I’m Not Sure I Believe in God, and I’m Not Sure You Do Either, Part II

So then, just how can I call myself a “Christian” still (and do I, even), especially given that the title of this series of posts suggests that I may not even believe in God anymore? First, let me say that previously on this blog I’ve made a case for faith that is not rooted in giving intellectual assent to a series of propositions about God, which I call “checklist Christianity” but you may simply call orthodoxy. You can read all of that here. I’ve also previously worked out that I’m not terribly troubled by all the inaccuracies, etc. in the Bible because I’m less concerned with “Did it happen?” than I am with “Is it (in some way) true?” and “What is it (the Bible) for?” I’ve “answered” the middle question by suggesting that yes, of course the Bible (and hence, the Christian story) is true. It’s true in the same way that all great stories are “true” (whether they document a factual occurrence or not) and it is incidentally by virtue of the Bible’s role as story that I’ve found an “answer” to question number three above. In other words, the Bible doesn’t answer all of the questions posed to it by modern science very well because it’s not meant to. It’s not a science textbook; it’s a story, and I for one am okay with that.

As always, Frederick Buechner says all of this much better than I ever could. Here is Buechner on believing in Jesus:

Believing in him is not the same as believing things about him such as that he was born of a virgin and raised Lazarus from the dead. Instead, it is a matter of giving our hearts to him, of come hell or high water putting our money on him, the way a child believes in a mother or a father, the way a mother or a father believes in a child.

Here he is again on being “sure” of one’s faith:

Humanly speaking, in fact, who can say for sure about anything? And yet there are some things I would be willing maybe even to bet my life on. That life is grace, for instance- the givenness of it, the fathomless of it, the endless possibilities of its becoming transparent to something extraordinary beyond itself…That if we really had our eyes open, we would see that all moments are key moments. That he does not love remains in death. That Jesus is the Word made flesh who dwells among us, full of grace and truth. On good days I might add a few more to the list. On bad days it’s possible there might be a few less. Beyond that, all I can do with real assurance is once more to echo my old teacher Paul Tillich to the effect that here and there even in our world, and now and then even in ourselves, we catch glimpses of a New Creation, which, fleeting as those glimpses are apt to be, give us hope both for this life and for whatever life may await us later on.

Likewise, Buechner says in regard to the choice to follow Jesus:

If you tell me Christian commitment is a kind of thing that has happened to you once and for all like some kind of spiritual plastic surgery, I say go to, go to, you’re either pulling the wool over your own eyes or trying to pull it over mine. Every morning you should wake up in your bed and ask yourself: “Can I believe it all again today?” No, better still, don’t ask it till after you’ve read The New York Times, till after you’ve studied that daily record of the world’s brokenness and corruption, which should always stand side by side with your Bible. Then ask yourself if you can believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ again for that particular day. If your answer’s always Yes, then you probably don’t know what believing means. At least five times out of ten the answer should be No because the No is as important as the Yes, maybe more so. The No is what proves you’re human in case you should ever doubt it. And then if some morning the answer happens to be really Yes, it should be a Yes that’s choked with confession and tears and…great laughter.

Buechner’s next statement will be controversial to some of my atheist and “believing” friends alike:

Many an atheist is a believer without knowing it just as many a believer is an atheist without knowing it. You can sincerely believe there is no God and live as though there is. You can sincerely believe there is a God and live as though there isn’t.

I do think one can find support for this last point in Scripture, though. I John 4:7-8 says, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” A surface reading of this would seem to suggest that because God IS love, you can’t love without somehow knowing Him, whether you realize it or not. Likewise, if you don’t love, this passage seems to suggest, it doesn’t matter who or what you know or think you know, you obviously don’t know God. I think all of this begs the question, then, does it really matter? Does it matter whether or not one professes faith in God as one loves, or, whether one rejects God as so much superstitious mumbo-jumbo but chooses to love all the same? This is a compelling question that frankly I’m still working out, but I take some comfort in the words of Buechner above and Scripture alike.

One more Buechner quote takes us to the heart of my “crisis of faith,” if that’s what this is: He says, “It is not the objective proof of God’s existence that we want but the experience of God’s presence. That is the miracle we are really after, and that is also, I think, the miracle that we really get.” This is important because what I’ve asserted previously is that in a world where the Bible seems to contain factual inaccuracies in the light of modern science, in my view it still holds validity because my answer to the question of what the Bible is for involves contending that it is not for answering questions posed by modern science, as  I stated above. Rather, it is for conveying the story of God’s wooing of humanity through the ages so as to provoke in us a response even today, a response that leads us to encounter the Jesus that the Bible points to. So the Bible is a story ultimately that points to Jesus. It’s not primarily a set of rules or a “book of heroes” or a template for morality or anything else. The point, then, is to meet Jesus, to encounter him in some way that matters.

In my past, I believe this has occurred to me, and I know that in this “experience of God” I am one of the lucky ones, for I have friends (more than one) who once struggled to follow Jesus and eventually chose not to precisely because of the lack of such an experience.  Buechner suggests above that the miracle we are (all) really after is the experience of God’s presence, and he hopefully suggests that we get it, that this miracle is finally somehow available to us. I can’t help but wonder, though. I’ve just asserted that I did experience it, or I thought I did once. Now, however, I know him only by his absence, and this has been the source of much struggle for me. I struggle because I’ve claimed that experience of “meeting Jesus” in some way as the basis for my faith, since I cannot “stand on” an inerrant “word of God” any longer (because it isn’t, after all, inerrant).

I’ve said that I don’t believe in Jesus as much as I simply believe Jesus. It’s again about a relationship with a living deity that I somehow encounter in daily life. This is the “concrete God talk” that others have taken me to task in the past for. But what does this mean? How can I say I’ve experienced God? Have I seen him visibly or been physically touched by him? Have I heard his voice? No, of course not. My experience(s) of God occurred during worship and can only be described as a sense of ecstasy, a feeling of exaltation as I focused all of my energy and attention on that which is greater than I. Did I somehow connect with God during these worship times? I think so. Can I say for sure? Again, no, of course not. So far, then, I’m suggested that my faith, which no longer rests on an inerrant Bible, rests instead on my relationship with a living God that to this point I’ve described only as a fleeting sense of ecstasy during worship that I experienced mostly when I was a kid. I would like to think and will suggest that there’s just a little more to it, though. One can read in Scripture that we have opportunity to meet Jesus in the “least of these” as we work to love and serve them, and I would like to think this has happened to me too. I’ve given strangers a ride in my car before. I’ve “picked up” a homeless guy and taken him out to dinner once; I’ve even worked professionally to empower and equip poor, struggling families to stay together and keep their kids. In all this, I hope I stand in the great tradition of many saints- professing Christians and avowed humanists alike- who have dedicated their lives to serving others and bettering the world and have by doing so encountered something “bigger” than themselves.

So I don’t know how much of a “Christian” I am, but I know I’m not an atheist. Call it stubbornness if you like, or some psychological, opiate-needing weakness, but it’s simply where I’m at. I can give you some reasons, but I think they’re almost beside the point. The fact is, that like Douglas Coupland in his seminal work, Life After God, “I need God… I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.” I need God to be there. I need the Jesus story to be true, and I desperately hope that it is, and according to Bart Campolo, this surety of what I hope for (not what I know) is the very definition of faith. Besides, at this point in my journey I’m too pissed at God for him not to exist. I need him to be there, if only to work out all my “stuff” with him.

Look, I know the story of Jesus is problematic in and of itself. It raises all kinds of hard questions not even taking into account the miraculous nature of it all, questions like, “Is the Jesus story a case of cosmic child abuse?” Another very troublesome question has to do with making Jesus the focal point of human history, the “lens” through which the rest of the Bible is read. Does this somehow excuse God’s annihilation of round 1 of humanity before the flood, or his frequently mandated genocides early in Israel’s history, which is to say nothing of what he’s put his “chosen people” through throughout the centuries? Likewise, the story not only of Christ but of Christianity is even more troublesome still, and I’ve built a case for that in this series of posts (and others). So Christians have done lots of awful things, and the Jesus story- while full of wonder and wonderful subversion of the domination system it’s historically rooted in- is also terribly problematic in a variety of ways.

Nonetheless, some pretty wonderful things have also been done in Jesus’ name, with a few notable examples being MLK, Jr.’s execution of the civil rights movement and his shifting focus toward peacemaking in Vietnam (which likely finally got him killed), or Dorothy Day‘s wonderful work for the poor and her co-founding of the Catholic Worker movement, or Mother Teresa’s work in India, just to name a few. I know there are some who would say that, on balance, religion/Christianity has done more harm than good, and I respect that argument, though I think it’s irrelevant. I would contend, conversely, that evil lurks in the human heart just as the capacity for loving self-sacrifice does, whether one espouses faith or not. Hitler used religion to justify some of his actions, for sure, but that’s just it: he used it. As a madman, I’m convinced he would have done what he did (given the right confluence of events) whether “faith” was in the picture or not.

If that’s the case, then, if people will engage in exalted acts of love or evil whether they claim faith is involved in any way or not, the question above remains: does it (God/faith/Jesus) really matter? I still believe that it does. You see, I think that I am rather ordinary. Those luminaries in human history like MLK, Jr., Gandhi, Dorothy Day, and even Hitler or Stalin may love or hate in the grandest of ways on the world stage with or without any claim for faith, but what about the rest of us? I think all of us are called to love and serve the world in the most magnificent ways possible, but I at least and maybe you too lack the will to consistently choose the needs of others and/or the world over my own. So again, call me weak if you will but I know this about myself. When I make a concerted effort to respond to the call of God in my life as I read it (through the “lens” of Jesus) in Scripture and, more importantly, experience it in community with other Christ-followers, when that happens I find myself daring to reach for heights of loving service to others that I know I wouldn’t even aspire to otherwise. Like Bart Campolo, then, I’m compelled to struggle still to follow Jesus because I truly believe it is a better life- better for me, better for the world. Kirsten and I once lived as part of an intentional community, for example, and hope to again some day, however brief and ill-fated our initial experience of it was. The first time around we lived with another married couple, a college student, and another woman with the intent of sharing resources and perhaps even raising our children and growing old together. We had a common checking account into which we contributed a percentage of our income and we had hopes for doing much good together that we couldn’t have done on our own without sharing those resources. Obviously, it didn’t work out that time, and Kirsten and I are mostly to blame for that, but without the Jesus story and the sense of calling it inspired, such an arrangement never would have even occurred to us, and we certainly wouldn’t have been crazy enough to try it. Likewise, having failed at it once, I’m sure we wouldn’t want to try it again if not for a sense that following Jesus- that “believing in God” perhaps in a way that most don’t- is something so hard and yet wonderful and world-changing that it simply can’t be done alone.

This, finally, is why I’m not so sure these days that I do actually “believe in God,” because I don’t think I’m living very much like it. I think if I’m going to go to all the trouble to claim some sort of faith still despite ALL the reasons not to that I’ve already discussed, then obviously there has to be a pretty compelling reason to do so. Life with Jesus in the end has to really matter. It has to change everything. It’s damn hard to follow Jesus, or I would argue you’re probably not really doing it “right.” If I “believed in God” like I would like to I probably wouldn’t be quite so materially comfortable, I’m sure (nor would I have the debt to show for it). I’m sure I wouldn’t live in a neighborhood that offers quite so much for liberal, eco-minded white “yuppies” like Kirsten and I. I’m sure I wouldn’t make so much time for watching television or pursuing other insular activities. I could go on, but perhaps you get the point.

Similarly, I’m not sure most would-be “Christians” really “believe in God” either. If they did, I’m sure we wouldn’t have the Christian shopping “ghetto” that I described previously, and the “worship wars” would never have occurred. There probably wouldn’t be over 33,000 Protestant denominations, and all of the inane debates over healthcare reform and welfare, for example, would likely never have occurred because folks who were actually working a hell of a lot harder (no pun intended) to follow Jesus and focus on what he focused on would have made damn sure that their neighbors‘ basic needs were met and that their neighbors were empowered in the midst of a loving, life-changing community to reach their full potential to contribute to that community. Of course, this assumes that such would-be Christians actually have “neighbors” with tangible material needs, which usually isn’t the case since so many “Christians” are relatively (monetarily) wealthy and place such a high priority on protecting that wealth that they isolate themselves in middle-class ghettos of mind-numbing privilege. It’s hard to believe in God and follow Jesus, especially in the U.S., because we middle-class white folks live such very, very easy lives. We may have the occasional mouse to deal with (which is why I was up so early this morning and am just loving apartment-living again), but we don’t aspire to a secure government job paying under $300 per month as a night-time rat killer, as some do. We are so terribly spoiled and in love with our money that we think our money can solve all of our problems and are even lulled into thinking that our money can solve everybody else’s problems on those few occasions when we’re roused enough to be aware of them. We practice social work and “give money to the poor,” usually in the hope that by doing so folks will finally be able to overcome their difficulties and live middle-class (or better) “American” lives like we do, all the while failing to finally realize that our “middle-class American lives” are unsustainable and are likely a part of what’s causing much of the world to be so poor in the first place. To invoke the old “parable of the river,” we continually do the work of rescuing people who have been thrown in the river without going upstream to stop the guy who’s throwing people in in the first place.

To really follow Jesus and live world-changing lives that actually make a difference for the world’s poor, hungry, sick, and dying- not to mention for the world (the environment) itself- we absolutely must do so together. Community is vital to such a life. It really does “take a village.” The domination system at work here in the U.S. will inexorably draw you in and propel you down the path of thoughtless comfort and demoralizing/disempowering consumeristic individualism. Everything in our lives is geared toward this and it’s nearly inescapable, which again is why community is so terribly important. It’s important because we need each other in order to actually subvert the system, and likewise it’s important because love only really happens in community. After all, as previously discussed God is love and we read in Scripture that we know him if we likewise love each other; moreover, the world will know we know God when we live such lives- together- of love. So, please, let us finally begin to do so. Let us cast off our fears and differences and begin trusting God and one another more than our pensions and insurance. Let us risk discomfort and struggle and conflict for the sake of community. Let us “vote,” for sure, but let us do so with our feet and hearts and hands and wallets as we support minority businesses and make micro-loans to the world’s poor and as we rehab old buildings and turn them into thrift stores. Let us risk our pervasive individuality and move in together with great intentionality, remaking “family” along the way and creating space for those who have no place to go, or who want to spend their days serving others for little or no pay instead of punching a clock for no good reason. Let us do all these things because we do believe in God and are trying follow Jesus, or at least because we desperately hope to.

God, let it be so, for your sake and ours too.

I’m Not Sure I Believe in God, and I’m Not Sure You Do Either, Part I

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not necessarily accusing anybody of anything or trying to call anybody out. Let me just describe what I mean in regard to myself, but first, a little history. As some are aware and as I’ve written about on this blog previously, I grew up “fundagelical” as part of a large suburban Assembly of God mega-church. “Fundagelical,” by the way, is my own personal conflation of the terms “fundamentalist” and “evangelical.” Of course, the term Fundamentalist harkens back to the famed Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy, which you can read all about here. In any case, it typically refers to a rather “strict” interpretation of the Bible along what are presumed to be “literal” lines. I would contend that such a reading (even/especially of the original texts) is impossible, and I have made that case here, but now this is beside the point. Today Fundamentalists (or “Fundies”) are typically seen as conservative in many ways (especially socially, politically, and economically- except in regard to defense policy, but I digress) and now make up most of the “base” of the Republican Party. This political/social conservative activism is another interesting historical phenomenon as it has almost supplanted whatever religious or faith-related implications there are for “Christian” Fundamentalism, in my opinion.

Conversely, “Evangelical” refers explicitly to the “Good News” of and about Jesus. This term also has a long and varied etymology but today also typically is used to denote conservative “Christians” for whom the primary focus of their faith seems to be proselytizing. Some of these folks believe that once the “gospel” has been “preached to all nations” in fulfillment of the Great Commission, then Christ will return and/or the “Rapture” will occur, thus ushering in the Eschaton (but again I digress). The point here is again that for these folks Christianity is about getting people “saved.” In other words, it seems to matter little whether or not much personal or social progress happens in this life; what matters is that each person has their “fire insurance” (i.e. they don’t go to Hell).

Anyway, as an adult I have many concerns about the congregation I grew up in, but looking back at my experience there as a child I don’t necessarily regret it. I believe still that I experienced “God” there, and part of my “script” for telling my story involves describing my sense that I was able to “rely on God” as a child in the absence of reliable parents. This, along with the support and love of some key folks along the way, was vital to my survival as a child in the abusive “Christian” home of my youth, and remains an important part of what shaped me into the person I am today.

Nonetheless, my milieu was a “fundagelical” one, whether I experienced it at home, in the congregation mentioned above, in the “Christian” school my parents sent me to, or even generally in the larger conservative/nominally “Christian” civil religious culture of North Texas. As I’ve come to say, it was a shock for me to discover upon leaving home and heading to college in New England that “God isn’t a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Republican that shops at the mall, lives in the ‘burbs, drives an SUV, and spends his days saluting the flag and pursuing the American dream just like everybody else.” This “fundagelicalism” meant that I grew up believing not only “in Jesus” but also in the inerrancy of Scripture and the inviolability of certain behavior rules, like: always “go to church” on Sunday (morning and evening AND on Wednesdays too), never cuss or smoke (though my mother did both, the former when she was angry- which was often, and the latter about 10 times per day), never have most kinds of sex- but especially not gay sex, never gamble or do drugs, always vote for “pro-life” candidates, etc. Other rules I learned had to do with not celebrating Halloween, though it was okay to do exactly what all the other kids were doing on Halloween as long as you did it at “church” and gave it some kind of “Fall Harvest” type of name. Likewise, the same kind of wanton consumerism that was present in the larger culture was just fine, as you long as you spent as much money as you could in the “Christian” business ghetto: e.g. don’t buy Certs or Life Savers; buy Testamints!

Speaking of a “Christian” ghetto, this phenomenon was (and unfortunately still is) amazing in its pervasiveness and outright mimicry of whatever was popular generally. Some “Christians” apparently think that being “in” the world but not “of” it means again that you can do exactly what everybody else does as long as you re-label everything (changing the names to protect the guilty?). The worst of this in my opinion was found in “Christian” bookstores and could be heard in “CCM” (contemporary “Christian” music), where you got a sanitized, half-assed version of whatever was good in “secular” music, minus the good stuff. Of course, I don’t mean that every single “Christian” musician put out crap; I only mean that most of them seemed to, and consequently obscured the little bit that actually was decent in “Christian” music, but I digress yet again. I’m reminded here of one ofCircle of Hope’s “proverbs,” that “life in Christ is one whole cloth.” Their point, I think, as this relates to my current argument, is that if God created the world in all its wonder, complexity, and (apparently) pain, we need to embrace all of the above and live as Christians in all of it (including in our songs). That is, the sacred/secular dichotomy is a false one (with a few exceptions).

Where I’m going with all this is simply to say that I don’t much like Christianity- or Christians. In this, I’m in good company, and some of you have often seen or heard me quote Gandhi here: “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” I’ve come by this honestly, having lived as a Christian since saying the “sinner’s prayer” at a very young age. Frankly, Christians annoy me. Quoting Scripture, for example- with no apparent appreciation for the historical, cultural, linguistic, and theological implications in doing so- is disturbing to me. I’m sure, for example, that if you “spare the rod” you will “spoil the child,” but what does that have to do with spanking? How could the thoughtful Christian not be aware that this “rod” referred to a shepherd’s crook or hook and was likely a metaphor for guidance, protection, and correction (you know, all the things parents should do) rather than one for inflicting pain as a means of teaching (in)correct behavior.

Likewise, of course Jesus says that “the poor you will always have with you,” but how could anyone read this as a normative statement, especially when weighed against other passages that seem to wrap up the whole of the Christian life in one’s behavior toward the poor, sick, and incarcerated? Saying that there “will always be poor folks” isn’t saying “there should always be poor folks; so don’t bother doing anything about it.” Rather, that particular passage dealt with an extravagant act of care toward Jesus, who was soon to die. When this was act was challenged on the basis of what could have been done for the poor instead, Jesus rebukes the challenger and brings the focus back to this extravagant act and his impending death. By no means was Jesus making a policy statement. Since Jesus inaugurates his ministry by stating that he has come to proclaim “good news to the poor…freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, (and) to set the oppressed free,” (see link above) it seems likely that Christians do well when they work to end poverty at every opportunity. Unfortunately, it’s all too common for “Christians” to do just the opposite.

Historically, we Christians seem to have been far more interested in imprisoning and oppressing folks than we have been in setting them free. Usually the Crusades get trotted out at this point in similar arguments and rightly so. But that’s only a notable example. It would seem to me that once Constantine put the “chi-rho” on his flag and began conquering “in Jesus’ name,” the “good news” of the gospel was lost, almost irreparably. Since then, conversion has occurred en masse and at sword-point (follow the link and scroll down to “conversion of the rest of Europe”)- and later gun-point. The legacy of colonialism, during which the virtues of “Christianity” were forced upon native folks in the New World hand-in-hand with the finer points of civilized society is more damning evidence. Similarly, it’s well known that “Christians” long argued for rather than against slavery, and for the subjugation of women, often by twisting Scripture in similar fashion to the above (although in some cases no “twisting” was required, but more on that later). When God told Eve that Adam would “rule over her,” again He wasn’t making a policy statement; in fact, He was in the middle of announcing a curse! When parts of the Bible refer to the treatment of slaves and make no mention of working at every turn to abolish slavery, that doesn’t mean that this isn’t what God wants, as Jesus’ proclamation about setting the oppressed and prisoners free at the inauguration of his ministry again attests to.

Nevertheless, Christianity still finds itself on the wrong side of history all too often. The good news is that some Christians do seem to eventually “get it,” and today you’ll find few American “Christians” defending slavery or suggesting (publicly, anyway) that women shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Many of us still use the Bible to oppress homosexuals, though, whether or not the few passages in Scripture that may refer to it actually have anything to do with the modern practice of it or not. The point here is that the Church has no business operating under the guise of earthly empire in any of its forms, and the current U.S. empire is no exception. When Christianity “works,” when it operates as a force for the world’s betterment, it does so from the margins and it does so by advocating for the marginalized, for the “least of these,” whoever they might be.

Yet all too many would-be Christ-followers seem to utterly fail to understand this, and this is another thing that so terribly annoys and troubles me about so many “Christians” here in the U.S. Too many of us seem to conflate following Jesus with being an “American.” I’ll be the first to admit that I take my duties as a U.S. citizen seriously and am an active and engaged political actor, and anyone who follows this blog or is a Facebook friend or knows me in “real life” knows that to be the case. In fact, I just put on my “Texas Democrat” bumper sticker the other day (no, it’s not an oxymoron and as I said, I think Christianity works best when it does so “from the margins” J; by the way, so far my car has only been vandalized once since I put the sticker on). I am grateful for the happy accident of my birth. I know what privileges and freedoms I have as a white male U.S. citizen. I’m also keenly aware, though, that most of the world doesn’t live with such privilege, such luxury. In fact, many here in the U.S. don’t have it nearly so good as we white men do.

Moreover, I recognize that I am among the wealthiest people who have ever walked the face of the earth, and you probably are too (see the Global Rich List if you don’t believe me). So while the U.S. has afforded some of its citizens unprecedented luxury and political and religious freedom, it has done so in haphazard fashion and at great cost to the rest of the world. We U.S. citizens use a vastly disproportionate share of the world’s resources and create all too much of its waste. We invade other nations seemingly on a whim to protect not our citizens but our ideas and economic interests (see: Iraq). We take themoral high ground on some issues while operating as the poster child for moral depravity on others (see: the recent economic collapse and the corporate lobbying and greed which helped to precipitate it).

I do not and cannot, then, understand how any thoughtful Christian would “buy into” the notion of American “exceptionalism” as it so commonly seems to be expressed and practiced. We are not the “new Isreal” or a “city on a hill.” We are a nation like any other- a historic one, no doubt, but still just a nation. We’ve done some good things, and also a very many bad ones (see: the annihilation of the native peoples of this continent and our continued double-dealing and oppression of their few descendants even to this day). So all this “God and country” crap is, well, crap, as far as I can tell. As we read in Scripture, “you cannot serve two masters.” Either we love God and operate as citizens of his kingdom even now, or we love the U.S. and find our primary identity there. You can’t do both equally with any fidelity to either. Some hope to keep their feet in both camps and operate as citizens of “two kingdoms,” and they do so with Biblical and theological/historical precedent, but I find this practically unworkable, at best, and idolatrous and heretical at worst. This doesn’t mean you’ll find me renouncing my U.S. citizenship anytime soon, but I retain it with some gravity while struggling always to remember who and what I’m really serving (Jesus and his kingdom), and toward what end (so as to love, serve, and liberate the poor, oppressed, marginalized, etc.).

Having said all of this, I’m not sure that most of the hermeneutical argument above really matters. After all, I don’t need the Bible to know that loving poor folks, gays, and other marginalized groups is the right thing to do, and if the Bible seemed to indicate otherwise I would be forced to reject such teaching- and then perhaps the Bible- altogether. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when He said that God’s word would be written “on our hearts.” I can only hope so. Of course, once I express my willingness to reject some or all of Scripture, though, I enter dangerous and unprecedented territory, I know. What, then, can be said to be the foundation of my faith if not an inerrant and therefore unimpeachable Scripture? Herein lies the crux of my problem. If the Bible seems to get some things wrong (go here for one thoughtful list of just a few apparent inaccuracies/contradictions) and can’t even be trusted for moral guidance on other things (see above regarding slavery, the oppression of women, etc.), what good is it, and how can I call myself a Christian? Moreover, how does all this relate to my belief (or lack thereof) in God, and how dare I accuse anyone else of such unbelief?

To Be Continued…

I Guess I Can’t Avoid This Forever, Part III

So once I found a teaching position and began to get settled into it, I began talking with my family of origin and exploring resources for trying to get them all into better housing. As I described in the last post in this series, the situation they were in was not only inappropriate on a variety of levels, it was in my opinion unsafe and would certainly have made for an undignified setting for my father’s death. One option we began to explore involved a 3-bedroom house in North Richland Hills. There’s a woman who has for many years been a friend of the family. She runs a charity organization and has often used the resources of that organization to try to help the twins with school clothes and supplies or with summer camp, for example. She’s also employed my brother with painting jobs and my Dad and now one of my sisters with help putting together mail-outs  for her organization, etc. This, of course, is good and wonderfully helpful.

However, experience over the years made it clear that this benefactor’s help almost always came with some type of “string” attached- some expectation that the family would assist her with some project, etc. at a later point. She also is notoriously inconsistent. She’ll give instructions for a project for example and change them midway though, requiring half or more of the work to be redone, or she’ll promise the boys something and not always follow through, whether or not it was “intentional.” In any case, some time before my return to TX she began talking to them about renting this house from her. It had been on the market for a number of months and apparently wasn’t selling, and she wanted to rent it to them for $750/month with a $100 security deposit. They couldn’t afford it, but it was an intriguing possibility, and after I was there and finally employed I began encouraging them to think about taking the house- especially after I saw it.

It only has 3 bedrooms, and they really need at least 4 (though 5 would be even better), but the garage had been converted into a family room, meaning that this could also be used as a bedroom, albeit awkwardly. To make a long story short, then, they agreed with me that it was worth pursuing; so we did. As it turned out, I was the one to sign the lease for them (on their behalf), and with some temporary help from a benefactor of our own (since I wouldn’t see a paycheck until the end of September) we supplied the funds for my family of origin to pay the security deposit and make plans to move in. Of course, the security deposit more than doubled (there’s that inconsistency) by the time I actually paid it, but it still seemed worth it. My Dad and I agreed that he would pay $350 of their rent (what he was already paying for lot rent on the trailer), while Kirsten and I would supply the remaining $400 per month.

It took some doing, but they all finally moved in, to my great relief, and things seemed good. Predictably, perhaps, that “good” feeling lasted about a week or two, as that was all the time it took for the woman who was renting it to them to begin pressuring me to buy the house immediately. I had previously told her that Kirsten and I had every intention to try to buy it from her for them in a year, but not before then. Our credit and finances had taken a major hit from the sudden move and my going without a paycheck for so long, not to mention now being financially responsible for three dwellings- our house in Ohio that we still pay the mortgage for every month and had rented out ourselves for about half our monthly cost on it, plus our apartment here in Dallas, and now additionally more than half of the monthly cost of Dad’s rental house. This was and is a heavy burden, and though together Kirsten and I now make more money than we ever have, we also have more expenses than we ever have. Anyway, we had hoped to be able to make an offer on this house for them, but in a year, not before.

Nonetheless, suddenly the woman we rented it from was going through a contentious divorce and needed to sell the house- immediately- or at least claim she had a firm buyer. Toward that end, she pressured me on an almost daily basis to sign a purchase agreement on the house. She was willing to have the purchase agreement somehow last a year- so we could buy it when we said we had hoped to- but she wanted the agreement signed immediately with no independent appraisal, no home inspection and no mention of any negotiation about price. She was essentially dictating the price and terms of the sale and even said she couldn’t afford to lose money on it given the divorce, etc. I did my best to hold firm and set some boundaries- as respectfully as possible- but it didn’t go over all that well and soon she was threatening to sell the house out from under them and require them to move just months after they got in there- and now with no place for them to go (or go back to), as the trailer park assumed ownership of the trailer, which is another long story.

This was a source of tremendous stress and pressure for me until I was finally able to get in touch with her soon-to-be ex-husband (she had refused to supply any contact information for him despite repeated requests for it), who reassured me that they would both honor the lease for at least the year, or that if circumstances dictated that they do sell the house prior to that, he would let me know as soon as possible and provide an opportunity to buy it still at that time. There’s more that could be said here, including describing some pretty suspect behavior on the part of the landlord, but as it is now at least temporarily resolved, I’ll move on.

Meanwhile, things were not going so well on the job front. I won’t go into great detail here (and certainly won’t name the employer) for obvious reasons, but soon after starting work I found myself mired in what proved to be an untenable situation. I was part of a brand new grade level teaching staff at the school, with the previous year’s staff having either quit or been dismissed (and I suspect the latter). Not only were I and my team members new to the school, we were all brand new teachers as well. Of course, the reason why a brand new teaching team was needed had a lot to do with behavior issues in those grade levels that we were to teach, but even more to do with their scores on the state test, which apparently were just low enough that they kept the school overall from being in the highest reporting category according to the state (in compliance with No Child Left Behind). I came to learn later that there were a lot of issues the previous year, which is perhaps obvious due to the staff turnover (fully a third of the previous year’s students were gone too for those grade levels). In any case, and again without sharing too many details, a mere three weeks into my teaching career I was yanked from my classroom in the middle of a lesson and told that I was no longer a classroom teacher. Apparently, I had “failed” to “handle my class” appropriately (in regard to discipline), and so was removed from my regular teaching duties and eventually reassigned to tutor students on a pull-out basis at another campus.

I was, of course, devastated. I know behavior change takes time, but I wasn’t afforded the time to teach new behaviors in this case. Ironically, the person they replaced me with, after having been given more than twice as long as I was, was likewise recently yanked out of that classroom, no doubt for similar reasons. Don’t get me wrong- I’m not glad for this, but I do take some small comfort in the knowledge that perhaps it wasn’t my “failure” after all- especially as a brand new teacher. Nonetheless, the manner in which all this went down for me- and the incredible systemic and administrative issues that contributed to my situation- was very, very hard to take. To be sure, in fact, I am still struggling with the implications of it all today. Thankfully, I’m still employed as a “teacher,” which is a good thing considering all the people that are relying on my income (along with Kirsten’s) just to keep a roof over their head. Nonetheless, I have no idea if this year will “count” for my permanent teacher certification, and I can’t help but wonder if despite the poor handling and lack of support and all the other problems- in spite of all of that- what if they’re right? What if I’m not meant to teach, after all?

Just for kicks, then, while my family of origin in their new rental house was under threat of being evicted just after having moved in, as my father was all the while still slowly dying of cancer, and just after undergoing all the above noted stress and uncertainty in my new job, I suddenly developed a rather large kidney stone and had to deal with trying to pass it. I did, thank God, and have a picture if you’d like to see it, but I’m guessing you won’t take me up on that. I got good medical attention and am very glad for that, but I still missed a week of work with it before it finally passed, which only exacerbated my sense of job and overall insecurity. Finally, as all of the above was taking place my brother went in for kidney transplant surgery and stayed with us for a short while afterward. This was a great blessing, as we had previously agreed that I would give him one of my kidneys next summer. It turned out that he didn’t need it as a perfect match became available a week after he went on the transplant list, which was something of a miracle. As I said, this was a very, very good thing, but naturally caused some stress too.

In any case, as I’ve articulated often of late, despite everything I’ve been through in my life- including the death of my mom and Kirsten’s dad within a day of each other- this combination of simultaneous stressors is probably the worst I’ve ever faced, and the growing depression I feel mired in at the moment is due in no small part to all this. The other huge contributor to this depression, though, has everything to do with my faith (or lack thereof, depending on your point of view). I’ve been writing some about this already, and will continue to do so. Stay tuned.

I’m Fine; Really, I Am

I still need to finish that “I Guess I Can’t Avoid This Forever” series, and I will, but not tonight. I should be in bed already, getting ready for another early start tomorrow, but I’m not. Those who know me or who have read this blog for any length of time are well aware that I’m unafraid to “put myself out there” in the belief that my vulnerability- practiced or not- is empowering for others and sometimes cathartic for me. So here’s a decidedly unpracticed bit of vulnerability: I saw a new “shrink” last week, and what had heretofore been a case of “mild depression” for the past fifteen years is mild no longer. The counselor had me do a depression inventory and audibly gasped when he scored it. Apparently I scored on the lowest end of the lowest part of the scale. He wanted to medicate me (and my wife agrees), but I’m pretty resistant to the idea, with the side affects of depression meds having a lot to do with that.

What I know for sure is that I can’t “medicate” the pain with food (I’m about 10 pounds over what I consider my ideal weight, and MUST reverse that trend again), or (lack of) sleep, or anything else for that matter. I can mitigate some of it, though, with running, writing, and lots of time spent in community. I think I’m good with the writing so far, as the recent flurry of blog activity attests to, and I have great determination to get running again. The community is a bit harder to come by, though I’ve been trying to build it as I can over the past few weeks. Of course, what’s really needed is to deal with the core issues. I don’t know that therapy will solve them necessarily, but if I can learn to cope a little better, no matter how overwhelming it all is, I know I’ll be a lot better off. May it be so.

“O Lord, Bless This Thy Holy Hand Grenade…”

“…that, with it, thou mayest blow thine enemies to tiny bits, in thy mercy.” This prayer from the Book of Armaments that was to mark the occasion of the use of the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch came to mind recently, and below you’ll see why.

So the “Bible-believing” pastor of this “church” forwarded the following email, which was then forwarded to me:

Subject: Why?

A mother asked this President… ‘Why did my son have to die in
Iraq ?’ A mother asked this President.. ‘Why did my son have to die in Saudi Arabia ?’ A mother asked this President… ‘Why did my son have to die in Kuwait ?’ Another mother asked this President… ‘Why did my son have to die in Vietnam ?’ Another mother asked this President… ‘Why did my son have to die in Korea ?’ Another mother asked this President… ‘Why did my son have to die on Iwo Jima ?’ Another mother asked this President… ‘Why did my son have to die on a battlefield in France ?’ Yet another mother asked this President… ‘Why did my son have to die at Gettysburg ?’ And yet another mother asked this President… ‘Why did my son have to die on a frozen field near Valley Forge ?’

Then long, long ago, a mother asked..

‘Heavenly Father .. why did my Son have to die on a cross outside of Jerusalem ?’

The answer is always the same… ‘So that others may live and
dwell in peace, happiness, and freedom’

This was emailed to me with no author. I thought the magnitude
and the simplicity were awesome.

If you are not willing to stand BEHIND our troops,

Please, please feel free to stand in front of them….

ONE FLAG, ONE LANGUAGE, ONE NATION UNDER GOD

This was my response to the person that forwarded it to me:

Please don’t include me in these emails anymore, unless you come across an intelligent, accurate one that you’re inclined to share. In this case, equating Jesus’ death on the cross with the death of U.S. soldiers in any war (even the “good” ones) does a disservice to the U.S. military and is frankly blasphemous/idolatrous in regard to Jesus. If you need me to explain this, please ask. In the meantime, please don’t send me this crap.

I received a couple of responses myself, including one that accused me of “never serving or honoring anything greater than myself.” Be that as it may, my challenge stands: what does the xenophobic patriotic civil religious bullsh** above have to do with the love of Christ? How could that love ever be equated with the business end of a rifle? How could anyone think that dying on the field of battle, however “just” the war, is somehow equivalent to Christ’s death for the world (humanity included)?

There’s much to be said here, and perhaps I could/should say it, but as I said in the Facebook post related to all this, I’m just so sick of it all. I don’t think I have it in me right now to fight this “good fight” yet again.

(And with that, I’m falling asleep at the computer, which perhaps is good since I don’t sleep much any more. Here goes…)

Filling the “God-shaped hole” With Dogged, Foolish, Angry Obedience

Okay, so let’s just get down to it, shall we? I’ve decided to interrupt my series of posts recounting the story of how we got from OH to TX so hurriedly this past year and all the craziness that has happened since our arrival. As I said in those posts, my past- my “baggage”- feels awfully heavy and wearisome even to me right now. My life was so “rich” with heartache and drama before any of that happened, and it seems that in the past year the pace of all the stress and drama-producing events has somehow only accelerated. I want to finish telling the story of the past year, but I lack the words to do so right now. To articulate that pain is, I suppose, beyond me just yet.

I mentioned on Facebook recently that David Bazan’s lyrics from the song Bad Things to Such Good People have really been resonating with me. There’s good reason for that. Here they are:

My jail shoes on, the well kept cemetery lawn.
Both of them weeping, their one good son now was gone.
The irony to see my dad down on his knees,
crying out to Jesus, ‘But Lord, I’ve always done what’s right.’

And all the while, the good Lord smiled,
and looked the other way, and looked the other way.

When we were kids, I did my best to make them proud.
It just wasn’t in me, I could not fly straight to save my life.

And all the while, the good Lord smiled,
and looked the other way, and looked the other way.

Their big success is now their biggest failure,
their golden child has been dethroned,
their reputation is now in ruins,
their tower to Heaven has come tumbling down.

And all the while, the good Lord smiles,
and looks the other way, and looks the other way.

This notion of God’s absence has ironically been very “present” to me as of late, and probably has been for some time. I’m comforted to know that my taking notice of God only by way of his absence lands me in good company. Mother Teresa is now notably known (though only posthumously) to have conducted most of her incredible life and ministry of love, service, humility, and sacrifice under the shadow not of God’s presence in the poorest of the poor- as she famously attested to- but rather under the shadow of his absence. When accepting her Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she said: ” I believe that we are not really social workers. We may be doing social work in the eyes of people. But we are really contemplatives in the heart of the world. For we are touching the body of Christ twenty-four hours. We have twenty-four hours in His presence.” However, in November of the same year -1979- she wrote in a personal letter: “Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.” Is it possible that these two statements came from the same person, especially when that person is Mother Teresa? What does it mean that even she endured such a remarkable crisis of faith, and for apparently such a very long period of time?

In a similar vein, John of the Cross is also notable for having coined the phrase “dark night of the soul” in his poem by the same name. This experience of the soul’s desolation is one that I’ve come to know well, and hope to describe shortly. Other literary allusions to this come to mind. I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, in which he writes: “Be not deceived, Wormwood, our cause is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.” If you’ve read The Screwtape Letters, you may recall that Wormwood was the young nephew demon of Screwtape, and the “Enemy” of course is God. Lewis’ point, then, may be that Satan isn’t so concerned with the follower of God who does God’s will when all is well as he is with the follower of God who intends to do God’s will even though he doesn’t want to and who in fact does so (that is, does God’s will)  in a world in which there appears to be no trace of God at all.  This is the world I find myself in today.

“I still believe in the resurrection.” A mentor and friend once said this to me as we were driving back from our weekly breakfast meeting. He went on to say basically (as I remember it) that he could take or leave the rest of it- some of the other miraculous events in the Bible, even- and with them much of the drama over whether or not the Bible is factually true (those are my words, not his). His point was that in the face of many good reasons not to believe anymore- to give up on Christianity and moreover, Jesus, he just…couldn’t…quite…do it. Somehow he still found the resurrection- and the way of life it inspired- compelling. He said as much: “Maybe Christianity is just a worldview, but it’s the best one I’ve found.”

Those words of his have stuck with me (along with many others) even many years since we were last in contact. I still cling to a belief in the resurrection as the pivotal event in human history, but I do so deliberately, in spite of many very good reasons not to. You might call it duty. I call it desperation. I’m desperate because of all of those very good reasons not to believe any more. To conflate Bart Ehrman and C.S. Lewis, “God’s problem” is indeed the problem of pain, and after all these years this pain is starting to wear me down.

I still believe (in) the resurrection. I still believe the Jesus story, but I do so foolishly, not because of the evidence but in spite of it. I believe because I have to. The alternative, for me, is utter despair. Bart Campolo puts it far better than I ever could. I first posted the following piece from Bart on my previous blog in 2006. This is what I said then:

Being careful not to misrepresent the truth, let me say that as a 1995 Kingdomworks alum, Bart Campolo is someone that I have had the privilege to know and be loved by. We had occasion for several wonderful individual talks during that summer of ’95, and I did my best to stay in touch over the years since then. I know of course that I am but one of thousands of lives that he has touched- lives who have come away better for the experience, but I am still glad to be able to count myself among the lucky ones. I’ve copied below something he wrote about the experience of touching another life in regard to what it means to be a Christ-follower these days. His approach may not be “orthodox,” but I cry when I read it because it deeply resonates with my experience, understanding, and hopes. Here’s the link, and here’s the article (Bart’s text is in red below)-
A few years ago, after being politely asked to depart early from yet another speaking engagement for giving the wrong answer to a question about the limits of God’s mercy, I decided it wasn’t fair to keep sneaking up on unsuspecting Evangelicals. Strange as it seems to me, I know all too well that to promote a God both loving enough to desire the salvation of all His children and powerful enough to accomplish it is a dangerous scandal to such folks. After all, without the fear of their unsaved loved ones’ eternal damnation, how would they motivate one another for outreach and missionary service?

And yet, almost everywhere I go, I meet people –especially young people – who are not motivated at all by such fear. On the contrary, these people are utterly horrified by the notion of a Heavenly Father who essentially says to His children, ‘I love you, but if for any reason you fail to accept that fact before your mortal body expires, I will kill and torture you for all eternity’. Especially if that same Heavenly Father holds in His hand all the reasons His children do or don’t accept Him in the first place. These are the people who ask me the questions that used to lead to my early departures, and who write me letters and emails like this one:

Dear Bart-

This might be kind of weird, but I have a question for you. I did Mission Year last year and when you came to visit my team you told a story about how when first started working in the inner-city, you got to know a girl who was gang-raped as a 9-year-old and, after her Sunday School teacher told her God must
have allowed it for a reason, rejected God forever. Because you believed God was indeed in control, and because you believed that girl’s lack of faith doomed her to eternal damnation, you decided that God was a cruel bastard. You sort of said the words inside my head out loud, words I had wanted to say
for a long time.

Anyway, after putting this off for almost a year, I want to know how you reconciled that. How did you make it from, “God is a cruel bastard” back to “I can trust Him”? I can’t seem to make that leap. Sometimes I begin to really trust Him, but as soon as I think about my past abuse and those I know and love who are bound for Hell…it just doesn’t add up. I want to know the God
you know- who apparently allows for horrible things in this world to happen, but remains pure and holy and trustworthy and faithful and loving.

I don’t know if any of this makes sense to you, but as I was wrestling with it again today I was reminded of you and hoped you might be of some help.

Sarah

Dear Sarah,

Thank you for writing to me. Over the past few years, I have become convinced that yours is actually the single most important question in the world. As Rabbi Harold Kushner observes, “Virtually every meaningful conversation I’ve had with people about God has either started with that question or gotten around to it before long” While I am sure my answer will not be as eloquent as his, I will do my best.

First of all, while I certainly believe my most cherished ideas about God are supported by the Bible (what Christian says otherwise?), I must admit they did not originate there. On the contrary, most of these ideas were formed during that difficult time I described to you, when I was suddenly disillusioned by the suffering and injustice I discovered in the inner-city, and did not trust the Bible at all. At that point, for the first time, I realized that a person’s life does not depend on whether he or she believes in God, but rather on what kind of God he or she believes in. I also realized, for better or worse, that the only evidence I was could rely on was that which I saw for myself.

What I saw then, and still see now, is a world filled with dazzling goodness and horrific evil, with love and hate, with beauty and ugliness, with life and death. In the face of such clear duality, it seemed to me then, and still seems to me now, that there are but a handful of spiritual possibilities:

*There are no spiritual forces. The material universe is all. Our lives bear no larger meaning, and those who hope for more hope in vain. In this case, considering that 9-year old rape victim, I despair.

*There is only one spiritual force at work in the universe, encompassing both good and evil. This world is precisely as this force wills it to be, and everything—including the rapes of children—happens according to its plan. In this case, again, I despair.

* There are two diametrically opposing spiritual forces at work in the universe, one entirely good and loving and the other entirely evil. Satan (or whatever one chooses to call that evil force) is most powerful and therefore will utterly triumph in the end. The suffering of that poor little girl is but a foretaste of the complete suffering that is to come for us all. In this case, of course, I despair.

*There are two opposing spiritual forces at work in the universe, one entirely good and loving and the other entirely evil. God (or whatever one chooses to call that good and loving force) is most powerful, and therefore will utterly triumph in the end. The suffering of that poor little girl – Satan’s doing – will somehow be redeemed and she herself will be healed as part of the complete redemption and absolute healing that is to come for all of us. In this case—and in this case alone—I rejoice, and gladly pledge my allegiance to this good and loving God.

I cannot prove or disprove any of these possibilities, of course, based on the evidence of my experience. What I know with certainty, however, is the one that makes me want to go on living, the one I choose for my own sake, the one I deem worthy of my allegiance. I may be wrong in this matter, but I am not in doubt. If indeed faith is being sure of what we hope for, then truly I am a man of faith, for I absolutely know what I hope to be true: That God is completely good, entirely loving, and perfectly forgiving, that God is doing all that He can to overcome evil (which is evidently a long and difficult task), and that God will utterly triumph in the end, despite any and all indications to the contrary.

This is my first article of faith. I required no Bible to determine it, and—honestly—I will either interpret away or ignore altogether any Bible verse that suggests otherwise.

This first article of faith was the starting point of my journey back to Jesus, and it remains the foundation of my faith. I came to trust the Bible again, of course, but only because it so clearly bears witness to the God of love I had already chosen to believe in. I especially follow the teachings of Jesus because those teachings—and his life, death, and resurrection—seem to me the best expression of the ultimate truth of God, which we Christians call grace. Indeed, these days I trust Jesus even when I don’t understand him, because I have become so convinced that He knows what He is talking about, that He is who he is talking about, and that He alone fully grasps that which I can only hope is true.

Unfortunately for me, God may be very different than I hope, in which case I may be in big trouble come Judgment Day. Perhaps, as many believe, the truth is that God created and predestined some people for salvation and others for damnation, according to His will. Perhaps such caprice only seems unloving to us because we don’t understand. Perhaps, as many believe, everyone who dies without confessing Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior goes to Hell to suffer forever. Most important of all, perhaps God’s sovereignty is such that although He could indeed prevent little girls from being raped, He is no less just or merciful when He doesn’t, and both those children and we who love them should uncritically give Him our thanks and praise in any case.

My response is simple: I refuse to believe any of that. For me to do otherwise would be to despair.

Some might say I would be wise to swallow my misgivings about such stuff, remain orthodox, and thereby secure my place with God in eternity. But that is precisely my point: If those things are true, God can give my place in Heaven to someone else, and go ahead and send me to Hell. For better or worse, I am simply not interested in any God but a completely good, entirely loving, and perfectly forgiving One who is powerful enough to utterly triumph over evil. Such a God may not exist, but I will die seeking Him, and I will pledge my allegiance to no other possibility, because, quite frankly, anything less is not enough to give me hope, to keep me alive, to be worth the trouble of believing.

You can figure out the rest. I don’t hate God because I don’t believe God is fully in control of this world yet. Heck, God is not fully in control of me yet, even when I want Him to be, so how could I possibly believe that God is making it all happen out there in the street? I don’t hate God because I believe He is always doing the best He can, within the limits of human freedom, which even He cannot escape.

On that last point, consider for a moment the essential relationship between human freedom and love, and then consider the essential identity between love and God. If God is love, if He made us for love in His image, then He had no choice but to make us free, to leave us free, and to win us for His Kingdom as free agents (which, evidently, is a long and difficult task). So He did, and so He will.

I don’t hate God because, although I suppose He knows everything that can be known at any given point in time, I don’t suppose He knows or controls everything that is going to happen. I also don’t hate God because I really believe in Satan (and also in my own, moving-in-the-right-direction-but-still-pretty-doggoned-sinful nature). I don’t hate God because it seems to me that this world is a battleground between good and evil, not a puppet show with just one person pulling all the strings. I don’t hate God because the God I have chosen to believe in isn’t hateable, and because I refuse to believe in the kind of God that is.

Now here is the good news: I may be entirely wrong, but even in my darkest hours, my God of love hasn’t stopped speaking to me. On the contrary, I hear His voice in places I never did before, always saying the same things, one way or another: I am with you. I’m sorry about all the pain. It hurts me too, especially when my little ones suffer. I have always loved you and I always will. Do the best you can, but don’t worry. Everything will be all right in the end. Trust me.

And I do. And I hope you will too, sooner than later.

Your friend,

Bart

Of course, to believe in God the way I do is to change the rules of ministry, and especially of youth ministry. I still convince young people to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Saviour, but not because I’m afraid God will damn them to Hell if they don’t. On the contrary, I want kids’ to follow Jesus because I genuinely believe it’s a better life. Eternity aside, I want their lives to be transformed by God’s truth right now, for their sakes and for the sake of all the hungry and broken people out there who need them to start living His disciples. After all, the sooner we all start following Jesus by feeding the poor and freeing the oppressed, the sooner God’s will will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. But most of all, I evangelize people because I know they are my loving God’s beloved children, and I don’t want them to live a minute longer without knowing too that most wonderful fact of life.

And I stay in the inner city, in spite of all the suffering and injustice I see here every day, because I can. No longer do I blame God for what is beyond His control, or hate him for visiting so much pain on His little ones. Even in the midst of such ugliness, I can stay here because I am full of faith. I may not be sure of what I know anymore, but I am absolutely certain of what I hope for, and most of the time I manage to live in that direction.

I stay here for one more reason, of course: In places like this, nobody asks you to leave early because you can no longer find the limits of God’s mercy.

I still find Bart’s words to be extremely powerful, and if I could pray much these days, I would pray that he’s somehow right- about God and the limits (or lack thereof) of his mercy, about all the good reasons to love people into right relationship with God sooner rather than later, about all of it. Yet, in the place in my soul where prayer should originate there is silence, just as there is silence within where I believe I should find God. My impulse now is to rationalize the silence, to explain it away, to tell you that the silence must be endured not for its own sake but because on the other side of this “dark night” lies a deeper and more profound relationship with God, but I suspect that to do this would be to shortchange and short-circuit this process for me.

I suspect that I must endure this terrible silence because it would be perhaps more terrible to endure God’s presence. I would rather God be absent than to be present and impotent to relieve the suffering- or worse, indifferent to it. Of course, Bart Campolo describes a God that is neither. He describes a God that is instead patient on a God-like scale, patient to the extreme, willing to wait for every last one of us to finally surrender to love, even if it takes what seems like an eternity. Bart also describes a God whose voice he seems to still be able to hear, if only in the “least of these,” perhaps.

Perhaps some day I will hear that voice again too, be it “still” and “small” within or not. Until then, I must face the silence. In Lutheran theology (as I was trained to understand it) there’s a notion of God “hiding” in unexpected places so as to save us from the terror of our own self-judgment in the face of God’s presence in the expected places. Somehow I’ve always found this strangely comforting, but comfort eludes me now.

Yet I still intend to obey. I still yearn for the life of radical discipleship, a life “on the way” with Jesus, be he present in any discernible way- or not. I intend to obey because “I can do no other, ” and I hope this is somehow enough…for now at least. I don’t know what the future holds, but I hope that God still holds the future somehow, and that even now he’s working tirelessly to overcome evil (even the evil in me), however long and difficult of a task that proves to be.

So say we all.

I Guess I Can’t Avoid This Forever, Part II

One of the biggest challenges I faced upon my return to TX for the first time in a decade (when Samuel and I visited in January) was the shocking revelation of the living conditions of my Dad and the rest of the family here.  You see, I grew up from about age 12 on in a very small, single wide mobile home. My parents bought it new in 1987 (I think), but it was a prototype and in hindsight was not well constructed at all, even for a mobile home. The mobile home company basically “threw it together” in order to decide if they wanted to produce it or not. They didn’t (the bedrooms were too small- again, even for a mobile home) and so they deeply discounted this prototype to get rid of it, and we were the lucky recipients. Growing up there until leaving for college, the mobile home itself was mostly fine. It was only my parents and I living there, and it met our needs.

Of course, I knew that I lived a bit differently than most of my school friends, for example, who I learned for the most part had houses when I would visit them (and some of them had quite nice houses, actually), but I didn’t necessarily think of myself as “trailer trash,” for example. Obviously, living in a trailer park as I did, all my neighbors lived much like me, and so growing up there was as “normal” to me as water is to a fish. Back then the trailer park and most of the mobile homes in it were pretty well maintained too. My parents had a good relationship with the owners of the trailer park, and all was well (or as well as it could be considering the daily abuse I faced in that trailer, but I’ve written about that too in other posts). When I moved out to go to college, the trailer was only about 6 years old and still in fairly decent shape. That was 17 years ago.

Not long after I left for school, my niece (who is just 6 months younger than me) came to live there, and has been there ever since. Over time, my older siblings returned too (3 of them), and then my niece had twins. So, six folks were added to the mix (and 1 was taken away when my mother died), meaning that for much of the past decade-and-a-half there have been seven people living in that tiny, not very well put-together space. My niece took the master bedroom with her twin boys, now 12, who have never known what it was like not to share a room with their mom. Two siblings occupy the other two tiny bedrooms, leaving one sister to sleep on the couch while my Dad has been on a small bed in the living room for a very long, long time. But the population density was the least of the problems. As I said, the trailer held up fairly well for its first six years or so when only three of us were living there, but with seven folks in there for as long as they’ve been there it simply couldn’t/didn’t hold up.

I was completely shocked when I walked in to the trailer again in January. As I said in an email at the time:

Being here is so hard, and I know now why I’ve stayed away. My dad’s 77 (or was at the time), and lives in the tiny single-wide trailer I grew up in, which is now literally crumbling around him. I hate to be stereotypical because my passion for justice is so strong, but imagine whatever image “white trash” conjures for you (as awful and offensive as that term is), then multiply it tenfold, and that still doesn’t do it justice. He lives there with my three 50+ year old siblings, and my 34 year old niece, and her 11 year old (at the time) twin boys. It’s infested with mice and roaches, and I mean infested. My dad, who lives basically on a small bed in the living room, has “bugs” crawling around and probably on him constantly- in the space (that bed) where he sleeps, eats, you name it. You can stand in the bathroom and see daylight coming through a hole in the corner of the ceiling. The kitchen floor and cabinets are broken, crumbling, falling apart. The kitchen counter near the sink is pitched at a significant angle because the floor is collapsing beneath it. Tree roots appear to be growing into the skirting of the trailer and perhaps the trailer itself. It stinks- literally and figuratively. It breaks my heart.

Quite simply, it was no way to live. I know many, many others around the world live in much worse conditions, and unfortunately even some here in the U.S., but then again we here in the U.S. have it so very, very good that I was utterly horrified to see these family members of mine living this way. I should also say that the situation is- perhaps obviously- very complicated, to say the least. As someone said to me not long after I witnessed this, “Being poor doesn’t mean you have to be dirty.” I won’t say more about that here and now other than to say that there were many contributing factors to this situation, some of which could have been helped even without access to significantly greater financial resources. Still, coming from the relative comfort that Kirsten and I were blessed to be able to provide (by the grace of God) for our family, it again broke my heart, and I couldn’t sit idly by and do nothing about it.

So as I’ve said we moved down here at the end of February, stayed with a friend for a couple of months, and then moved into our apartment in Dallas in May. Kirsten was hired at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas shortly after we arrived, and her income and our reduced expenses thanks to our two months of free rent made it possible for me to pursue alternative certification as a teacher here in TX. The process has been long and arduous (more about that later), but would have been impossible if not for those afore-mentioned temporarily reduced housing expenses and the encouragement and connections of the same friend that we stayed with (she and her roommate are both teachers).

Unfortunately, though, because of the economy I began my transition into teaching at the same time as many, many other folks, and once plentiful teaching jobs have begun to be hard to come by. I was very grateful, then, to have been hired at a charter school in July. I knew I wouldn’t see a paycheck until the end of September, making for a very LONG seven months since my last paycheck at my OH job. Nevertheless, as all these pieces fell into place I began to turn my attention to Dad and everyone in regard to their housing. I had spent the Spring working on my teacher certification, looking for work as a teacher, and spending as much time with my Dad as I could, including taking him to doctor appointments, etc.

As summer began, with my employment situation settled (I thought), the housing situation of my family of origin really began to weigh on me more and more heavily.  Stay tuned for that story and more in part III of this series.

I Guess I Can’t Avoid This Forever, Part I…

Ok…..here goes. I haven’t blogged in a long, long time, about a year actually. I tweet and am on Facebook almost daily, but I’ve avoided this act- the act of writing and the introspection it usually requires. Obviously, I’ve done this for a reason. Frankly, I’m tired of my life. The act of writing for me is one of continually telling my story- in one way or another- again and again. There was a time when doing so was extremely cathartic for me, and it also served to build community among me and my hearers. My vulnerability, though eventually practiced and scripted, gave others “permission” to themselves be vulnerable, and I think everyone benefited. Now, though, I’m just not sure that I can do it anymore, though obviously this post serves as some kind of attempt at it. My problem is that I’m just so…..tired. I’m tired of all of it. I’m tired of me. A decade ago my “story” was long and traumatic. That was after the parent deaths but before our return to Philly, our brief experience living in “community,” and Samuel’s birth and its aftermath, including our self-imposed exile from Philly again and everything it represented. And of course all of that was before the events of the past year, which I suppose I should get to now.

So, the big elephant in the room is my Dad’s terminal prostate cancer diagnosis. In some ways I suppose this should almost be anticlimactic. My Dad, at 78, has lived much, much longer than anyone had any right to think that he would. His body has been through so much with all the hip and blood clot issues and all the years that he abused it through lack of sleep and overwork, etc., that I think most of us who know him thought he would have been gone some time ago. Still, when I learned in February that his end, it seemed, was in fact finally near, I suppose I took it a little harder than I thought I would have. He went into the hospital in December for some chest pain, and wound up staying for a little while during which his cancer was diagnosed. His PSA score was over 6,000 at that point, which I’ve learned is extremely high (the normal range for his age is 0-6.8). Prostate cancer is an interesting disease, as apparently most men will finally get it if you live long enough, and I guess my Dad has. Many men will get it late enough in life and it will progress slowly enough that they’ll quite possibly die of something else before the cancer can finally kill them. Not so with my Dad, though, or so it seems. As I began talking with his doctors from a distance upon initial diagnosis, the prognosis was not good. With a PSA score that high, it was quite likely that he had been living with the cancer for some time, in which case it had likely metastasized and would be resistant to most forms of treatment.

Nonetheless, his doctors began treating it all the same. In the meantime, believing (based on the best guess of his doctor at that time) that he probably only had months to live, we began frantically trying to move down here to TX to be with him. It was a sudden decision, to be sure, but not one that wasn’t carefully considered. What few readers of this blog I may have will recall previous posts in which I talked about wanting to move back here for lots of hopefully good reasons, and that was long before knowing my Dad was quickly dying. I won’t rehash those reasons here as you can read those other posts to find them, if interested.

What had dissuaded us from making the move prior to this point was the reality of the housing market and our likely inability to even break even on the sale of our Ohio house. Quite simply, we couldn’t afford to come up with the thousands it would cost to close on a sale, plus pay for a move, etc. I guess it’s interesting then what a little motivation can do for such decisions. When faced with the prospect of likely missing his death and having to deal with it and the very complicated aftermath from a distance, we decided to get ourselves down here as fast as we could. We put the house on the market, hoping to sell by late Spring and knowing we’d have to take a loss but trying to hard to limit what it would be not out of unwillingness to lose money but again simply because we didn’t have the money we’d have to come up with at closing. In the meantime, Samuel and I drove down here to visit in January so that we’d have a chance to see him again and spend a little time in case we couldn’t move before his death.

After our visit, Sam and I came back and we all waited- for the house to sell, for my Dad to die, for this next phase in our life to begin. So January stretched into February, and by the end of it we weren’t willing to wait any longer. The house was generating some interest, but not enough to convince a buyer to take it at our lowest, not-even-breaking-even-but-still-at-a-level-where-we-could-somehow-come-up with-the-funds-to-close price. As the house had been on the market, though, I began connecting a neighbor who eventually put me in touch with some friends of his who were in a bit of a rough situation and were looking to rent a new place. One thing led to another, and eventually we took the house off the market and rented it to these folks.

Unfortunately, our tenants were in no way able to afford what we might have gotten at market price to rent the house. In fact, their rent payment to us only covers half the mortgage, but that half was just enough to make it possible for us to go ahead and move; so we did, thanks be to God. That being said, there were several other near miracles of love, hospitality, and grace that needed to come into play in order to get us down here as quickly as we came, and chief among them was finding temporary, cheap or free housing in the short term while we got established here in jobs and were able to begin constructing a new life here. Fortunately, a dear, old friend came through in a big way in this regard, and so we had a place to stay rent free for a couple of months as Kirsten started working and we figured out where we wanted to live, at least temporarily, including figuring out school and childcare for Samuel, etc.

The point is we were able to quite suddenly move to TX within just a couple of months of hearing of Dad’s diagnosis. Meanwhile, Dad’s doctors had begun treatment. First they tried hormone therapy, which worked for a few months to reduce his PSA, and then stopped working. Next up was chemotherapy, which he is still undergoing now. The chemo began a few months ago and some consideration went into the decision to start it. First of all, it’s quite costly, and my Dad simply can’t afford it. Fortunately, though, we were able to secure services for him that so far have enabled him to offset much of the cost. The question, though, regarding this or any treatment, is always one of balancing quality of life vs. quantity of life. That is, we always have to ask if the treatment will prolong his life but make him so miserable that the extra time can’t justify the suffering it causes- perhaps both for him and those of us who have to watch him slowly die.

I kind of have to wonder if that’s not a place we’ll be getting to soon. The chemo Dad’s now getting has, it seems, been effective in “leveling off” his PSA- at somewhere around 3,000! It’s not rising at present, which is good, but it’s still very, very high. Meanwhile, some of the side effects of chemo have been fairly minor due to some good meds. However, one of the major side effects is that it knocks out his immune system, thus making him very vulnerable to infection and causing him to need blood transfusions every few weeks. When his blood count is at its lowest prior to a transfusion, he’s extremely weak, lethargic, etc. Oh, and after stubbornly holding onto most of hair through age 78, he’s now lost most of it, which was disconcerting to see at first.

Anyway, the good news is that a full 7 months after Dad’s doctors told me he probably only had a few months to live, thus prompting our rapid move, Dad’s still here. I’ve been able to participate in this process with him, however it finally winds up, and I’m very grateful for that. It’s been hard, though, and not just for the simple fact that my Dad is dying, but I’ll say more about that in part II of this post.