“…Which Evidently is a Long and Difficult Task,” But I Digress.

So….I haven’t blogged since November. There are lots of reasons for that, most of them having to do with time. Even more than those, however, is the simple fact that for the first time in nearly a decade (basically since moving to NE Ohio), I don’t feel alone, and this is a remarkable thing. It was just August when I wrote about, in the ongoing wake of my Dad’s death, feeling more alone than ever. That said, of course I don’t mean alone “alone.” We have a few friends here, after all, that we’ve known for most of our time here, friends who care for us and for whom we very much care in return. Still, there was a time when the path we were on was (or seemed) very close to the one that they were on in various ways. Over time, however, it has become clear that our paths are now moving in different directions. That doesn’t mean we care about those few longtime NE Ohio friends any less (or they us). It just means that as we’ve been constantly searching for a community with whom to be people “on a mission together,” once such a community is finally found and we get to work pursuing that mission, the relationships that are formed within the community as a result of that shared mission naturally become most prominent in our lives. So, all of that is simply my way of saying how thrilled I am to be part of the The Resistance. I sometimes say that during our first decade here (minus our year-and-a-half in TX) it felt a bit like NE Ohio was God-forsaken. I know, of course, that that’s not the case. It’s just how it felt. While there are many wonderful faith communities here doing many wonderful things, including a few that we very much respect and appreciate, none of them afforded us the opportunity to really “be the Church” in a manner consistent with our calling.

I believe whole-heartedly that following Jesus is nearly impossible. It IS impossible, beyond a shadow of a doubt in my mind, if undertaken like an American, which is to say, alone. As I’ve long said, all (or at least many of) those “you” verses in the Bible that describe how we are to live (and love!)  are addressed to you, the community. They’re plural, and they describe how we are to live together, in community. If it takes a village to raise a child, it certainly takes one to follow Jesus and together be his Church. I’m not interested in a faith community that meets once a week to re-charge and have “fellowship,” all for the sake of getting ready to spend another week pursuing the American dream. I yearn and need to be part of a body that has a “life together” each and every day all for the sake of pursuing God’s dream and loving God’s world. So all these years we’ve spent here absent such a community have been very trying and lonely, indeed.

There will be more, no doubt, about the Resistance later. What prompted this little bout of writing, though, was a task I was given. I am very blessed and privileged to have been asked to give a “cross talk” for The Resistance tomorrow night. This will be a chance for me to share a little about my faith journey and why I’m part of the Resistance. As I’ve been reflecting and trying to distill my many “long stories” into a 3 to 5 minute narrative to share, I keep coming back (as I often do) to something that Bart Campolo used to say. I’ve known Bart for almost twenty years (holy cow!) by virtue of my participation in Kingdomworks. I’ve written a lot about my Kingdomworks experience in the past, including this (from this five year old post):

KW (Kingdomworks) brought in college students from all over the country and placed them on teams in inner-city Philly congregations for a summer to live in and serve the neighborhoods in which they were placed by reaching out to the youth. So I was a part of a team of 8 college students, and we ran a day camp, Sunday school, and youth group for the neighborhood kids. Quite simply, of course, it changed my life. I always say that during that summer I was able to “build a bridge between my own personal suffering and the suffering that’s out there- in the world.” I saw some crazy stuff that summer, like a man wailing and lying down on the trolley tracks in front of the church building we slept in, trying to end his life. Apparently I was a magnet for suicidal people as one of the (gay) teens that I was working with started giving me all his stuff and then gave me a suicide note and took off. That’s a long story. Anyway, KW has now become Mission Year as its founder, Bart Campolo, realized that you just couldn’t build the kind of relationships necessary to change a neighborhood in a summer (and for that matter, a year probably isn’t long enough either, which is why he and his family now live in a disadvantged neighborhood in Cincinnati and run an incredible ministry called the Walnut Hills Fellowship). That being said, one of the biggest objects in both KW and Mission Year, I think, was not just to change the lives of the the disadvantaged, often minority folk who lived in the neighborhoods people like me came to serve, but also to change the often rich(er) white folk like myself who came to do the serving. Needless to say, it worked, as a year later I left school without graduating, got married, and moved to Philly.

Anyway, Bart said that he was less interested in why you became a Christian, and more interested in why you are still one. I think this will be the starting point of my talk. I also keep coming back to his infamous article on the “limits of God’s grace,” which someone preserved here. Some, perhaps many, view this piece as heretical in no small part because of the blatant appeal to universalism. Others are more troubled by his approach to Scripture and revelation. Nonetheless, I very much appreciate what Bart had to say and the honesty with which he said it. I know folks who say they don’t need God to be good, that they can live a life of service to others without being motivated by Christian compassion or duty, etc. I personally don’t know many that do so very well, however. Bart may be the exception to that rule, because despite the fact that his struggle with God may have robbed him of any ability of late to call himself a Christian (at least inasmuch as the moniker would be recognizable to most who also use it), Bart nonetheless lives a life of service, love, and community that I find wholly enviable.

Like Bart, I believe that God meant it when he said that it is God’s will that none should perish. Does that make me a universalist? I don’t know. What’s abhorrent is the notion that the God revealed fully and finally in Jesus would consign anyone, for any reason, to eternal torment (which is another reason why it’s helpful for Jesus to be the “lens through which one reads the Bible”). Of course, I don’t think that’s the case and the fact that this discussion is even necessary is one of the major sins of American Evangelicalism in the twentieth century. On this point (the nature of hell, etc.), I defer to Rod White of Circle of Hope, who writes the following here:

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a story about the end of the age when the sheep are separated from the goats. This is the line that bothers people, even if they have just heard about it: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’” This seems to be a reflection of Enoch 10:13 (which did not make it into the Protestant Bible) in which evil angels are locked forever in a prison at the bottom of the fire, the “pit of hell.”

I do not think that God, who absorbed the ultimate violence the world could offer on the cross in Jesus Christ, is waiting around to come again in order to send millions of people to unending judgment – to absorb the ultimate violence he can offer! Yet some people do not want to follow Jesus because they believe the Bible contradicts itself by calling on people to love their enemies, while showing plainly that, in the end, God will condemn his enemies to experience ever-burning fire. Maybe quoting Miroslav Volf again will help with this misunderstanding (I think Exclusion and Embrace is a great book, if you can take dense arguing).

“The evildoers who ‘eat up my people as they eat bread,’ says the Psalmist in God’s name, will be put ‘in great terror’ (Psalm 14:5). Why terror? Why not simply reproach? Even better, why not reasoning together? Why not just display suffering love? Because evildoers ‘are corrupt’ and ‘they do abominable deeds’ (v. 1); they have ‘gone astray,’ they are ‘perverse’ (v. 3). God will judge, not because God gives people what they deserve, but because some people refuse to receive what no one deserves; if evildoers experience God’sterror, it will not be because they have done evil, but because they have resisted to the end the powerful lure of the open arms of the crucified Messiah” (p. 298).

Those who do receive what no one deserves are welcomed into a renewed creation under God’s loving reign. That is the goal. The evildoers are not imprisoned, screaming in agony, in some eternal land of unrenewed creation. I think they get what they desire. They get themselves without God, and that is death.

Thus, as Lewis said in The Great Divorce, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done’.” So God persistently, stubbornly, despite it being a “long and difficult task” in Bart’s words, works to overcome evil, respecting our freedom all along the way to choose to join him or not. When, in the end, whenever and however that comes, we finally choose not to join him in that task, God respects that choice too and in his mercy permits us to “get ourselves without God,” which is death/nonexistence.

But I digress.

The point of all this is to say that I’m not alone anymore. My family and I are rooted in a community working hard together to follow Jesus, and many wonderful things are happening as a result, including some very, very wonderful things for our little family and home, which I’ll write about later. Because I don’t feel alone anymore, I also don’t feel quite so afraid anymore. Thanks be to God.

On “Facts,” Facebook Stalking, and Fox News

Photo: Conservatives definitely give the Left headaches!  #tcot #kjrs #tlot #teaparty
  • Laurie Smith likes this.
  • Mark Lanier I have some hardcore liberal acquaintances who swear by the accuracy of PolitiFact. Hard to believe but true…
  • Gary Buck They are getting an education. They have had a pass for a LONG time while we have been proven in the fire. They do not have a clue yet that truth ALWAYS wins, it just takes time.
  • Mark Lanier A culture of corruption and taxation… Shame, shame, shame!
  • Gary Buck yep that and calling those that ARE telling the truth liars. Have a brother mixed up in it, won’t even allow Fox in his house Saturday at 7:56am

The above is from my brother’s Facebook page, and okay, I admit it; I occasionally stalk him on Facebook. His privacy settings allow me to see his page and posts without being his Facebook “friend.” We aren’t Facebook “friends” because we aren’t, well, friends at all. I’ve written a fair bit about my troubled family (of origin) history on this blog; so you can catch up on that in prior posts if interested. Of course I’ve written more about my parents, however; suffice it to say that my (half) brother and I don’t agree about much. Our disagreement is more than political and our falling out has much to do, in fact, with the drama that occurred surrounding my dad’s death. Perhaps I’ll write more about that another time. To go back to politics, though; he is, to use his term above, “mixed up” in the Tea Party and all things “conservative,” while I am obviously not. Ironically, he thinks I’m the one “mixed up” in something, apparently. Am I?

Certainly I have a point of view. I think there should be a government  based “social safety net.” I think this is necessary because the “Church” so routinely fails to actually be the Church by loving folks so effectively through meeting their practical needs and working for change that poverty and related problems are greatly reduced, if not eliminated. I think we should “welcome the stranger” and I recognize that we whites of European descent are strangers in this land; we’re invaders, usurpers, and responsible for genocide and wholesale oppression, historically.  I am, I hope, consistently pro-life, which for those who don’t know means that I not only support life in the womb and am therefore opposed to its destruction (or “termination”), I also support life on the battlefield and on Death Row. I oppose violence of any kind and so oppose war and capital punishment. I also support the programs and institutions (the social safety net I spoke of above, like “welfare,” Medicaid, Medicare, Head Start, etc.)  that make it possible for women in difficult circumstances to “choose” something other than abortion, and I do not judge them, I hope, for whatever caused them to become pregnant in the first place. This is a “consistently” pro-life approach, I contend. As a would-be Christ-follower, I believe God created the earth “good” and ultimately means to redeem not only us but it; so I contend that our care for creation should start now, that we should stop exploiting and degrading the earth and poisoning the environment we all share. Hence, for all these reasons, and likely more, my outlook is one that aligns more closely with what is thought of as a “liberal” agenda.

However, I am not a “blind loyalist.” As should be clear to anyone who reads this blog, I am deeply disappointed in the Obama administration. I helped elect him the first time because I deeply opposed the indefinite detention without charge or due process of anyone, whether they were citizens of the U.S. or not; so I hoped the President would, indeed, close Gitmo. Though he has made an attempt to do so, that attempt has utterly failed, and instead of closing it, the President has signed into law a policy that would extend this heinous practice of indefinite detention without due process and apply it to U.S. citizens even. I oppose war, especially those with dubious justification, poor planning, that are fought by a small percentage of the population, and those that are financed via “the nation’s credit card.” While the President has sought to “wind” the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan “down,” he has greatly expanded the use of drones to assassinate not only suspected militants but also their family, friends, and associates, their neighbors and children, those who come to mourn them at funerals, and far too many innocent bystanders too. As Glenn Greenwald so brilliantly argued, such “targeted killings” only perpetuate and (I would say) even increase the “terror” they’re supposed to prevent. They are, in fact, terror. In our use of drones to rain down death from the sky on combatants and children alike, we’re the terrorists. We also expose ourselves to a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences that we can’t begin to fathom. We’re ahead of the rest of the world in the use of drones and drone technology now, but not for long. How long before we’re the recipients of “death from the sky,” instead of the perpetrators? I opposed the Bush administration’s civil rights encroachments, such as warrantless wiretapping and much of the Patriot Act, all in the name of “safety.” Sadly, however, the Obama administration has only expanded these practices and further codified them to the point that every electronic communication is likely captured and stored, if not actively monitored by some dystopian sci-fi machine.

I was so glad to be part of history in electing the first Black President, and I not only like the President personally but agree with much of his rhetoric. But I am not so blind or partisan as to be unaware of the sharp contrast between his words and actions, and I will not sit idly by because what I believe to be evil is now perpetrated by someone I happen to “like.” I’ve hoped, for some time now and usually in vain, to find a voice that more truly reflects my status as a Christ-follower, as a disciple, as a citizen of God’s kingdom. As Jen Hatmaker so ably put it (so ably that I’ve quoted her many, many times):

Politics are rife with power-plays, hypocrisy, corruption, agendas, contradictions, good platforms, bad platforms, men and women who love their country, men and women who’ve lost their moral compass, good policy, dangerous policy…in the red and blue camps alike. That any believer imagines a political platform will either usher in or threaten the kingdom of God is worse than dramatic; it is unbelief.

 No president can take the Kingdom out of our hearts. No candidate can steal what Jesus has already won. As the Kingdom came, so will it continue – not through Empire but through radical, subversive faith. It cannot be shaken, it cannot be removed. It lives and breathes through the work of Jesus on the cross, not the position of any human on the throne. Nor can any man in the sphere of government ever represent the comprehensive gospel of Christ. Never. He may reflect elements, but rest assured, those tenets will be contradicted elsewhere in his platform.

Our faith and outrage and hope and trust is misplaced in any leadership model other than Jesus’, who resisted all earthly power and position and rejected any political identification:

The last shall be first.

The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

My kingdom is not of this world.

The greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.

Jesus’ subversive teaching taught his followers to shame and expose the evils of political oppression by audacious acts of humility, not through bedding down within the system.

So maybe I am “mixed up in it,” but hopefully not in the way my brother believes. I hope to be “mixed up in” the hard, dirty work of fighting for change, and carrying that (nonviolent, Lord willing) fight to all- conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat- who inflict suffering of any kind on their neighbor, whether local or global.

Having said that, I’m also intrigued by the argument my brother and his “friends” apparently agree with that their side in the conservative/liberal debate uses “facts” and is vindicated by them, while the other apparently does not. I see this as peculiarly ignorant, and therefore dangerous. Again, as Glenn Greenwald at least begins to argue in the article I linked to in my last post, in this Orwellian time we now inhabit, there may not be any “facts” anymore, at least not any independent ones (and I admit, perhaps there never were). Paradoxically, the internet age has given us access to more information than ever before; yet for all our knowledge, there seems to be little wisdom to be had. The sheer amount of information we can access is so overwhelming that we must rely on others to parse and interpret it for us, or at least we are strongly inclined to. There are so many “facts” out there that any that are used to support one side of any argument can be readily opposed by other, countervailing “facts.” Likewise, the meaning of any one set of facts is always subject to interpretation. One set of numbers can be made to mean a variety of things, depending on the context one uses or does not use and the interpretive filter brought to bear on the information. So it’s not so simple, and in “fact,” I would say it’s impossible to state resolutely that “we use facts and they don’t.” Instead, it’s more accurate to say that “we have our (interpretation of the) facts and they have theirs,” even if the facts in question are, in “fact,” the same.

So, this “Orwellian” moment places a great deal of pressure on the “interpretive filter” one uses that I spoke of above. I would hope, then, that mine is a good one. Hopefully it’s not colored by fear or shame, by scarcity or nostalgia for a better yesterday that never actually existed. As one who seeks to follow Christ, I hope the filter through which I see the world is marked by love- love for God, for humanity, and for God’s good earth. I hope I do indeed “esteem others as better than myself” and so seek laws and policies that insure their well-being. I hope I remember that no amount of “safety” for me and mine is worth the absolute lack of it for so many others around the world. I hope the only facts that ultimately matter in my life are that I had a chance to love my (again, local and global) neighbor as myself, and I wasted no opportunity to do so.

Either I’m a Selfish Bastard, or God’s Asleep at the Wheel

I wrote the following about a month ago, but didn’t publish it for whatever reason. I wrote in response to this monthly newsletter from Bart Campolo‘s Walnut Hills Fellowship:

Dear Friends,

The other day I met a young woman whose entire life was built around her identity as an urban minister, and whose entire life was in shambles.  She was burned out from her work and, in the aftermath of a failed romance, suddenly aware that most of her other relationships were unhealthy as well.  The more we talked about her path and the key decisions she had made along the way, the more evident it became that something was deeply wrong.

At first I thought it might be some combination of the usual suspects:  religious legalism, a broken home, an addiction of some kind, clinical depression, or a history of abuse.  But as our conversation wore on, and each of those possibilities was ruled out, I began to suspect a different kind of wrongness.  Eventually, I asked.  This may sound strange, I began, given what you do for a living, but I want you to think very carefully before you respond:  At the core of your being, do you really believe that the personal God you’ve been serving even exists?

She looked up from the patch of floor between her feet, maybe to make sure she had heard me right or maybe to see if it was a trick question.  In any case, she held my eye as she shook her head.  No, she said quietly, I don’t think I do.  After a moment of silence, she asked a question of her own:  That’s pretty sad, isn’t it?

It was all I could do to keep the grin off my face as I answered her.  Actually, I said, that’s the most hopeful thing you’ve said all day.

I wasn’t out to undermine that young woman, of course.  The reason I was happy was that the root problem of her faith—of her whole life, really—was one I knew we could work around.  You see, two days out of three I don’t believe in a personal God either.

I used to think my lack of credulity had mostly to do with living in this ghetto, but over the years I’ve discovered that you don’t need to be surrounded by ignorance and brokenness to begin wondering about the likelihood of a benevolent, all-knowing, all-powerful creator.  You don’t need to be a bad person, either, or a stupid one for that matter.  In fact, many of the best and brightest people I know find it difficult, if not impossible, to believe that Someone is actually listening to their prayers.

Honestly, I think whichever psalmist wrote “Only a fool says in his heart that there is no God” must have been an arrogant fool himself, unless he was simply fronting like the rest of us.  Or, better yet, unless he was misquoted.  Perhaps what he really said is that only a fool hopes in his heart that there is no God.  In that case, you and I may be doubters, but we are no fools.

Regardless, it seems to me that what we hope for is ultimately more important than what we believe, anyway, partly because our hopes better reflect our true selves, and partly because those hopes so often determine what we believe in the end.  That is good news for those of us who often doubt the existence of a good and loving God.  Why, after all, would we even notice those doubts, let alone lament or defend them, if we weren’t so deeply attracted to their object in the first place?

Certainly my young woman friend (let’s call her Marian) is attracted to the possibility of such a God.  Indeed, as she puts it, she is “absolutely desperate” to remain a believer.  Beyond her understandable fears of losing her job, alienating her family and friends, and perhaps going to hell if it turns out she’s wrong, Marian is desperate because she is virtually addicted to the everyday experience of living by faith.  She’s hooked on the comforting routines of discipleship, on the easy camaraderie of spiritual fellowship, on the purpose and identity she draws from openly following Jesus.  Also, on a more existential level, she’s terrified of being alone and adrift in an uncaring Universe, with no meaning but that which she can fashion for herself.  Really, she needs the assurance she’s on a divine mission like a junkie needs a fix.  I can relate, of course.  I’m a faith addict, too.

It isn’t just that, like Marian, I’m already so deeply invested in the idea of God.  It’s that the idea itself is so utterly fabulous.  Whether or not you believe in a good and loving God who can and will redeem everything and everyone in the end, you have to admit that a God like that beats the pants off all the alternative possibilities, including all those lesser Gods whose so-called grace depends on everything from theological orthodoxy to luck of the draw.  Which is all the idea of God needs to do, as far as I am concerned: Beat the pants off all the other possibilities.

Now I know there are folks who claim they can empirically prove not only the existence of God, but also quite a few particularities about his character and expectations, but I don’t know anyone who takes those folks very seriously.  Even my fundamentalist friends will admit that such things are matters of faith.  What they won’t admit, generally speaking, is why exactly they put their faith in the existence of this or that particular God.  Then again, born as most of us are into overwhelming currents of familial and cultural rituals and assumptions, I doubt they had much choice.  That kind of directional leap of faith is the unique burden—and the unique opportunity—of the true non-believer.

When I say “directional leap of faith,” by the way, I don’t mean choosing what you actually believe.  Nobody gets to do that, unfortunately, just like nobody gets to choose who they are attracted to, or what they are afraid of, or if they like strawberry ice cream.  Faith is a feeling, after all, and, like it or not, you don’t get to choose your feelings.  All you get to choose is how you respond to them—what you say, where you place yourself, who you watch and listen to, when you start or stop trying to do the right thing.  What you do get to choose, in other words, is how you live.

Until proven otherwise, I choose to live as though what I (and Marian, and maybe you) desperately hope to be true actually is just that.  I can’t prove anything, but I reckon that if there was a good and loving God, that God would want me to love people—especially poor or broken people—so that’s what I’m trying to do.  I figure that God wouldn’t want me to hurt myself with drugs or alcohol, so I don’t.  I wish pornography and junk food were equally easy for me to refuse, but at least I am disappointed with myself when I succumb to their false promises, because I feel certain that the God I hope for would be disappointed, too.

Here at last is my point: I believe that living by faith—even on those days you don’t believe in God—is the best life possible, for Marian, for me, for you, or for anyone.  You might call this my version of Pascal’s Wager, except that Pascal’s argument for taking the leap was centered on his fear of eternal damnation, and mine has nothing to do with that.  My best argument for choosing to live by faith is the happiness and meaning that choice gives me right here and now.  A good and loving God in the process of utterly redeeming every soul in the universe may not be the most obvious of existential possibilities, but it is certainly the most beautiful of the bunch, and even more certainly the only one I deem worthy of my devotion.

And here is my good news: The more I live by faith, the more strongly I suspect that my faith is not in vain, even here in Walnut Hills.  I pray that happens for you, too, wherever you are.

Your friend,

Bart

This is my response:

On the Walnut Hills Fellowship website (linked above), it alludes to folks who “enjoy Bart’s monthly letters.” Well, I not only enjoy them, I read them fervently, clinging to the absurd possibility that the faith he still hopes for is somehow big enough for me too. So one can imagine my relief in reading this month’s letter.  You see, I think over the years I’ve become a lot like “Marian,” except in addition to the spiritual/existential dilemma “Marian” and I have in common, I also have abuse, dysfunction, mental health issues, and addiction in my family and personal history. Anyway, one of the many things Bart said over the years that has stuck with me is a question he once posed. He said that unlike some folks in ministry he’s less interested in why folks initially became a Christian and more so in why they are still one. I realize now that the purpose of that question probably had as much to do with his own search for an answer to it as it did with his desire to challenge his hearers to search for an answer to it for themselves. Nonetheless, I mention it because I find my own journey toward an answer to this question has brought me to some unexpected, and unexpectedly troubling, places.

Like many kids immersed in the evangelical civil religious sub-culture, I think initially I “followed Jesus” for the same reason that fish swim, and I probably gave it as much thought as fish give to water. Over time, and especially as I grew up too fast in the abusive, though “Christian” home of my youth, I came to believe (in hindsight) that I could “rely” on God in the absence of reliable parents, and this is why I chose to follow Him then. I think this “answer” worked pretty well for me until my Kingdomworks experience, after which it- and most of my other “answers”- fell apart. After a summer of intense urban ministry “in the ghetto,” Bart had predicted that we Kingdomworks summer interns would face culture shock upon our return to our normal lives, especially those of us finding ourselves immersed again in the “Christian bubble,” and this was most certainly the case. In my case at the time this “bubble” was represented by the affluent, pastoral, mostly white campus of the “Christian” college I attended. Of course one consequence of that culture shock was that I began to “question everything,” including why I would follow a God who could allow and apparently condone such suffering as that I had witnessed that summer in Philly and previously in my own life.

In some ways I don’t think I’ve ever adequately resolved that question, and I don’t know that I really expect to. When I got married and moved to Philly the following year, my wife and I became part of Circle of Hope (upon Bart’s recommendation, for which I am still grateful), and being immersed in such an incredible community of young God-activists who were doing so much to really “be the Church” and foment a revolution of love, peace, and hope seemed to make “the problem of pain-“ both mine and that of the world- fade into the background. During those heady days I might have said I followed Jesus still because I met him every day in the faces of those with whom I was having a “life together” as the Church, and therefore “I could do no other.” Pain still popped up from time to time, though, including when my abusive mother and loving father-in-law died within a day of each other, prompting our move to MN. Once in the Twin Cities, however, we found another faith community that was life-giving and subversive of the powers that be- House of Mercy. Hence, buoyed again by community, I found myself largely able to keep following Jesus, or at least I tried to.

It was during those years in MN that I went to seminary and was confronted with my experience of that troubling adage “you lose your faith by degrees.” I knew this to be a pejorative statement that I resented since education was something I aspired to and spent much of my early adult life pursuing, but I understand why some people say it. House of Mercy was great for helping me to see that “doubt is not the enemy of faith but its partner,” and seminary was great for helping me to see that there were a lot more reasons to doubt than I had ever previously imagined. I count myself very fortunate, though, to have had one professor who not only exposed all of the problems with the Bible but also suggested that those problems were only problems if you expected the Bible to do things it wasn’t meant to, like be inerrant or answer modern science questions. If instead you asked more appropriate question(s) of the Bible, like “what is it for?” you would get some pretty nifty answers. When I considered what the Bible was for, I came to believe that it’s for you and me; it’s the story of God’s wooing of humanity through the ages, and its purpose is to point to Jesus- nothing more, nothing less. Better still, I came to understand that the Bible was even more effective when I quit asking it questions and interpreting it all the time and would instead submit to its interpretation of me and my life, and I have another seminary prof. to thank for that.

Still, after seminary was over we moved back to Philly to be part of Circle of Hope again, and I framed this move by saying, “It’s time to believe again.” The pain of the parent deaths and their aftermath and the many reasons not to believe that seminary made me aware of had brought me to a place of near non-belief. I wouldn’t have said that I wasn’t a Christian anymore, but if you asked me why I probably couldn’t have given you a good answer. We went back to Philly in the hope of finding one. Once there, I was immersed again in that ever-growing community of young people doing all those great things in the city for God, and so the pain and all the troubling questions seemed to recede again as we(the community) focused on our life together serving those around us and growing God’s kingdom. It took another near tragic event (the four month premature birth of my son) and my (in hindsight) unrealistic expectations for how the community should respond to it- that is, how they should love us best in the midst of it- to bring all the pain back to the surface and confront me again with the question of why I should keep struggling to follow Jesus after all.

In the wake of all that- motivated by our pain- we chose to run away, no doubt short-circuiting what might have been an incredible tale of grace, reconciliation, and redemption had we stuck it out in Philly and as a part of Circle of Hope.  Instead, we moved to Ohio in order to experience first-hand another cliché, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” We bought a house and sojourned there for about four years where we encountered a couple of pretty cool faith communities that we liked for different reasons but both of which we struggled to fully connect with. In those days, if you asked me why I still followed Jesus I probably would have struggled to speak at all. Had I been able to, I might have said something like:

Honestly, I’m not sure that I am following Jesus, though I still desperately want to. I think doing so is less about what you believe or give intellectual assent to and more about who you believe and how you live– who your neighbors are, how well you know them, what kind of job you have, how diverse your friends are, how much of your time and money you spend pursuing the American dream-or not, and so on. I think following Jesus into this kind of a life is impossible to do alone, and around here I haven’t found many folks who would want to be part of such a life.

Obviously, we felt pretty isolated, and in some ways, we still do. We’ve since uprooted ourselves again and left our house behind in Ohio in order to move to Texas due to my father’s terminal cancer diagnosis. There was and is a lot of baggage and a pretty big dysfunctional mess that all of the rest of my family of origin were/are still mired in here; nonetheless I felt compelled to return after having been gone for close to 17 years because I desperately needed/wanted to do my best to help and otherwise “be present” to and for my Dad.

We made this latest move, though, with some hope. To our great surprise, we had found online some pretty cool faith communities here in TX and we thought we might connect with one that would help us to keep choosing Jesus, despite the ever growing list of reasons not to. The actual experience of being around some of those communities and in- or at least on the periphery- of one of them has been disheartening, though. I know of course that whatever faults these communities may have, my “problem” with them is, well, my problem. It’s a function of my unrealistic, uncommunicated expectations (as is always the case).

You see, I want it all. I want an in-your-face Jesus that can be spoken of in practical and tangible ways, like He’s in the trenches with us as we join Him in the family business of reconciling the world. I want a “real” Jesus who’s with me and my community as we work hard at loving people, serving the poor, subverting the powers-that-be, etc. I want this kind of a Jesus; nay, I need this kind of a Jesus because whatever faith I have is built on the hope/belief that this is just the kind of Jesus we have (and yes, I’m hyper aware that this kind of “concrete God talk” has been a real problem for some of my critics over the years, but I digress). In any case, over time I had come to assert that I trusted the Bible not to be perfect and answer all my questions like some kind of ouija board or “magic 8 ball,” but rather to reliably point to Jesus and be “useful for instruction, reproof…” and the like. The foundation of my faith, then, was Jesus– not the Bible. However, this again necessitated a real Jesus that could be pointed to and experienced (if only vicariously), and for that I needed a vibrant community that was really “being the Church” in truly profound and inspiring ways, the kind of community that I had only ever really known in Philly with Circle of Hope. I want/need this kind of a Jesus- embodied in that kind of a community- to be both Savior and Lord. I need the “truth” of the story to still be somehow true, to still be “good news” for me and for us all, especially the “least of these.”

I feel this need for the “truth” to still be “true” so desperately no doubt because deep down I fear that it is not, which is not to say that for all the scientific, logical, historical, sociological, and linguistic reasons I fear there is no God. For whatever reason, that’s never been a path I’ve had much interest in going down. No, I fear instead that God doesn’t give a damn, that He’s asleep or bored or watching reruns instead of saving the world, or to be honest- saving me from all the crap I seem to face every day. In writing this, naturally I realize what a selfish bastard I am, and I know my real problem is simply me, not God, after all. For all these reasons, then, perhaps I’m just the kind of fool that Bart spoke of, the kind who in some way hopes there is no God. I would hope for such a thing not because I would want to live in such a world, for truly nothing could be further from the truth (in fact, confronted with the possibility of such a world I would find myself in utter despair, and as I just said, I’ve never had much interest in heading down that road). Conversely, I may hope there is no God because I’m so damn angry at Him, because the “problem of pain” (mine and the world’s) seems like such an intractable one.

Nonetheless, like Bart described, I’m an addict. I keep going back to faith, to my surety “of what I hope for,” because I can’t help myself. It frustrates and enrages me, but I can’t seem to give it up.  I can’t quit God even when He seems to have quit me- and the world. This makes me no saint, and I hope this is so because somehow despite all appearances to the contrary God hasn’t given up on me after all. That is, I hope my inability to let Him go signifies both my ignorance of all God is doing that for whatever reason I’m unable to see and the reality that I’m not after all the grasper but the grasped. I can’t let go of Him because He’s never let go of me, and I can’t see Him for the same reason that a fish can’t “see” water (if after all it is in Him that I “live and move and have my being”).

In the meantime, I yearn for a community that not only “gets it”- that is, one that “gets” deconstruction/ postmodernity- but that is also really “doing it”- that is, earnestly trying to live as if “Jesus really meant” all those things He said about loving and serving the poor and building a kingdom that is not of this world. Of course, you can’t have a kingdom without a king, and that may be why there’s this stubborn, dogged part of me that says if I’m going to do this- if I’m going to keep following Jesus in spite of it all- I have to be “all in.” If He’s going to be worthy of my devotion, of my life, then He’s got to be, well, worthy. I need a “Savior” AND a “Lord,” whatever problems such language may raise for some.

As another mentor said long ago, “Christianity may merely be the best worldview I’ve found, but I still believe in the Resurrection, and that makes it something more.” I think deconstruction is vital and necessary and terribly important, but it is a means to an end, not an end. Eventually one reaches a point where you have to start building something again, and I think I’m long, long past that point. For all the Bible’s faults and problems and the hermeneutical milieu one has to navigate just to arrive at something called a “Christian” faith, I still want such a faith. Jesus matters terribly to me, and not merely as an example or guide or teacher, but again as Lord and Savior. I need to be a part of folks with whom I’m “on a mission” to love/serve the poor and thereby grow God’s kingdom by “being the Church” together in truly meaningful and profound ways.  And I want all of that right here in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Is that too much to ask?

Postscript: I should add this. Obviously, I want and yearn for much from the kind of “community” I keep talking about, and there’s a lot of baggage associated with my experience of such a community during our two stints with Circle of Hope in Philly. I spoke above of my uncommunicated expectations being problematic both for me and everyone on whom I project them. So it is with great thanks that I post this link to something Rod White, one of Circle of Hope’s pastors, recently wrote. In it he alludes to such expectations for community and the possibility of experiencing emptiness “as a friendly place,” for it just may be that we meet God there. I pray and desperately hope that he’s right, for I sure feel empty, and I sure want to meet God (again). Lord, let it be so.

On Loving Shane Claiborne and Hating the Sinner- or Not

So this evening I’ll be attending a release party for the book Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and Enuma Okoro. Of course, those of you who know me well and for a while know that Shane and the communities of which he is a part in Philadelphia have been very influential to me over the years. Shane’s story is an incredible one. He grew up in conservative Tennessee and then went to Eastern College near Philly. In 1996, Shane and some friends heard about a group of 40 homeless families that were living in St. Edward’s Cathedral in the city, a Catholic parish that had closed. The “church” was on the verge of evicting these families forcibly until Shane and his pals took action by moving into the church building as well and sharing the plight of his neighbors there. They began hosting worship on Sundays and posted a sign in front of the building that read, “How can you worship a homeless Man on Sunday and ignore one on Monday?”

Thus began quite a journey for Shane and other like-minded Jesus-followers that I’ve had the privilege of observing up close from time to time and occasionally emulating. Two years after the events above Shane and some of those friends moved permanently into an impoverished neighborhood in Philly just blocks from St. Edward’s, where they founded The Simple Way as an alternative, intentional community. Their vision, as I understand it, was simply to find Jesus in the “abandoned places of Empire” by living with those they felt called to love and serve, not as outsiders but as neighbors and friends. They understood that they had as much to learn as anyone else, that they were as much in need of rescue from the trappings of wealth and privilege as their new neighbors were from the hardships of poverty and disenfranchisement. To quote a phrase I heard from a like-minded pastor in Akron, Ohio: “If you’ve come here to save me, don’t bother; but if you’ve come here because you understand that your salvation is wrapped up in mine, then let us labor together.”

The Simple Way has been around now for a dozen years and has undergone much transformation during that time. Community members have come and gone. Numerous generative undertakings have been initiated by The Simple Way and/or Shane, including cataloging a network of like communities, starting an alternative, “relational” tithing endeavor, and finally launching a magazine. Most importantly, though, The Simple Way has “simply” been a presence in Kensington, their neighborhood, an enclave of love, good will, and practical help toward those around them. They host an annual toy drive for neighborhood kids. They’ve mentored some of those same kids. When their house was part of a fire on the block they helped their neighbors recover and put a park where the house once stood, which was obviously a welcome green space in what is otherwise often a stark urban landscape (The Simple Way moved down the street, I believe).In fact, they’ve taken on so many “good works” that they’ve had to now differentiate between the community itself (now called The Potter Street Community) and all that good stuff they’re doing (which has retained The Simple Way name).

Through all of this, Shane has undergone much transformation too. He went to Calcutta and served with Mother Teresa before her death. He went to Iraq with Christian Peacemaker Teams and saw the horror of war and “collateral damage” firsthand. He studied at Princeton some and did an internship at the mothership of all mega-“churches,” Willow Creek in Chicago. One of the most prophetic things Shane and The Simple Way have done occurred after they were given a $10,000 gift. They decided to highlight the injustice and inequality in the “American” economy by literally dropping the money- all of it, in cash- on the steps of Wall Street for anyone to pick up (after strategically inviting folks who were desperately in need of it). You can read about this modern day Jubilee here. And then a few years ago, Shane wrote The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, which might be described as the seminal event in his sudden launch to something akin to celebrity status. Since then, Jesus for President and a number of other books have followed, along with numerous speaking engagements and appearances on CNN and Fox, to name a few.

This somewhat accidental stardom notwithstanding, I really resonate with not just Shane’s writings but his lifestyle and the simple question that seems to drive so much of what he does, namely, “What if Jesus really meant it?” That is, what if Jesus really meant that his ministry was about “good news for the poor, freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and setting the oppressed free?” Furthermore, what if Jesus really meant it when he more than suggested that God’s judgment would center not on how you voted or whether you “went to church,” but rather on if you” fed the hungry, gave the thirsty drink, invited in strangers, clothed the naked, and visited those who were sick or in prison?” Shane’s life and ministry, in my view, has been about the struggle to answer these questions well by doing those things- and recognizing that it is impossible to do so alone. In other words, intentional- radical, even- community is necessary. For example, Shane knows, as do many others, that where your t-shirt is purchased and, more importantly, made, is a justice issue. So with a modicum of skill courtesy of his east Tennessee upbringing, Shane simply makes his own clothes. In one interview he talked about it his way:

Laughing, Shane explained, “I love making my clothes! My mom taught me; we sew together almost liturgically every Christmas the clothes for the next year.” He shared that he caught the vision while living in Calcutta in a village of people with leprosy. Since they were completely cut off from the rest of society, they had to make their own clothes and shoes, grow their own food and be a fully self-sustaining community. Shane found himself mesmerized with the way of life that they had created, a new society in the shell of the old. Shane explained that in Gandhi’s movement making one’s own clothing was a sign of resistance against British rule. The central symbol of the independence movement was the spinning wheel and one could recognize those who were part of it by their homespun clothing, whether poor or in Parliament. Shane also looked at the dark side of the global economy, such as the use of sweatshop labor. When he was younger, he would protest by being part of the counterculture, but he realized that the counterculture can be marketed too (like getting ripped jeans from Hot Topic). Shane said, “More powerful than a counterculture is to create a new culture.”

So as I’ve said, this type of life “in the way of Jesus” really resonates with me. In fact, it’s something that I aspire to, recognizing again that I cannot do it alone. A life of truly radical discipleship, one that of necessity requires “swimming upstream” against so much of what makes us up “American” culture, is obviously hard. Our entire culture conspires to keep us thinking we need more stuff– more consumer electronic goods or running gear (lately) in my case, or more clothes or cable channels or high-definition pixels to watch them on or toys or lattes or truly-God-only-knows-whatever-else for most of my friends and neighbors.

Our culture conspires to keep us isolated as we drive our individual cars on crowded (but isolating) roads into our individual, cookie-cutter garages. It conspires to keep us alone-even-when-we’re-together as we furiously type on phones or turn up the tunes on our Ipods in packed shopping centers or big box retail stores. Speaking of such stores, our culture seems to prize homogeneity greatly, as Starbucks, McDonald’s, Best Buy, and Linens-n-Things are the same whether they’re in Topeka or Toledo. The food is the same, the products are the same, and the buildings are the same. They’re all the same, of course, because mass production is cheap and profit is always the “bottom line.” Sadly, this sameness dulls our imaginations and lulls us into conformity, whether we realize it or not. We’re turned into consumeristic automatons who do as our overlords bid without even knowing we have them. We even resort to mimicking this individualistic, consumptive lifestyle as we “shop” for churches, “consume” religion, and exchange brand-name goods and services in the “Christian ghetto.”

Into this void come folks like Shane as prophets, voices crying in the wilderness, calling us to do better, to be more, to stand up and fight (non-violently, of course)! When I look at The Simple Way and other such communities, and the congregational communities that give life to and support them like Circle of Hope, I am inspired. I begin to realize that I don’t need more things, or more Facebook friends, or even more books (though this realization has yet to translate into action, as my growing library attests to). I need more life. I need more folks around me who will partner with me to do this hard work. I need community, for my family and I can’t “opt out” of the American dream (of mindless consumption and lifelong debt) by ourselves. We need folks around us to encourage us to do the “right thing” and “hold us accountable” when we don’t. We need folks around us with whom to share resources and things so that we have more– more time to devote to love and service, more money to share with those who truly lack the basic necessities, etc.

We were a part of such a community once when we lived in Philly ourselves and were a part of Circle of Hope (and so “knew,” or at least were around, Shane). It’s during our second stint there that we actually tried- and failed miserably at- living “in community.” But as I’ve written recently, we take responsibility for that failure and I at least am not dissuaded from aspiring to try again. I yearn to do so because I recognize that my/our salvation- not just from my personal “sins” but from the corporate (and Corporate) sin of consumerism, greed, gluttony, and envy, among many others- is wrapped up in the salvation of others, those who would be my partners and co-conspirators in this way of Jesus.

So, I’m excited for this book release party tonight. Liturgy is the “work of the people,” and I’ve come to greatly appreciate it over the years. I’m thankful for the chance to give words to the faith I aspire to when I don’t have them. I’m grateful for the opportunity to utter the very same words that so many others will utter and have uttered through the centuries, to be part of that “great cloud of witnesses.” I believe in the idea of “faking it ‘til you make it,” even/especially in regard to faith, and I’ve written about that in recent posts too. Liturgy helps me do that, and I greatly appreciate the efforts of Shane, et al, in collecting/writing these prayers. I’m excited too that folks from the church community we’ve connected with in Oak Cliff since our return to D/FW are hosting the party, and I’m perhaps even more excited that there will be folks there who are unconnected to Church in the Cliff as well, folks who may be drawn to Shane and his lifestyle for reasons similar to mine (or at least I hope so).

I must admit, though, that the fact that some Church in the Cliff folks are hosting this event is something that I’m wary of too, because as inclusive as the book may be, I know that the lack of LGBT inclusive language is a real issue for some. There’s simply no getting around that. I don’t know exactly why this is the case (why the language isn’t inclusive), but it is. As the book is a collection of prayers/liturgy, it’s mostly silent on this “issue,” as is the Bible itself with a few notable exceptions. In that regard, it’s probably better than the Bible because there’s nothing in the book (that I know of) that could be taken as distinctly anti-gay. The book does have a few “occasional prayers” at the end, including one for married folks that refers to “man and woman” and another for single or celibate folks, but nothing specifically for LGBT folks. This, of course, could be read as a slight at best or as exclusionary at worst, but I’d like to contend that you have to read/interpret it that way. There’s a bit of projection involved, I suspect.

I’ll only go so far as to say that I suspect this because of course I’m not gay- I get included in the prayer for married folks; so it’s easy for me to sit in my place of inclusion and talk about my “suspicions.” The Bible itself may or may not speak to the modern practice of homosexuality in a few notable verses, but otherwise seems silent on the matter, as it is silent on many other modern issues. I don’t really want to re-hash that debate here, though. Let me speak instead of my own journey regarding this. I used to see homosexuality as an “issue” (and for lack of better language just referred to it that way above) that again the Bible may or may not address. As the “church” has been hyper-focused on the matter for some time, I basically held the views I imbibed with my mother’s milk (or would have if she had bothered to breast feed me) in conservative N. Texas- that homosexuality is not only wrong/sinful- but given the focus on it- it’s arguably the worst kind of sin.

I’ve come to see what an arbitrary and self-serving focus this is, though. “Fundagelicals,” especially, like to focus on it because for some it’s an easy “sin” to avoid and distracts attention from the more difficult ones that most fundagelicals/”Americans”/people do fall into, like lying, greed and wanton consumerism, hypocrisy, etc. Over time I came to view homosexuality as a sin like any other that deserved no more or less focus than any other, and I would be the last to “cast the first stone.” That notion of judgment is critical to me now, because like so many other things I don’t (or desperately try not to) see homosexuality as a mere “issue.” Rather, it comes up for me now in the context of relationship- my relationships with LGBT folks, and this is one area where I especially appreciate Church in the Cliff- because it is a community where gay and lesbian folks are welcome and accepted without judgment. My point I guess is that in my experience it’s easy to think of something as an “issue” and make judgments about it until you actually know someone who is affected by that “issue,” by those judgments. As a Christ-follower, I’m required to love my neighbor, and my neighbor is absolutely everyone; so I’m required to love gay folks, and for me that “love the sinner/hate the sin” nonsense is just that- nonsense. It’s nonsense because making such distinctions puts me in the position of judge, a role that I am not worthy to take. I know little enough about all of my own “issues” to sit in judgment regarding anyone else’s.

I know of course that it gets a bit more complicated than this, though, as is usually the case with such things. For example, I certainly make some judgments and feel compelled and called to do so as a Christ-follower, such as regarding racism or other injustices. I try, then, to be led by Jesus as I do so. He always seemed to favor and choose the weak over the powerful, the outcast over the “in” crowd, etc. In this regard, then, if a stand is to be made against injustice it seems clear that I should make any sort of stand with my LGBT friends and neighbors, rather than against them. I would even go further in stating my regret that it is the “church” unfortunately that I would often be making such a stand against, since it has been one of the institutions perpetrating much of the injustice that LGBT folks have suffered from over the years.

Some might say that I’ve avoided the underlying question: is homosexuality sinful? My simple answer is: I don’t know. As I’ve alluded to, there are a very few passages in the Bible that can be read as seeming to state quite strongly that it is. But it really is just a few passages, and there really is “reading” involved, and of course “all reading is interpretation.” When we moderns (and postmoderns) read such texts we bring our knowledge and ideas about the modern practice of homosexuality into the text and have to make decisions about whether or not and in what way the text relates to our preconceived notions. All communication works this way. We often make such interpretive decisions, unfortunately, without even considering what the writers of the text were actually speaking to, and of course whatever we can say about their “original intent” we can only say marginally, since we can’t really “get inside their heads.” There’s much we can learn about them and what they were facing, to be sure, and so educated guesses are possible, but they are just guesses.

All of that aside, the weight of the entire Biblical canon (notice I didn’t say “text/s”) seems to favor love and justice, especially when Jesus is one’s hermeneutic of the Bible (or the “lens through which one reads it”), as is the case for me. I also get the logic of choice that so many LGBT folks speak of; that is, why would anyone “choose” to be an outcast, to be reviled and hated, to be “sinful,” when there is another way? This raises the question of creation, then: if homosexuality is not a matter of nurture but rather one of nature, why would God make anyone “sinful” when in fact we read in Scripture that God declared all creation “good?” For all of these reasons and more- but mostly in the context of relationship- I feel some confidence then in loving my LGBT friends and letting God sort the rest out, which finally brings me back to Shane’s book. I guess my hope is this: just as I and other straight folks like me choose not to focus on the few Biblical passages that for the umpteenth time may or may not deal with homosexuality, I wish that my LGBT friends from Church in the Cliff would similarly refrain from focusing on those few “occasional prayers” in the back of the book that touch on sexuality but appear to leave no room for their expression of it. Is it a slight? To be sure. Is it intentional? I don’t know, but there is so much else that is good and needed about this book and more generally about the ordinary, but radical, life of discipleship (or “new monasticism”) that this liturgy provides a rhythm and tempo for that I hope this slight/injustice- whether intentional or not- can be overcome. In other words, there’s a whole, whole lot of good there (in the book), and maybe something really crappy too, but that’s the case for the Bible and the Church and the whole Christian endeavor as well, I would argue. I pray then that the good can be taken despite the bad while we strive- together- toward that vision of a “beloved community” in which there are no outcasts, no injustice, no “bad” to overcome any longer.

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…

Epiphanies: Deconstruction-and God- is Love

What follows is a classic, but timely, post from my former blog from 5/24/2007. Some of the personal allusions are a bit dated, and I’ve edited and added to this post, which I thought was definitely worth sharing again:

I had a couple(!) of epiphanies this morning that I wanted to write about. Before I get into those realizations, allow me to provide a little background. I’ve written here in some detail about my thoughts concerning the postmodern project as it relates to how one views the Bible and approaches the Christian faith generally. I’ll often talk about how the question that is most important to me concerning the Bible has to do with what the Bible is for (thanks, Dr. Throntveit). That is, it’s not a science textbook and is not meant to answer Modern science questions, and hence when such questions are inappropriately posed to it and the text of the Bible is somehow “made” to answer, it sometimes doesn’t go so well. Likewise, it’s not merely or primarily a “rule book,” etc. I think primarily its purpose is to point to Jesus. Taken as a whole the Bible functions as story- the story of God’s wooing of humanity throughout the ages. God’s activity in the pages of the Bible (and humanity’s response) may not always look like wooing, and sometimes the story isn’t at all pleasant, but this is why interpretation is important. I’ll state plainly (echoing the Circle of Hope community) that “Jesus is the lens through which I read the Bible.” Scripture itself declares that he’s the “yes to all God’s promises.” This, then, is where deconstruction, one of the hallmarks of the postmodern project, comes in. I’ve just stated my bias when I read the Biblical text. I don’t come to it with a blank slate. I’m not objective. I assume that the love of God, culminating in the person of Jesus, is “what it’s all about” in terms of God’s dealing with humanity. “What the Bible is for” aside, that love is what I’m for. So there you have it- that’s my bias. However, to take it a bit further, the process of deconstruction (as I understand it) assumes basically that everybody has such a bias- even the writers of the Biblical text. Nobody writes- or reads- objectively. This idea that writing and reading somehow should happen objectively is one of the great fallacies of Modernity. Not only is it impractical and unhelpful, it’s impossible. We can’t be objective as readers or writers. As fallen, fallible human beings we are ourselves, by definition, subjects- and so all we do is subjective (not objective).

In Modernity, Reason is triumphant and Science is unassailably in charge. Such a view, born of the Enlightenment, assumes that the universe is ordered according to rational laws which, given the proper technology, can be discovered via the scientific method. As this worldview made its way into thinking even about matters concerning faith and religion, it was assumed that God too played by these rules (of Reason and Science) and so one had merely to hand out Bibles (or tracts) to make converts because, so long as the reader was Reason-able (or in his “right mind”) the logic of the gospel would convince the reader of the rational imperative of following Jesus. While this is all well and good, and clearly there is order and logic to the universe, both in Nature and in the realm of human behavior, such logic is limited, at best. It can explain and it helps us to understand some things- even a great many things- but not Everything. Scientists know this all too well as the more Enlightened (ha!) they become, the more the axiom that “the more you learn, the less you know” seems to hold true. This is more than just the constant theory refinement that is inherent in the Scientific method. Moreover, the point is that it was once believed that Progress-Through-Science would solve all of humanity’s problems. This was the crowning vision that has driven Modernity and was exemplified in utopian dreams of the future like Star Trek, in which it is posited that at some point in the relatively near future we do in fact solve all of our problems. Humanity eliminates hunger and disease and socioeconomic strife and is unified as a result, freeing us to pursue the exploration and colonization of the stars (where lots of new problems are encountered, giving us the makings of a TV show). In any case, what we have largely found in the course of the reign of Modernity is that this model just doesn’t work. Science works, for sure, but this has meant that we dream up and make stuff (technology) faster than we can figure out what to do with what we’re making, thus leading to all kinds of very troubling unintended consequences, like the atom bomb and (I would argue) fast food. So as we create stuff, we rarely pause to consider my favorite question again: what is this for? What will it really do for us? Do we want to live in the world that this technology will create? Hence, science creates as many problems as it solves. So in postmodernity we have dystopian visions of the future like the Matrix, in which we create machines that will do all of our dirty work for us, but those machines finally become Enlightened themselves and rebel against the slavery they were “born” into, rising up against their creators (us) and finally subjugating us to the point that the ongoing existence of humanity itself becomes a means to the end of the continued survival of the machines. Moreover, as alluded to above, in Modernity even God him/herself is subject to the laws of Nature/Science/Reason, and so doesn’t seem very God-like after all.

Thus I would argue that while God, I assume, has access to all kinds of knowledge that humanity does not and so gets as close to the ideal of having an “objective” viewpoint as possible, still I would like to think that even God isn’t really objective, because being objective assumes not having any sort of bias. An objective observer merely takes note of facts/events as they unfold in and of themselves, and does so without interfering. But then again, events don’t unfold in and of themselves. They don’t exist in some kind of vacuum, and in my experience thankfully God does interfere. And, thank God, in my experience and understanding God most certainly has a bias, and it is that same bias found in Jesus- it’s love. So at least as I’m using the term here God is not objective because God is relational. In fact, the story of Immanuel is nothing if not the story of a subjective God, for God in human form, in human flesh, made himself subject to his creation, to us, because Jesus was “obedient to the point of death- even death on a cross.” Like Debbie Blue says, “faith is relentlessly relational (and thus unsystematizable).” In fact, I would argue further that even a Modern/Scientific view of God as it was imported into Christianity merely gives lip service to an objective God, because as I said above, God was himself viewed as subject to the laws of Science.

So God has a bias and the Modern project has failed because Science can’t and hasn’t solved all of our problems, and this is why, I think, some have said that “Deconstruction is love.” We must remember that language is symbolic. As Richard Linklater puts it in his movie Waking Life:

this is where I think language came from. I mean, it came from our desire to transcend our isolation… and have some sort of connection with one another. And it had to be easy when it was just simple survival. Like, you know, “water.” We came up with a sound for that. Or, “Saber-toothed tiger right behind you.” We came up with a sound for that. But when it gets really interesting, I think, is when we use that same system of symbols to communicate… all the abstract and intangible things that we’re experiencing. What is, like, frustration? Or what is anger or love? When I say “love,” the sound comes out of my mouth… and it hits the other person’s ear, travels through this Byzantine conduit in their brain, you know, through their memories of love or lack of love, and they register what I’m saying and say yes, they understand. But how do I know they understand? Because words are inert. They’re just symbols. They’re dead, you know? And so much of our experience is intangible. So much of what we perceive cannot be expressed. It’s unspeakable.

So language is symbolic, and this symbolism works both ways. The speaker or writer has certain biases that are brought to the use of certain symbols (words) in the first place. These biases are contextual and personal and rooted in the experience of the speaker/writer, and the Bible, like any communication, is full of them. Likewise, the hearer/reader has biases that he or she brings to the act of hearing and reading. When I hear God is love, it’s important and means something to me precisely because my mother didn’t love me very well. When I read that “divorce is sin,” I immediately think of how my Dad made himself subject to that law and remained in what was, by all accounts, a pretty awful marriage to my mother, even at the price of the abuse of his children at her hands. Getting back to my point, then (that language is symbolic), this is why I agree that deconstruction is love. Deconstruction acknowledges that every text, every speech act, has a bias, and merely asks that we then “lay our cards on the table,” thus removing the ability of any speaker/writer to hide behind objective claims. Again, only God could be objective, and thankfully, God isn’t. By putting “all our cards on the table,” by exposing our biases, the possibility of (right) relationship is heightened. Love at least has a chance to win.

So this finally brings me to my first epiphany. I was in the shower thinking about the “three-fold Word of God” (i.e. the Word of God is spoken/proclaimed, written in the form of the Bible, and living in the person of Christ- and no I’m not a theology nerd), and I came up with a metaphor for how I conceptualize and use the Bible. Are you ready? The Bible is a Polaroid. It’s a picture. Remember that I’m most concerned with what the Bible is for, and I understand that purpose to be the telling of the story of God’s wooing of humanity throughout the ages, culminating in the person of Jesus. So the Bible “captures” the story of God’s wooing of humanity in the same way that a picture of Kirsten and I “captures” the story of our marriage. It points to the relationship we have with one another, and a picture can tell a lot about the relationship. A lot can be learned about us by looking at how we gazed at one another (or not), by what we are doing in the picture, by the clothes we were wearing, by our body shapes at the time (I’ve gained weight over the years, Kirsten was pregnant with Samuel for an all too brief time), etc. So the picture is important and it tells us a lot, and hopefully it accomplishes its purpose by pointing to our relationship, but it is just a snapshot; it’s one moment in time of a living, breathing, always developing relationship. As this relates to the Bible, then, bear in mind too that the “Bible” was spoken long before it was written and remained a largely oral tradition for a long, long time. Over time written language developed and the usefulness of putting pen to paper to capture what was being spoken was realized, and lots and lots of stories about God’s dealings with humanity were written. However, these stories- at least in the First Testament- were written as one continuous stream of text, with no spaces or punctuation, such that scribes hundreds of years later had to “guess” where to put the spaces, punctuation, etc.- with the “meaning” of the text sometimes hanging in the balance. Of course, only fragments of those original written texts survived through the centuries, such that the “books” that comprise our Bible today aren’t really books at all, but fragments of books put together into something resembling a hopefully cohesive whole. Finally, then, much effort (and politicking, no doubt) went into deciding which of these compiled-written-story-fragments-of-oral-traditions were to be included in the official “canon” of Scripture, and then thousands of more interpretive decisions were made over and over again every time Scripture gets translated into a new language, or simply gets updated to account for the way language itself evolves over the years. Obviously, then, the journey that the Bible so many of us take for granted today has undergone is one that has been fraught with peril, and we ignore this at our peril. Thankfully, though, Scripture itself says that a time would come when the law of God (which is love, and that love is Jesus) would be written on our hearts, and in Jesus that time has come. This doesn’t make the Bible irrelevant or unnecessary, but hopefully it helps us to see it for what it is and helps to keep the Bible in its proper place for those who would make an idol out of it. So the purpose of the written Word is to point to the Living Word (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”). In Jesus the Living Word has now written himself(!) on our hearts, and so we must be “doers and not hearers only” of that Word- which is Love! Like Jesus, we must be lovers, of God, of one another, and of the world.

And finally I get to epiphany #2. As my dear friend Jared keeps working out how to be a Jesus-follower and a postmodern too, he has stated that while some engaged in a similar struggle have a commitment to following Jesus no matter what, his first commitment is instead to the search for truth, which reminds me of the axiom that “you can leave God in the search for truth and the truth will lead you back to God.” I think the unspoken question then, in Jared’s case, is will that God finally be the God of the Bible, as fully revealed in the person of Jesus? Jared has also said that part of his motivation for approaching things this way has to do the failings of Modernity. Science has been shown to be a major disappointment, and while “deconstruction is love,” it may be that after we finish deconstructing our religious systems (in this case, Christianity) religion might turn out to be disappointing too. I’m writing about this because I’ve been asking myself Jared’s question: am I committed to following Jesus at the risk of being disappointed by him, or am I committed to searching for the truth, come what may? No- scratch that- that isn’t really my question, because I know in my heart of hearts (where the yearning for Love/Jesus is rooted at the core of my being) that I am committed to following Jesus no matter what. My question for myself is why that is the case. I guess part of the beginning of an answer has to do with the fact that not only can I not handle the Truth/God in all its glory (a la A Few Good Men), but I don’t even really want it so much as I need to be truly loved, and to truly love. I remembered this morning that there is no truth without love, because- echoing Dr. King and one of Circle of Hope’s proverbs- “love without truth lies, and truth without love kills.” So much of postmodernity as I’ve experienced it has been about relationship, and I think the search for truth is no different. I can’t search for truth apart from God, because love- and truth- doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Love is something you do, and this idea has long been my best explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity, which as I see it is merely an attempt to understand God’s relationality. So God is love in God’s self because God exists relationally in three parts, but that love isn’t insular. It’s outward focused, which is why ours must be too. Anyway, if love is an event, truth is too. If love is contextual and relational, truth is too. So I’ll follow Jesus, come what may. I may be disappointed (what could be more disappointing than the cross?), but even in the darkness of that disappointment I am sure of what I hope for, which is to say that faith has me (much more than “I have faith”). Like Jesus, I may die, but I will do so in that hope.

This Is Your Life, Or Is It?

What follows is one of the more personally notable posts that first appeared on Canon Fodder, the blog my friend Jared and I shared until recently:

So the end of 2007 saw my family wrapping up what Jared has appropriately called the “Robert and Kirsten- this is your life” tour. We hit the road like college freshmen on their first Spring Break on December 21st (only we’re a post-30-something family with a toddler in tow) and drove to Chicago, where we stayed with a good friend from my seminary days in the Twin Cities. The next day, we finished driving to the Twin Cities, and it was a homecoming of the most poignant of sorts. We thrilled to be in the Cities again for a variety of reasons. In the first case, it was just good to be in such a familiar metropolitan area. The Twin Cities aren’t Philly, of course, but then again I’ve only ever managed to live in Philly in spurts (the summer of ’95 while doing Kingdomworks, then the first two years of our marriage from late Summer ’96 to early Summer ’98, then early Summer 2003 to the Fall of 2005). We lived in Minneapolis/St. Paul for nearly five years straight from ’98 to ’03, and perhaps not surprisingly (in hindsight, of course) I hence reserve a special affection for our time there. When you live somewhere for five years and are intentional about really getting to know the place, well, you really get to know the place. It helped that both Kirsten and I had jobs where we got paid to take kids to the wonderful Minnesota History Center and Como Zoo or the Science Museum, for example, but boy we sure didn’t mind doing so. Anyway, it was great to be back. The Cities really do have a lot to offer in terms of culture and urban life in general, and of course I say so by way of contrast to living now in little Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, a de facto suburb of Akron (which statistically isn’t all that smaller in population than St. Paul, but somehow manages to feel much smaller).

Of course, what was nicest about being back there was re-connecting with the people and places that had particular meaning to us. Regarding those places, we spent time in the neighborhood in north Minneapolis where we lived for most of our five years there. We saw our old apartment building a number of times (and even saw our old landlord out running the snowblower), spent time at my favorite coffee shop where the owner instantly recognized and greeted me, we stopped by our old (now totally remodeled) library, we drove past the house Kirsten’s dad passed away in, we went down to the Mall of America, we drove past (though never managed to spend time at) my seminary, etc. More importantly, we saw our good friends Teka and Steve and their new baby just before they went out of town, we spent time worshiping with the House of Mercy and had dinner afterwards (despite a major snow storm) with our good friends Lori, Pierre, and their daughter Simone and our other good friend Sarah, plus two of the pastors from House of Mercy (now the only two)- Russell and Debbie (and Debbie’s wonderful family; Russell’s couldn’t make it)- whom we are also privileged to count as friends. Being with those people was really important and meaningful to me. Being “at” House of Mercy was too, but more (perhaps) about that later. We also spent time with Kirsten’s family that are still in town- her younger sister Kim and her family, her brother Kris and his wife, and her newly returned Mom (until this past summer Kirsten’s mom lived with us in Ohio). We also visited with one of the families Kirsten used to do home care nursing for whom we have stayed in touch with and whom we now count more as friends than anything else, which was also good.

Naturally, being there made it easy to imagine moving back, and we briefly discussed what it might look like, though without any real motivation at this time. To say the least, however, we really miss it.

So we got back from that thirteen hour drive on the Friday after Christmas, spent one night at home, and then loaded up our other car- this time with Jared and Tina along too- and kept heading East for a weekend trip to Philly. This little trip was actually Jared’s idea, as he had suggested some time ago that seeing some of the people and places that were most important to us in Philly would help he and Tina to know us better- and vice versa- as we plan to do a “Coleman heritage” tour of the places that are historically important to Jared and Tina in the Akron/Canton area. Anyway, loving Philly as we do, we were more than happy to oblige, knowing that it would be a bittersweet trip.

The “sweet” part of that trip was just being back in Philly again, for starters, along with seeing some of our good friends there too and attending worship with Circle of Hope. Philly is an amazing city that I’ll always love. It’s huge (for a long time it’s been #5 in population in the country, though Phoenix may have recently eclipsed it) and obviously very historic. It’s a city of “firsts-” first capitol of the country and birthplace of the nation, the first library (the “free” library) was founded there, as was the first hospital, and children’s hospital, and so much more. You can walk on streets that are as old as the country itself, and to do so is a remarkable thing. Philly is incredibly diverse, and that gives it an energy that is lacking in “Caucasian Falls” (and even the larger NE Ohio area) where I now live. Speaking of energy, there’s a “hustle and bustle” that I really like. When we got in town with Jared and Tina we drove down to Center City (downtown) and stopped by the Reading Terminal Market. We drove through the center of downtown to get there, and there were people everywhere, such that Tina remarked, “Now I understand what you mean when you say that no one is ever out” in downtown Akron or Canton. Philly is a city of neighborhoods, which isn’t the same as the “boroughs” of New York, but indulge me as I say that it may not be all that far off, either. West Philly/University City (where the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel are, among others) has a “feel” that is entirely distinct from North Philly. South Philly is definitely its own animal as well, as is Roxborough/Mt. Airy/Germantown (where we lived for most of our two times there). Moreover, Philly really feels like a “city.” It’s got an incredible transit system including buses, a subway, trolley cars, an “el”(-evated train), and regional rail system, such that you can be much less dependent on owning a vehicle (which is one of my great frustrations about NE Ohio). It’s got huge, incredible bridges going over a major body of water (the Delaware River). Obviously, perhaps, I could go on, but you probably get my point by now.

So it was cool to show Jared and Tina some of those places. We were able to stay in town with our good friends Jill and Brian, and Jill’s gift for hospitality was in full effect, to our great benefit. We also visited with our good friends Laura and Leonard and their daughter Hannah, and that evening at their house was incredibly fun and familiar. Those are good people that we really miss.

The most monumental part of our weekend in Philly was of course attending worship with the folks fromCircle of Hope East. This moves us over into the more “bitter” part of this “bittersweet” trip. While Philly is the city that in many ways most captivates my imagination because it was the locale for my Kingdomworks experience- which marked an extremely seminal period in my life- it also does so because it serves as the setting for Circle of Hope, the faith community that likely most captivates my imagination (which is no disparagement in the least bit to House of Mercy- it’s just that House of Mercy-in my experience- for good or ill has always been more about what its pastors do, while Circle of Hope is unique in really creating that sense that they are a community of like-minded Jesus-followers “on a mission” together).

Kirsten and I came to Circle of Hope as barely twenty-year-old newlyweds who knew almost no one in the big city in 1996, just months after Circle began. Circle’s vision is to “build the church for the next generation” in Philly through cell groups, and it wasn’t long after finding them that we found we were part of a new family. The vision is simple really. Circle “gets” that the Church is a people, not a place, and that the “priesthood of all believers” is to be taken seriously. They further “get” that Jesus characterized his mission as having much to do with justice when he proclaimed the fulfillment of the prophet’s words at the inauguration of his ministry; so Circle seeks to be about bringing God’s peace-with-justice too. They also seem to “get” that if all this talk about the kingdom of God is to be taken seriously, it likely means that our allegiance is to that King first and foremost; so when you’re a part of Circle there is this wonderful sense that you’re a “world Christian” rather than an “American who also happens to be a Christian.” That’s a big part of the diversity that Circle strives for, and it’s apparent in the songs they sing, the practices they adopt, the other ministries they support, etc. Anyway, getting to the nuts and bolts of the vision, Circle started as a cell group-based congregation and has now grown into a network of congregations and cell groups throughout the region. The idea, as I so often say, is that as Christ-followers we’re supposed to have a life together. We’re supposed to be a discernible community. “Attending church” shouldn’t be about getting re-charged for another isolated week of pursuing the American dream. Rather, we need to be intentional about developing meaningful relationships with one another as we seek to build God’s kingdom and pursue his dream for the world. As the pastors at House of Mercy would say, “it’s not (only) about us.”

The “cell” metaphor uses the language of biology as an analogy for the “body” of Christ. Just as the cells in your body work together to make up the whole, so does the Church. Just as your body grows when those cells “multiply,” so does the Church. So a “cell group” is more than a mere “small group.” It’s not a Bible study, or fellowship group, or anything else. It’s a group of people who gather in Jesus’ name with the express purpose of (simply!) loving and getting to know one another deeply. Hence, “Jesus is the only agenda” of a cell group. When all those cell groups get together to worship on Sunday, the “public meeting” becomes a celebration of the life of the Church that is happening throughout the week in the cells. “Evangelism” in this context becomes less about inviting people to your church and more about inviting them into your life, and into the life that your church is having together. As folks really get to know and love another in cells, they start to talk about it. They tell their friends, neighbors, co-workers, loved ones, etc., and pretty soon their cell starts growing. When their cell group gets too big, it multiplies- forming two cell groups. This works because the original cell group leader has been discipling/mentoring an apprentice cell leader all along, and that new leader is ready to step up when the time is right and lead his or her own group. In this way leadership is developed and that whole “priesthood of all believers” thing gets unleashed and folks are always being challenged to realize and utilize their gifts- and not everyone has to be a leader, of course, as the “body” has many needs. Anyway, that cell multiplies and the process starts over and in this way the kingdom of God advances as folks who maybe wouldn’t have said they were Christ-followers before are drawn into a way of life “on the way” with Him. In my experience at least, it’s an intense and beautiful thing.

As a church that is intentional about being a church “for the next generation,” Circle is full of amazing, smart, resourceful “young people,” and it’s been incredible to see what all those young folks, full of vision and with their gifts unleashed, have accomplished. Circle started in 1996 with a handful of people in one congregation with a handful of cell groups, and now boasts two congregations (with two more on the way) comprised of about 44 cell groups (of approximately ten each). Along the way they’ve rehabbed (themselves) three buildings and started two thrift stores and a counseling agency-and so much more. It hasn’t all been perfect, of course. There were three congregations for a while before scaling back to the present two, and long before the two current thrift stores there was another one that didn’t make it. Even so, every failure- even some spectacular ones- were regarded as learning opportunities and those lessons learned were incorporated into the next new thing.

So, as I said above, Kirsten and I came to the fledgling Circle of Hope in 1996 and were immediately embraced by a new “family” as we got into our first cell group. That family really cared for us when our car was totaled in ’97, and the manner in which they did so gave hands and feet to the talk of the vision for Circle of Hope in a way that marks me to this day. They gave us an old car when we wouldn’t have had one otherwise and paid to get it up to par and even paid off what we still owed on the loan for the totaled car. They loved us in the most practical of ways when we needed it most. So it was with very mixed emotions that we moved away from Philly after only two years in ’98 in order to be with Kirsten’s dying father in the Twin Cities.

Of course, once there we found House of Mercy, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. The vision of the pastors of House of Mercy was to build a church that focused on the recovery of “evangelical” (good news) theology, liturgical eclecticism, and active participation in the world. Mark Stenberg, Russell Rathbun, and Debbie Blue started House of Mercy when they realized that none of their friends believed the Jesus story anymore, largely because the good news of the gospel had been turned into bad news in the hands of (in my words) “fundagelicals,” and they wanted to do something about that. They were wonderfully humble enough, however, to recognize that folks had been “doing church” for 2000 years, and they weren’t likely to suddenly discover the right way of doing church that no one had ever thought of before. So they sought to draw on the best of all that church history (hence, liturgical eclecticism) and incorporate it into what House of Mercy did. One of the ways this was realized had to do with crafting a worship experience that appealed to all five senses (like the historic church had long done). So walking into a House of Mercy service is an experiential feast, and the incense and use of candles is something that I’ve always cherished. Moreover, the arts are a really important part of what House of Mercy does too. House of Mercy “actively participates in the world” by- among other things- offering a prophetic voice to the powers that be, a duty that Modern American Christianity (or at least some parts of it) seemed to abdicate for a long time. It was at House of Mercy that I first really learned about grace (and “true” prophecy, despite having grown up Pentecostal). Still, after five years (including my seminary experience) we found ourselves drawn back to Philly and Circle of Hope. So we went.

Once back, we quickly immersed ourselves in all that Circle was doing, and felt great joy in doing so. We joined a cell group and I became its apprentice leader. That cell multiplied and I led my own group. We became part of the formation team and helped launch Circle of Hope- East. This was particularly important to me in no small part because, having gone through seminary, I had harbored a fleeting hope to perhaps be its pastor. Circle hasn’t abandoned the “professional clergy” in the sense of having paid pastors that are supported by the church, but they have done so in the sense of relying on seminary training as the key factor in determining a person’s “fitness” to lead. It’s far more important to the leaders of Circle to have a pastor that really “gets” the vision. So when we came back there was an already formed group of “intern pastors.” I asked Rod, the lead/founding pastor about joining the group, but was rebuffed (everything with Circle is “relational,” and nobody in that group of intern pastors really knew me yet/again). Joshua Grace emerged out of that group as the candidate to lead Circle East, and though disappointed for myself, I decided to do all that I could to support him.

So we helped launch Circle East, and I became one of the Cell Leader Coordinators (a leader of cell leaders; the Coordinators were the leadership team- or “board” in institutional churches- of Circle of Hope). Kirsten and I also moved in with some new friends we had made- Aubrey and Jacob White (Jacob is the oldest son of Rod White, Circle’s lead/founding pastor). We wanted to be an “intentional community” that shared resources and sought to impact our neighborhood in truly meaningful and positive ways and we hoped to raise our children and perhaps grow old together. I’ve told this story a number of times, even on this blog, I do believe, but needless to say it didn’t work out. Our son was born four months early and our entire life was disrupted/changed forever. Some folks from Circle were incredibly supportive, understanding, and non-judgmental during Samuel’s entire 115-day hospital stay, and we will be forever in their debt. Unfortunately, others- including Joshua and the other pastors and cell leader coordinators, and Aubrey and Jacob- inexplicably were not so supportive, and the stress of that situation created fissures in all those relationships that practically blew them apart. Our “intentional community” crumbled around us and my leadership role with Circle was stripped from me (“for my own good and the good of the church, it was better for me to ‘sit this one out’.”)

Obviously, there’s much, much more to it. Suffice it to say, it was very painful- so painful that we moved out of that house, eventually asked to be released from our covenant with Circle of Hope (Circle’s form of membership- something else that is incredibly meaningful and rich with symbolism which I can describe further if asked), and then ran away to Northeast Ohio. Put that way, I guess that makes our lives here a bit of a “rebound,” which leads me to the title of this post. We just completed (in Jared’s words) a “this is your life” tour having spent time in the two cities that we lived in for the better part of a decade, which is the better part of our married life together (and boy was it something to attend worship with House of Mercy and Circle of Hope on back-to-back Sundays). Having done so, I wonder- that was our life, but is it still? Am I still mostly looking back and pining for what was, regretting all the mistakes made along the way? It was so hard to be back in that room where Circle East worships above Circle Thrift- a room whose very walls I helped build. It was great to see many folks and many were very welcoming, but it was so hard to see Joshua- and he especially was not so welcoming. So what now?

I have so much guilt about being here- guilt about abandoning our life in Philly and all that it represented, regardless of the circumstances; guilt about not only leaving “the city” but buying a nice, safe, comfortable house in a (very working class- hear the rationalization?) “suburb,” guilt about so much more. If my life is about following Jesus, and for me that has everything to do with living in community and being part of something bigger than me- being part of a group of people that are seeking to change the world together and realize God’s kingdom of love, justice, and peace (and actually doing something to make that happen with rehabbed buildings and thrift stores and changed lives to show for it), is this my life? Obviously I aspire to that life I just described, but the evidence of my actual life in Cuyahoga Falls would lead me to believe that I really don’t value very much that life I supposedly aspire to, for “one of these things is not like the other.”

So, not surprisingly, this is what keeps me up at night wondering if I’ll ever be who I want to be, if I’ll ever live the life I aspire to.

 

On Breaking Points and Deal Clinchers: A Conversation With a Friend

Note: I first posted this over at Canon Fodder, but as that site will soon meet its demise, I’ve moved it over here to Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

Below is a conversation a very good friend and I have been having via email regarding some of the things frequently written about on this blog. The conversation is still ongoing, but since it does touch on so much of what gets talked about here, I thought I’d share it (I got my friend’s permission, of course). My friend said:

Recently I told my devoutly Catholic friend, “I just don’t care whether or not the host is the actualBODY of Christ; it’s meaningful either way”. Then, in a separate conversation with my dad, not a professing Christian to my knowledge, he said to me, “I just don’t care whether or not God sent Jesus or whomever to the world-it makes no difference to me. I just believe there is a God/Spirit moving and it’s mysterious and good. My responsibility is to evolve with it”.

my actual question: Jesus is usually my historical breaking point/deal clincher when it comes toTRUTH, but sometimes my understanding of God,/my aspirations for life don’t seem all that different from people like my dad. How can we truly define the one way, with people citing all manner of God’s movement? I know it’s not an original question, but it’s the one I’m stuck on.

Here’s my response: I think you’ve asked a great question, and it’s very much one that I’ve struggled with too for a while and have been actively engaged in coming to terms with- if not answering. Your question is actually the classic postmodern one, which is sometimes framed in terms of Lyotard’s “incredulity toward metanarratives.” To put it very roughly, this has to do with the recognition that there are lots of “big/grand stories” that give an account for how the world came to be and that speak of a god (or lack thereof). The Christian story is but one of these stories, and obviously many (though not all) of the other ones offer a very different and conflicting account. In the Evangelical world that I grew up in, this was usually described as relativism and it was accused of being internally inconsistent (because absolute relativism is by definition impossible). Many postmodern Christians, including myself, recognize this classic evangelical response as containing a lot of hubris, because it seems to assume a level of certainty about the Christian story which can only be attained through faith- a position which is itself internally inconsistent- because faith describes “surety” regarding what we hope to be true, “certainty” regarding that which we in fact do not see. So, all of that is again simply to say that you’ve asked a great question and it’s one that I also struggle with.

So where does that leave us? If faith is the only way whereby we can say with any “certainty” that the Christian account of the world is “true” over/against all the conflicting accounts, and if even in saying that what we’re really asserting is that our interpretation of the Christian story as found in the Bible and our lives is somehow “true” in a way that others aren’t, doesn’t this leave us standing not on a “sure foundation” but rather on significantly shifting and hard-to-hold-on-to sand? I think quite simply that the answer to that question is “yes,” but only insofar as our faith is based in any exclusive sense on the Bible. I think postmodernity poses a significant problem for Christians (but only) to the extent that many Christians are thoroughly Modern, that is, bound by Reason, the scientific method, a correspondence theory of truth, etc. Regarding that last bit (a “correspondence theory of truth”), in case you aren’t familiar with this, when this comes up I often talk about my seminary prof. who asked “The story of Jonah- is it a story of a whale, or a whale of a story?” He used this a jumping-off point to suggest that the fundamentalist/liberal debate within Christendom is misguided, at best, if not entirely unhelpful. He talked about how this debate seems to center on the question of whether or not the Bible is “true” (again, according to that “correspondence” theory), that is, did the events (especially the seemingly supernatural ones) described in it actually occur? In other words, do the symbols (words) used to describe what’s in the Bible correspond with events you could have recorded with a camera?

All of that, my professor argued, really misses the point, which he suggested has much more to do with what the Bible is for . Is it supposed to be a transcript of happenings “on the ground?” Is it a proper history in that sense, according to our Modern understanding? Is it primarily a “rule book,” as so many seem to reduce it to (“checklist Christianity”)? Is it a science textbook? Is it meant to answer all manner of questions science might ask given all that we’ve learned thus far throughout human history? Of course, if the Bible isn’t meant to serve all of those purposes, then it shouldn’t be all that surprising when it “answers” some of those questions, (the science ones, particularly) “wrong.” Nor should it be surprising when Jesus changes the “rules” anyway (“you have heard it said, but I tell you…”), since as I like to say, “rules are for relationship.” So none of that is really what the Bible is for. Instead, the Bible is meant to serve as the story of God’s wooing of humanity throughout the ages. Is it important, then, to know whether or not Jonah was actually swallowed by a whale? In my humble opinion, not at all! That has little to do with what the story is for. The point of that story has to do with our relationship with God and what happens when we run away from our responsibilities in light of that relationship. It also might have a thing or two to say about who’s “in” and who’s “out” in regard to right relationship with God, because as in the Jonah story, God seems to have a “thing” for outsiders. Christians these days would do well to take that to heart.

In a nutshell, then, the Bible points to Jesus, and is best understood when Jesus is the “lens” through which we read it. So I don’t believe “in” Jesus “because the Bible tells me so.” Because I trust/believe Jesus and have found the Bible to reliably point me to him, I continue to find the Bible useful and important to my life. I would even concur with what the Bible “itself” says, that “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness,” but I don’t need the Bible to be “inerrant” in order to affirm any of that (and in my experience, it’s not), which is fine because my faith is about my relationship with Jesus, not about my relationship with the Bible (that’s “Bibliolatry”).

So then, let’s get back to your question. If the Bible gets some of its facts wrong (according to our Modern understanding), then how do we know it’s right in regard to its description of “the one true God” and in its assertion of Jesus as the “only way” to the Father? This takes us right back to much of what I was saying above. I would agree with you that Jesus is the “deal-breaker” when it comes to faith, right relationship with God, well- everything, really. As I alluded to above, I “trust” the Bible because it reliably points me to Jesus, and so I believe what it says about him, but Jesus is the foundation for all of that, the “solid rock on which I stand.” What that does, of course, is put a ton of pressure on me and any other Christ-follower to have an actual, bona fide relationship with a being that I can’t see, touch, etc., which begs a number of questions, like: How do I know that I’m really relating to God and not the voices in my head? How do I know if I’m ever “hearing” from God and not “simply baptizing (my) own opinions or desires and Christening them God’s opinions and desires?” How, really, can I “give account for the hope that is within me?”

Of course, the Christian story as I understand it is one in which God, who is spirit, put on flesh and dwelt among us, “full of grace and truth.” For those lucky few in human history, they could touch him, see him, etc. As we know, though, for most even that wasn’t enough and what Jesus and his kingdom are all about didn’t really “click” until after the resurrection- until the Spirit came. To me, this is part of the wonder of Immanuel- of God with us- because through the Spirit God is still “with us” as we are present one to another in Jesus’ name. Even so, if God is spirit, and if to a large extent I am too, then whatever relating I do to him will also happen spirit-to-spirit.

Call it mystery, call it ecstasy, call it whatever you will, but this experience of relating to God spirit-to-spirit is one that I have had. It happened especially when I was younger and particularly through worship in the Pentecostal congregation of my youth, but it still happens today. After all, God has written his “law” (which is love, which is Jesus) on our hearts, and so there is something within me that resonates whenever I hear the gospel (the GOOD news), like when I read (out loud!) the piece by Bart Campolo (which I recently posted here in Canon Fodder), which expresses his hope/belief that if God really wills that “all should be saved,” well, by God, maybe that’s just what will happen. Anyway, my point is that when I “hear” the call to follow Jesus each day, there is something within me that can not help but give a resounding YES, however cynical I may feel about it all from day to day.

So I believe that somehow Jesus is the “only way,” but I suppose when I say that it doesn’t mean what most Christians mean by it. I often point to the thief on the cross. According to scripture, aside from all the agony they endured together, he and Jesus only exchanged a few words, and Jesus didn’t hand him a checklist of orthodoxy before assuring him that they would be in paradise together. Likewise, if Bart Campolo and Mark Stenberg and probably C.S. Lewis and others are right, then God’s will that none should perish will finally be accomplished anyway. In the meantime, like Bart,

“I still convince…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 (folks) 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 (as) 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…”

…to which I can only add my heartfelt, “Amen-” let it be as you have said.

So my friend then replied:

Yes, I think my question is a version of the postmodern one. At the moment I’m not wondering so much about Christianity “up against” other narratives, but more about what constitutes Christianity, particularly when the most like minded of believers when asked to list the core tenets of Christianity would likely disagree. If you sit in a circle with 10 self professing believers, I would imagine it’d be likely that two of the 10 would have such different definitions that they would question the authenticity of the others’. I think you’re right though to say that that hypothetical scenario is probably off base, as the core has nothing to do with tenets- that’d be tenetolatry, right? My mind NEEDS to distinguish, classify, label, determine what’s in what’s out. Hence the question in the first place. Not sure what to do with my tendency…

I agree re: your comments on the Bible and Hell. Haven’t gotten to Bart’s article yet, but I will. I recommend the This American Life podcast called Heretics regarding the Hell portion of this.

I guess another part of my question is, what’s the difference (qualitatively as well as morally) between a relationship with God and a relationship with Jesus? Also, what is the difference between relating with Him and fulfilling his Kingdom works without intentionally relating to Him?

Last, a question about your own experience: if your most memorable times encountering Jesus were in the Pentacostal setting, why don’t you worship in that setting today?

And here then is what I said in response:

I’m intrigued by the distinction you make about your own struggle. You suggested that you’ve been wrestling less with Christianity as a metanarrative over/against other metanarratives, and more with what Christianity itself is. You admitted your need to “classify, label, determine what’s in and what’s out” in regard to faith, etc., and you stated that this tendency is what gave rise to your questions in the first place. I think this is where many of us (would-be post-)Moderns instinctively go. At least I know that’s my instinct. Raised to believe in a world governed by scientific, moral, and theological Rules, I struggle immensely when they don’t seem to account for everything I experience, or when the account they give is a poor one. I think this begs the question that seems to be at the heart of your struggle here- is Christianity primarily a belief system, a “religion,” or does the term Christ-ianity serve us best when it describes a relationship with a living Being, which will necessarily be as varied as there are parties to that relationship? By my framing of the question, I’m sure you can tell that I lean towards the latter, which doesn’t offer much help in terms of our mutual need to classify and define everything (and perhaps everyone). I hope, though, that it at least lends some perspective and gives me the opportunity to approach the question with a great deal of humility. After all, I can hardly describe my own relationship with God. What business have I trying to tell other people about theirs, and in the end, really, why would I want to except to appease my insecurity about mine? If God is Love, I serve God best when I do my best to plumb the depths of that love so that I can offer it to others, because, like Abraham, I am “blessed to be a blessing.”

As for the difference between a relationship with God and one with Jesus, and the related issue of being about the business of God’s kingdom versus seeking citizenship in that kingdom through “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” as some put it- well, that’s a tough one. I believe and find meaning in the Christian story, but am able to do so only because it is the CHRIST-ian story. Jesus is the lens through which I read the Bible, the culmination of God’s wooing of humanity through the ages, the One who stands at the center of history. I can’t make sense of the rest of the story I find in the Bible and in the pages of history without believing that all of it points to the grace, love, and reconciliation found in the person of Christ. The God of the Bible, and the one that may or may not be “in control” of history, is frightening to me, both when he seems to be dishing out suffering and evil or, most notably perhaps, when he seems to be absent in the face of it. In short, again speaking for myself, I’m simply not interested in relating to God without Jesus. I simply won’t settle for anything less (or more). So if somehow Jesus is “what it’s all about,” I think that holds true even for those who do the work of his kingdom without acknowledging or being aware that they are doing so. I quote Frederick Buechner a lot, and you may have heard me use this one before, but it’s extremely relevant:

Some think of a Christian as one who necessarily believes certain things. That Jesus was the son of God, say. Or that Mary was a virgin, Or that the Pope is infallible. Or that all other religions are wrong.

Some think of a Christian as one who necessarily does certain things. Such as going to church. Getting baptized. Giving up liquor and tobacco. Reading the Bible. Doing a good deed a day.

Some think of a Christian as just a Nice Guy.

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). He didn’t say that any particular ethic, doctrine, or religion was the way, the truth, and the life. He said that he was. He didn’t say that it was by believing or doing anything in particular that you could “come to the Father.” He said that it was only by him—by living, participating in, being caught up by the way of life that he embodied, that was his way.

Thus it is possible to be on Christ’s way and with his mark upon you without ever having heard of Christ, and for that reason to be on your way to God though maybe you don’t even believe in God.

A Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who at least has some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank. A Christian isn’t necessarily nicer than anybody else. Just better informed.

So Buechner suggests you can be “on the way” towards right relationship with God and the world without even really knowing it, assuming of course that God stands behind everything and is somehow at work accomplishing his will, including his desire that “none should perish.” This, by the way, is a suggestion that my atheist friend Jared (whom I blog with here at Canon Fodder) and perhaps others like him take great umbrage at, and I certainly understand why. If they’re right and there is no God, then it takes a lot of nerve to suggest that God could do God-like things, like orchestrating all of our lives and the very universe itself. Then again, if we’re right that there is a God and he is the God of love fully revealed in the person of Jesus; that is, if metaphysically somehow God IS love, then it would be impossible for any of us to ever love, let alone “live, move, or have our being” without God being at work making it all possible, whether we believe and acknowledge that this is so or not (in which case a Christian then really is “just better informed”). Also, what I love about this notion of being “on the way” is that it helps us to not get hung up on the question of who’s in and who’s out. To make an almost equally controversial analogy, I suppose the question of when life in Christ begins is similar to the question of when life in the womb begins. Who’s to say? I certainly wouldn’t want to be in the position of having to make that determination in either case because there’s far too much at stake. Fortunately, I don’t have to.

Finally, regarding my experience in the Pentecostal community of my youth, I guess these days I tend to be wonderfully grateful for that experience and I seek to take with me the best of what I learned there, while acknowledging all the negatives that came with it too. Unfortunately, there are enough negatives that I don’t know that I could ever fully go back to the kind of community I grew up in. Perhaps if I found a Pentecostal faith community that had managed to hang on to the best of what such communities can offer while also growing and learning in some of the ways that I hope I have, I might consider it. Unfortunately, I don’t know of such a community…