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.

You can change

March 31, 2009

You can change.

You are not simply a product of your past or environment, bound with invisible chains to your sins, failures, and family secrets.

Grace means transformation. Grace is real. Grace is true.

The fire of the Holy Spirit can sweep through your life and burn up all the garbage. You can live in freedom. You can taste purity and peace.

What you treat as unbreakable bonds are cobwebs to the risen Christ.

You can change. He can make you holy—washed white and entirely new.

Start asking, and he will come to your desire for him like a moth to a candle.

an end to hurting

March 15, 2009

I am convinced that few people reject Christ after an arduous journey in search of truth.

Few people climb mountains of books, navigate oceans of conversation, endure storms of dogma, doctrine, and opinion. Few people put scripture, spiritual disciplines, and worshipping communities through the strainer of logic and meditation, lived experience and openhearted inquiry.

I am also convinced that most people who actually meet Jesus fall in love with him.

What happens to everybody else?

They get hurt. Rejecting Jesus has very little to do with dimissing Jesus as a lunatic and the Way he preached about as a fable created by a ragtag band of disappointed followers. Rejecting Jesus has everything to do with pain.

Plenty of folks will bring up genocide in the Old Testament, or the death of a child from a birth defect, or the historical inaccuracies, multiple authors, or discrepancies among biblical manuscripts.

You might meet a nonbeliever troubled by the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, or the Salem Witch trials. He may ask, What about sex scandals in the Catholic priesthood or the greed of televangelists? What about hypocrisy and every injustice and atrocity carried out in the name of God?

If God loves us, why do we suffer?

Why does your God allow rape, molestation, slavery, starvation, disease, war, and avarice?

If you listen carefully when someone is building a case for God’s absence or nonexistence, you will hear him or her describe evil – human depravity.

Each person will say in her own way, “The world is not as it should be.”

Underneath all the arguments and counterpoints, you will discover other people’s pain. People want to know whether or not God cares about human suffering. They have been wounded by pastors and preachers, lovers and strangers, who claimed to carry the message of the gospel. They never meet Jesus because they must push through so many broken relationships to find him.

If you think you have something to share with nonbelievers, you first ask about their pain. You must then walk with them to Jesus. They are tired of apologetics. They want your heart and they want his. They want to believe there is an end to hurting.

We’d taken a road trip to Memphis to hear Guster play at the New Daisy Theater. Rebecca‘s parents offered to let us crash at their house. Driving back to Nashville on Sunday afternoon, I tried to catch up on some homework. My Faith & Fiction class with Dr. Matt Hearn and Dr. Gary Holloway was reading Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal.

The book is Nouwen’s long mediation on Rembrandt’s painting by the same name. The painting changed Nouwen’s life, and his meditation changed mine.

I’ve spent the better part of my life believing that I am a constant disappointment to God.

He gave his only son to save us, and I repay him by cheating on him, fooling around with other gods. I always imagined him sighing like the parent of a college flunkie:

“Son, your mother and I have made sacrifices so that you could get the best education possible. This is the third semester in a row that you have failed your classes, and frankly, I’m disappointed in you. I’ve about had enough. We’re going to give you one more shot, but if you let us down again, you’re on your own. We’re pulling the plug. Do you understand?”

I felt like I was letting God down on the time. I tried and tried to do better, be more disciplined, keep a tight rein on my sins, but as Paul so eloquently explains sin at work within us in Romans 7: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

Put simply, the Spirit used Nouwen’s warm, generous words to help me understand and experience my belovedness in God’s sight. He welcomes me into his heart. He tells me that I am worth the blood of Jesus. He calls me by name. He has been watching for me for months, and when he sees my familiar figure in the distance, He lays aside his dignity, picks up his robes like a skirt, and sprints for me. He embraces me, showers me with kisses. He pours out his extravagant love, and I am overwhelmed.

How can YHWH, the Creator God, the Alpha and the Omega, invite me to dine next to him at the wedding feast of the Lamb? When I slip through the door, believing that I am unclean and unwanted, He shouts, “Austin, come over here. I’ve saved you a seat.” He runs over, locks an arm around my shoulders, and introduces me to all the guests, “This is my adopted son, Austin. He is like no one else you will ever meet. He is one of a kind. I am so proud of him.”

The romantic poet William Blake, who is himself one of a kind, talked about bearing up under the ray’s of God’s love for us.

We will spend the rest of our lives learning to receive God’s love.

Nouwen sharing his heart was a turning point on that journey for me.

Riding in the back of that car on the way back to Nashville, I cried tears of joy, for God’s love is true. His love is Reality.

The parable in Luke 15 is really a story about a loving father. The gospel story of our loving father. Jesus is the way home. A phrase from the book put words to a vague ache I’ve felt for as long as I can remember: “the yearning for a final return, an unambiguous sense of safety, a lasting home.” We are all haunted by an existential homesickness. Whether we know it or not, we long to rest in God. He is our true home.

Nouwen understood this, and for that, I am thankful. I look forward to meeting him one day.

Last night, I went to TribeOne to hear John Perkins speak. 

I first read the name John Perkins about a year ago in a book by Charles Marsh called Beloved Community. Doug Banister, a Knoxville-area pastor who helped found Fellowship but is now downtown at All Souls assigned the book to all the Knoxville Fellows. Six girls and five guys were trying and failing to establish intentional community in Sterchi Lofts on Gay Street.

 I came in believing that this group of people was going to be my family and closest friends for ten months. To a degree, that’s what happened, but I was also the victim of my own expectations.

Yet, if it weren’t for a decision I made in late Spring of 2007 to join the Fellows Program, I doubt I would have even been in Knoxville to partake of Perkins’s wisdom. One of the first things he said was this:

“The good news is the fulfillment of a longing, a dream… that’s why it’s the good news.”bearlake

His insight is so obvious, so simple, but it cuts, it incises, straight to the human dilemma. We can’t fix ourselves.

Perkins went on: “Success from God’s perspective is to identify with people in pain.”

How do we do that?

He shared his poem entitled “Go to the People” that outlines his strategy:

Go to the people.
Live among them.
Love them.
Learn from them.
Plan with them.

Perkins talked about Jackie Robinson: “Jackie Robinson didn’t open no gate. He tore the fence down. He took the hinges off the wall.” He quoted Jim Elliot: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” He recited Acts 1:8 and 2 Timothy 2:2.

In other words, he spent the evening raining quotable quotes down on us.

My favorite moment, though, happened when Perkins was talking about the white pastor who mentored him in California just after he accepted Christ. Perkins’s voice trembled with love and respect when he recalled “Old Man Leech”: “Dreaming his dreams in me—that’s what discipleship is all about.”

Dreaming his dreams in me. That’s what Jesus does with us by causing his Spirit to dwell within us. That good news is almost too much to bear.

Discipleship is what the Kingdom of God is all about, and Perkins helped simplify that profound mystery for me.

What do we do? How then should we live?

On the day of Pentecost, about two thousand broken-heart people asked Peter that question after the Spirit fell like fire and the apostles began speaking in tongues. Francis Schaeffer asked that question his whole life. The French thinker and philosopher Jacques Derrida asked that question the year he died. Of all the questions he tackled over the course of his lifetime, that was the one that still bugged him.

How then should we live? What should we do? 

Perkins has a plan that keeps a spring in his step even at the age of 79: 

1) “Get to know yourself and develop a philosophy for your life that becomes the music of your life.” The music of your life…beautiful.

2) “In order to be the people of God, we have to give up our power bases.” Truman talked about how human power corrupts. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that we can move up the ladder in this world’s power systems and still be earthen vessels.

3) Forgive the people who wound you. Perkins: “I think forgiveness is the greatest therapy you can get.” 

4) Build “islands of hope” by choosing one or two people to walk with and disciple.

You want to know what to do with your life?

Choose a few people who are in pain. Pour your life into them. Dream your dreams in them. 

Now are you living out the gospel.

Christians fall into two categories-those who relish talking about hell, wrath, and sin and those who beg one’s pardon for having any opinion whatsoever. We’ve probably all had experiences with the bible-thumping street-corner evangelist whose inflammatory rhetoric would make Jonathan Edwards proud—God dangles nonbeliever over an open fire like spiders on the end of an existential thread.

I was sitting on the outside patio at Urban Bar in the Old City one night, and watched as a thirty-something preacher screamed, “You are wicked!” at a group of young men. In response, one of the men hopped up on another, wrapped his legs around his waist, and the two started kissing to the applause of many passers-by and the indignation of the preacher.

Granted, I don’t believe offering one intentional offense for another opens up lines of conversation and moves both parties towards better understanding and deeper compassion, but what happened at night was a colorful example of what often happens in Western culture as a result of fire-and-brimstone tactics on the part of well-meaning Christians. They wouldn’t expose themselves to the type of harassment that the preacher did in his knee-length overcoat and tasteful tie if they didn’t believe they were making a contribution to the betterment of their communities. However, they can’t chalk it up to a costly faithfulness and taking up Jesus’ cross if nobody is listening and those people who do hear react with firepower of their own.

Too often it seems that a negative response, or even open hatred, convinces certain Christians that they are on the right track. They are being good disciples. Jesus came to bring a sword and division, right? A double-edged love? If it doesn’t make people angry then it’s not the gospel, right? Up to a point. The Pharisees certainly found Jesus difficult to stomach; they wanted him dead long before they succeeded in bringing off the charge of treason.

Yet, many other people, especially the dregs of first-century Palestine, flocked to Jesus like he was a cold beer on a muggy day. They listened to him preach then invited him to dinner, introduced him to their friends. They offered him gratitude and felt deep gladness.

Jesus did cause division in that his followers often became outcasts in their own families. More particularly, he polarized people along religious lines. Those religious fat cats who enjoyed positions of wealth, prestige, or power in the then status quo saw him as a threat to their long-established traditions and their status. They could lose their jobs if they let this nut from some podunk town in Galilee have his way.

Jesus always offended people who stood to gain from the religious cash cow, people whose livelihood often necessitated brushing aside the spirit of the law safeguarding humanity and dignity in favor of the law’s letter, rules and regulations they themselves generated and enforced. So, who are the contemporary Pharisees? Who continues to bring home a regular paycheck and maintain a good reputation if churches worry less about meeting people’s daily, concrete needs and more about tradition, propriety, or “the way things are”? Certainly not two gay men in the Old City.

I’ve heard most of the arguments suggesting that sermons on damnation are a kind of tough love. Rubbish. I have a hard time believing that Jesus’ idea of loving people included killing them, I find it hard to believe that loving them includes elaborate arguments about their filthiness and fiery future. People must ultimately make a decision about whether or not Jesus is who he says he is or was some charlatan with sensational genius and an acting troupe willing to die excruciating deaths so that the show could go on, enough to make Shakespeare envious.

How many people leave off destructive behaviors on account of the consequences anyway?

Life is a destructive behavior, and if human beings have been creative in anything, they’ve found myriad ways to hasten their own demise. From whiskey and cigarettes to automobiles and firearms, we’re really good a coming up with ways to kill ourselves.

Despite the research, statistics, and warning labels, cigarette companies make billions year after year. Don’t these people realize cigarettes are bad for them? Of course they do! And you know what, they don’t care!benandjerrys

That’s the funny thing about being human. Despite the size of our brains and our invention of opera and chewing gum, our “progress” has never taken out of us the tendency peculair to humankind of sabotaging the self-preservation instinct in all animals in favor of some fleeting pleasure.

We continue to develop quantum physics and particle theory while eating McDonald’s. Don’t these people realize that cheeseburgers are bad for them? Of course they do! And they’ll dedicate most of their time to amusing themselves to death, quite literally.

Rational arguments move very few people into more wholesome lives. You don’t get people to stop eating apocalyptic cheeseburgers by reminding them of the fat content. You get them to stop eating unhealthy foods by giving them something that tastes better and by helping them change what they wanted out of food in the first place.

Faith is the same way. These days, people just don’t respond well to warnings or reasonable arguments. Tallying up an audience’s apathy as yet another token of one’s own uncompromising faith is ignoring the fact that people have difficulty listening when they’re hungry, or angry, or maybe they dislike the speaker’s nasal monotone, his hair, or his posture.

You want people to come to Jesus? Pointing out their bad habits isn’t convincing most of the time. If people recognize the danger in having no faith, the danger is rarely enough to spark a catalyst. A lot of Christians love pointing out the danger, and that’s a safe way to put a lot of distance between themselves and people who make them uncomfortable.

Why are we here?

February 21, 2009


Wycliffe Hall, Oxford

Wycliffe Hall, Oxford

During the fall semester of my senior year, I studied in Oxford, England, at one of Oxford University’s colleges called Wycliffe Hall. The college takes its name from John Wycliffe, who was killed for translating the Bible from Latin into English. 


Kieron Winn

Kieron Winn

These months spent living on Pullens Lane were some of the best of my life: chronically late and riding my red bike helter skelter down High Street to discuss my unfortunate use of “inflated rhetoric” with the English poet Kieron Winn or 18th-century novels with a lovely Canadian woman named Emma Plaskitt, who worked as an editor at Oxford University Press; drinking cups of Lapsang Souchong and eating scones with clotted cream and jam at the Q Bar while critiquing poems with my dear friend Nathan Sytsma, now earning his Ph.D. at Yale; and before I forgot one of the strangest events of my life, tagging along to a hare coursing.



A Hare Coursing

Everyone was wearing tweed, neckties, Wellingtons, and Barbour oilcloth jackets. Rain fell on us all day. The “hounds”—or what I call “beagles”—chased “hares”—or what I call “rabbits”—across sodden fields while all of the participants—us—passed around a big bottle of port and a little flask of Laphroaig, a very peaty single malt from Islay. I met Jules, a counter tenor who lived in London. I met Andy, who was apparently royalty in an Asian country who name I forget. 


A hare coursing on a rainy day outside of Oxford.

A hare coursing on a rainy day outside of Oxford.

The beagles eventually found a gap in a fence and went AWOL. We didn’t receive this news until we had fled indoors to the only pub in the middle of all that pastureland and were burning on fingers on “chips”—what I call “french fries”—amidst the aromas of wet wool, beer, and the sour-sweet musk of human bodies that have been outside all day.

We piled back out into the rain then stuffed ourselves into a tiny car to drive on muddy country lanes in a futile effort to help people I did not know locate their pack of rogue hounds. Eventually, we did see the smeared outline of the head huntsman, or whatever you call him, in his white jodhpurs and short green velvet jacket. His name? Crispin?

Thankfully, we learned from him that someone better acquainted with the area and better equipped for the task at hand had rounded up the wet mass of canine who didn’t catch a single hare that day. Somehow, I was okay with missing the sight of their dismembering and devouring him. Oh well. 

We ended up at an ancient farmhouse with stone-floored stables and heavy wooden furniture polished from years of use. Here an older English couple asked us questions about the day and fed us scones and sandwiches and pushed cups of hot tea into our cold hands. I flirted with several girls I didn’t know who went to elite boarding schools in cities that I pronounced incorrectly. How was I supposed to know that “Winchester” wasn’t pronounced WIN-chess-ter but something like WEENches-tuh? Again, oh well. There wasn’t much competition anyway. Most of the English girls I met loved American men. I figured that must be because most of the English men I met looked like they’d crumble if they broke into a run.

Purple Turtle

When I got back to the States, I wrote an essay for a contest put on by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities,the organization that runs the program. They gave me 2nd place. The winner wrote a proem, that I thought was neither good prose nor good poetry. I was probably just bitter though.bench2

The following is an excerpt from that essay:

“Dancing is like anything else: the more seriously you take yourself, the less seriously everybody else takes you. I struck up conversation with a girl, who, like everyone in Oxford it seemed, turned out to be an American. After the customary questions—Where are you from? What school? Where is that? What are you studying?—our conversation petered out. As she stumbled away to the bar or restroom, she yelled over her shoulder: ‘English majors don’t know how to party!’ 

This will be my vocation; a constant struggle of constant change, Jacob’s wrestling with the angel and my wrestling with the Spirit: using words, literature, and my life to share the Good News. This is what Christian English majors do. This is how we party.”

The full two-page essay is still online. I’d completely forgotten about it until two or three days ago.

Funny, I’m still asking and answering the same questions: “Why do I write?” and “Why are we here?”