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.

Open to Change

Computer Keyboard
Image by freefotouk via Flickr

There was a time that we, as a people, had no trouble with things that aren’t interactive.  We were willing to listen to a teacher or a pastor simply speak at us.  We were willing to engage in entertainment that we were merely passive participants in.  We didn’t feel the necessity to clog every news broadcast with poorly-done surveys that imply our opinions on things are the most important part of current events.

My final sentence above notwithstanding, I’m not here to cast judgement on this state of events.  It’s just an observation I want to begin with: we, as a people, are coming to expect more and more interactivity.

I was reflecting on the process of witnessing to people.  (evangelizing, sharing the good news, call it what you want.)  The way that it seems like we often do it, it doesn’t seem very effective.

Maybe this is because times have changed.  We have come to expect to be talked to, not talked at.  We have come to expect to be part of the processes which impact us.

Then again, maybe this isn’t such a modern thing.  Maybe in this instance, we’ve been doing it all wrong all along.

In the end, this point doesn’t really matter, though.  Because obviously we can’t get in a time machine and change how we used to do things.  Whether it worked before is somewhat moot.  The relevant thing is that it’s not working now.

I guess I’m not being clear about what, precisely, is not working.  A way to express the point I want to make is by thinking about negotiations.  Labor negotations.  Settling on the price of a car.  Working out a solution with a hostage-taker…

A thing that these all have in common is that they require good faith of both parties.  If people are going to get anywhere, both people have to be open, willing to be changed.

There is only a certain type of person who is going to be moved by us if we approach them in a closed off manner, utterly convinced of the superiority of our view.  People lonely and desperate for the truth might be more impressed by us if we approach them with an air of utter conviction that we have everything 100% correct.  But most people?  Most people are going to walk away from the negotiations table. 

I think that Christianity has come a little ways.  There are plenty of people who recognize the importance of asking questions, and tailoring how we say things to the needs of our audience.  We’ve gotten past the days, I think, of expecting a cookie-cutter testimoney will equally impact everybody.

But we’re only half way there.

The facility where I teach does these online trainings, some times.  (Bare with me, this will make sense in a moment.)  Every now and again, they ask questions.  Most of the questions are multiple choice questions with black and white, correct answers.

But occasionally, I guess that they just want he learners to reflect on what they’ve read.  So they put in these open-ended question, with a box to type sentence-long answers.  That is a sentence that will never get read.  It is a sentence that it truly doesn’t matter what I put there.  Ultimately, it’s a sentence that is meant to fool me into thinking there is interactivity, when there really isn’t.  My response doesn’t matter at all.

And this is where I think Christianity, as a whole, is at: we are asking questions, but really, in those blanks… the learners response does not matter at all.  The questions are simply there to give the delusion of interactivity, or maybe to build up a sense of empathy with our audience, or at best, a way to help us to continue the things we say and why we say them.

But none of these are good enough.  People know our hearts.  They sense our motivations.  Most people don’t want to engage somebody who isn’t changeable.   I think we’re called to something more, something paradoxical.

Those of us who have made a faith comittment had certain reasons for doing so.   There’s a really important question that I think we have to askourselves: What if that same sort of evidence came to us now, with information that lead us in a different direction?  Would we be willing to be changed?  Or, now that we’ve siezed onto something, now that we’ve built a status quo, will we, for a variety of reasons, just grab onto it blindly, holding out for no reason at all?

It’s understandable, why we might enter into the process of telling people about our faith with an attitude that is unshakeable.  Words like unshakeable are usually, in fact, compliments when we discuss some one’s faith.

Because there are many sorts of things that should not shake our faith.  But there are things, I think, that we should allow to shake our faith up.  I’m not saying that we should put reason and logic on a pedestal, above other considerations.  There is a powerful role for faith and for tradition in all of this.  The movement of the Holy Spirit is tremendously powerful.

But if we really believe that Jesus is the way and the truth then we have nothing to fear.   Being changeable does not necessarily mean that we will change.  It just means that the possibility is there. 

This open-ness, this willingness, it’s part of a wider context.   Following the example of Jesus, over and over again, is about taking the scary route, giving up life in order to have it, submitting, taking the path of apparently the least power in order to have true power.

The Jesus story, over and over again, is about the contrasts between the people who came to Jesus and were open to change, and the people who rigidly stuck to the old ways.  We are confronted with this same choice… who will be: the one who was willing to change, or th closed off ones who assumed they already know the answer?

Personal Relationship? Unity with God? All of the Above.

Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, ...
Image via Wikipedia

Last post, I grappled with the reality that the idea of a personal relationship with Christ is a very modern formulation.  Yet it is considered fundamentally important to we evangelical Christians.  These 2 facts create a dilemna.  Why did it take us so long to get this idea?  What happened to the millions of Christians who never heard the phrase “a personal relationship with Christ.”

I think there is a solution to the dilemna.  It is this:

Christians before 1900 or so did not need the idea of a personal relationship with Christ.  Modern, western Christians, however, do.

We often talk about how individualistic our society is.  Our culture has (for better or worse) valued the idea of a personality to the point that we have built whole sciences around understanding personality.  Today, it almost goes with out saying: every person is unique, special, and worthy.   Our uniquenesses, (i.e. our personalities) are fundamentally tied into our special-ness.

Five hundred years ago, (heck, to some extent, fifty years ago) the individual was not the fundamental social unit.  Differences were sometimes tolerated and other times obliterated.  The collection of things that made a person unique was not nearly as important as how they fit into the larger society.

My point is not that one of these views is right and the other is wrong.  These are such fundamental concepts I think it would be next to impossible to divorce ourselves from our context enough to rationally argue either one.  I don’t actually think even the bible itself gets us very far in settling these disputes.  For every verse about how loved each individual person is, there is another verse which stresses the importance of our unity in Christ.

Whatever else it would mean about the way we view the world, these differences would certainly impact how we saw the true purpose of worship, spiritual discipline, and the Christian life.  Those of us who see personality as fundamentally important would proclaim that personality itself is the place where meet Jesus.

The midevil tradition is much more steeped in the idea that our final goal is to be (in some sense) absorded by God; our personality diminished or even obliterated.  This sounds terrifying and hellacious to us, in 2011.  And I think this terror goes a long way to demonstrating my point.

I don’t think it’s accurate to say that we’ve made an idol of personality.  That’s an overstatement.  We certainly do, however, value personality in a way that our forefathers did not.  As a result, our visions of what we’re headed for seek to keep our personality in tact.

There are of course, probably, much more than 2 views on this issue.  I’m not setting out to list all these.  Rather, I’m suggesting that ideas are always crude approximations of the full reality of God.  As time goes by, and our way of seeing the world changes, and therefore the way we approximate God’s nature changes to.

In the end, the truth we experience will transcend all of our silly little ways of looking at this.  We will be right, and we will be wrong, just as the thinkers of past ages, were both right and wrong.

Lawyers and Witnesses

Witness Statement

It’s illumination, not explanation, that truly convinces people.

Many years ago, whether he realized it or not, this is what Marty was doing with me.  He was illuminating.

He was not trying to position himself above the arguments, as if he had a God’s eye view.  He was speaking out of his own experience.  And he was honoring, (even if he didn’t agree) my experience.

I am working at doing the same.  As I share Jesus’ love, I try to remind myself that the I’m not called to be a lawyer, just a witness to what he has done.  And there is a big difference.  A lawyer creates the arguments and steers the discussion in a direction consistent with his agenda.  A witness speaks on the subject at hand, speaks out of his own life experience: what he has seen, heard, and felt.

And the thing that I know is that someone convinced by a witness is truly convinced.  All those years with people acting like lawyers, with me acting like a lawyer and debating them.  At the end of the day, even when the things said by a lawyer sound right, there is still this little doubt in the back of our brain.  “These guys are professional convincers.  Perhaps I’ve just been manipulated.”

God is a god who turns things upside down and reverses them.  He is a God who flips power dynamics topsy turvy and turns our expectations backwards on themselves.

Our expectation is that it is the person we are speaking to who benefits in these relationships.  We have all this knowledge, and we pour it into them, and then they are made like us.

It’s not untrue that a person learning about Jesus benefits.  What is untrue is that the person pouring into the learner is passive and unchanged.

Seeing through the eyes of someone truly seeing Jesus for the first time is such an awesome thing.  It brings us back to that child-like sense of wonder.  It reminds us of who we are in him.  Even if I didn’t know what was going on, I think I’d be able to figure out when people I know well are talking about Christ to people who don’t know him.  I imagine they’d say the same thing about me.

There is a picture here, I think.

We have this God who pours into us.  And there are ways that we want to assert that he is unchanging; that he is unchanged by this process of changing us.  It’s much like when kids first learn that their actions and thoughts can hurt their parents.  There is an element of insecurity.  A moment of fear.

But if the parent (whether it be God or an earthly parent) was not changeable, emotionally invested in the experience, could we feel loved and cared for?

God is desperate for us.  He is emotionally wrapped up in the process.  In this way he is changeable… and I thank God for that.

Cool Stuff on Saturday, Cool Stuff for Sunday

Saturday, Fellowship Church is hosting this barbecue.

There will be free bugers and music and this ridiculously huge easter egg hunt. 

On top of this enormous undertaking, we are serving the community somewhere every single day this week through our unbelievable small groups.

And as if this weren’t enough, tomorrow, before the festivities, will be a work day focused on the church itself.

Good people with busy schedules and strapped resources have put an almost decadent amount of time, treasure, and talent into all this.

Through out the planning and implementation of all this, leadership has kept all of on a really clear vision: reaching out to the community with hope.  We’re not trying to trick people into coming to church.  We’re not trying to bait-and-switch: you think you’re getting a burger, but then you have to listen to a sermon to get it.   Church leadership has had to keep even my own liberal post-modern self focused on the importance of what we’re doing.

Despite the fact that I’ve had a few flirtations with heading in the wrong direction, there is something that has apealed to me, at a gut level about all this: Reaching out with hope at Easter time.

Tonight, I had it all put into words.  I was reading “Surprised by Hope” (If you’re sick of reading me blog about the book hang in there: I’m almost done.) 

Firstly, he says some amazing things about how out-of-balance Lent is with Easter.  Forty days of going without something, forty days of somber reflections, forty days of despair… And then one day of celebration?  No wonder people people don’t see what we have as good news!  He goes on:

“If Lent is a time to give things up, then Easter ought to be a time to take things up… Christian holiness was never meant to be merely negative… If Calvary means putting to death things in your life that need killing off… then Easter should mean planting, watering, and training things up in your life… The forty days of the Easter season ought to balance out Lent by taking something up, some new task or venture, something wholesome and fruitfull and self-giving.  You may be able to do it only for six weeks, just as you may be able to only go without beer or tobacco only for the six weeks of Lent.”

And so I find myself wondering: what will my new task or venture be?  What am I going to take up for Easter? 

Will you join me?  Perhaps even inspire me?  What will you take up for Easter?

My Grandmother

It looked like last night was going to be it for my grandmother. 

I drove down to the nursing home at 11 PM.  Stayed there until 1:30.  It appeared that nothing major was happening, and so I came home.  First day of school today.  (A teacher day)  I hate having to do this sort of ethical calculus in my brain… No, it’s not quite ethical calculus.  It’s more like logistical calculus, nitty-gritty-detail calculus. 

I realized that if I didn’t go home I’d be useless today.  And if I was useless today I wouldn’t get much prep work done at school.  And if I didn’t get much ready at school then when she actually does pass everything would be a mess.  This wouldn’t be fair to my aides.  And on a completely selfish level, if I miss one of the first couple days at school and my aides are running around trying to figure out what to do, then everything in the classroom will be chaos when I return to the class, because we won’t have gotten off on the right foot and those first couple days are so important.

And so I went home.  As stated earlier, it ended up being a good call.  She’s actually doing better today.  Maybe another week.  Maybe even more.  Who knows?

I’m mostly focused on what it was like to be there.

It’s so symbolic of so much of my relationship with my older brother, how the whole thing started.  I got there before him.  I was kind-of happy about this.  I wanted to have some time to pray alone with her, to be really honest.

I walked up to the door I normally enter through.  Locked, of course.  I wandered around for a minute.  He cruised up and new right where to go.  The symbolic thing is that I feel like this impulsive, high-strung, inconsistent creature while he always knows what to do, where to go.  It’s almost a tortioise-and-hair thing, with me as the hair, always appearing one step ahead, and him as the logical, methodocial tortoise, breaking the finish line at the last minute.

Anyway, eventually my dad, and my older brother and I were in this room.

She looked so frail.  Everytime I see her I think, she couldn’t possibly look more old, more diminished, more weathered.   And everytime I discover that I was wrong, last time.  Because inevitably, the next time I come, and there are new ways that she has aged, new ways that she is weaker, new ways that she is closer to death.

I held her fevered hand, and I listened to her drawn-out moans.  I watched her fight for breath, each one seems like such a task.  I really mostly just want her to let go. 

I’m so aware of her skull beneath her tissue-thin flesh.  She is so very small.  Her mouth was opened in a circle, and it was so black in her toothless mouth…

We had a chair on either side.  We took turns in the chairs while the third of us either stood at the foot of her bed or sat near her little feet.  Her toes point down like a ballerinas, now.  All the time.  They don’t look like things that were made for walking.

I felt close to my brother and dad, connected to them and my grandmother.  And at the same time, I so desperately longed that we were all approaching this from the same place.   My dad sat there with a Buddhist (?) necklace on.  I think he very briefly did some Buddhist chanting.  I was approaching the thing as a Christ follower, praying so desperately that Jesus would intervene, that His will would be clear and His presence be known.  My brother… I don’t know.  In some ways he plays his cards so close to his chest.  I guess he’s more Catholic than anything else, sort of an agnostic Catholic.

I know that this is an opportunity to discuss these things.  And I’ll do my best to use it without taking advantage of my Grandmother’s death…  but at the time I didn’t want to discuss it, I wanted the solidarity between myself and my dad and my brother to be complete, I wanted us to more fully sharing it by experiencing it from a common perspective.

I take solace in the fact that an angel was present.  I’m not an Angel kind-of guy.  Theologically I find there existence wierd.  Personally I’ve never given them much consideration.  But there was an angel there.  In the room.  At the head of her bed.

She was sent for me and for my grandmother and I know that the angel was there.  He wasn’t doing anything, that I could really see.  I’m not at all embarassed by how wacky all this sounds.  I know he was there.  And I drew strength from his compassionate completeness, his waiting, watchful eye.

The Year of Living Biblically

I just finished “The Year of Living Biblically” by A. J. Jacobs.  It’s outstanding stuff.  Not only is it an entertaining read, but it’s got really profound implications for those of who are Christians.  A few of these implications are theological, but mostly this should be required reading in terms of evangelism.

The writer is fairly up front about his agenda.  He begins wanting to expose the idea that nobody can follow all of the bible literally.  To prove this point he takes one year of his life and spends this year attempts to follow the bible.  While doing this, he visits all sorts of communities who are attempting to follow the bible literally as well.

He does the mandatory trip to visit the Amish.  And he hangs out with a variety of Ultra Orthodox Jews.  He visits snake handlers.  He journeys to Israel.  And spends some time among the surviving Samiritans.  (Did you know that there were surviving Samaritians?  I didn’t.)

There is some interesting facts in the middle of all this.  But more than this his treatment is incredibly even handed and fair.  He meditates on both the beauty of the snake handlers’ faith and the wierdness of what they do.  He spends some time at Pat Robertson’s church and he chats with Tony Compola. 

Despite the idea that he starts with an agenda he’s incredibly fair and even handed.  He’s as nuanced in his discussions as these sorts of books could possibly be.  He treats the left and the right with parity.  And he mantains an openness.

There are places where modern life seems to force him to be silly.  He stones somebody with tiny pebbles.  But even this turns into an opportunity for insightful reflection.

The relevance to evangelism is in his transformation.  Over the course of his “biblical year” he does not commit himself to either Judaism or Christianity.    But he begins a journey.  He develops a healthy respect for ideas he probably once would have considered wacky. (Perhaps he still considers them wacky: but now he respectfully finds them wacky)  And he finds that he loves to pray.

I know that it’s true of my own journey that when I was placed in a worshipful environment (the church) I got what was going on in a way that I never would have if you’d just described it to me.  When I began to pray, mostly out of desperation, it worked.  It didn’t make sense that it worked.  I probably never would have gotten to a place that logically it made sense to pray. 

I have heard it said (maybe in some cheesy kids movie) that sometimes you have to believe in order to see.

My own experiences and this book bare out this idea.

I think what all this means is that we need to work hard at helping people have the experience of our faith that speaks to us.  Perhaps we need to tone back our talking about our faith and starting turning up the doing.  This is scarier in some ways: deep down we all know that there is something wierd about worship services, the ways we pray, etc.  We expose ourselves when we step past the stage of just talking about our faith.  But of course, we have to do it.

Even if none of these motivations resonant with you, pick up the book.  It’s a good entertaining read.  It’s also got lots of interesting exploration of stuff I had no idea was in the bible.

This post was submitted to Randy Elrod’s Watercooler Wednesdays.