures exists only for the purpose of pointing to Jesus as God. According to this understanding, Paul is saying that the traditional Jewish interpretations of scriptures are incorrect, since they do not point to Christ.
But is Paul really invalidating his own faith, the religion of his people? Is he saying that Jews should no longer be Jews but convert to a new, more authentic religion? That there is only one, true way to God?
That’s what I used to believe. Not long ago I was a member of a pretty conservative, neo-Evangelical church. Some might’ve called me a Christian Fundamentalist – a Fundy. No offense: I wore that badge with pride.
After spending most of my life searching for answers I was finally ‘saved’ at a little Bible church in Ellicott City. I was ‘born again’ – in all the wonderful, yet sometimes awful, meanings of that phrase. My newfound friends were bright, talented and highly educated people who had a deep devotion for God and for others. We were a tight-nit and very loving community. Not quite the stereotype that usually comes to mind.
Hard to believe now, but I was that bright-eyed fellow you saw coming out of His Way Christian Bookstore with an armful of best sellers written by those excitable preachers you heard on the radio. I’d jump into my little red station wagon and attempt to back our of the, my windows covered with bumper sticker slogans like: “My Boss is a Jewish Carpenter”, “Honk if You Love Jesus” and “1 Cross + 3 Nails = 4 Given”. The car stereo would be blaring with the latest “Jesus is my girlfriend” hit song and my Christian fish was much bigger than the competition’s Darwin fish.
Being ‘saved’, the Holy Spirit had lifted a veil from my eyes, helping me to discern the Truth contained within the Bible. Like my new Christian friends, I could now see God, as revealed to us through the person of Jesus the Christ. I had seen the light and was a transformed being.
Yet, I began to realize that, though my life had changed in many ways, I was not really transformed. Not at all.
Sure, I pretty much stopped cursing overnight. I stopped going to bars and listening to rock music. I read the Bible daily. I became a Churchaholic – I spent more time at church than I did at home with my family. I prayed, I tithed, and I even tried all kinds of mind control tricks to keep from lusting after women (they don’t work, by the way).
But I was still the same old guy: a very definite type of fellow: conservative, fairly judgmental and maybe a touch paranoid. That’s why I fit in so well with this type of religion -I think that religious fundamentalism is very compatible with conservative, as well as liberal, legalism. It’s all very serious stuff. It’s about right and wrong, us versus them and is burdened with over-generalizations.
I think that a lot of religion is rooted in fear. The fear of others, the fear of the future, the fear of being wrong, the fear of not having all the right answers and the fear of asking the wrong questions. The fear of not being accepted, the fear of being left behind, the fear of not doing enough. The same fears I always had, but now my faith provided me with a divine hedge of protection. I felt safe surrounded by people who shared the same beliefs I had. They affirmed my right way of thinking.
Over time, though I began to see a veiled impostor looking back at me in the mirror, religious fears disguising my true identity, an identity originally given to me by God. Though my spirit was willing, I found it hard to drop this veil of fears, as long as I stayed in that little church.
You see, though I longed for a personal relationship with God, my Christian friends kept telling me precisely what I should and should not believe, implying they were somehow connected and I was not. My church was very proud of the fact that we had all the right answers and that we were righteously serving a God who favored us. We were saved – enlightened- and we were very proud of that.
Instead of finding answers in the Bible, I began to find more and more questions, questions that were begging for my response- a response that was often at odds with my community’s. When I tried to share my response with my friends I was warned against becoming ambivalent or worse, flirting with heresy. So as one veil dropped I put on yet another, one meant to hide my ongoing transformation. I did not want them to see that the shine of my conversion had faded. So, though I loved them, I eventually decided to leave them, in order to pursue God.
Somehow that pursuit has landed me in this very different very enlightened spiritual community. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I get the feeling that not many of you share my kind of history; you all seem so… with it…so spiritually hip…so in tune with God’s will. I don’t see too many veils. Unlike my old church, KC is truly enlightened, and I’m proud to be a part of it.
We aren’t burdened with old doctrines and dogmas. We aren’t compelled to earn God’s favor through church work or through missions that we may or may not be called to do. We do not need ordained hands or the tongues of clerty to bring us into contact with the sacred. I’d bet that most of us do not believe in Satan or Hell. We don’t believe in an angry, judgmental God. We’ve tossed aside our fears and now live in the comfort that comes from being loved and accepted by God and by each other; warts and all.
But if this is true, then why am I so nervous about standing here in front of you? Why do I fear looking like a fool, or at the very least, as unqualified or incompetent? Why do I still worry about things like my fading youth, my lack of money, or my fragile health? Why do I worry at all? If God loves me, if I trust in God, then what’s to fear? If God accepts me, why do I fear being dismissed by others?
Though perhaps thinner, my veil is still firmly in place.
Paul was a Jew and he told his Jewish friends to stop looking toward Moses and the Law for the answers, that, unlike their ancestors in the desert, the prophets had told them that they could turn directly to God. It’s not that the Israelites per se had gotten it wrong – we ALL have gotten it wrong. We find it hard to believe that ANY of us can actually walk humbly with God.
If Paul were alive today in Rome I think he would probably tell the Catholics much the same thing: stop-seeking guidance from the Pope but look towards God instead.
He might tell Americans to stop hanging on the words of Billy Graham.
Some of us might need to put our Bibles down for a minute or two while others may need to give the Buddha a break.
Or maybe he would tell all Christians to let go of our personal, yet necessarily narrow, visions of Jesus.
Paul seems to be saying that teachers and scriptures are useful but we shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to God on our own-and that may mean reaching around those who are leading us. If God is accessible to us then we don’t need any modern-day Moses. Or Augustine, Luther, Calvin or Wesley. Or the idea that any priest, pastor or teacher is better connected to God by virtue of their position.
For those of us confidently feel we are looking towards God and not men, are there any forms or functions that we hold to so dearly that they might actually be obscuring the view? Perhaps we think of them as our bridges to the divine, but if the bridges were to collapse, could we still freely connect with God?
When the pastor of my old church, a brilliant and gifted young man, left to pursue his doctorate, the bishop replaced him with someone who was, maybe, not such a good fit. Many felt betrayed and abandoned. Steadily people began to leave the congregation until the church was close to shutting down. Of those who left, most moved on to other churches but… some left their faith behind. I believe that, for most of us, our beloved pastor and church had become, like Moses to the Israelites, a veil standing between God and ourselves. Our focus was on the community and the community was balanced on the back of a man. We were focused on the forms that our faith took and not necessarily focused on God. We called ourselves Christians but were dangerously ambivalent about Christ, the supposed foundation of our community.
So…what about our veils? Are there things, perhaps good things, we are so devoted to– family and friends, talents and gifts, political causes, careers, missions, teachers, leaders -maybe even our community itself – that, if stripped away tomorrow, would leave us without purpose? Or at least without the purpose we feel God calls us to have? Would we lose enough of our identity, our sense of accomplishment or security that it would diminish our faith? Or could we, like Moses and Jesus, see God’s light shining in the darkness, even if alone?
All my life I’ve had this recurring nightmare; I am trapped beneath tons of rubble, in pitch-blackness, unable to move any part of my body. I used to envision this as what Hell must be like and though I no longer worry about Hell, the dream still comes back. As we’ve just seen in Haiti, many people have suffered this precise horror. I just pray that, if ever in that situation, I would not panic- because God would be there with me, and that I wouldn’t be too afraid to see him.