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.

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Its Fleece Was Snow.

Lamb
Lamb (Photo credit: freefotouk)

Jesus did not speak in similes. 

You might remember your nerdy English teacher rambling on about similes, how they are a comparison between two unlike things, using the word “like” or “as.”  In the same breath, said nerdy English teacher, probably spoke about metaphor: a comparison between two unlike things not using the word “like” or “as.”

Even though English was a favorite of mine, and even though I’ve always been a poetic guy, it was lost on me: why was it so important that we have a different term for comparisons when they don’t have the word “like” or “as.”  I was unclear on how those little words might make much of a difference.

Maybe I’m slow.  It’s only as an adult I’ve come to see the huge difference between “Mary had a little lamb, and it’s fleece was white as snow.”  (A simile) and “Mary had a little lamb.  It’s fleece was snow.”  (A metaphor.)

The latter sentence invites us into a field to play with the meaning of words.  It flirts with us a little bit.  Perhaps it’s not a metaphor at all, but some sort of snow-lamb-creature.  Even if we decide not to take the words literally, we are left with some mystery, some room for interpretation.  In preceisely what ways was the fleece snow-like?

Jesus spoke in metaphor.

He does not use the words “like” or “as” when he compared himself to light, truth, bread, water, ways (as in a path; see last post for more on this) or ladders (see next post)

Though he sometimes enhances his meanings– usually at the request at his bumbling (like me!) disciples, Jesus’ words begin in mystery, they begin with this space for us to move around in and explore what it is he means.

When Jesus said he is the way, I take him to mean that he is the path toward God the father.   Further, I take him to mean that their is something holy not only in Him as our destination, but also in the process of seeking Him.    We, like Israel, wrestle with God himself and are blessed for this wrestling, even when it leaves us hurt…

Jesus’ metaphors (not similes!) themselves are an invitation to be with him, the path, as we figure out just what they all mean. 

It makes my brain hurt, a little.

 

We Choose the Method of Payment

Where Does It Hurt?
Where Does It Hurt? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And so I was hurt by this person.

Probably, my hurt was not different than the hurt I have caused others.

I was hurt, and mostly, I seemed like I was o.k.  We interacted, it would have appeared that we moved on.

It is only in the quietest times that I suspected that I wasn’t over it.  I hadn’t forgiven.  In fact, I was looking and waiting for payback.  I wanted to see this person hurt, just as they had hurt me.  In some way, if Iwas looking for revenge done with my own two hands, it would have been more honest.  I was really looking for an unfortunate turn of events to occur for them.  I was looking for God to be the enforcer of my own agenda.  I wanted something proportionally bad to befall the person who had hurt me.

Suddenly I got it tonight.   I got the whole thing, I think, about however we judge others, thats how we ourselves will be judged.

It’s not that God is running around and saying, “Ha!  This will be a poetic turn of events.  You judged them, now I get to judge you.”

If I go even deeper than the place I am still hurting, if I go deeper than the place that is looking for this person to be hurt in response, I realize that this is fundamentally about me.

It’s not only about me in the sense that I can only control what I do, how I react.  It’s about me because all the anger, deep down, isn’t at somebody else.

My desire to see this other person hurt… In some profound way, it’s an act of massochism.  It’s not about the other persons greed and hurtfulness at all.  Not at the deepest level.

The reason I react to the hurt in a vindictive way is about the greed and hurtfullness that live in me.  In some profound way, when I want the other person to be punished… really, I am wanting my own self to be punished.

Because I fear that I deserve it.  Because I struggle to accept God’s pardon for my sins.  Because it would be easier, sometimes, to keep paying the price than it would be to stop doing the hurtful things.

However I judge somebody else– at it’s most basic level, that is how I am judging myself.  That is what I am saying to the shadow parts of me, the aspects of who I am that I would much rather hide away. 

In the very act of saying “They deserve to have _____ done to them for their crimes” I am also saying at the same time “I deserve ______ … I will accept nothing other than ______ happening to me.”

We choose the payment method for mistakes.  It looks like we are going after for this form of payment, whatever it is.  But really, we are going after our own selves for it.

God is up to all kinds of things in this to.  There’s lots of interesting things to be explored about just how he feels and acts when we are unloving…  But we make a decision for Him, when we go looking for vengence.  The deed is already done once we delude ourself into thinking it’s the other person who we want to pay.

Man, it’s hard to let go of hurts.

The Tortured Metaphor of the Refridgerator Light

Things have been tough in my life for a month or so.  There are people who I know very well who have gotten midnight phone calls from me.   There are dear friends who have patiently endured what must seem like endless whining.  Family (both biological and “adopted”) that have put aside what they would rather be doing to assist us in countless ways.

There have been times — lots of them– that I have been miserable.  And to be truthful, I think if I had the choice, I would trade the last month of my life for an equal time strapped to a dentist’s chair, while all my teeth were drilled away and somebody forgot the novocainne.

English: Dental Office
English: Dental Office (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But…

This is only half the story.  And it’s the much more obvious half.  It’s a bit like the refridgerator.  The inner contents of the refridgerator spend most of their time in the dark.  But whenever we see them, they are bathed in light.  This is because the only way to see them is opening the door, and opening the door turns the light on.

It’s just a tiny fraction of time that the inner contents are bathed in light.  But it’s quite an important fraction, because it’s when we’re looking food that we see it this way.  We don’t actually care what it’s inside our refridgerator when we’re not looking for food.

There have been times that my own inner self has been just lit up.  This is where my poor, tortured metaphor falls apart.  Because the times I’m lit up is the opposite of the refridgerator.  It’s the times when nobody’s looking.

 

Opening Fridge
Opening Fridge (Photo credit: aplumb)

 

I have the greatest need to reach out when I’m in the most pain.  When people pitch in and help out with stuff, there is this natural focus on what they are doing, which is fufilling a need; the natural focus is on what we need, what we are lacking.

I want to affirm something, right now.  I want to proclaim this not just for myself, but for so many of us who walk through dark times.  There are some amazing people who have been with my family through this time.  But I want to cast a wider net than this.  Because, reader, if we’ve never met, if you’re somebody who hasn’t helped my specific little family, I bet you’ve helped some body.  Maybe you knew it.  Maybe it was just that you smiled to somebody who needed a smile or offered grace to an aquintance you hardly knew; maybe you’ll never know what that person was going through, but maybe your actions made all the difference anyway.

I don’t know about you, reader, but I know about me.  And if I were to be honest, I’d have to admit that sometimes, when others have gone through these tough times, I struggle with getting involved, and loving on them the way so many people have loved on me.  I’m learning that it’s only part laziness.  It’s actually some sort of stupid, maybe even Satanic, fear.  There is this voice in the back of my brain.  It tells me that tragedy is contagious.  It tells me that I can catch some one’s pain.

Jesus tells us that when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the improsoned, we are clothing him, feeding him, visiting him.  I think this is what he is saying, that he is present in those circumstances.  And when we run from those circumstances, we are running from him.  I suspect if I had the audacity to tell him, “I don’t want to help that person because it will hurt.”  He wouldn’t deny that it’ll hurt.  I think he’d tell me to suck it up and accept the hurt.

And to the people who have supported me, and to the people who have been there for others  what I want to say is that people don’t call at 2 AM to announce that they are doing well.  But I hope you all know that there have been many 2 AM’s that I have been.  What I want to say is that when acts of kindness have simplified my life for me, the actual act is only a part of it.  It is the fact that you were willing to do it, the fact that you reminded me that you were there.  This lasts even when the dinner has been eaten, even after the dishes have been washed.

Moreover, please know that I see God in all this sometimes.  Sometimes I can feel something like thankfulness for this season in my life.  Because when I’m at my best, in the middle of all this suckiness, I see my faith deepened.

God manifests himself in this profound way through your actions.  He’s right there with me.  It’s partially that I’m reminded of how he provides.  But it’s more than that.  It’s more than a reminder.  It’s metaphysical.  It’s  that you incarnate him through your actions.

Scripture takes on this whole new dismention.  I read near the end of the book of John about how things in this life can be so sad, but in the next life we will rejoice.  And I grasp onto this with such a desperation, such an intensity, it brings color to all the pasages of the bible.

Prayer, too, becomes this thing infused with passion, desperation, and intensity.  I realize that in better times, my prayers are like a half-hearted conversation I have with my wife during a mediocre television show.  My prayers in the darker times, these are like an intense, heart-to-heart where we clear the air, or come to some new understanding.

 

There are people who say, “Do not pity me.” out of a sense of pride.  I have to admit I don’t mind being pitied.  But in this case, I say the same thing.  “Don’t pity me.”

But I’m not saying this out of pride.  I’m saying it because when I’m at my best, I realize that I’m right where I should be.  God is working through these circumstances just as he did through Joseph’s, just as he did through Job’s.

But… just for the record, though I’m not looking for your pity, it doesn’t mean I don’t want your sympathy, or your empathy, or your support.  You have offered these in abundance.  And I’m so thankful for that.

Job’s Choice

A closeup of a hug.
A closeup of a hug. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This season in my life sucks.  I want to get that off my chest first thing.  I don’t want it to seem like my motivation in writing this is to be all “ohh, look at him, look at him.  He’s all holy stuff.”   Nor do I want there to be an implicit  finger wagging itself in judgement beneath all this.

I want to be upfront and say I would trade most anything… I would trade too much to get through this time in a quicker or easier fashion.  (And here is why the theological debate of original sin is irrelevant to me: I make Adam’s mistake every day.  It doesn’t matter to me if I would have inherited the penalty of his sin.  I earn it by myself every day.)

But thank God, I am not faced with the choice Adam or Job were faced with.  It’s not an option for me to take a cheater’s short cut through this.  It’s said that we’re never given more than we can bare.  We’re promised that God tests us, but never tempts us.  Given that choice would be too much for me, I think, and God knows it.

And if I took the cheater’s short cut, if I robbed myself of this dark season, I would miss out on so much.

That’s why I feel called to write this today.  I want to proclaim to myself and anybody who happens to be plodding through this: there is so much going on in my spirit right now.  There is so much happening to me in this dark time.  So much growth, that I think I’m just too shallow, thick-headed, and wimpy to achieve in any other way.

When I finally opened up the bible, the words jumped out at me with so much importance.  It was kind of like going from a two-d movie into a 3-d movie.  If the third d wasn’t breadth but breath; if the third d wasn’t about the georgraphy of space time, but somehow created a direct line to somewhere deep inside.

One of the things I read was how the John was sitting up, next to Jesus.  He leaned into Jesus when he asked the teacher who would betray them.  He leaned into him.

Who knows if that’s more of a metaphor statement than a literal description.  John leaned into Jesus.  Metaphorically leaning into Jesus is the best I’ll be able to do in this life.

I know all the cliches and I hear them all the time, about how close we’re supposed to be to Jesus.  Frankly, some of them make me uncomfortable.

A biblical description becomes almost a biblical invitation to do it myself, though.  It’s different than if it occurs in some cheesy worship song.
The bible itself tells me that Sitting right up next to Jesus wasn’t enough.  Sometimes, we need to lean into him.

Maybe I’ll blog some more about the work that this time is doing in me, and on me.  About 2 of the last 4 posts I’ve already published really are about this.  But there’s more to be said, a lot more to be said.

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.

Which Way do we go, George?

Cary Grant as Roger O. Thornhill in "Nort...
Image via Wikipedia

I’m aware of this hypocrisy within myself.  I am intolerant of wedding politics with following Christ, when the politics are at odds with mine.  I think I’m quite a bit more tolerant about it when the politics being married to Christianity are political beliefs I already agree with.   To put things a bit more specifically: If somebody says that you have to be a Republican in order to follow Christ, I am the first person to cry “foul.”   However, I’m much more likely to be quiet if the implication is that you ought to be a Democrat to follow Christ.

Much of this is worth repenting over and working on.  And I am working on it.   But I think we need to be careful.   You know those bumper stickers, the ones that say “Jesus is not a Republican” and “Jesus is not a Democrat.”  I believe that they are right.  But this doesn’t mean, that Jesus is (in the broadest sense) apolitcal.

I believe that Jesus has strong opinions on many political issues.  The sense in which he is apolitical is in that his opinions do not fall along party lines.  I suspect that his opinions are that both parties are asking the wrong questions in the first place, in many cases.   Given that we are called to unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and also that we are called to speak the truth in love, we are presented with a tension to navigate here.

I guess I’m trying to navigate this tension by writing this post.  And by proclaiming a truth.  The truth is that Jesus’ kingdom is something we must progress into.  It is not something that we should regress back to.

I heard a person speaking the other day.  She used the refrain “We have to get back!”  And I found myself wondering, “Get back to what?  Get back to when?”

If she meant getting back to the intimacy with God that we lost in the Garden of Eden, I agree with her.

If she meant getting back to the 1950’s, then I have to say I don’t want to get on board that train.

It boggles my mind, the way people look back to that era as some sort-of golden age.  There were good things about it.  But there were also terrible things: racism, fear of the unknown, materialism, soul-crushing conformity, sexism, ageism…

I tried to suspend judgement.  Eventually though, she very briefly hit on a hot-button political issue.   A recent legal change.  She mentioned it very briefly.  I wonder if she meant to mention it all.  But it made things pretty clear to me, just what she wanted to get back to.

I don’t want to unleash a rabbit trail discussion about the specific topic she mentioned.  Maybe she’s right about it.  Maybe she’s not.  In a world full of evil, it’s a pretty small potatoes thing to mention, especially if you’re only going to mention one thing.

This is not a rant against this person.  She is doing amazing work for Jesus.  There was real value in some of the other things she said.  This is a meditation on a really important divide in Christianity.

Interestingly, I recently also heard the passage in the bible where Jesus asked Simon Peter what people were saying about him.  Simon says that the people are comparing him to what went on before.  When Jesus asked Simon what he (Simon) thought of him, Simon proclaimed that Jesus was something unique in human history.

The relevance here is this: We have this temptation to want to retreat safely into our individual and collective past.  We have a tendency to define our new experiences in terms of the old ones.  But we can’t put this new wine into old wine skins.

We’re called to march into a new kingdom, a place we’ve never been before.  Revelations does not describe the tranquil garden of Eden.  We’re not going to edit out the whole of human history.  Instead, we’re going to use and redeem what we have done, and where we have been to bring us to a place that is new and different from what has gone on before.

And if people are trying to bring us back to where we were, then they are not leading us into Jesus’ kingdom.