What is true?

May 14, 2009

Sometimes, it’s hard to know what is true.

After all, quite a few gospels are floating around out there, either teaching people about the life and ministry of Jesus or substituting the cross for a message of comfort and health. These two gospels are poles on a continuum. All sorts of doctrines and dogmas make up the gradations in between.

I don’t claim to have the answer—the true Gospel.

I’m still making my way with the help of the Spirit, the Scriptures, the Church, and the cloud of witnesses who surround me with their writings, conversations, and physical presence in my life.

From what I can tell, faith is made up of both propositional truths and a narrative that draws us in. What I mean is that to walk the narrow way, we must tread certain flagstones. For example, if you don’t believe that Jesus was a real flesh-and-blood man who lived, died, was resurrected, and now sits at the Father’s right hand, then looking to Jesus to help you make sense of human existence doesn’t make much sense. He was either a liar, a lunatic, or God’s son. Let’s say for a moment that he wasn’t God’s only son. Why would you study his teachings? Talk about delusions of grandeur! Who makes that kind of claim? A crazy person.

I believe that Jesus of Nazareth lived in 1st-century Palestine, and I believe that he is alive right now. He told his followers a love story about the Creator and his creation. He told this story with stories. His parables and sermons were often elliptical. He rarely told his audiences, “Here’s exactly what you are supposed to do to be holy.” Rather, he invited his apostles and disciples to walk with him, live with him, and watch what he did. By watching him, they would know how to live. He didn’t give them a new law to replace the old law. He fulfilled Mosaic law, and in that fulfillment, he gave them freedom from it. He still asked them to keep the Ten Commandments, but he covered them with grace, so that they were no longer guilty before God for their failures and trespasses.

Jesus invites us into a story. We give intellectual assent to certain truths—“Jesus is God’s son”—and we follow him on the Way.

To make a subtle drift into feeling justified by what we believe is easy. Of course, we fail to realize what we are doing. No man says to himself, “I am in good standing before God because I give my assent to these propositional truths found in Scripture.” No, we express this self-righteousness—believing we are saved because we say yes to the right doctrines and follow through with the right checklist of good behaviors—when we sit in judgment on other Christians who have different beliefs, who clutch to their chests a different sheaf of papers. On these papers are written their interpretations of what scripture says about the roles that women can and cannot fulfill in corporate worship or the exegesis of passages concerning baptism—Is water baptism a salvific act? Do people need full immersion or will sprinkling suffice?—or the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality and abortion. Christians cannot even agree which are the foundational doctrines of our faith and which are of secondary importance!

We can also err in thinking that what we believe doesn’t matter so long as we remember that God loves us. His grace is sufficient, right? I sense a trend in my generation—the twenty somethings—in particular: lots of young Christians who have only a cursory knowledge of scripture. They don’t know the classic statements of Christianity, such as the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. They are passionate about social justice but are liable to embrace the latest cause and proclaim the latest buzz book and its thesis as their newest manifesto. Jesus is cool and relevant. Let’s get caught up in his story and change the world. We are blown about by our passion and our feelings: ”Jesus, we will follow you to the death, but we’re unsure of what you actually said. Jesus, I love you so much that I’ll sleep around, dabble in illegal drugs, accept no responsibility, and submit to no one.”

These two camps, the proposition and narrative camps, face one another across the battlefields of theology and church.

I don’t have the answers. I just assume that my knowledge of God will always be incomplete. My understanding of scripture will always be skewed by the culture in which I am immersed and the pain that I have endured. My faith and theology will always be imperfect.

Propositional and narrative theology advocates need one another.None of us has all the answers. Claiming to have the “right” theology is like claiming you’ve got God preserved in a jar of formaldehyde: “Look here and observe all the characteristics of the Creator God.”

A God who often defines himself as Mystery won’t capitulate to such treatment on the part of his earthen vessels. We depend on him to teach us about Himself, and He will often smash the jars of our old assumptions and misconceptions without replacing them with new jars for capturing him. Romans 12:2 says that we will be transformed by the renewing of your minds. I pick up trash along the way, and God must clean out my mind again and again. He must cleanse and renew my beliefs in and posture towards Him again and again.

Young people, share your passion and ruthless trust and radical hospitality with the old guard. Mature people, share your experiences and long commitments and obedience with the younger crowd. We need each other, and even more, we need God to open our eyes to the planks in them and to reconcile and unify the different, and necessary, parts of the Body, the church universal.

The Lord handed over Israel because of idolatry: “You have not obeyed my voice… .” How had Israel erred? By worshipping Baal and Asherah.

Gideon is beating out grain in a winepress to keep the wheat hidden from the Midianites, who were taking by force whatever food the Israelites produced. He was working in secret. Living hand to mouth made Gideon shrewd and resourceful, yet the angel did not appear to him in the first year but the seventh year. Why did God wait to rescue his people? Apparently, both Gideon and Israel had some lessons to learn:

Disobedience opens the door to oppression. God gives us boundaries to create the best kind of life for us. When we outsmart ourselves and try to live life apart from him. We settle for less.

An angel of the Lord appears to Gideon, and speaks, “The Lord is with you…”

[Have no fear. The Creator God stands by your side.]

“…O mighty man of valor.”

[Remember who you are—a warrior. Claim your identity. Live in the truth of God’s power that resides in you. I gave you not a spirit of timidity but of power and love and self-control.]

The angel calls out in Gideon what God has already placed inside of him. He resituates Gideon in the truth: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is above all gods. His children have nothing to fear.

Gideon wrestles with the angel’s words. He even questions God’s faithfulness:

“Please, sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, “Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?” But now the Lord has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.” (Judges 6)

Gideon falls into the worn trap of blaming God for his suffering and that of his people. Why do we suffer if God loves us? If he performed signs, wonders, and miracles in the past and delivered his children from oppression, why has he abandoned me in this pit? If he is all-powerful, why won’t he soothe my pain, save my marriage, resurrect my sweet child from the dead?

The angel offers no answer. God gave Job no answer. I have a hunch that God will meet our balled-up fists banging on his door with similar silence. The answer, I think, is complex and only available to us in part. As revealed in Christ, our suffering becomes our glory. The cross we take up becomes an avenue of sanctification. I also think that we live in the world that we have created. We chose life apart from God. We rebelled. We broke trust, and now we live in a broken world that breaks us. We point the finger at God rather than at ourselves. 

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about passivity and courage.

I spent last weekend in the Smokies at a men’s retreat. Both of these words came up in our conversations.

Do we want to live in cages? Are we willing to trade being truly alive for safety and security?

Are we willing to lay claim to those people, ideas, organizations, places, resources, and problems that fall within our sphere of influence?

Doug, the pastor of All Souls Church, did the teaching. He spoke at length about how after the exodus from Egypt but before entering Canaan, the Israelites sent out twelve spies, one from each tribe, to scout out the land and return with intelligence on its inhabitants and resources. Once the spies returned, ten of the twelve declared that the land couldn’t be taken. The inhabitants were too strong.

This news floored everyone who was listening. Had they traveled all the way from Egypt only to turn around because God defaulted on his promise to Abraham?

Caleb quieted the people, and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it” (Numbers 13:30). Joshua agreed with him. Two against ten.

No one listened to them. The Israelites railed against God:

‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?’ And they said to one another, ‘Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.’ (Numbers 14:2-4)

God cursed that generation of Israelites. Only those under the age of 20 at the beginning survived the 40 years of cleansing in the wilderness that followed. Caleb and Joshua were the exceptions. They rejected passivity. They chose to trust in God’s faithfulness. His power. His promises. God decreed that they alone of that generation would come out of the wilderness alive.

My favorite part of that story is what happens forty-five years after Joshua and Caleb explored the land of Canaan and followed God “wholeheartedly” (Joshua 14:8). They put their whole hearts and lives in God’s care.

Moses has died, and Joshua is the new leader of Israel. Caleb goes to see his old friend at his camp at Gilgal, and he says:

“And now, behold, I am this day eighty-five years old. I am still as strong today as I was in the day that Moses sent me; my strength now is as my strength was then, for war and for going and coming. So now give me this hill country of which the LORD spoke on that day, for you heard on that day how the Anakim were there, with great fortified cities. It may be that the LORD will be with me, and I shall drive them out just as the LORD said.” (Joshua 14:10-12)

Caleb lost no strength or vigor. He still went to battle. Can you imagine facing an 85-year-old with 70 years of training and technique on his side? Can you imagine his wisdom and experience yoked together with his physical strength and his courage? All of the people Caleb knew in his youth were dead, yet he was still a young man.

His vitality was bound up in his wholehearted trust in God. His strength was preserved because he believed in the face of staggering opposition that God would follow through with his promises.

I imagine him with a mane of white hair and fire in his eyes. I bet he had a handshake of iron.

I’d like to hear him pray.

Joshua granted Caleb’s request. Caleb took his clan and chased the Anakim from the land. They were supposedly descended from giants, the Nephilim, the “sons of God” who bore children with daughters of men (Genesis 6; Numbers 14). The giants ran from Caleb and his kin.

I want to live with that kind of boldness. Caleb was truly alive his entire life. He lived alive. He never grew old.

I want to follow God “wholeheartedly.” I want my vitality when I’m eighty-five. Courage and boldness are close to God’s heart, and as we travel to God’s heart, we will discover them in ourselves.

My junior year of college, I read Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins, and one particular passage still haunts me: 

The truth was that Samantha didn’t want to go to Lourdes and I didn’t want to take her. Why not? I don’t know Samantha’s reasons, but I was afraid she might be cured. What then? Suppose you ask God for a miracle and God says yes, very well. How do you live the rest of your life? (374)

We pray to see God. We pray for signs, wonders, and miracles to confirm that He is real and sovereign. We ask for an experience like Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus—something dramatic and irrevocable.

Let the scales fall from our eyes, and let us witness resurrections and restore sight to the blind. Allow us to speak in the tongues of angels, to cast mountains into the sea, to walk through fire unscathed. Make us freaks of faith. Sear true belief into our souls.

Tom Moore, Walker Percy’s protagonist, knew us better than we know ourselves. He didn’t deceive himself. His daughter’s miraculous healing would destroy his complacency. He wasn’t ready, and he knew it. Consumed with fear of change, he avoided an encounter with the Living God.

Do I truly desire authenticity? Am I ready for the many forms of martyrdom that follow miracles?

Jesus will wreck my comfortable life even as he saves my soul. Do I want the risen Son of God or a fairy tale?

Am I willing to take my cross and watch suffering turn my life to ash or do I want the easy hell of lukewarm faith?

If I let Samantha die, I never have to change.

ace of spades

March 19, 2009

Faith is peeling onions, layers beneath layers, questions beneath questions. 

Faith is a palimpsest where the old words are read with the new.  As soon as I formulate questions, lick the seal, and send them to God for a reply, I find myself in another season of waiting. Patience is also called “long suffering.”  Uncertainty condenses on the surface of my faith. The questions we ask make us who we are.

Why did melanoma kill my grandfather?

I want God to explain why cancer reduced this man’s body to grotesque angles under a white sheet. At the visitation, the line to look into the casket stretched across several rooms. Friends came out in droves to pay their respects.  I have never visited his grave since the burial. Why?

My family continues to make comparisons. They call me “Little Roger.” They point out the shape of my face, my lips and my gregariousness. They say people are drawn to me the way they were drawn to him.  Some shoes to fill.

Why take Roger Church, a man who did the things he said he would do? 

He might have helped me understand myself.  Where is he, Jesus?  Lazarus walked out of the tomb two thousand years ago. What has his blinking in the sun to do with me? Where is Roger Church? Paradise or Abraham’s Side? Purgatory or writhing in Hell?

That side of my family gets together less often now. I wish Jesus Christ would breathe my grandfather’s spirit back into his rotten body. People would scream, seeing an old man claw his way up from six feet under. Maybe he would hitch a ride down Thompson Lane to his house on Belmont Avenue. Would I believe in Jesus’ resurrection, his healings and his miracles, if I got a call on my cell phone from my grandfather?  Would I believe if I touched his hands across the old cribbage board we used?  If he handed me the deck of cards we buried with him? I still have the ace of spade I took out of the deck when no one was paying attention.

People tell me, the have told me my whole life, that I should imitate Jesus. Preachers toss abstract concepts and neat formulas out over the audience.  They travel back to Isaiah to fill in the Gospels’ gaps:

For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, And like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty That we should look upon Him, Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him. He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed.¹

I believe Jesus of Nazareth is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, but I have questions. 

I need to know what Jesus would whisper in my ear if I were about to attack some pervert who touched my wife or my daughter.

I need to know what Jesus would think of voting, sex, and capitalism. Yes, when Lazarus died, Jesus called him back from death. I believe it. Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. He quoted Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”²  He made an immediate and physical impact on people’s lives. He gave people their health. He gave purpose to their souls. He returned their dignity. He restored them to their communities.

Can I raise men from the dead?

Lord, help me with my unbelief. I am a product of my environment. Perhaps no one I have ever known believed anyone in this day and age would be raised from the dead without defibulators or a blood transfusion. My younger sister and her boyfriend discovered one of the maintenance personnel, Zacharias Sbathu, dead in his truck. His family depended on him for their well-being. Our prayers did not raise him from the dead. Is it true? Is prayer powerful? Why didn’t it work? Zacharias worked two jobs for seventy or eighty hours a week to build a life for his family. Where was Jesus to raise this man from the dead?

Jesus wept. Jesus prayed: “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. I knew that You always hear Me; but because of the people standing around I said it, so that they may believe that You sent Me.”³

If I cannot raise people from the dead, what is the faithful response for a man of God when faced with death and violence?

 


¹ Isaiah 53:2-5 (NASV).

 

² Luke 4:18-19; Isaiah 61:1-2 (NASV).

³ John 11:41-42 (NASV).

Shabby equipment

February 20, 2009

My friend James sent me a link to an article where I read this:

“And what drew me back, some time later, toward the possibility of faith? Poetry. George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins and T. S. Eliot. One night, I was reading the last lines of “Little Gidding” to a friend, my voice thick with emotion, and when I looked up he was staring at me with kindly amusement. “So,” he said. ‘You really like that stuff?’”

Tobias Wolff talks about seeing Berman’s ”Winter Light” for the first time. The film pierced his heart, but the bad art the preacher showed at the end hardened it. Later, good art had the opposite effect, softening him.

Man oh man, have I been there. 

I remember sitting on Bison Square on Lipscomb University’s campus. It was Spring. I know because the fragrance of Bradford Pear trees was in the air—part fish, part clean laundry. Someone had carried a scarred wooden desk outside and set it underneath a dogwood in bloom, its white and pink buds opening like hands.

I was reading T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets for the first time. When I came to these lines in the second section of “East Coker“:

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

I knew that was true. I didn’t started crying though until I read these lines in the fifth section:

For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.

Ache filled me: the desire to know a truth beyond language and words.

Nieces

February 17, 2009

I have two nieces, Emery and Merrill.

Emery

Emery, the older, is almost four. She tilts her head up to me and looks at me with her big, almond-shaped eyes and asks, “Bud, do you want to play with me?” She is so shy that she needs thirty minutes to warm up when she hasn’t seen me in a while. Once she warms up, though, she wants to ride everywhere on my shoulders. I love this. We talk about what we see and her favorite things and what she’s been doing. I can almost hear her mind work.

pensive_em

I love her simplicity and trust. She doesn’t know to get embarrassed about certain things like staring at strange-looking people, picking her nose, or eating meal composed entirely of bacon. The rest of her diet includes chicken nuggets, chocolate, rice, and a few other foods. My mom—Emery calls her “Kiki”—gave her $3 for Valentine’s Day, and Emery showed me how much money she had in her purse. When people fart or whatever you want to call it, she grins, wrinkles up her nose, and whispers, “Toot, toot.” Sometimes, she starts giggling. Emery brushes hair out of her face with the affectation of a tiny princess.

 

Merrill

Emery’s younger sister Merrill turned one in December. This past Saturday, February 14, 2009, she developed a new trick: whenver she saw her mom, my older sister, she would shriek a very happy shriek which made everybody within earshot turn and smile. Such a big noise from a little source. Merrill weighs just under sixteen pounds, but she’s been walking for months. She’s the smallest walking person I’ve ever seen. She’s much more outgoing than her older sister. While we were in Mast General Store the other day, she walked right up to an old woman who was looking at sock monkeys and wrapped her arms around the woman’s legs and leaned into her. The woman was, of course, delighted, and started telling my dad and I about her great-grandson Dominic. “Irish through and through,” she said. Merrill was on to other adventures at this point.

Merrill is uncomplicated. When she’s tired, she cries. When she’s hungry, she cries. She has a small red birthmark between her eyes that looks like a bindi. But the most important thing: she reaches for me. She’ll snuggle her head into the crook of my neck. This tiny child doesn’t even weigh enough to make it on the charts that follow a toddler’s development. Yet, when my mom told her no, she stamped her foot. How is that possible? She is so breakable and loving. How can she be so loving?

merrill

I pray that they both grow up and fall in love with God the way I fell in love with them. I know that life will break them at some point. I hate thinking about it. But at least I know of a good place for broken people—the heart of Jesus.

Faith hurts

February 1, 2009

praying_mantisI wish someone had told me ten years ago that faith hurts. I must have missed the seminar when more mature Christians sat down the babies in Christ and said, “Listen….”

Somewhere I picked up this idea that a healthy, vibrant, authentic faith was one that had no problems. When a relationship ended or I suffered some disappointment, whenever I discovered that I was not as emotionally resilient as I thought, I turned to Jesus and prayed the equivalent of “Okay, I’m ready for you to fix me now.”

I remember walking around Lipscomb University’s campus in Nashville, Tennessee, with my friend Taylor during one of our marathon conversations. He had received the same misinformation because part of our conversation was his recounting how he prayed for God to fix him, over and over again. If God is the potter and we are the broken potsherds, then why doesn’t he do his job and put us back together, make us whole?

I thought that was part of the promise. He calls Himself the Great Physician and Healer. In Ezekiel, He can put flesh on the dry bones. He can bring the rotten corpse of Lazarus back to life. He can resurrect the Messiah. He can cleanse the old heavens and old earth and make a new existence out of the ashes. He can create something out of nothing.

So why doesn’t He fix me? Why do I feel like such a wreck all the time? Why doesn’t she love me back? Why did he die? Why didn’t God protect her from sexual abuse? Why can’t I love people the way I mean to? Why am I so damn selfish and self-absorbed?

Why is the world so broken and where is the light of redemption? Where are the pierced hands and bleeding side and new, incorruptible body of Jesus in this world starving for love and peace?

I don’t have answers to these questions, but this past Advent season I remembered the promise of God-with-us. My problems won’t go away. They may change and evolve, but my life will never be perfect. God’s promise to us is not that He will fix all our problems and make us feel good about ourselves. God is no guidance counselor.

God promises to make us holy. Jesus promises never to forsake us even to the end of the age. We have the Holy Spirit burning inside of us. God assures us that we can never go anywhere without bumping into his love. We can never travel outside of his love.

God promises to meet us in the midst of our problems, to walk with us, to love us back into health. Divorce, poverty, hunger, genocide, rape, ignorance, nakedness, greed, sexual slavery, and disease: this is the world we have created. After Jesus saves us, we wake up to the same old problems with one difference: hope.

I await with eagerness the fullness of the kingdom of God because I am the worst of sinners and Jesus is in every person I meet. My job is not to protect myself but to point the way to new life. Faith hurts because we must die before God can resurrect us. Baptism, rebirth. Baptism, rebirth. Baptism, rebirth. This is now my story. Now that I know pain is a part of it, I don’t feel like I’m failing at faith.