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.

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.

Seeing foxes

January 30, 2009

img_5077_3_21I have an obsession with red foxes. I can’t remember when it began. I think I was surprised that something as impractical as a red fox even exists. What do they do all day? Steal chickens from coops? Where do they find coops in Brentwood, Tennessee, amidst the Starbucks and franchise restaurants?

One evening, my family ate at Saltgrass Grill in Franklin, Tennessee for somebody’s birthday. My dad’s side numbers over thirty now with marriages and babies. I don’t remember the food being much to talk about, but after we finished and walked outside to our cars, my mom pointed and said, “There’s a fox!” I’d seen them before, but only at night and in place with some patches of forest in the midst of suburbs and strip malls. In other words, just the type of place a suburban fox would call home. I’d catch a glimpse of bush tail just as the fox slips out of the reach of my headlights. These sightings happened at night, on Granny White Pike, or Lyon’s Bend in Knoxville, or on the road that takes you out to Mt. Vernon in Washington, D.C. I remember when I’ve seen them because a fox is in my mind a sort of cinnamon-colored, canine unicorn from Aesop’s fables. They’re cunning and sneaky. So what was that one fox doing trotting across a parking lot at sunset, as though it were on an errand, running to the grocery to pick up milk? Trotting is probably the wrong word. The movements of foxes are fluid, closer to a cat than a dog. They’re legs are long for their bodies. They have sweet, almost shy faces. They sometimes carry rabies.

I happened to have my digital SLR in the truck with me, so I drove helter-skelter after this thing as it followed an invisible path through an office park, stopping for a sniff here and there. I parked my truck and followed on foot. The fox looked at me like a cat: “What do you want, you bumbling oaf? I know all your secrets.” Then, it walked off without any sign of alarm. He looked back a few times out of curiosity. He was definitely a he. I didn’t see any tell-tale signs, but I knew. He turned around and stared at me through some fence slats: “Okay, okay, I see you. What do you want?” He finally disappeared through some Bradford Pear trees and a wall of honeysuckle behind a building. Oh, I remember now why he was a he. He lifted up his leg to pee. He didn’t seem to care who was watching. I think I know people like that. I was on a football team with about sixty of them. They also smack each other on the rear and say, “Good Game,” but from what I could tell, that fox couldn’t talk. His larynx was the wrong shape.

I digress. I got home, uploaded the pictures onto my camera, and was pleased to find several worth keeping. I set one of them as the wallpaper on my laptop. However, it wasn’t until I was writing the abstract for my Master’s thesis that I fully understood why foxes hold such significance for me. Yes, they’re mysterious creatures. They provide an apt metaphor for Ted Hughes’s poem, “The Thought-Fox.” Foxes are elusive and sudden like inspiration. “The sharp, hot stink of fox”–what a wonderfully gritty phrase. I love Roald Dahl’s stories. He wrote one called The Fantastic Mr. Fox. I think Mr. Fox was after the hens. Aren’t we all. But sitting down with a sigh to try to summarize my collection of poems in 200 words or less or whatever the count was, I realized that a fox sighting was similar in ways to encounters with the Divine. God shows up in unexpected places. If you blink, you will miss Him. You have to be paying attention, which takes practice. Brother Lawrence wrote a book called Practicing the Presence of God. Apparently, he learned to immerse himself in God’s reality while washing dishes. Jesus promised to be with us to the end of the age. God promises never to forsake us. I’ve wasted a lot of time crying and asking God where he is. I often forget that I already know where He is. His Spirit dwells inside of me. I have to practice planting myself in that truth so that by God’s grace I can live in light of it.

Keeping watch–vigilance–requires discipline. You might say that seeing God, and seeing foxes, is a lot like hitting a fastball. You have to train your spiritual eye. Some of us will never learn how to hit a fastball, so here’s the good news: if we seek, we will find. If we watch, we will see.

However, lest someone accidentally read this and misunderstand, I’m not saying seeing is believing. Faith hurts. Faith is hard. I don’t have all or even most of the answers, but when I die, I would like for people to say that I walked with a limp and took the name, “Israel,” because I wrestled with angels and cried out, “I will not let you go until you bless me.”

So then, let seeing foxes be the guiding metaphor of this blog, whatever it may become. My prayer is that we all may know God, his son Jesus, and a fox or two.

 

 


Complacency

January 29, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot about complacency. I started a job on October 13 that I still like. Who would have thought that enjoyable jobs are out there. I’m paying off the credit card debt that I accumulated in graduate school. I’m paying all my bills on time. I’m trying to make my apartment comfortable without the help of my mother and two sisters who are much better at nesting than I am. I’m even putting a little money from each paycheck into a savings account and a Simple IRA.

In other words, I appear responsible. Perhaps I’m not building equity through home ownership, but a year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to explain what I meant by that. I do now. I have business cards, for goodness’ sake. I take my truck in for routine oil changes. I’m like good ole reliable dad without a wife or children.

How did this happen? I remember having a conversation with my parents about finances. My mother was trying to convince me that financial security was very important–and thus, very attractive–to most women. So, if I wanted to attract a good woman, I should practice more financial prudence. I think this conversation came up in relation to my sharing my plans with them for another adventure. My habit was to gut my bank accounts and travel to a far off country and take pictures and write poems and return knowing that the world was, in fact, my playground. After my mother tried to offer a reality check, I delivered what I thought was a brilliant counter-argument: the right woman would love me for who I was, not what I could offer her.

Now I see that both our points-of-view had problems. My mom was making a generalization, and I was more concerned with justifying my spending habits than thinking long-term. I criticized people my own age who followed the life-itinerary they accepted passively from Western culture or church culture or a “Christian” education: graduate high school, go to college, earn a degree, get a job, find a spouse, start making payments on a mortgage, have babies, and so on.complacency3

I resisted this itinerary. It seemed like unquestioning acquiescence to the status quo. Shoot, so many people get divorced these days that you’d think more young adults would get to know themselves and their motivations really well before entering a covenant relationship. When I get married, I want to stay married. I don’t want loneliness or insecurity or horniness or discontentment to drive my decision to spend the rest of my life with a woman. I want that decision to be about her. Sure, I’ll bring all sorts of hidden fears, wounds, and needs to the table. That’s unavoidable. We’re bound to blindside each other with junk from our families, past relationships, and sins. However, I’d like to think that deeper self-awareness might enable me to focus on what is within my power to change–myself, by the grace of God–rather than try to change her.

For example, I get irritable right before dinner if I’ve been drinking coffee all day. As the caffeine leaves my body, I tend to be negative and critical. I also need time by myself. If I don’t have some space for solitude, silence, and prayer on a regular basis, I don’t treat people well. I develop tunnel vision. I only see how people have failed and disappointed me. I take on a posture of defensiveness. If other people can’t meet my needs, I’d better protect myself from their needs. In other words, who I want to be gets turned upside down. I am most content when I am serving other. I most like being me when I respond with kindness, gentleness, and patience rather than fear, sarcasm, and criticism. When I die to myself, I gain myself. When I look after the needs of others, my own needs are met.

If caffeine withdrawal makes me irritable but I didn’t know it, I might point a finger at my wife rather than myself. Why did she forget to pick up milk? Why does she leave trash in her car? Why doesn’t she turn off the lights when she leaves the house?

sea11If solitude, silence, and prayer keep me centered in the reality of God-with-us in Jesus, then I will be much less likely to attribute my best friend’s failure to call me back to his lack of respect for me and other. I may have the grace to acknowledge that I am a victim of my own expectations rather than some grave injustice.

In his goodness, the Father provided me a job. I have shown my gratitude by saying, “Okay, God, I can take it from here.” Then, I mess up a good thing. I know that what I do is less important than who I am becoming. The Father is transforming me into a person who can meet others where they are without putting pressure on them to be who I want them to be.

My prayer is that I not wake up as a 45-year-old husband and father and realize my relationship with Jesus lost its intimacy and fire years ago, when I stopped trusting him for my welfare from moment to moment. I am afraid of that kind of complacency. Even more than a wife and family, I want to be a saint. I want to be one of the holy ones of God. I long for purity and holiness.

My deepest desires are for things that I cannot provide for myself. I hate to admit it, but I am in need. I have a need. I need Jesus right here, right now, to walk with me on the Way everlasting.