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.

Daffodil

February 15, 2009

daffodil2Saturday is Recycling Day, at least when my parents, older sister, and two sweet nieces are coming to visit me and I want to clean my place up a bit.

I walked outside to grab the grungy plastic laundry basket that helps me save the world. Tin cans with tomato soup residue, rain-soaked cardboard, a plastic container emptied of organic bleu cheese (my sister makes fun of me for my eating habits) — there they were.

The first yellow daffodils of the season. Arresting. By that I mean, I was stunned into stillness for a few moments, drinking in these fragile splashes of egg yolk yellow, being for just an instant as much a child as a man. Creaturely. Able to pause in awe without self-analysis or consciousness.

I said a quick prayer of thanks. We are halfway through winter. Tree branches are still gray and brittle-looking. Yesterday was overcast. The sky was an empty white-gray bowl. A romantic relationship recently ended. Like an East Tennessee Hamlet, I felt the weather and season.

Yet, flowers sprout beside my broken sidewalk. Hope springs eternal. I did not plant the bulbs. No one remembers who did. I have not watered them, cleared away the weeds, or cared for them in any way. Yet, they are a bright promise of spring. Spring is a promise of life after the deadness of winter. The seasons are another manifestation of the Gospel story: because of Jesus, rebirth follows death. Physical death is a transition into life at its most abundant. A feast waits for us.

I get so tangled up in my head. My faith bogs down in cerebral theology. I want to know, to understand. However, Jesus tells us the two greatest commandments, the heart and lungs of human existence, and they’re not that complicated: love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. How do we begin loving God? With a simple desire to love Him. He promises to meet us in that desire and to teach us. How do we love our neighbors as ourselves? By showing them mercy. Don’t we all want mercy? Don’t we want 2nd and 77th chances? Don’t we want love, joy, peace, patience, kindess, gentleness, goodness, and self-control from our brothers and sisters? Don’t we need their forgiveness and laughter? Don’t we want them to share their hearts and lives with us?

Well, it’s not as complicated as I make it out to be. The Father doesn’t hand out merit badges to the children who predict the future. He has no expectation that we’ll solve the problems of the world. What does he ask of us? To love him and enjoy his presence forever. Where do we start? In the present moment. Right now. Enjoy this conversation. This cup of coffee. This passage of your book. Enjoy this song, this task, this simple meal. Tell God, “Thank you.”

I know suffering makes it difficult to enjoy each moment, but I think George MacDonald was onto something when he said, “The Son of God suffered unto death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like his.” That is, redemptive. Cling to Jesus in times of trouble, and He will make your suffering redemptive.

Keep an eye out for daffodils. Pick one and give it to someone you meet along the way and say, “How is it with your soul?” Listen well.

We were dead, but now we are alive. Praise 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.