A Theology of Life’s Suckiness

Matt Clinton National Hill-Climb Champion 2008
Matt Clinton National Hill-Climb Champion 2008 (Photo credit: Phil and Pam)

When we need Jesus the most, in some ways, that’s when he is so hard to find.

I have been rocked by all these challenges.   In these I cling to this truth that Jesus is closest to us when we are hurting.  I know that he is a savior he weeps with us.

But I cling to the truth because if I didn’t cling on to it, that truth will float away from me.   And I know that about Jesus in my head, only. 

It’s so hard to feel it right now.

In the middle of this terrible, terrible time, I am being tested in so many ways.  Intellectually, I get it, that we are not promised a life of roses and rainbows.  But I struggle with not being angry at Him.  It’s like, Lord, you have spent this time in such intimate contact with me.  And I have with you.  How could you do this to me?

I know it’s foolishness and wrong-headed.  The sun shines on the good and evil.  The rain falls on all of our heads.

It’s easy to lean on Jesus when it’s easy to believe that he loves me.  Right now, it’s like I am having to trust the beliefs that I had.  Because now, in the moment, it’s hard to believe that He has a plan, and he loves me.

One of the thing that carries me through is the practice and discipline I built up before, in easier times.  Practice and discipline in praying and reading the bible and believing in a powerful God who loves me. 

Another thing that carries me is the love and support of friends and families.  Their hugs and acts of kindness and reminders that they are there for us.  And also their example: they serve as reminders, through their actions, of the things I should be doing, the person I should be, even when I don’t want to.

These two things: discipline and friends, a pairing like law and love, like grace and obligation, these two things are what will carry me through.  I am assuming I will get through.  It is as though when times were easy, when things were good, I was building up speed, building up intertia.  Perhaps, I am on a bike, accelerating down a hill.

But now the slope has turned against me, and it up, and above, and I don’t know how high up it goes.  I just know that whatever I accumulated before I am spending now, desperately hoping it is enough to carry me through.


The Road Occasionally Traveled

Path (Photo credit: Guerito)

People eager to emphasize the idea that Jesus is unique, people with good hearts, people who ultimately might be right, often point to these words from the bible:  

Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you have known me, you will know my Father too. And from now on you do know him and have seen him.”

People recite those words all the time.  And usually, they only get one word wrong.

That word is “replied.”   Usually, people recite “Jesus said, “I am the…”

The difference is actually incredibly important.   Because we can say something in a vacuum.  But we don’t reply in a vacuum.  By definition, a reply is in response to something.  And the words that Jesus was responding to are utterly disconnected with the meaning people so often put these words to. 

Jesus had told his followers that he had to leave and that his followers new where he was going.

5 Thomas said, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you have known me, you will know my Father too. And from now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Through out the scriptures, Jesus creates many metaphors: he tells us that he is something else.  Metaphors are mysterious things.  They leave us to work out just what they mean because they do not spell out just exactly where the comparison is.

Jesus tells us that he is the way.  That is tricky word.  Because “way” can mean path, as in “Show me the way to get to your house.”  or it can mean “method.”  As in, “show me the way to make chocolate chip cookies.”  Clearly these two meanings are closely related, but there are some important differences.  

Jesus’ followers had just said, “We won’t know where to go.”  It seems clear that Jesus is talking about that second definition.  Jesus is the route.    When Jesus, a moment later, says “No one comes to the father except through me.” he is reinforcing this image.  It’s not like Jesus is standing there, ghost like, and we have to pass through his immaterial body.  Jesus is stating that he is the path itself, and the way to get to God the father is by taking the Jesus-path.

Assuming you’ve made it this far in to my meanderings, and further assuming that you’re enough of a massochist to regularly read Jeff’s Deep Thoughts, you may at this point, be asking, “Didn’t you write pretty much this same blog a couple months ago?”

The answer to this question is, “Yes I did.”  But there is some stuff I wanted to add, some new thoughts I wanted to share.  So I hope you’ll forgive me for posting this recap.

One Flesh

Marriage Day
Marriage Day (Photo credit: Fikra)

I have been thinking about ‘the great mystery’… the idea that we become one flesh when we are married.

There was a time I thought that this meant we would be, in some way, stacked up and added together.  If I was able to life 200 pounds, and she could life 200 pounds, then together we would lift 400 pounds.  Similarly, if my IQ were 100, and her IQ were 100, then when we married it would be suddenly 200.

Of course, I knew that this wasn’t true.  And yet, I thought that this is what the metaphor meant.  I thought that the image was wrong.

There was no good outcome for this marriage thing.  I was nearly certain that the thing they claimed was just a lie.  But the possibility, that tiny little chance, that in some way it was right, this terrified me.

I was so afraid of losing myself as everything that I am was averaged out with everything that my wife is.  It was a cold comfort that our strengths are not evenly divided in all areas.  The idea that perhaps she would compensate for one of my weaknesses in a certain area, and that I would compensate for one of hers in a different area, this didn’t help.

The Marriage at Cana
The Marriage at Cana (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like most expectations of sudden and effortless transformation, this thought turned out to be just wrong.  It’s not how it works at all.

But this is not to say that we do not become one flesh.

Couple married in a shinto ceremony in Takayam...
Couple married in a shinto ceremony in Takayama, Gifu prefecture (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The process is not instaneous.  Nor is it unconscious.  But most of all, it is not characterized by this sense of adding the two participants together.

Subtraction best characterizes the whole thing.

I have been married for about 15 years now.  I am sure some day I will look at this time and laugh at my niavetee.  But for now, this is the best I can do…

The thing about two people coming together is that there is all this redundancy.  If we were to physically wed two bodies, form them into some sort of post-birth siamese twins, then lots of decisions would have to get made.  Whose liver would be the one to clean the blood?  Whose heart would circulate the blood through both bodies?

To leave everything active and independent would be to miss the whole point of making these two bodies one body.  They would simply be sewn together.  If they are to truly become one flesh, then some of the best of the organs of each would have to step up and take control for the whole new system.

If two unmarried people were a vessels full of water, then in the marriage, their is another empty vessel waiting.  The thing is, this vessel does not hold any more than the individuals.  The whole of both of the people can not be poured in.  Half of each must come in.  The question might seem to be: which half?

A just married couple still in their wedding t...
A just married couple still in their wedding ta ovala (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I hope I’m not stretching that metaphor to far when I say that we get to decide, over the years, as we slowly come together to be one flesh.  We stand with our own old vessel.  And we pour that which we wish to become into the new vessel.  It’s a process that takes years.

And we might try to pour all of ourself into the new vessel.  We might leave hardly any room for our spouse at all.  The new thing that we might become would in fact, hardly be different than the person we were.

And I can only imagine my spouse.  She is looking at the new vessell.  It’s full, now.  And her old vessel, it’s almost full, too.  She has left behind so very much of herself.

This is the thing I’m trying to get at: marriage is this Christ-like choice of leaving so much of ourselves behind.  Accepting the new vessel which incorporates us both, trusting the other that they have brought along as much of their old self as they needed, trusting that they have left enough room in the relationship for us, too, to bring along at least something of ourselves.

We will someday lose our spouses.  All of us.  One member of every marriage will die first.  Perhaps the times of our deaths will be seperated by fractions of a second.  Perhaps it will be seperated by decades.

Español: Intercambio de anillos entre los novios
Español: Intercambio de anillos entre los novios (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In that time, we lose something of ourselves.  If it has been a long marriage, and a good one, I suspect it is mostly hard to tell what the husband brought to the vesell original, and it is hard to tell what the wife brought to the vesell originally.

I suspect we can and should keep something of our own individuality as the years go by.  But I don’t think we need to spend much energy ensuring this.  I think our human fears and selfishness will hold back more than we probably should.  I suspect at the end of my life, I will look at what is left, and I will think “I wish I had released this, and this, and this; I wish I had let go of that, and that, and that; I wish I had accepted this much more of her into me, and did not guard myself off from it.”

When we lose our spouse we will much of their remaining uniqueness.  And we will lose some of the mixed together parts of us, some of what we became through the surrender, through the subtraction, through the willingness to became something new not dicatated by who we were.

English: it's sundanese party of married
English: it’s sundanese party of married (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a pretty terrible thing to comprehend.  I know that we get to keep some of the person who was.  I know that we will see them again.  But none of this alters the fact that we become one flesh, and then we are two again, at least in some way.

There is some hope in the idea that this process is a sanctification, a preperation.  This joining, the first letting go when we get married, and then the second letting go at a spouse’s death, these things purify us, they prepare us, they make us truer and refine us toward the people we are meant to be.

And yet still, it sucks.

Mariage du Duc de Bourgogne, Louis de France (...
Mariage du Duc de Bourgogne, Louis de France (1682-1712). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



Stained glass window of the sacred Heart of Je...
Stained glass window of the sacred Heart of Jesus Christ in the former Mosque (Cathedral) of Cordoba, Spain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recent blog posts have lead to this exploration of the relationship between following Christ and experiencing pain.  It’s a given that the way of Jesus will lead to suffering.  The question is really what our emotional attachment is to this suffering.

Everytime I think I’ve got a grasp on how to approach this question I have to do a double take.  I suddenly realized there’s just this whole other side to it that I haven’t yet pondered.  My friendly readers (perhaps cheifly Billy) will be glad to know that I’m not planning on turning this into a series of 87 blog posts.

Instead, I’ll simply agnowledge that it’s a much more complicated question that I thought.  And make a couple general commments.

#1) There’s a host of suspect motivations for seeking out pain.  For example, we sometimes believe we deserve to be punished.  We sometimes like the attention suffering brings.  And let’s not even get started on all the icky sexual things…

#2) It does seem like suffering might be a way for us to be with Christ.  That’s a good thing.

Most importantly… and perhaps related to number 2…

If I’m right about the nature of victory in Christ, if the idea is that we undercome before we overcome, then it seems like a key aspect of this is taking in that which is painful.  Christ isn’t about waving a wand from the outside, and reversing something.  He is about internalizing a thing; his method of transformation is almost an act of digestion.

It seems like a critical aspect of this is to actual go through the pain, not around it.  Jesus didn’t bypass death.  He went through it.  Transcendence is so much greater than avoidance.  And to transcend a thing, we must be in the middle of it first.

Jesus, Nietzsche, and Cartman walk into a bar…

Mel Gibson as William Wallace wearing woad.
Mel Gibson as William Wallace wearing woad. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Blogger JT asked a great question.  He tried to piece together my random meanderings and wondered if there is a connection between following Christ and being massochistic.  The question brings to mind a statement that was by some 1800’s thinker.  It might have been Nietzsche.  It also brought to mind the image of underwear-clad Mel Gibson leaping around and begging everyone to punish him in the name of Christ.

South Park Nativity
South Park Nativity (Photo credit: gemsling)

There are people who would tell me that we should pay attention to the thinking of Nietzsche.  There are people who would tell me that I ought to steer clear of South Park.  The truth is that I don’t read much of the former these days.  And as for the latter… I’m not going to deny that 90% of my reason for watching South Park is the sheer amusement of the often cutting insights of Matt and Trey Parker.

But the other 10%?  The reason I think it’s worthwhile to pay attention to cultural “events” that are hostile to Christianity is that I think we get really interesting insight into how the world sees us.  The bible is pretty clear around the idea that we ought to be aware of the impression we have on non-believers.

JT got to this question in a more wholesome manner.  Yet I would have gotten there faster if I’d paid more attention to Nietzsche… or South Park.

I want to state clearly that we can over-do it, paying attention to the world’s opinion of us.  I think institutional Christianity– I think that the global church collectively– has gone too far in the opposite direction.  We have paid too little attention to culture.

We ought to pay attention to culture because we ought to be aware of potential obstacles to our testimony.  If people think Christians are massochistic, this should impact how we share the good news of God’s grace.  But tuning into culture is also important because it just might turn out that there is something valid running underneath the criticisms.  I think we underestimate a real challenge: our world view carries an Ethical code quite intimately with it.   When a non-Christian fails to take the moral high ground, he is not open to charges of hipocrisy.  But as Christians, if we don’t maturely and realistically assess challenges, this act actually implies that there is, in fact, something wrong with our world view itself.

Friedrich Nietzsche - found in the Cool Kids N...
Friedrich Nietzsche - found in the Cool Kids Never Die blog (Photo credit: Cea.)

After all these words I haven’t even got to the actual question: Are Christians massochistic?  I think I’ll save that for next post.  If you’ve got an answer to the question, I’d love to read it in the comments below before I share my thoughts on the topic.



A rose, by any other name…

English: This is an image of the sign in front...
Image via Wikipedia

I’d like to begin with a couple of principles:

1.  We can tell what is in our hearts based on what comes out of our mouths. 

2.   We can tell what we believe in based on how we save and spend our resources.

  Personally, I find both of these ideas to be fairly profound.  Somebody else might not agree with whether or not they are true.  And that is fine.  One of the awesome things about the world is that we don’t all have to agree.

An issue I would say that has less room for argument is the question of whether Jesus believed these things.   It seems quite clear to me that Jesus did.  I hardly paraphrased at all.  These ideas are pretty much straight out of his mouth.

There is a third principle I’d like to mention.   This idea is the idea that names have power.

Jesus did not explicitly ever say this.  But he implies it in many of his interactions, particularly when casting demons out.  The demon that identifies itself as “Legion”, for example, at first seems to think that Jesus will have no power of it, because it does not give Jesus an actual name.  Conversely, numerous demons seem to think that they will have power over Jesus, simply because they know his name.

Jesus himself renames “Saul” as “Paul” as a way to draw a distinction between his pre-Jesus and post-Jesus life.  God renamed the person who would come to be known as “Isreal.”   Adam’s first task is to give names to the animals.  Clearly, names are important things.  This does not imply some sort-of magical belief.  One could say that the power in names is rooted in the fact that we believe names have power.  We could suggest that it’s something of a self-fufilling prophecy.

This is why groups from street gangs to summer camps give members special names.  This is why some people get so persnickety about whether they expect to be called the short version of their name (e.g. “Rich”) or the long version of their name (e.g. Richard.)  This is why many tribal societies have given members multiple names, often a public one and a second, more secret one.

I believe the evidence a couple paragraphs makes a pretty strong case for the idea that Jesus recognizes the strength of names and titles.  But I realize it’s a little more open to interpretation than the first couple principles mentioned.

This absurdly egg-headed introduction gets me to the point I was considerng today:

 Taken together, I’m submit that those 3 principles mean that titles and names are powerful things, and they, much like the words that come out of our mouths, provide a picture of what is going on in hearts.

This has been a long-winded and egg-headed introduction.  The real point I want to make is that the way we name our churches in America says something about us.  And what it says isn’t very nice.

Consider a church with a name like “1st Lutheran Chuch  of Doofustown.”

A claim to the primacy and age of the church is the very first part of this title.  Jesus tells us that the 1st shall be last.  It would be a pretty cool act of guerilla art (or maybe vandalism; you say tomato, I say tomatoh) to run around to all the church signs that start with “1st” and write “Last.”  This of course is a biblical statement.  If the first shall be last, then all these churches bragging about their first status are indeed last.

That biblical idea aside, it is still telling that some church names start with that sort of claim.  The fact that we put it first suggest that the fact that we are first is more important than anything else. 

After we thump our chests, gorilla like, by asserting that we are first, we move on to a denominational title.  Placing this second suggests that it is the second-most important thing.  Placing it before the word church suggests that the things that divide us are more important than the things that unite us.  It suggests that whether one is a Lutheran or a Baptist (or whatever) is a more important question than whether or not one follows Christ.

And finally, that little word: church.  Much has recently been made about the fact that church is not a building.  While I agree with this, as long as we continue to write it on the side of the buildings, there will be a disconnect.

As long as we wax eloquently about the “big c church” or the “global church” but continue to call the individual buildings by this name, we will lose some credibility, and deservedly so.

There are other ways to title a church.  Some great names are simply not lived up to.  A friend told me about a local Baptish congegation.  They rent space from another Baptist congregation.  This second congregation owns the land and buildings and what not.

The punchline here is that the renting congregation calls itself “The United Baptist Church of …”   While it’s good that they are not bragging about being first or whatever, this leads to the question: what precisely are they united with, if they can’t join with their landlord and worship together?  (The picture above is not from this church; it’s a snap shot I found in the public domain.)

I know that there are traditions and rules around these things.  I know that probably lots of people haven’t given a whole lot of thought.  Jesus calls us out, though, to buck tradition when it doesn’t work, we’re told to ponder and meditate and think over things, so that we can most efficiently do his work.

The King and I.

The divine essence
Image by Guðskraftur via Flickr

There are times in my life that God’s presence just seems to hover beneath the surface of everything.  I have this idea that I might scratch the surface away of things, and what is beneath will just illuminate the universe.

Occasionally, I am crystal clear of God’s communication with me.  It is both auditory and not-auditory, both words and not-words, both English and thought, sent directly into my brain.

And then… then there are times like now.

I’m going through this season in my life where God’s presence is so much more difficult for me to detect.  I am not really depressed.  I’m not experiencing doubt.  It’s just that, right now, God is silent.

And so I’ve been contemplating this, and praying about it, and studying the topic.  There this thing I want to say about God’s silence.  But in order to say it, I have to say some things about silence (and talking) in general.

It’s an interesting almost-paradox.  Silence is necessary for speech to happen.  If we define speech as 2-way communication, then in any conversation, at least one person has to be silent.  If both people are talking then nobody is listening.  If nobody is listening, then it’s just so much noise, not really talking at all.

The act of being silent for the other person to talk is a show of respect.  It is an agnowlodgement of their relevance to our lives.   It implies that we value the other, and that we want to learn from them.

In fact, we can probably guage at least two things from the silences that go on in a conversation. By the ammount of time I am willing to be silent, we can go a long way toward measuring how much respect I have for another person.  To be more specefic: if I am in the presence of someone I have a great deal of respect for, then I am willing to be very quiet for a very long time.   If they are someone who I kind-of respect, I am willing to be quiet for as long as they are speaking.  If I do not much respect them, I am likely to expect that roughly half the “air time” in our conversation belongs to me.  I am likely to get annoyed if someone I don’t respect much talks for quite some time with out letting me get a word in edge wise.  On the other hand, if I kind-of respect someone, I am likely to want to soak up the words they have to offer me.

But if the other person is silent, and I am still silent?  Then I must respect that person an awful lot.  If the other person says nothing and I continue to expectantly wait, then it would be safe to assume I afford the person a great deal of respect.

(Yes, I know that sometimes we just blabber on to fill awkward silences.  But we don’t generally want to do this, it’s a bit unintentional.  And yes, I know that we’re supposed to afford great respect to everyone.  If you’ve mastered that talent, I’d love to hear your tips for it, because it’s something I’m still working on.)

The point I’m trying to make might be illuminated by considering a lunch in a mannor in the 1600s.  If I am a noble, and the other people eating are all of my station, they are probably all talking at about the same time.  If I am presiding over a feast for the peasants, then it might be expected that no one eats or speaks before I do.  But if I am in the presence of a king, and he has not yet spoken as we eat, I will wait, too.  If we make it all the way through the appetizers, into the entrees, even into the desert, if the king has not spoken to me, I would be expected to eat in silence.

And so sitting in the silence and waiting to be spoken to is an act of worship.  I am in the presence of my king, the only king I recognize.  It is an honor to be given this oppurtunity, to eat in silence with Him.

I know that it is important to recognize that Christ called us friends.  I hold this truth in a tension, though.  Because He is also the King of Kings.  He is sovereign.  And his apparent silence is an oppurtunity for me to recognize this.

There are other growth oppurtunities in this silence.  But they are the more obvious ones.  When God is silent, we are called to listen closer and deeper.  When God is silent, we are challenged to mantain our practice and disciplines of continuing to live the way we are expected to.  But I don’t have much new to say about these things.  The idea that God’s silence is an oppurtunity for worship by honoring that silence, this is a new thing for me, so I’m going to continue to contemplate it, until He speaks.