Head and Solimões: The Life of Faith | Sermon from 5/6/18

John 4:7-11

Back one August, I entered chapel services at Emory University for opening convocation: the official beginning of the semester for the Candler School of Theology, where I went to seminary. I got there late and had to awkwardly bump past some dignitaries, embarrassed, to the only available seats. This including bumping past a very gracious James T. Laney, former dean of Candler, former president of Emory, and former US ambassador to South Korea under President Clinton; basically the biggest deal person at the ceremony.

My embarrassment quickly got worse as the simple chapel organ roared to life with a tune I knew. I got ready to sing “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” Now, if you know me, you know I can be enthusiastic. I launched with great gusto into the first line of “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus,” only to quickly realize we were singing different words to the same tune. Dr. Laney looked my way, winked at me and laughed a little, and went back to singing our actual hymn, “Praise the source of faith and learning.” Such is Dr. Laney’s legendary graciousness.

Perhaps it was my embarrassment and desire to not sing the wrong words again that made the lyrics of this hymn catch my attention, instilling them forever in my mind. The words seemed to leap off the page, some of which are these:

Praise the source of faith and learning that has sparked and stoked the mind,

with a passion for discerning how the world has been designed

We acknowledge that our science and our art and the breadth of human knowledge only partial truth impart

May our faith redeem the blunder of believing that our thought has displaced the grounds for wonder which the ancient prophets taught

Lest we justify some terror with an antiquated creed.

Blend, o God, our faith and learning ‘til the carve a single course,

‘Til they join as one, returning praise and thanks to you, their source.

I love this hymn. In my office, I have a copy of the words from that day’s convocation bulletin framed. It speaks to what a theological education is and should be: faith and reason joined together. A theological education should educate the head and the heart.

And a theological education isn’t just for us who went to seminary. Theological education occurs whenever anyone is learning about God. Theological education occurs this morning in Sunday School classes, it occurs in our worship services even before I start preaching. The liturgy and the music, themselves, instruct.

And theological education is certainly what our confirmands have experienced. Since March, we have met almost every week and over one weekend on retreat to engage in theological education: to educate our heads and our hearts about the living God and our responsibility to God.

By head and heart, I mean the premise that 1 John reveals to us in our scripture this morning: know about God, be in love with God, and live out that love to others. When 1 John speaks of love, it means to know that God is love, to be intellectually convinced of it, to understand that the quintessence and fullness of love is God; as well as to have our hearts strangely warmed, to feel the presence of God’s love, to have awareness of how deeply we are loved, to emotionally experience God’s love.

We can know this because of what 1 John reveals to us: that in love, God sent Jesus to be among us, to die and rise again for us, which opened the floodgates for all of us not only to know in our heads that God is love, but to also know in our hearts, experience in the depths of our being, that God is love.

I’m reminded of two rivers in Brazil. The Rio Negro flows southeast full of acid. It’s what’s known as a black river, one that’s high in an acid that makes the river difficult for agriculture. It’s an unpredictable river, irregularly overflowing its banks over acres of land, also making agriculture difficult. The species of fish, covered as they are in acid, aren’t great for eating and are difficult to fish. It’s not a great river for life-giving purposes.

To the south of the Negro lies a river that runs on an easterly course. In Brazil, it’s called the Rio Solimões, and in many ways, it’s the opposite of the Rio Negro. It’s muddy, not black. It’s basic, not acidic. It doesn’t overflow its banks and is more predictable. But the amount of silt in its water makes it poor for agriculture and it doesn’t give life to too many species of fish. In its own unique way, the Rio Solimões is not life-giving either.

But near Manaus, a large city in Brazil, the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimões meet. But they don’t mix, as you can see in the picture in the powerpoint. It’s a fascinating site to see. For six kilometers, the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimões run side by side in the same river banks. A very visible line separates the rivers from each other as they fight each other: the acid and the base fighting, the silt and the lack thereof fight, the species of fish jokey for position and to stay in their natural habitat. For six kilometers, about four miles, from here to the airport, these rivers refuse to mix.

Sometimes, the fight inside of us between our head and our heart is like that. The temptation of the spiritual life is to nurture one at the expense of the other. If you’re analytical like me, if you like quantifying things, if you like to reason, you tend to nurture the head over the heart. If only we can believe the right things, we think, if only we have all the right understandings, we’ll have right relationship with God.

And so we focus on going to Sunday school, on reading intellectual books on religion, on asking all the right questions and digging deeper into sermons. These things are good, but they’re only one half of the equation, only one half of what it means to be fully formed disciple of Christ, only one half of faith.

A faith focused solely on the head is about as life giving as the Rio Negro; a poor substitute for what could be.

Sometimes, that fight within us is the opposite: we’re so right-brained, so emotionally intelligent, so focused on the qualifiable over the quantifiable, we focus too much on experiencing God at the expense of our learning. If only we can stay in God’s presence long enough, we think, if only we can experience that feeling a certain worship song or hymn gives us, if only we can feel God move within us more of the time, we’ll be ok.

And so we focus on coming to worship, looking for that feeling that it gives us. We focus on worshipping in the car with music, or we go to our favorite spot in the house to sit and be with God. These things are good, but they’re only one half of the equation, only one half of what it means to be a fully formed disciple of Christ, only one half of faith.

A faith focused solely on the heart is about as life giving as the Rio Solimões; a poor substitute for what could be.

We experienced this push and pull of the head and the heart during the confirmation retreat in March. We’d done much head learning that day, sailing on the Rio Negro as it were, and, at the end of the day, the retreat organizers put on a scavenger hunt. The scavenger hunt finished at a bonfire where students were making s’mores. Rather than engage with the activity, a nice way to wind down the day, our confirmands ran up to me en masse, asking if we could go somewhere and worship more instead of grill s’mores. Their heads were full, but their hearts wanted more: more of Christ, more experiencing of God’s love, more of being caught up in the joy of the Lord. You might say they wanted to go sail on the Rio Solimões.

And so, we went down to the pier on St. Simons and set up shop. They journaled, we talked about our love for God, we listened to some music, all things typical of how they best experience the love of God. Their hearts found satisfaction, found learning, alongside of their heads. And that’s just the point of the confirmation journey: to couple the head and the heart together; faith and reason joined as one.

When they come to profess their faith or to reaffirm their faith this morning, they confess just this: that their heads are convinced of the truths about Christ AND that their hearts know the living Christ. They are professing their decision for Christ: one made both with their heads and their hearts. For 1 John and John Wesley taught us that to be in love with God requires that we know more than just what God is about, know more than right theology. A decision for relationship with God, and the theological education that instructs us in that relationship, must be more than just head learning.

The hymn I quoted at the beginning reminds us of this, saying that “far beyond our calculation lies a depth we cannot sound, where [God’s] purpose for creation and the pulse of life are found.” There’s a level of knowledge, a way of knowing God, that cannot be understood in our heads, but only in our hearts.

God’s love may lie in a depth we cannot sound, but it lies in a depth we can experience. Perhaps that’s why these confirmands were always asking to go to the prayer chapel. During our first meeting after the retreat, I took them there to wrap up our lesson for the day. Afterwards, these students asked if we could come back to the prayer chapel every week. And so we did. And so it was that there, after the lesson was done, after dinner was over, after we’d checked in on each other’s weeks, we found the power of experiencing God’s love together, of our hearts being strangely warmed, as John Wesley might put it.

We taught there, in the prayer chapel, about spiritual disciplines: different ways of relating to God and how to form life-long habits. I taught that some disciplines work better for some than others because we’re all different. We used tools to find the right spiritual disciplines for our personalities so that we might do the things that bring us closest to God. For almost all, this included prayer journaling, for many listening to Christian music, for several reading their bibles, and for one, meditation.

And so I’m thrilled to report to you that each of these students has found a spiritual discipline that works for their personality. Furthermore, each of them has formed that spiritual discipline into a regular habit. That’s part of the life of faith: forming into a regular habit the things that will nurture our heads and our hearts. These young people have discovered just what those are for them.

In our modern era, it’s tempting and, indeed, it’s common to privilege the Negro over the Solimões; in other words, to privilege the head over the heart. We put our brains to work faster than our hearts. We’re taught that the intellect is more reliable than emotion. Our protestant faith tells us to trust our learning more than our experience. School teaches us that if we don’t know it in our heads, we don’t really know it.

But faith teaches us that our hearts should be equal to our heads. 1 John tells us that God is love, that we must love God out of the love God has shown us. For any of us who have ever been in love, we know that to be in love isn’t just to be intellectually convinced we are in love. I’m not just intellectually convinced of my love for Dana and Jackson and Carter, I feel that love, I know it in a way that I cannot sound, in a way that I cannot fully explain, because I know it in my heart as well as in my head.

So should it be with our relationship with God. We must put our heads and our hearts to work, equally, in the life of faith. We must go sailing on both the Rio Solimões and the Rio Negro.

We’ve talked of these two Brazilian rivers this morning for a beautiful and amazing reason. After the Rio Negro and Solimões fight for six kilometers, after they flow side by side, without mixing, from here to the airport, they suddenly merge. The resulting river becomes clear; not muddy or black. The resulting river becomes predictable, regularly overflowing its banks in a way that’s great for agriculture. The acid and base levels neutralize, creating a life giving river that has given rise to one of the richest areas of plant and animal life in the world. The resulting river is, in short, one of the most life giving, if not the most life-giving river, on the planet. The resulting river, at the confluence of the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimões, is the Amazon.

I think that’s how our spiritual life goes. When our head and heart come together, the result is powerful and life giving. When we nurture the head and the heart, when we seek knowledge about God and to experience God in equal measure, when we trust both our intellect and our emotion, when we engage both learning and faith, both discovery and wonder, both head and heart, we become truly incarnational: we become the hands and feet of Christ; a powerful and life-giving presence on this earth.

That’s the trick to our relationship with God. We need our head and we need our heart. We need to practice spiritual disciplines that engage both. That’s the example the confirmands set for us today: they have nurtured their heads and their hearts. They know God intimately in both ways. They have learned about God, understanding what it means to be a Christian, what we believe, and the like. And they have learned what it is to experience God as a friend, a partner, the one who loves us above all else.

Do you know both? Is your faith like the Amazon: powerful, life giving, balanced? Or is your faith imbalanced, privileging the head by sailing on the Rio Negro or privileging the heart by sailing on the Rio Solimões? Do you know about what you believe and why you believe it? Do you know how you feel and how God makes you feel? Or do you know both?

On our last Wednesday together, just four days ago, as we had our last prayer chapel time as a confirmation class, they reported to Leigh and Cathy and I one word above all else: freedom. Because they know who God is and what they believe about God, they have the freedom to simply be the Christian God has made them to be. And because they know in their hearts that God loves them and they know how to access that love through spiritual disciplines, they feel free to simply be themselves, as God has created them to be.

Isn’t that what we all desire in this life? The freedom to simply be ourselves, as God has created us to be? The freedom to know and to be known? The freedom to love and be loved in return?

That freedom is available to all of us, not just our confirmands, if only we would open our hearts and heads to God, engaging both equally.

If this morning, you don’t know both equally, it’s time to set sail for the Amazon. It’s time to balance out your faith. If you’re privileging your head, it’s time to engage your heart. And if you’re privileging your heart, it’s time to engage your head. Faith is more than experiencing God and it’s more than knowing about God because faith is both at the same time: faith is head and heart joined together.

So join them together today. Live into the example of these confirmands who learned about God in their heads and their hearts. Commit to know God both ways and join with them, this morning, in reaffirming your commitment to God.

For with both, we become God’s hands and feet on this earth; a powerful, life-giving force to the world.

May our prayer this morning be thus:

As two currents in a river fight each other’s undertow

till converging they deliver one coherent steady flow

blend, O God, our faith and learning till they carve a single course,

till they join as one, returning praise and thanks to you, their source.

Amen.

Hymn

Praise the source of faith and learning that has sparked and stoked the mind

With a passion for discerning how the world has been designed.

Let the sense of wonder flowing from the wonders we survey

Keep our faith forever growing and renew our need to pray:

God of wisdom, we acknowledge that our science and our art

And the breadth of human knowledge only partial truth impart.

Far beyond our calculation lies a depth we cannot sound

Where your purpose for creation and the pulse of life are found.

May our faith redeem the blunder of believing that our thought

Has displaced the grounds for wonder which the ancient prophets taught.

May our learning curb the error which unthinking faith can breed

Lest we justify some terror with an antiquated creed.

As two currents in a river fight each other’s undertow

Till converging they deliver one coherent steady flow,

Blend, O God, our faith and learning till they carve a single course,

Till they join as one, returning praise and thanks to you, their source.

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