Knowing Who You Trust

29 May 2018

This post is part of the May Synchroblog on the topic of hell. Scroll to the end for this month’s link list. 

I don’t really understand hell.

It has grown fashionable to doubt the existence of hell. I don’t. Scripture seems pretty plain about that. Oh yes, I know that no matter which verses I cite at this point, someone can point me to a thick stack of journal articles bristling with cutting-edge exegesis and theological thought, the sum of which is that there’s quite a bit of scholarly doubt. But I’ve known too many academics and read too many journal articles to be much impressed with scholarly doubt. (Yes, I know I’m not answering their arguments here. Some other time; this post isn’t about that.)

I believe in the resurrection of the dead — all of us — some to everlasting life, and others to damnation.

Of course, no reasonable observer of the Bible ever took the pop-culture caricature seriously — sinners being tortured endlessly by demons, that sort of thing. Neither the Bible nor the Church taught that hell was somehow an amusement park for demons at the expense of wayward humans. The traditional understanding is eternal conscious torment, variously interpreted as active punishment avenging a lifetime of wickedness and unbelief, or passive withdrawal of all grace, a la The Great Divorce.

Active punishment makes sense if you also believe limited atonement. On the other hand, if you believe that Jesus died for the sins of the world (as Scripture says), then on what grounds is there still punishment to be executed? Temporal discipline, as a means to redirect someone, sure. But eternal punishment to satisfy a death sentence that God Himself testified, in the resurrection, has already been carried out? I can’t make sense of that one.

I can make better sense of hell as a withdrawal of all grace. On the last day, when all our precious illusions have been shattered and we see, fully and finally, the grace of God, what then? Some of us have been pursuing that grace all our lives, and will draw near. Some, redeemed by that grace, will nonetheless shrink away in shame as its light reveals secrets we’ve tried to hide all our lives. The resulting purification will be a severe mercy.  And others, having spent their lives pretending that no such grace existed, suppressing the truth in their hearts — well, they’ll run with all their might in the other direction. Even though there’s literally nothing there. No relationship (that’s a reflection of the Trinity.) No joy. No trees or grass or chocolate cake or marbled steak or anything else that was a divine gift — and everything was a divine gift.

Under that understanding, Sartre was wrong. Hell isn’t other people. Hell is you, all by yourself, eternally removed from all that reminds you of God — and everything points to Him. So there you are, exponentially worse off than Gollum, tormented in your own skin because everything good hurts and everything ugly is all you have left. You are the worm and the rotting meat, the fire and what it consumes, and the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. In life, you failed to recognize the divine grace that kept you from that state; in death, you have no illusions about the extent of that grace, and have rejected it all.

If we grasp the depths of God’s grace to us, then we can grasp how thoroughly horrifying the complete withdrawal of divine grace would have to be.

I can at least kinda get my head around that. What messes me up at that point is the whole thing lasting forever. If I had a dog that was suffering that much in its own skin, with no chance of recovery, I’d put it down with no hesitation at all. I don’t get why God wouldn’t do the same.

But there’s a lot about God’s behavior that I just don’t get. In those gaps of understanding, we can either refuse to believe God until He explains it all, or we can trust. I choose to trust.

If you’ve never met God and recognized Who you were meeting, then that will sound like a cop-out. How can I believe in something like this, when I don’t understand it and it doesn’t make any sense? All I can say is, I understand where you’re coming from…but I’ve met Him. He is wiser than I’ll ever be, funnier than you’d think, cares deeply, and loves well. I know Who I’m trusting. Maybe one day, if you haven’t already, you will too.

***

This post is part of the May Synchroblog, in which numerous bloggers around the world write about the same topic on the same day. Links to the other contributors are below. If you enjoyed my article, you may also enjoy reading what they have to say about the topic of hell.

 

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Firm Foundations

24 August 2015

This post is part of the August 2015 Synchroblog on “What it means to be pro-life.” The writing prompt included the following quote from Sister Joan Chittister, OSB: “I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”

“I say, old chap, you don’t look very balanced.”

Opposing abortion but turning a blind eye to the child once he’s born is not a balanced way to love your neighbor. That said, the imbalance on display is the same kind of imbalance you see in a sailor leaning off the high side of the boat for all he’s worth, trying to keep it from going over. The legal slaughter of a couple thousand children every day is the sort of thing that might send you off-center, if you think about it. Molech never had it so good; for Yahweh-fearing vertebrates, single-issue voting is an astonishingly mild response. What would Phineas do?

But a bunch of us want to talk about subsidized school lunches, early reading programs, and clean water in the third world — not so much because we are pro-life all the way through as because we’re tired of being uncool. [EDIT: The notable lack of participation in this month’s Synchroblog is a case in point. Compare it to August last year, or the ‘cooler’ topics — it’s painfully obvious that a bunch of us just found this one too hot to touch.] All the cool kids still think it’s better to keep the slaughter legal, and we’re tired of sitting at the nerds’ table. And the thing is, we don’t even have to give up our private pro-life convictions to change seats — all we have to do is not talk about it. Talk about Head Start, STEM education for girls, ethical coffee farming — anything but abortion.

Why? Because we are winning the war of definition. It used to be impossible to say that abortion is killing a baby without my hardcore pro-choice friends going off like Mount Vesuvius, but not anymore. I can say so out loud and in public and get away with it — as a man, yet! That was definitely not true even ten years ago. Even at the cool kids’ table, you can win that argument. You might struggle to get anyone to engage in the conversation, but if you have any spine at all, you’re not going to lose.

We. Are. Winning.

So as we engage the broader conversation of what it means to be pro-life, we need to build on the very effective and clear foundation that we have laid. We need to be masters of good and necessary consequence. We should take every opportunity to drive Sister Chittister’s reasoning to its conclusions. If we are in favor of saving that baby in utero, then we can’t balk at feeding the kid, or teaching him to read. We’re pro-life. And on the other hand, if you’re such a big fan of WIC that you’re willing to send IRS agents armed with home liens to collect the funding, then how in the world could you have been okay with flushing the kid just months before? Or put the other way round, if you were fine with killing him in utero, then why in the world do you care if we flush him now, at age 5, when it’s clear that he isn’t keeping up with the pack? Back then we were only guessing that he’d get left behind; now we know….

We should be sharpening the antithesis at every turn. The merchants of death who suddenly get religion about caring for children once they pass through the birth canal must be called to follow their visceral convictions about the value of newborns to the necessary conclusion. (Which, in case you missed it, is that Jesus is King and He built us to know the value of every life, including the ones who aren’t born yet.)

It is equally vital that the broader conversation focus on actual results, not just good intentions. We’re more than willing to hold the pro-life movement to this standard.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” they say, “of course we love children after they’re born.”

“Sure,” we reply, “but what are you going to do about it?”

And if all their money goes into fighting abortion at the opportunity cost of early literacy programs, if their intentions for the young children are professedly good but the results just aren’t there, then we will call them hypocrites — as Sister Chittister did.

But that leverage needs to get applied on the other side of the fence as well, and Sister Chittister’s statement sparkles with irony coming, as it does, from a Roman Catholic nun. She surely knows that privately funded programs (like the ones the Church runs all over the world) produce much better results than the expensive and ineffective tax-funded programs she wants us all to endorse. I am not quite prepared to believe that I can’t really be pro-life unless I’m willing to sign off on an extensive set of interventions administered by the same set of jokers that brought us the DMV.

Yes, yes, the intentions are good. We all feel ourselves very virtuous voting a bunch of public funding into something for the children. But remember, we are building on the foundation of the abortion conversation, and one of the key lessons is that results matter more than intentions. The mother may believe the hype about a lump of tissue, and have no intention of killing a baby. But if she goes through with the abortion, the baby is just as dead as if she’d given birth and then smothered it with a pillow. The actual results are what matter, and that doesn’t change after the child passes through the birth canal. So let’s not be idiots. Intentions don’t feed a kid or teach him to read — and neither does voting.

So I work with a community church that hosts a weekly food bank — not just dry goods, but fruit, vegetables, meat, and dairy, too. Beyond that, we have a drop-in youth center 3 days a week (we want to do every day, but we don’t have the volunteer base for it yet), and we have a little “coffee shop” area that’s open anytime we’re in the building. Come calling anytime, and if someone’s there, you’re welcome to come in out of the weather, have a seat, and get a cup of cold water or hot coffee, as the whim takes you.

Our friends at the church two blocks down host a small medical clinic (and a food bank, too). Our friends at the church across the street have a day care and preschool for low-income families. And we do it all for you-wouldn’t-believe-how-little money. Because we are pro-life.

Is it working? Some of it, yes. The youth center is going gangbusters. The day care is great. The medical clinic catches problems that would become ER cases left untreated, and treats them while they’re easy and cheap to treat. That saves our local homeless population an incalculable amount of human suffering. The food banks, though….

You can’t starve in this town if you get sick and can’t go to work. The food banks furnish a safety net to folks who hit a run of bad luck, and that’s great. Some of our clients have taken advantage of the safety net when they needed it, and then gotten back up on their feet. Some others, instead of being empowered and encouraged, have become permanently dependent on us. That was never the goal, and we need to do better by them. Human dignity thrives when we are able to be generous, not when we are continually dependent on the generosity of others. We have a population that we have failed to empower to give; we are robbing them of their dignity in order to feed them. I don’t know what the answer is — if I had a better solution, I’d be pushing for it. I pray that God will give us one.

Until the New Jerusalem comes in for a landing and heaven has officially come to earth, there will be room for improvement. Let’s seek all the improvement that God will give us.

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You might also enjoy the other posts in this month’s synchroblog:

 


Imago Dei: Loving the Different

21 July 2015

This post is part of the July Synchroblog on gay marriage. 

Once upon a time — if time is an appropriate word — there was nothing. Not infinite empty space, just…nothing. Nothing but the triune God, dancing alone, complete and content. And then again, not alone, because there were three Persons together, each one distinct and quite different from the others, each one loving the other two. (If two other people love you, you’re hardly alone, right?) Lacking nothing and needing nothing, secure in the love of each Person for the others, God danced like nobody was watching.

There was nobody to watch, until out of the overflow of each Person’s love for the others, God made the heavens and the earth.

The Breath of God brooded over the primordial waters like a hen on a nest, until the Father spoke a Word.

“Be light!” And there was light. Having commanded the light into existence, He divided it from its contrasting element, the darkness, and gave them each a name: Day and Night. The Three gazed on what He had made. Seeing that it reflected the aspects of the Three that He wished it to display, He pronounced it good.

Then evening came, and morning, and God began to create again. For six days, the Three enriched the creation like a painter working on a canvas, pausing each evening and beginning work again the next day, and it was all good. He made the sky, separating the waters above from the waters below. He gathered the waters below the sky into one place, and brought up dry land out of the water. In the middle of the third day, the Three stopped naming things, but He kept creating. He populated the land with plants and set lights in the sky to give signs and seasons, to measure out days and years. He made great swarms of creatures to populate the water and the air. He populated the land with domestic animals, wild beasts, and an abundance of creepy-crawlies of every description. He seemed to have a great fondness for beetles.

All this reflected aspects of the Three, but when it came time to sign the canvas, God wanted to do something special, to put a particular representation of Himself on His creation. So the Three took counsel together: “Let’s make humanity in Our image, like Us, and let’s give them rule over the whole earth and all its creatures.” And God began to sculpt. He formed a man from the dust, and breathed life into his nostrils, and man became a living being named Dirt. Then God did something He had never done before. The Three Persons looked at the sculpture, which was just one person, and said, “That’s not good. Something is missing. I will make a helper comparable to him.”

God brought animals out of the ground and brought them to Dirt, and whatever he named them, that was their name — but while they all had mates, there was no comparable mate for Dirt. So God caused him to fall asleep, and pulled a rib out of his side, and from that rib, He made a woman. Different — so different from Dirt — and yet comparable to him, his match.

God woke him, and brought her to him. Dirt had never seen anything like her before, but he knew her for what she was: bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh. The woman was him, she was part of him and one with him…but distinct from him, and quite different. God gave them to each other, and marriage was born. And He blessed them: “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth, and rule over it — over all its creatures.”

God had signed His canvas, and He saw that it was good. And on the seventh day, God rested.

(Of course, it didn’t take us long to mess it up, but in Christ God is re-forming a new humanity that will one day inherit the earth, and once again be His perfected signature on the canvas of creation.)

That is the real story of how you came to be, and you are heir to all the considerable dignity that it implies. It is true of all people — all ethnicities, all creeds, all sexual orientations, all genders. As Paul would later summarize the story, “He made from one blood every nation under heaven.”

In the church, we have the nasty habit of treating certain people as if they don’t belong. Not just as if they don’t belong in the church — which would be bad enough —  but as if they don’t belong anywhere at all. Which distinguishing traits we decide to ostracize varies from culture to culture, from church to church, but churches that swear off this sin, and truly welcome whoever God brings them? Those churches are still quite rare.

We of all people should know better. The church is a hospital, not a country club. There’s no such thing as being too sick to go to the hospital. If you are here, then you were handcrafted in your mother’s womb for a purpose, and if you are still using the communal oxygen, then God hasn’t given up on you. Why should we?

Unfortunately, homosexuals are one of the groups that the church has too often given up on. We have preferred to ignore them, to pretend that they didn’t exist, to treat them as ‘other,’ rather than as part of us — people created by God with dignity and purpose. It was more comfortable to simply pass them by. But God is far less interested in our comfort than he is in leading us to fulfill our purpose: to be His signature on the canvas of creation. To that end, He has provided the Church in the USA with a situation that forces us to engage. Gay marriage promises to be quite a mess in the Church, and that is great news! The Church gets a lot of mileage out of messes — look at the Christological controversies or the Reformation.

The challenge before us is to mirror the Trinity as God has called us to do by showing honor to all people, by loving all sinners as Christ loved all sinners, by loving those who are different from us, by welcoming all who come as a hospital welcomes all who come. The challenge is to do all this faithfully, not out of sentimentality but because we are faithful to the word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ, who called us to be like Him.

This means that a gay couple who walks into one of our churches must be deeply loved, no matter how uncomfortable that might make some of the people in the church. We walk by faith, not by sentiment. It does not mean, however, that we should be performing their marriage ceremony. The exegesis is not in any way unclear here: the same story that tells me a gay man is part of me and has dignity and purpose just like I do, also tells me that marriage is a man and a woman given to one another by God. The rest of the biblical revelation repeatedly reinforces this (including some pointed instructions on divorce that most evangelicals have seen fit to ignore), and repeatedly says that same-sex unions are sin. We may struggle with why that would be the case (and I would suggest that the answers are in that same story, above), but again, we walk by faith, not by sentiment. If you are attempting to submit yourself to the word of God, there are some complicated interpretive problems that you will have difficulty untangling — but this isn’t one of them.

The practical question posed by the legal possibility of gay marriage is likewise pretty simple. “Same-sex marriage” is a contradiction on the order of “four-sided triangles,” and it won’t do for Christ’s people to dignify the sin with a four-sided triangle celebration ceremony. If we do that, we become a hospital that sides with the cancer rather than the patient.

This issue is not hard for us because the text is unclear. It is hard for us because the demands of faith clash with the demands of sentiment. Some folks’ sentiment is that all things gay are icky, and they want to pretend the whole thing doesn’t exist, and make the “icky” people unwelcome in the church. Other folks’ sentiment is to be welcoming, but offer no call to repentance. The demands of faith cut against both these impulses, and require of us a response that is loving and welcoming while presenting God’s call to mirror His nature on earth. Doing that well — that is going to take a miracle. Let’s pray that God will work that miracle in us.

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You may also enjoy the other posts in July’s Synchroblog:


Never A Last Leaf

17 September 2013

This post is part of the September Synchroblog on the subject, “Loving Nature: Is God Green?”

I might as well begin with full disclosure. I believe that Yahweh spoke this world into existence about 6000 years ago, and I believe this because the Bible says so.

For a significant portion of the people reading this post, I might as well have just admitted to being a snaggletoothed hick somewhere to the right of Mussolini. I cop to the snaggletooth, but I’m going to ask you to suspend judgment on the rest of it for a little while. Let’s just see where a little unrepentant fundamentalism might take us.

God’s a big fan of green — He literally invented it. Every bit of greenness in this world-sized mixed-media self-portrait is His sovereign choice, a reflection of something about Him. The color is in heaven as well. The halo of glory around God’s throne is a rainbow, “like an emerald in appearance.” He spoke into being every tree, every tree frog, every garter snake. He was there when the first green leaf sprouted, and He will be there when the last leaf falls. Or He would, if there were ever going to be a last leaf.

In that world, He planted a garden, and in that garden, He placed a man “to cultivate and guard it.” Even before he was a husband, Adam was a gardener. But the Triune God was making a self-portrait, and a solitary person was not good, so God made a helper for him. Enter Eve, a distinct person, and different as another human can be, right down to the neurochemistry and the plumbing. These two distinct persons united by God in marriage together were the image of God in the world.

God gave them a responsibility to fulfill:

Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.

We have been reluctant to accept the responsibility God gave us. Today, we are troubled by the idea of exercising dominion, of subduing the earth. But surely it can’t be wrong to talk the way God talks. So why are we afraid to do it?

Two reasons: we are cynics, and we are egalitarians.

Cynicism is easy. There’s always a cheap shot to take. No matter how responsible the action under discussion, we can always find points of superficial similarity to other, irresponsible actions. Dominion language has been invoked by every Bible-thumping robber baron who ever wanted to strip-mine another species into extinction for his own personal profit, and that makes it easy to just sneer and condemn by innuendo every time someone talks about exercising dominion. It costs us nothing. It seems to risk nothing.

But underneath the sneering pretense, we are cowering. We are afraid, and we are addicted to immaturity.

That seem harsh to you? Consider this: the devil himself once invoked Psalm 91 to entice Jesus into flinging Himself off the pinnacle of the Temple, but do we shy away from taking comfort from that psalm? We do not. Why not? Because we discern between godly and diabolical uses of the psalm.

So why do we refuse to discern between godly and diabolical uses of Genesis 1:28? Because we are afraid. Offering someone the comfort of Psalm 91 is a popular and easy enough thing to do. Standing up and saying “I believe we should go ahead with the copper mine,” on the other hand, is wildly unpopular with the chattering classes (who apparently believe that the wiring in their houses appeared ex nihilo in the local Home Depot stockroom). We are afraid to make ourselves easy targets.

But God has not given us a spirit of fear.

We also shy away from dominion language because we are egalitarians at heart. We want to be buddies with the earth, just another piece of the circle of life. We want to just be part of nature. We are part of nature, but we certainly are not just part of it. God made us kings and queens of the earth, whether we like it or not.

Kings and queens are called to discernment. We are going to have to grow up. In some ways, we’re doing pretty well. You can take a walk by the Thames today without risking black lung. Of course, the Pyrenean ibex and the passenger pigeon might not feel that we’re doing as well as we could be, which raises another point.

Kings and queens don’t get a practice round. It’s not a game, and there are no do-overs. We screw up, whole species die and whole habitats disappear. The stakes are high. As a result, we are afraid to screw up, and in our fear, we are prone to hysteria. In 2007, the BBC reported an authoritative study that predicted the complete disappearance of the arctic ice cap by this year. With this year’s polar ice up 60% over last year, that prediction has joined a host of others on the junk heap of credible scientific studies that cried Tasmanian wolf.

Again: God has not given us a spirit of fear. We have a duty to God to care for the earth, but we do that as ambassadors of The Lord of the Universe. Our best Chicken Little impersonation does not represent Him well.

God loves the creation. He made it, and it speaks of Him. He has committed the creation to our care. We can’t pawn the job off on someone else; we’re stuck with it. God has so made the world that there’s no way to learn but by doing, and He knew, better than anyone, that there would be a learning curve. We cannot fulfill our commission to be His image on the earth without ruling well. We cannot rule well without learning, and we cannot learn without mistakes. In other words, God knew, from eternity past, that we would royally screw it up.

But God has not given us a spirit of fear. There is grace for even this. Faith means being willing to embrace the task God gave us, and trust God with our mistakes. We will grow up. The earth will blossom. In the end, heaven will come to earth, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory and honor into the New Jerusalem, where a river will flow from under the throne of the Lamb. Beside the river, the tree of life will grow, and the leaves of the tree will be for the healing of the nations. Forever.

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This post is part of the September Synchroblog.  You can read the other contributions at the links below:


Parabolic Living

11 August 2013

This post is part of the August 2013 Synchroblog on the subject “Parables: Small Stories, Big Ideas.”

Parables are weird. I’m not talking about the specifics of particular parables — although those are often weird too. I’m talking about the entire genre. The very existence of parables is a really odd phenomenon. The premise of the parable is that small stories of mundane events, sometimes just a few sentences long, can somehow contain life-altering challenges.

Have you ever thought about how odd that is? It’s one thing to see big ideas at work in, say, the sack of Rome, the failed Mongol invasions of Japan, the death of colonialism, or even something as comparatively small as the Berlin airlift or the Tiananmen Square massacre. It’s quite another to see big ideas at work in the tale of a nameless sower at work in a generic field. Why does it work? What sort of world do we live in, that such a thing is possible?

In the beginning was the Triune God, and the Word spoke all things into existence. The world we live in is the ultimate spoken-word performance piece, and like all works of art, it reflects the nature of the Artist. Within that overall spoken mixed-media portrait, we as human beings are meant to reflect the likeness of God in a special way. “Let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness,” God said, and “in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” This is reflected to some extent in the parables. Have you ever noticed how virtually all the parables center around human activity — sowing and reaping, buying and selling, making bread, fishing, investing?

Within these simple stories, each parable presents its own challenges to us. The Good Samaritan: will I be a neighbor to anyone I meet? The Wheat and Tares: am I willing to leave final judgment to God for the sake of protecting vulnerable saints? The Leaven: will I be patient with the slow and hidden coming of the Kingdom, or will I try to gin up something flashy and quick, something I can take credit for?

If simple fictional tales set in mundane circumstances can contain such life-altering challenges, might the mundane moments of our own lives not contain those same challenges? Might it be possible to see those challenges, and live in such a way that our choices make parabolic lives?

Of course it is. There are famous examples, like when the Pope forgave his would-be assassin. But that’s pushing it up onto the grand scale again, and that’s not where parables happen. When a mother loves her teenage daughter, even though the girl has just screamed “I hate you!” and slammed her bedroom door — a parable is taking place. When a husband and wife stop in the middle of a stupid fight, forgive each other, and try to make date night work after all — a parable is happening. When an infertile couple conceives, then goes ahead with the planned adoption anyway, because that child needs a home — a parable appears before our eyes.

So what will it be in your life? The Kingdom of Heaven is like a person who…[your life here.]

This is the promise of the parables: that your life, rightly ordered by God annd lived in the power of His Spirit for the glory of Messiah’s Kingdom, your life, can be a succession of parables for the world to read.

Of course, as Jesus once explained to the disciples, parables have a dual purpose: to conceal from some, and reveal to others. Some people will look right at your God-glorifying, poetically lived, parabolic life and see nothing of consequence…or worse still, entirely misunderstand. Some people won’t have eyes to see. They just won’t get it. But some will — and for those that do, you can be a lamp set up on a lampstand, that gives light to the whole house. What will they see in your light?

 

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You can find the other August Synchroblog participants here:

Jesus’ Parables are Confusing? Good! – Jeremy Myers

Seed Parables: Sowing Seeds of the Kingdom – Carol Kunihol

Parables – Be Like the Ant or the Grasshopper – Paul Meier

The Parables of Jesus: Not Like Today’s Sermons – Jessica

Penelope and the Crutch – Glenn Hager

Parables and the Insult of Grace – Rachel

Changing Hearts Rather Than Minds – Liz Dyer

Young Son, Old Son, a Father on the Run – Jerry Wirtley


All I See Is Rocks

11 June 2013

This post is part of the June Synchroblog.

Much is made of having the courage to be authentic these days. This got me to thinking about how we discuss talking to God honestly. The article is on the subject of whether God gives us trials we can’t handle, and I think Mr. Pyle is right — of course God gives us trials we can’t handle — that’s why we flee to God for refuge. He closes the article this way:

I believe expectant waiting can only happen when we exchange our feeble platitudes for an authentic faith that engages God with the full brunt of our emotion and pain. Only then can salvation been seen.

But that exchange takes courage.

My first reaction was, “No it doesn’t.” I proceeded to write a curmudgeonly little essay on the contemporary cult of authenticity and why honest prayer is not a matter of courage — which has been deleted and will never see the light of day, God be thanked. Upon further reflection, though, I believe the gap between my experience and Mr. Pyle’s offers an occasion for reflecting on different forms of courage, and how they relate to one another.

In order to do that, permit me a few paragraphs of autobiographical reflection on how I learned to give up my platitudes and speak honestly to God. Don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t easy for me either. But for me, it was all about being honest and obedient. God began by challenging me to engage the Psalms more fully — all of them. He called me to learn them, sing them, chant them, be saturated with them. (It’s a project I’m still working on.) Saturating myself in the Psalms became a graduate course in prayer, in learning to meet God where I really am, rather than asking Him to meet me where I pretend to be. It was language class — I learned to talk all over again, with an expanded vocabulary that contained theologically “questionable” things like “Why have You forgotten me?” and “How long will You ignore me?” For me, saying these things wasn’t courageous; it was merely obedient. God told me to sing the Psalms (Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16), and the Psalms told me to talk to God like that. If David and the Holy Spirit thought it was a good idea, who was I to argue?

Courage is about risk, and there’s no risk here. When I engage God “with the full brunt of my emotion and pain,” I am not Jerzy Popieluszko speaking truth to thugs in power, nor even a kid confronting his abusive alcoholic dad. I am not staging a Tiananmen Square protest in the courts of heaven. The specter of the gulag or the wide leather belt does not hang over the exchange. I am coming into the heavenly Tabernacle with the prayers of the Tabernacle. I am speaking to the Father of fathers, who made me and loves me, and I am speaking to Him in the way that He taught me to speak. Finally.

Far from facing danger, I am fleeing the dangers of disobedience and lying for the refuge of obedience and truth. I am escaping the perils of keeping the true state of my soul to myself. I am escaping the hazard of growing more and more isolated as I refuse to admit what’s really in my heart to God, others, or even myself. I am escaping the endless futility of trying to get God to meet me where I pretend to be, rather than where I really am.

Where’s the risk? He isn’t going to hurt me; He’s going to help me. If I cry out for bread, will He give me a stone? Of course not. So I have two choices. I can try to choke down some gravel and pretend that it’s nourishing and I’m grateful, or I can pray, “Look, You said You’d feed me, and all I see around here is rocks!” Which is the dangerous course, and which is the safe one? Crying out for God to save is, well, safe. He loves to do that.

Unfortunately, many of us who were raised in the evangelical world simply did not learn that. We were raised with a god composed of equal parts Victorian Santa Claus — doing nice things for nice people — and somebody’s tight-shoed maiden aunt. Dealing with anguish was just not his department, and heaven knows what he might do if your prayers strayed outside the polite boundaries of country club luncheon conversation. Confronting that querulous godling with “the full brunt of our emotion and pain” must feel risky as Hell. So to speak.

Not knowing Mr. Pyle, I don’t know whether this is his background or not, but many of my friends have come from that background, and they too felt like praying in Psalm-like ways required enormous courage. “I can’t say that!” has been a common refrain.

“David did,” I say.

“I’m not sure God likes me as much as David,” they say.

So yeah, there’s a sense of risk, and therefore genuine courage. It is vital that we celebrate that courage for what it is without taking it for what it is not. This is not the courage of David confronting Goliath, with his spear haft like a weaver’s beam; it is the courage of an agoraphobe going to the end of the sidewalk to get the morning paper. It is the small deliverance that opens the door to much greater salvation still. Yahweh is not that petty godling we imagine; He will not take vengeance on us for being honest with Him. The danger we feel so keenly is illusory — but we do feel it, and having to face our fears requires courage nonetheless.

I believe there is a progression here, for if we cannot face imagined risks, how will we face real ones? The little boy must learn not to be afraid of the imagined monsters in the dark before he can learn not to be afraid of the real monster in the Valley of Elah. The courage that slays giants tomorrow grows from the courage that slays illusions today.

Or at least it will, if we can maintain both proper celebratory gratitude and a sense of proportion. The act of courage that shreds a long-held illusion is a gift from God, and we ought to celebrate it for all it’s worth. At the same time, we need to remember that being honest with God and others — what we now call authenticity — is not an end in itself, but a beginning, a foundation on which much greater things are built. Let us be grateful for where we are, and look forward beyond authenticity to transformation, salvation, and yes, maybe even thrilling heroics.

***

Other entries in the June Synchroblog include:

This Is Courage by Jen Bradbury

Being Vulnerable by Phil Lancaster

Everyday Bravery: Overcoming the Fear of Being Wrong by Jessica

Moving Forward Takes Courage by Paul W. Meier

How to Become a Flasher by Glenn Hager

Ordinary Courage by Elaine Hansen

Courage, Hope, Generosity by Carol Kuniholm

The Courage to Fail by Wendy McCaig

The Greatest Act of Courage by Jeremy Myers

Sharing One’s Heart by K. W. Leslie

All I See Is Rocks by Tim Nichols

I Wonder What Would Happen by Liz Dyer

What is Ordinary Courage? by Jennifer Stahl

Loving Courageously by Doreen A. Mannion

Heart Cry: The Courage to Confess by Elizabeth Chapin

The Act to the Miraculous by VisionHub

the spiritual practice of showing up & telling the truth by Kathy Escobar

It’s What We Teach by Margaret Boelman


What He Told the Hometown Crowd

14 May 2013

This post is a part of the May Synchroblog.

A lot of folks have opinions about what Jesus was about. You’ve heard them all before — good moral teacher, revealing the Christ consciousness in all of us, whatever. In the ecclesiastical tribe I grew up in, we thought Jesus was all about dying for sinners so we could go to heaven when we die.

But what did Jesus Himself say?

Well, Jesus said quite a lot, and I’m not going to try to give it an exhaustive treatment. But there’s one particular venue that I think sheds a special light on who Jesus is and what He came to do. Jesus grew up in Nazareth — lived there until He was 30 or so. Then He began His ministry, but He didn’t begin by ministering just down the block from His childhood home. His first miracle was in Cana, and He was already traveling and teaching with a few disciples at that point. He continued His life as an itinerant teacher, but eventually, His circuit of the Galillean cities did bring him back to His hometown.

Luke 4 tells us the story. Jesus is in town for the Sabbath, so of course he goes to the synagogue like any visiting rabbi would do. Asked to read and comment on the Scriptures, he steps up and reads this from the scroll of Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

And then He goes and sits down, and everybody stares at him. Any good commentator can help you fill in the cultural gaps here: the rabbis would stand to read the Scriptures, and then sit down to teach, so Jesus was following the accepted pattern in that regard, but He stopped reading in the middle of a sentence. The sentence finishes “…and the day of the vengeance of our God,” and of course everybody present knew it, having heard this passage read countless times throughout their lives. The omission is significant, but we’ll save that conversation for another day.

Right now I want to focus on what happens next. Remember, Jesus had grown up in this town, and lived there as a single man until He was 30. He played there as a child, worked there as a builder, worshipped in this very synagogue for most of his life. The people sitting around Him at this moment are his aunts and uncles, childhood friends, teachers, suppliers, subcontractors, bosses, clients. They know him. They know that he left town to do heaven-knows-what, and that he has been wandering about the countryside as an itinerant teacher, preaching and gathering disciples. They have heard stories of how he’s healed the sick and cast out demons. And they know, better than anybody, that he’s not a rabbi’s son, not some up-and-coming revivalist. He’s a construction worker, for crying out loud, not an exorcist.

And now here he is in the synagogue for the first time since all this weirdness started, and the first thing he does is screw up the Bible reading. What is going on? What is he all about?

Jesus tells them: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Wow. So he means it like this: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted….” “Me,” he says. “I’m the one.”

He continues to speak, and they are amazed at His message, but they can’t reconcile what they are now hearing with the Jesus that they know — Joseph’s boy, the construction worker. It’s hard to take. Jesus sees the problem and calls it out, and all hell — literally — breaks loose as Nazareth becomes the first Jewish city to try to murder her Messiah. But again, that’s a discussion for another time.

For now, let’s focus on what Jesus said. When He was in front of the hometown crowd that wanted to know what He was about, He summed up His calling in a few bullet points from Isaiah, and one of them was this: He came to heal the brokenhearted.

***

This is significant to me because I didn’t believe it for most of my life. I literally do not remember a time when I was not a Christian, but receiving comfort from God was simply not part of my experience. I didn’t believe that He cared. God had a plan, sure, and it would all be gloriously worth it on the other side, I had no doubt. But “you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs,” as the man said, and God was making the biggest omelette of them all.

I didn’t just harbor these thoughts in those angst-filled teenaged moments when I was writing bad poetry, either. This was my day-to-day experience. The God I knew called for sacrifice and obedience, for pulling yourself together and getting the job done, for a stiff upper lip. God was M, as played by Dame Judi Dench. For those of you who saw Skyfall, “Take the bloody shot!” about sums it up. I knew He would burn me out, use me up in a heartbeat if it would help Him further the Grand Plan, whatever it was, and leave me a scarred husk of a human being. I knew it.

What made me so sure? That’s what was actually happening to me. Outwardly my life was proceeding well, but my inner life was withering away. The breastplate of righteousness (as I understood it) had become a straitjacket. My heart had been broken since I was a kid. I literally couldn’t remember a time when I felt whole, when I felt like being me was okay. I spent a big chunk of my formative years surrounded by people who hated me, and that didn’t help me any, either.

In my teenage years, I had learned to forgive — and that was huge for me — but I had been raised to believe that if I forgave people, that was it. Actual healing wasn’t even a category we talked about. To the extent that it was even considered, healing was assumed to happen automatically over time. It just wasn’t true, and I was unable to really love other people well as I labored under the weight of my own accrued injuries. I had been hurt and hollow for so long I didn’t know it was possible to feel any different. I didn’t even have the vocabulary for what was wrong with me.

Other people could see it — or some of it, anyway — and would say things like “God won’t ever give us something we can’t handle.” Of course it wasn’t true.

***

There’s no checklist for helping someone in that situation, but I can tell you what helped me. The first thing was that God did give me things I couldn’t handle. A lot of them, until the accumulated weight of them was crushing me. Until I finally admitted I couldn’t carry the load without Him.

By God’s providence, I found myself in a community of people who were open to supernatural ministry. Beyond their relational wisdom, grasp of Scripture, and (in some cases) clinical skills, they were willing to have God show up and do…whatever. Whatever needed to be done. I found that when we gathered, the Spirit was active. The lies I had believed about God began to surface — some of them shown to me directly by the Spirit during our times of worship, others spotted by a wise friend, and some called out prophetically by gifted brothers and sisters.

Two particular incidents stand out in my mind. In one of them, God showed me in the middle of a worship service that I did not really believe He had my good in mind. As I struggled with that — because I really didn’t believe it, and admitting it out loud didn’t change that — two prophets sat with me and began to speak — how God saw me, what He envisioned for me. It was one of the first times I experienced being comforted by God.

The other incident that springs to mind was an occasion when we were dividing up responsibilities for a service we were planning. Now, I’ve been a pastor for some years, a solo church planter, and a lot of other things, and there really wasn’t anything on the list that I couldn’t do. So when they asked me what I wanted to do, I said “Just tell me what you need me to do, and I’ll do it.” The whole room went quiet. Into the awkward silence, the pastor gently said, “I know that. But what do you want to do?” I knew what I wanted to do. I had known as soon as we laid out what needed to be done. But even among people who loved me well, people I trusted, it didn’t occur to me to say it out loud, until someone specifically asked for it. Among these dear brothers and sisters, I began to learn that God had made me to be something in particular, and leaning into the desires He gave me was the path to growth.

A little later, I met a group of people who practice and teach healing prayer, and through their ministry to me and beside me, I came to know Jesus as the Great Physician of my soul. The experiences I had there are a little too close for me to write about yet, and would take too long to explain for this post anyway. Suffice it to say, it was not a matter of doctrine or of guided imagery or any other such human manipulation. These dear brothers and sisters simply trusted Christ to be present to heal even when I did not believe that He wanted to, and asked Him to reveal Himself to me.

He did, and I love Him because He first loved me. Tangibly.

***

Paul said to “comfort one another with the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted,” and I finally know what that means. It’s not actually that complicated — “Freely you have received,” Jesus said. “Freely give.”

I can only give what I have been given. The comfort Jesus gave me was not doctrine, although it can be described doctrinally. It was Himself. That’s all I really have to offer. When I sit with someone in pain, Jesus is there, sitting next to us. He has something to contribute. Mostly, all I do is ask what it is.

***

This post is a part of the May 2013 Synchroblog. Other posts on the same topic are below: