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Thursday, August 31, 2006

One of a series of letters to a class of teenagers in a Massachusetts confirmation class.

Dear Class,

We Christians base our practices and beliefs upon the notion that people are a certain kind of being. They have certain natural characteristics and behave in certain ways. We also have hopes for the way people should behave. For example, in our church tradition, we expect people to be thinkers and doers. We expect people to care about each other and to act upon that caring. We accept that people make mistakes and we practice a tricky thing called forgiveness. We talk about the relationship a person has with God and we mean something special and personal.

As you learn other ways to think about what it means to be a person and what it means to be a Christian, you will ask questions and seek answers. Questions like yours have been asked for centuries within Christianity, and in Judaism from which Christianity grew. In fact, people from all faith and philosophical traditions have probed the mystery of what sort of being we are.

Much of what we know about people is taught us in school, through studying biology, health, and social studies. Also in school, we learn about how people behave through studying history and English (i.e. poetry, novels, plays, and other literature). Does Christianity contradict this school learning? When we talk about the creation story in the Bible, do we mean it really happened that way? Can the truths that Christianity claims be proved?

Your church tradition, the United Church of Christ, is one that embraces the knowledge that is uncovered in all these fields of learning. For instance, we look forward as a church and a faith to the ever more complete understanding we gain about how our genes work. The more sociobiology teaches us about the genetic code of life, the more we are interested.  We embrace the continued efforts of those who try to peer into the way the universe started with a big bang.

When we consider a person who is experiencing depression, we believe it is valid to talk about their biology, the chemical basis of depression, and to derive a pharmaceutical treatment from that understanding.  We also believe that that it is valid to talk about the formation of a person’s personality, the psychology of depression, and to derive a “talk therapy” or “cognitive therapy” from that understanding

Yet, we know that there is truth that lies elsewhere.  As far as valid ways of looking at depression, we honor the tradition that there is a spiritual component to depression.  We find many places in the Bible where people cry out from despair.  We find voices affirming that God is present with us in times of despair.  So our faith derives what are now unfashionable ways to respond to depression and despair.  In the dull, dead-ends of our lives when we see no alternatives, when our pain is great and our future unthinkable, what does the Bible teach?  What does our tradition teach?

·      We say that God is present in our time of need.  The Bible has stories of people who trusted that presence and found strength to carry on in the face of enemies, in the aftermath of disaster, in the emptiness of loss, and in even in the dryness of doubt. Mark 9:24 So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.  Jesus asked the boy's father, "How long has he been like this?" "From childhood," he answered. "It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”  “`If you can'?" said Jesus. "Everything is possible for him who believes." Immediately the boy's father exclaimed, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!"

·      We say that God does not turn away.  We say that misfortune and disaster are not God’s punishment for something bad we have done.

·      We say that God has set people free.  People are not bound by what God says.  We are free to obey and to not obey.

In your confirmation class, as in your earlier learning from your family, from church, and from Sunday school, you have an opportunity to learn how to look for that ‘truth that lies elsewhere’, and to know it for your own.

Peace and Blessing,