Open to Change

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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?

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A Bumpy Road

How’s this for a weird story:

It’s early in Jesus’s ministry.  He’s generated some buzz on the local level.  Movers and shakers are wanting to get in on hearing from this guy they keep hearing about.   It ends up standing room only.  The people spill out into the surrounding yard.

Into this scene wander four guys carrying a paralyzed friend on a stretcher.  They realize that there is no way to bring their friend to see Jesus through the door.  So they climb up on the roof, make a hole, and lower him down.

Jesus tells the man that his sins are forgiven, because of the faith of his friends.  Some members of his audience are taken aback at this.  Jesus follows his claim up by inviting the man to walk away.  And he does.

Some of the most obvious examples of wierdness that is lurking around this story:

* These guys subvert Jesus teaching agenda, destroy somebody’s roof, and act as if there friend is more important than all the people who apparently showed up on time.  And yet they are praised for it.

* The guy gets healed because of his friends faith?!?!?  I can get the idea that I might be healed because of my own faith.  But because of my friends?  This seems a little scary… like reality is some sort of strange popularity contest where the people with the faith-filled friends will do o.k. but the people whose friends aren’t faith filled are out of luck.

The most obvious reading isn’t always the right one.  Sometimes things aren’t quite as wierd as they look.

I had this realization about this whole story today.

Two thousand(ish) years ago, there were five friends.  One of them was paralyzed.  They all heard about Jesus.  And they created a plan to see him.  These five guys put aside whatever commitments and schedules they otherwise would have had.  They trudged as far as they needed to go.  They dealt with obstacles like a crowd full of people.  They prioritized the possibility of this man’s healing over the property destruction and other inconveniences.

I think that Jesus could have used his cool God powers to look inside these guys hearts and measure whether or not these guys were full of faith.  I think he could have in the sense that this was within his power.

But I don’t think that’s what happened.  I don’t think that Jesus was referring to an intangible, abstract quality when he congratulated the men on their faith.  I think the whole point of this episode is that the faith of these men manifested itself in a concrete manner.  When Jesus said, “Because of their faith you are healed” he wasn’t saying, “If your friends had less faith I wouldn’t have used my cool Jesus-powers to heal you.”  Jesus meant something quite literal.  If they had not believed they would not have gotten him into that room.

It’s so easy for me to get talked out of my acts of faith.  I get it into my head to do something kind, but at the first little wrinkle I back away.  When my conscience rises up I tell myself that God didn’t really want my act of kindness to happen, or the road would have been smoother.  The problem, of course, is that Jesus praised the faith of those men… And as they carried their friend down those dirt roads, through that crowded yard, up and over the house walls, and down through the cieling… I am sure that the road was not smooth for them.

Beware the Vosh

There is a voice that rises up in me.  It is not my voice.  It is not God’s.  If I had to give it a name, I’d call it the Voice of Should-Have.  Vosh, for short.

Vosh speaks the words that I think I’m supposed to think.  He tells me to feel the feelings I’m supposed to feel.  Vosh is a voice for the way the world works.  He’s a voice for the way the world thinks.

Vosh is a master mimic.  He can pitch his voice very much like that still, quiet voice of the holy spirit.  Other times he speaks so much like my own self that I barely know it’s not me.

When I think about the importance of being child-like, of wandering, of exploring, of being open, with out a goal or agenda, Vosh chimes in.

He speaks up.  He calls me out.  He can be quite intimidating, when he has to be.

Vosh says things like, “Your spirituality is too important to do those things, be an explorer.”

At first, I try to bargain and clarify with Vosh.  There are vital and important things I believe.  To these I hold firm: I will follow Jesus because he was uniquely the son of God and he paid the price of my sin to restore my relationship with him.

But at some point, I have to man up.  I have to call Vosh out.  I have to name him.  And I have to say that my spirituality is too important not to be a wanderer.

As I reflect on my life, I see that my need to act as though I had the answers was some times an act of idolatry.  I was worshipping my own cleverness.  Other times it was an act of faithlessness.  I did not trust God to work it all out and suspected that he needed me to explain things to him.

There is an act of submission here.  Submission is so hard.  Especially when things are challenging.

Have you ever driven on an icy road?  For me, the hardest thing is that as the car begins to slide, you have to relax.  If you tighten the grip, things go from bad to worse.

Or repelling.  Have you ever repelled?  It’s an incredibly unnatural thing.  The more you lean back, the closer you coming to make a 90 degree angle with the cliff, the more control you have.  Our instincts tell us, when we feel unstable, to hug the rock.  But the thing to do is lean back and away from it and trust the rope and our feet.

As we sense the importance of God to us, our natural instinct is to want to be tidy, organized, goal-oriented.  Rely on our little human words and thoughts.  We’re told that this is the way to be.  Vosh says it.  It must be true, right?

Mystery: Why Finding the Truth isn’t Like Fighting a Rumble

Pastor Marty wasn’t playing by the rules.  That’s the first thing I want you to understand.   I was something of an expert in those rules.  If there was a professional league for debating the existence of God, I would have been it, I’m pretty sure.  I know what I speak of.  Pastor Marty just wasn’t playing by the rules.

Here’s how the rules go.  You start with one side believing in God.  And the other side not believing in God.  (A slight variation: one side believes a certain thing about God.  The other side believes that this is not true.)  You put the pair of them in a steel cage of some sort.  One of them opens up with an attack.  Sometimes, the defender just launches his own attack, ignoring the opening move.  Other times, the defender finds it necessary to apply some sort-of counter-move to slip out of the philosophical wrestling hold.

One of the reasons that there is no professional league for this particular sport is that the judging leaves a bit to be desired.  You see, both participants carry a little referee with them inside their brain.  Nobody else can see or hear these guys.  They certainly operate according to quite different sets of rules.

Most often, these matches end with both referees declaring their respective participant the grand champion.  Each person imagines that the other has been decisively knocked out and pinned down.

A person less narcisstic than myself might be bothered by the fact that nobody else recognizes that they are grand champion.  Not me.  I was quite happy to keep my own little score in my own little head and wasn’t much bothered by the fact that nobody else would recognize my champion status.

If you’d known me at the time, you might not have known this about me.  Like most human motivations, my secret pride in this sport was mixed up with nobler emotions.  Deep inside, I was interested in the truth.

And this is probably what saved me.

Because, I may have mentioned, Pastor Marty didn’t play by the rules.

From the very beginning there were weird things going on.  He had the opportunity for the home field advantage.  The home field advantage in this sport carried with it many of the same benefits it would in any other sport.  The potential for a friendly audience.  Familiarity with the surroundings.  Availabality of needed resources.

He could have suggested that we meet in his office at the church and kept all these benefits.  But when he found out that I was a fan of Starbucks, he suggested we go there instead.  What?  Why?  This doesn’t make any sense at all.

If a chess player opened by exposing his queen, the opponent would be thrown off guard.  If a baseball team failed to take their positions in the field, but all clumped together near the pitchers mound, the batters would be curious.  If a wrestler came out, not strutting and flexing and roaring, but doing the hokey-pokey, the opponent would question just what is going on.

And I did wonder just what is going on.

When we found our seats and began sipping our drinks, Marty said, “So I read through that email, and there were some really good points and really interesting questions.”

Here, at least, I thought I was in familiar territory.  I didn’t particularly believe that he’d read my email very closely.  At that point, I was quite skeptical that he truly believed my questions were interesting.  But it was a pretty standard tactic: Lull the opponent into a false sense of security with kind words.  The equivalent, I suppose, of a boxer who intentionally drops his guard just a little bit to lull the other guy into committing all his energy and weight into a punch that will end up leaving him wide open.

So I began.

The whole point of this is that my specific objection didn’t really matter.  I don’t need to rehash it here.  Pastor Marty’s reaction though, it mattered a lot.

Because he let me finish.  And he asked points for clarifications.  I remembered when I was in high school, I practiced some martial arts.  I remembered how in grappling, once a hold is secured, it’s very difficult to get out of.   The whole key is evading something before it’s firmly in place.

I knew it wasn’t any different with these sort-of debates.

It was inexplicable that he would be patiently be sitting there, waiting for me to perfect the hold before he tried to wriggle out of it.  Of course it’d be bad form to blatently interrupt.  You had to be a little more subtle than that.  Wait for the person to take a breath, maybe.

Yet here we were.  He was patiently waiting for me to construct the best argument I could.  I began to realize something.

There was only two possible explanations for what was going on.

Option A) Pastor Marty thought he was such a great “wrestler” that he had the luxury of letting me finish the hold before he countered it.

Option B) Pastor Marty was playing a completely different game than me.

I would come to find that the truth was a little of both of these options.  Marty and I would meet on a mostly weekly basis for the next several months.  We developed a friendship.

Marty showed me a different way.  He didn’t just talk about Jesus.  He acted like this intruiging and frustrating figure.  He didn’t much care that by the world’s way of counting things, I was winning.

He was open, and vulnerable even.  Marty tells me he learned a lot from our conversations, too.  He grew up in a very traditional environment.  Much like myself, he’d been presented with lots of silly cartoon versions of what “the other side” thinks.  He occasionally saw that he had something wrong.  And he had the grace to admit these things.

But it didn’t feel like he’s was condeeding everything.  He had the air of somebody who was on a journey.  And seriously?  How long can you keep trying wrestling moves on somebody who’s acting like the tin woodsman, on a journey down the yellow brick road?

And my education began.

It’s a funny thing for me to say that my education began.  I graduated with honors with a degree in philosophy.  I completed most of a master’s degree in philosophy.  I was ridiculously over-educated in some ways.

I’d always thought that learning was something that happened by simulated combat.  I’d always thought that the last idea standing was the one that deserved to be held onto.  I’d always thought that everything important could be expressed with words.

What I began to learn was things that were much more important than anything  I began to learn about mystery.  I began to realize that the most important things are not ones that can be expressed at all.  I began to realize that there were other ways to find truth.

Marty told me how Jesus was beaten bloody beyond recognition.  He was nailed to a cross and he died there.  Everybody thought he’d been defeated.  But one of the most important parts of the story is that he rose up from this.

I began to see that the truth could be left beaten bloody, that it could appear to be dead.  But that maybe that truth is the most important one of all.

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I’ve spent the last bunch of years doing my best to follow Jesus.  When a bunch of people are attempting to follow the same guy, at some point they are going to bump into each other.   I call the meeting place of the followers of Jesus church.

I know that there’s lots of others ways that the church gets defined.  We think of a church as building.  Or we think of it as a set of programs.  Or a place where people have submitted themselves to this man-made idea or that man-made idea.

I don’t think that Jesus meant those things, when he talked about the church.  The church was incredibly important to him.  But that doesn’t mean it’s a particularly complicated idea.  I think that the church is the place where Jesus’ followers bump into each other.

We bump into each other because we have so much to learn from each other about how to be most true to what Jesus said.  We bump into each other and have these opportunities to work together and encourage each other.  We bump into each other because Jesus had specific places he sent us to.  It’s only common sense that we’d all end up in these places together.

The church is made up of people many of the same failings and challenges as people anywhere else.    The following things are true for people both inside and outside the church:

Sometimes we’re too close to something to see it.  Or we’ve experienced something so long we’ve forgotten to see it.  Or something has been so consistently a part of our background that we’re no longer fully to appreciate it, because we don’t have a true understanding of what life would be like with out it.

I believe that mystery is one of those truths that the people who make up the church are awfully close to.  Many of my brothers and sisters in Christ have experienced it so long that they’ve forgotten to see it.  Mystery has been such a part of the background that we no longer appreciate it.  We’ve forgotten what life is like without mystery.

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The truth is that I’m ducking responsibility here.  I wrote those above paragraphs in mostly the second person.

It’s all you, you, you, and the church, the church, the church.

It’s not that the stuff above is untrue.  If it was I’d rewrite it.

But it’s equally true that those things are true of me.

I lose track of the importance of mystery.  I get bogged down.  I got ritualistic.  My spiritual life feels all dried up.  It seems like I’m doing nothing but going through the motions.

There are times when trudging onward in my faith, that continuing to try and follow and Jesus—there are times when I’m just kind-of taking my own word for it.

I remember how I felt, I remember how it was.  And I just hold onto the idea that this person who I used to be was trustworthy enough that I ought to keep on going, and doing what he did.

I have a lot less excuse than most people.  I saw the importance of mystery up close and personal.  And yet still I need to remind myself, sometimes.

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There are many people who are not part of the church.  They aren’t interested in trying to follow Jesus.  Or they don’t know how to begin.

We’ve been told to help these people out.  To invite them.  To show them what we are doing.

I think our failure to open our arms to mystery is keeping people away.  Before my discussions with Pastor Marty in that Starbucks, nobody ever challenged the game I was playing.  Nobody ever told me that it wasn’t about what we could say, that it’s about what we can’t say.

If you’re reading this, I know that there is things you’ve heard before.

I know that you’ve heard platitudes.

I know that you’ve been asked to accept some ideas.

I can understand why these aren’t very convincing.

Instead, I’d like to invite you into a mystery.

________________________________________________________________________

We need mystery.  All of us.  I need it.  You need it.  The world inside the church needs it.  And so does the world outside the church.

Mystery.

The Repo man

The re-po man

who came for my innocence

hammered on my door

at 2 A.M.

 

I asked him

if he came at this hour

because

it was the time of day that whatever happened, it still felt like a dream.

 

I don’t think he heard me.

He took my innocence away.

And he said a thing

I new surely he said to everyone.

 

“I’m sure this is just some kind of mistake.

You call your dealer tomorrow.

And work it all out.

I bet you’ll have your innocence back in no time.”

 

It was a strange thing for a man to say,

who wore a ketchup-stained tank top…

whose beer belly interposed itself between us

like a whole other presence.

 

I felt absurdly thankful to the man

for his token attempt at comforting me.

 

The thing I never realized

was that innocence was this anchor

that my hope used to be anchored to.

The next day, my hope floated away.

 

I guess my hope was maybe a cloud.

I discovered that it had always watered my joy.

Because, when it was gone,

my joy shriveled up and died.

 

I am trying, now

to talk my faith back in off the ledge.

“What’s the point of it all” it asks

“What’s the point of it all.”

Sometimes

Sometimes, I feel like those trees:

Naked, exposed, stripped of those leaves,

rooted to the dawning Spring’s thawing soil,

my arms,

like branches,

held up toward the blue and blue and blue sky.

held up so long

that the tips have been bleached by the elements.

 

And sometimes this waiting is all that I can do.

Sometimes knowing that Winter is over,

it’s hard to really believe

Sometimes knowing that Winter is over

is all that keeps me going.

Sometimes, despite this doubt.

The truth is also undeniable.

A Theology of celery and ice cream Sundays.

Sometimes, my kids will want to eat more junk food than I want them to eat.  One of the ways they attempt to justify this will be to say “But I’ll have something healthy later.”

It seems built into us, this flawed way of thinking.  While I no longer think I can justify having a big, gooey Sunday by chasing it with a celery stalk or something, I do engage in similar mental gymnastics.  I think so many of us do.

When I do something I know is wrong I’ll justify it by planning on doing something which is exceptionally moral.  Or sometimes, I’ll put a twist on this.  I’ll do something wrong and then I’ll use this to get some good result… I cheat on my taxes, perhaps, but donate the money to a good charity.

We keep these mental score cards.  We think, at the end of the day, if we’ve shown a profit of goodness that we are a good person.  Somewhere deep down, we even maybe believe that this balance sheet will either get us into heaven or keep us out of heavan.

It occurred me today: part of this is rooted in the idea that Good and Evil are equal and opposites.

If Good and Evil were equal and opposite then the whole object of life would be to end up closer to the side we identify as “Good”.  The way we would ensure that this is where we are would be to total up all of the good things we do, subtract from them all the bad things we do, and hope we end up on the right side of the dividing line.

  There’s a variety of decent reasons to think that Good and Evil are equal and opposite.  But I’m not sure that any of these reasons are in the Bible.  I think, in fact, that scripture implies quite a different view.

The two biggest reasons that it seems like Evil and Good aren’t equal and opposite:

#1) Satan is Evil personified.  And yet he is created. 

#2) We are promised Good’s ultimate victory over evil.

Being created is in some ways inferior to being The Creator.  In this sense, Evil and Good do not seem equal.  And it seems to me that if you can guarentee one side’s victory over the other, then, furthermore, they weren’t really evenly balanced.

The only way to make sense of all this– and a variety of other philosophical issues– is to suggest (I think Augustine held this position) that evil is a lacking of Goodness.  In short, Evil isn’t equal to Good.  Evil is a lacking of good.

Dark and light (which are often used in the bible to stand for good and evil) actually share a similiar relationship.  At first glance, it might seem that dark and light are equal and opposite.

Yet, we can’t flick a switch and have darkness cast by a dark-bulb.  Darkness is simply the absence of light.  It isn’t really equal or opposite to light at all.  Dark is simply what happens when there is no light around.

I used to feel frustrated when Christians spoke about how God’s standard is perfection.   There are passages of scripture which are taken to mean that the only way to heaven outside of Jesus is total perfection.

If Good and evil are viewed as equal and oppsites, this doesn’t make a lot of sense.

But if God is the ultimate good, it suddenly does.  Because I can never be as good as God.  And perhaps this is Jesus meaning when he asked why someone called him good.  He said that only God is good.

We have the potential to be Godly.  It’s not a theoretical impossibility that we might be good as God, in the same way that’s it’s a theoretical impossibility that we’d be as wise or powerful as him.

But is a practical impossibility.  On the ground, we never make it work.

And so let’s go back to the celery and Sunday mentality.  The bottom line of why it is so silly:

We began with the idea that we might do something evil or immoral.  It is a thing occupying the country far from God.  It is a thing which has nothing to do with God.   In the same way that a giant gooey Sunday is so far from healthy, so too is our action so far from God.

The issue isn’t that it’s evil, really.  Evil is simply a lacking of Godlines.  The issue is that it’s far from God.

And a celery stick?  It’s closer to healthy.  But a celery stick isn’t the ultimate act of healthiness.  We can’t, in practice, engage in one ultimate act of healthiness.   We’re closer to healthiness, when we eat the celery, and it’s generally smarter to eat celery than Sundays, but  so what?  Eating the celery doesn’t erase the ice cream…

Nor do our attempts at engaging in Godly acts erase our ungodly ones.  Even if we could truly become Godly, even if we could engage in one single, supremely healthy act, even if there was some sort-of super food that instantly met all of our dietary requirements, it still wouldn’t erase the ice cream.

And so as I’m writing this I realize that this even begins to drift into the realm of faith vs. works.  Perhaps our faith can come closer to Godly perfection than our works can?  Maybe the reason that our hearts condition is so much more important than what we’re doing on the outside, is that God’s image resides in our hearts…