Be Who We Are, Where We Are

This post from Rod White was timely. I especially appreciate this part:

The big threat of our era is the inability to be who we are where we are instead of always standing outside of ourselves taking a picture or imagining some other experience instead of the one we are having.

I’ll probably have more to say about this later. 

Renting=Spiritual Discipline(?)

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This is where we live right now. It’s the classic nondescript townhouse in the ‘burbs. It’s literally the antithesis of almost everything I claim I believe about the importance of place and one’s stewardship of it. My old/former friend/mentor David once said, as I’ve long since quoted, that “buying a house is one of the most important theological decisions you’ll ever make.” As he went on to say, there’s a lot that goes into such a decision. It involves deciding how much of one’s budget to commit to housing, for starters, and whether or not one will live beyond one’s means. It means deciding, for good or ill, who your literal neighbors are and how much time you’ll spend each day commuting to work or school. It should involve critical thinking about justice and race and economic disparities. I could go on.

The first/only time we bought a house, we chose this one:

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We really grew to like and appreciate that house in OH. It looks, and was, relatively small, but in a “bigger on the inside” sort of way. There were two bedrooms upstairs, a normal sized one on the main floor, and another tiny one on the main floor for a total of four. Plus, the basement was mostly finished, giving it a family room and second bathroom down there, plus a bonus room that variously served as a workout room for a previous owner and a sewing room (when Kirsten’s mom lived with us), office, and eventual extra “bedroom” in our almost decade in that house. Still, despite it being what I think is a fairly modest house from the look of it with a working class neighborhood vibe, I spent a lot of time feeling guilty about (working toward) “owning” it.

For starters, I love cities and believe that there are justice issues involved in choosing to live in one. I lean toward thinking that it’s more just to do so, given the historic reality of white flight and the resultant declining urban tax base and property values. However, I know too that choosing to live in the city can unwittingly make one part of the gentrification process of the very disadvantaged neighbors one might seek to make common cause with. Still, I do love the city. So choosing to buy the house we did above was a conflicted decision as it was a house in a ‘burb. The nice thing about Cuyahoga Falls is that it felt more like a small town with its own “downtown” and the like; it just happened to be adjacent to some larger cities in Akron and Cleveland (and, going the other way, Canton). The not nice thing about Cuyahoga Falls is that it was sometimes known as “Caucasian Falls,” and that lack of diversity was certainly reflected in our experience there. I salved my guilt about (working toward) “owning” that house by:

  • Moving into it with Kirsten’s mom in tow and giving her the biggest bedroom for our first year+ there.
  • Later, by fostering a couple of African-American boys for a very short while in that house.
  • While we were in Texas for a year-and-a-half as my dad was dying right in the middle of our near decade “owning” that house, we rented it out at a significant monthly loss to a couple that couldn’t have afforded to live there otherwise. We hoped to eventually sell the house to them, but we wound up returning to it instead.
  • Much later, we gave up our basement first for a young married couple to move in and, as they left, then for a teacher friend to live in it.

None of that of course made my guilt completely go away. Whether or not I should have entertained such a feeling at all is another question, but I struggled with it until the house finally sold after our move to MN. In a sign of changing times and perhaps providentially, it just so happened that we sold the house to a an African-American family.

So, now here we are in a townhouse well entrenched in “nice” neighborhood in what is more classically and obviously a suburb. I have some guilt of course about where we are now, which is only slightly lessened by the fact that we’re renting. We sold the OH house at such a loss that it may be a long time before we ever “own” again. We chose this townhouse because it’s a few blocks from Kirsten’s mom (and sister), and ostensibly we’re here in no small part to help give care to her as her health declines. It’s within sight of a good elementary school that did very well with Samuel and his (slight) Autism diagnosis in the year+ he went there. However, Coon Rapids seems to have a lot of baggage in terms of a heritage of racism that we still run into every day. I’ve experienced this personally as I heard an employee at the local Ford dealer where I was getting work done on our car call the President a “raghead,” and in the news. Sadly, the school district also has a terrible history of discrimination of LGBT students that resulted in a rash of suicides.

That said, things here are very much changing too. When I let a manager at the Ford dealership know what I had heard and how offensive it was, he went out of his way to apologize and express his agreement with me. He may have been exercising good customer service, but it felt genuine. While attending a community event at a local park, I sat down with the boys for a snack while lunch was being served. In the circle we were sitting in, I saw another white family, but also an Asian dad and his boys and an African-American mom and her kids. Things are improving in the school district too, and even that good elementary school that’s just a stone’s throw away seems increasingly diverse when we attend school functions. I’m glad for that.

But that doesn’t mean I’m ready to put down roots here, and this is why after yearning for so long to live the “American dream” and own a home, I’m almost glad not to right now. When we did, I gave lip service to the notion that everything belongs to God and I was but a steward of whatever possessions I came to have, including that house, but I don’t know how well I actually lived that out. We are fortunate to have what so far is a really great landlord here; so with that in mind, I can say that my lived experience of renting this townhouse for the past year isn’t all that different from the decade we “owned” that OH house. I still make a large payment every month to the person/entity that “really” owns my residence (if not truly or ultimately again if everything belongs to God). I don’t have the freedom to do whatever I want with this place, but that’s what I’m grateful for now, because it reminds me that if I really believe that everything belongs to God and I am but a steward of God’s stuff, than I never really did have that freedom. Being more conscious of my likely transience in this place helps me be mindful of those who lived here before I did, and those who will come after me. Moreover, it helps me be thoughtful about that super important theological decision of just where to put down more “permanent” roots, and I hope and pray to use this time wisely to make sure we make that decision, whenever we do, with all the force of our convictions and wisdom of our experience.

Just Die Already, Part II -or- Home Is Where the Heart(ache) Is(?)

I preached the following sermon to Circle of Hope East in December 2004, just 8 days before Samuel was born four months premature and our lives were changed forever.

John 14: 1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” 8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

Home. For some of us the word evokes fond memories of a nurturing family, especially at this time of the year. For others, including me, the word is fraught with a tension we can hardly describe. We want to be part of a meaningful and nurturing home, but the one we grew up in wasn’t at all like that, and so we struggle to redefine what home means to us as we grow up and make our own dwelling places. But I wonder, and maybe you do too: just what is home, anyway? Frederick Buechner describes home this way:

The word home summons up a place…which you have rich and complex feelings about, a place where you feel, or did feel once, uniquely at home, which is to say a place where you feel you belong and which in some sense belongs to you, a place where you feel that all is somehow ultimately well even if things aren’t going all that well at any given moment. To think about home eventually leads you to think back to your childhood home, the place where your life started, the place which on and off throughout your life you keep going back to if only in dreams and memories and which is apt to determine the kind of place, perhaps a place inside yourself, that you spend the rest of your life searching for even if you are not aware that you are searching. I suspect that those who as children never had such a place in actuality had instead some kind of dream of such a home, which for them played an equally crucial part.

As I alluded to a moment ago, I would definitely fall into the latter category. I did not grow up in the kind of home that Buechner describes, though I have always longed for it. In fact, I have spent all of my adult life thus far trying to create such a home, and it has been an exceedingly difficult task.

I think the thing that is so meaningful and important about the dream of home that Buechner talks about it is this idea that it belongs to you, or maybe more importantly that you belong to it, and that somehow, no matter what is happening presently, the result is that all is well or you can rest assured that all will be. Home, for me, is an idea that evokes a sense of safety and security, even though I never knew such safety growing up, and I think that’s often how things work. Sometimes we know things by their presence, but sometimes it is only in the absence of something that we come to know and long for it. This is especially true of God, I think, and you may have heard talk of the “God-shaped hole” that many of us experience in the absence of the abiding presence of Jesus, but I’ll say more about that later. In the meantime, let me say this, and I warn you that this is a spoiler for where my talk is going, but here it is anyway: I believe that whatever kind of home you grew up in- whether you knew a loving home or knew only the absence of one and so yearn for it, like me- either way such a home is a far cry from our true home. That true home is with Jesus, the same Jesus that John says is the Word by which all things were made and in whom all things hold together. God, who is love, so overflows with that love that he made a world. He made us, and breathed into us the breath of life, literally inspiring us to be, to exist. He made us in love, and for love, for right relationship with him and all creation. Ultimately, Jesus is the home we were made for, but like the animals in Narnia we’ve fallen asleep and lost our ability to talk. We don’t remember who we are or what we were made for, but every once in a while, sometimes in the best of our earthly homes, we catch a glimpse of the mystery that lies just beyond our awareness; we see a doorway open for an instant, and we are blinded by the love that waits to make us whole again, and so we set out on a journey- we begin to make our way to our final and true home.

Of course, the hard thing that we find along the way is that this journey to wholeness and home is finally impossible. If Jesus is the home we long for, then like Thomas we do not know where he is going or how to get there. We know only that the lasting peace and rest that we so long for is just beyond our grasp, and so we conclude that we couldn’t possibly be home yet. We are broken, fractured by our freedom to choose because we so often choose that which takes us further from home, away from love. We do not love as we should and do not really know why. We are lost, unable to find our home and in some ways unable to find even our true selves, because as I said before, we’ve forgotten who- and whose- we are. We do not know that we were made in and for love, or we know it only by the absence of such love in our lives. We do not know that we belong to the King, Jesus, and so we bend the knee at any impostor king who comes along and is able to capture our imagination, or at least distract us for a time from the emptiness inside. In the end, lost and alone, yearning for a home we have only dreamed about, we realize that we cannot save ourselves, and we begin to come undone. It’s a hard thing to learn, but I think it’s an essential part of our journey, because in our weakness God’s strength is revealed.

Realizing that I cannot save myself- that I can not create out of my own force of will the kind of home I never had- has been terribly hard for me, but ever so slowly, I am learning. You see, as I’ve alluded to, my home growing up was a pretty messed up place, and those of you who know me or have heard me talk before may know that all too well. My father was very loving, but that love was drowned in the sea of my mother’s abuse, and that abuse marks me deeply and has gone a long way toward making me the man I am today. In fact, I’ve recently begun to imagine the abusive home of my youth as an image. In this image I see my mother, a vital, raving lunatic, trapped in a dungeon deep in my psyche. This is a deep, dark place inside me where no one ever goes, but there she is, locked in a cage, railing at the bars, cursing at anything that moves. And there I am, as a child, about five years old, sitting just outside my mother’s cage, curled up in a ball, sobbing and rocking back and forth. I think that image is the emotional center that I live out of most of the time, though I’m hardly aware of it. I know it’s true, though, because when Jesus actually gets to me- when I see him for who he really is and remember who I really am, that’s the immediate place I go to. I begin to cry, overcome with the experience of his love and care for me even though I’m just a small, broken, weeping child.

So I’ve sort of been living a double life. As an adult I’m even-keeled and intellectual, and though I have moments of passion I’m mostly disconnected from my emotions. I’m fractured that way because I had to be in order to survive my mother’s abuse. I couldn’t keep feeling the way she made me feel at five years old, or I would simply have died. So I became very skilled at hiding and suppressing those emotions and living as if I didn’t have them, and the result is that today, standing before you, I am only half a person, at best. I’m out in the world, looking for home, and I haven’t even brought all of myself along. I don’t know how to be whole, because the part I’ve left behind is a small, weak five year old, who is scared and crying in front of a cage.

But I recently had what I can only describe as a vison, and I think this vision holds the key to my journey to wholeness and home. In it I see myself kneeling before Jesus- as he might be pictured in Revelation, in full warrior garb, eyes blazing, with sword at the ready. I kneel there before him, and he keeps pressing me, asking me over and over again: “Will you yield?!” Each time I am unable to comply; though I want to- I want to say “yes” and acknowledge his lordship over all creation, especially over me. I want to submit to him and trust that he loves me and can keep me safe, but I can’t. I remain stuck, frozen in indecision, trapped in a halting reply. Finally, exasperated, Jesus simply cuts me in two (think Darth =ader and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Episode IV of Star Wars). He cuts me in two and I ‘m gone- obliterated….and then, I ‘m there again. Somehow changed. Whole. Complete. No longer kneeling, I see Jesus, and he is different too. With his warrior garb gone, he says to me, “Behold, I make all things new!”

I think that in this vision Jesus offers me a way out- through death, and into new life, but in order to receive that life, I must tread the path that we all must journey down in order to be made whole. If I am to find my life, I must lose it. If I am to be born again, I must die, and God must endure labor to give life to me anew. Jesus offers me a chance to put an end to this identity I have made for myself as the dispassionate intellectual, an identity rooted in my experience of abuse, an identity which consequently is all about self-protection, and so is all about self. Jesus is giving me an opportunity to be that five year old again and live his life over. This time, however, instead of being overwhelmed by the lack of love and abuse that he suffered, I am carried along, as that child, in the loving arms of Jesus. His enduring love is the home I never knew, and that love abides with me day by day as I learn again what it means to live and love and trust and make a family.

This is the task that Mary and Joseph were faced with, I think, as they learned what it meant to carry the baby Jesus, give birth to him, and raise him. Somehow they knew, of course, that their child was different. An angel had come to each of them independently to describe what was to be and reassure them that it was God’s doing, and there were some pretty big moments along the way: like when Mary magnified the Lord after John the Baptist, still in Elizabeth’s womb, leaped for joy at the presence of Jesus, still in Mary’s womb, and later the Magi came, and the heavens opened to announce the birth of Jesus to some unsuspecting shepherds in a field. Likewise, after Jesus was born, they took him to the Temple and an old man named Simeon proclaimed that seeing the infant Jesus was the very thing that made his life finally complete, as he had been promised that he would not die without seeing the Lord’s Anointed One.

All of these things had to have been pretty significant to Mary and Joseph, but these were the high points, the big moments that capture the headlines of the Bible, and we actually know very little about their every day life, about what happened between the lines of the Bible’s pages. And so we wonder about those times when no one was looking, when Mary and Joseph looked into each other’s eyes and wondered what the future held, and what they held in Mary’s belly. The Bible doesn’t capture the secret things they said at night when no one was looking. We do know that Joseph nearly called the whole thing off, but the angel took care of that, and so, like us, Mary and Joseph spent their days watching, waiting, and wondering. They watched Mary’s belly grow, and they waited for Jesus to come as they wondered what it all really meant.

What a magical and mysterious time that must have been. I especially appreciate this Advent season because I get to enter into the story in a new way, as Kirsten and I are expecting a son in the Spring. Even with the very real experience of watching Kirsten’s belly grow, I still can’t imagine what Joseph must have felt, but like him, I hope, I struggle to put it all in perspective and find rest in the midst of it. You see, I think, for a numer of different reasons, that Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said that you have to be like a child to enter his kingdom. One of the ways that I think this works has to do with belief. Many children, even in our jaded culture, haven’t yet learned to disbelieve. When watching a movie they don’t have to be convinced to suspend their disbelief because their belief hasn’t been suspended yet. Children who have been loved and nurtured well see wonder and magic everywhere- they have “eyes to see” the kingdom. That’s what’s so great about Christmastime, even the commercialized version of it. For six weeks or so, or longer- depending on who can make a buck off it- as a culture we give ourselves permission to be children again. We wait, expectantly, for something magical to happen. We hope, even if we can’t quite believe it, that families will gather and try to love one another. It’s a time when, if only we would stop and be still and listen quietly, we can catch a glimpse of the impossible. You might step through a wardrobe and be in Narnia. The creator and King of the Universe might come to be with us as a helpless baby.

I think Kirsten and I had an experience like this when we decided to move back to Philadelphia and be a part of you all again. We had sojourned in Minnesota for five long years. It was a hard time for both of us, but especially so for me. As you know, I grew up abused and was terribly marked by that experience. While in school I did Kingdomworks, which brought me to Philly to serve in the inner-city, and I was marked by that too, and so I got married and left school and moved here, where we found Circle shortly after it started. We were here for two years and then moved to MN to be with Kirsten’s dying father. My mother died the day after he did, and that weekend of funerals was, for me, a study in contrasts between the consequences of a life lived attempting to love and serve others, like Kirsten’s dad did, and one lived in the absence of such love and service, like my mother. I went to seminary while we were out there, which was a wonderful but terribly hard time for me that wound up looking a lot like the desert that Joshua described last week. It was out of that deserted, desert place that I began to hear that still, small voice calling us back to Philadelphia, and when Kirsten and I decided to go for it, I told her that it was time for us to believe again.

It was time for us to believe, at a most basic level, in Jesus again, and don’t be alarmed- it’s not like somehow we stopped believing along the way; it’s quite the contrary, in fact. I am firmly convinced that, despite the rhetoric of some Christians, doubt is not the enemy of faith, but its partner. As Buechner says:

There are times when all of our explanations ring false even as we make them. There are times when it is hard to see how any honest, intelligent person can look at the world without conluding, like Macbeth, that the whole show is a tale
told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing. Many of us have faith in God and yet have doubts too, and in the long run perhaps it is just as well that we have them. At least doubts prove that we are in touch with reality, with the things that threaten faith as well as with the things that nourish it. If we are not in touch with reality, then our faith is apt to be blind, fragile, and irrelevant.

Even so, coming back here, to you, was a step taken in faith, in the belief that ultimately hope is something that happens, and love is something you do. Coming back here, was, for us, another step forward in the long journey home. We keep taking those steps, however halting they may be, because we know in some sense just beyond our perception or understanding that we are of course home already, because Jesus is the home we yearn for, and he has come to live among us. This is the promise of Immanuel, of God with us. Through his birth, life, death, resurrection, and the ongoing life of his spirit in you and me, God has made a “big space of grace” in which we can live, and move, and have our being. Our home is wherever Jesus is, and Jesus is with us always. Like Thomas, we wonder how to see the Father, to see God and by doing so find the home that we long for, and so to us, too, Jesus says: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” But Jesus will not coerce us into acknowledging this. He will not force us to receive his love. God hides in the weak and powerless, in babies and AIDS patients, so that when we find him there we can begin to understand his love- and his judgment. Jesus stands at the margins, with the least of these, wooing us to follow him through death and into new life. I leave you, then, with another quote from Frederick Buechner that has been so meaningful to me because I think it sums up what it means to find a home with Jesus in everyday life. He says:

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, and smell you way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis, all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.

Hosanna

 

So some of my readers (assuming I have a few) may find the video above too “Christiany” and for some Christians it may be too “CCMy;” I know I certainly struggle with it in that way too. Still, this song has been playing on repeat in my head and, when I’m near a device, in my ears basically since I first came across it a few days ago. So press play and read on. I’ll listen to it as I write, and you can listen as you read. Maybe what I say below will make a little more sense to you that way. Circle of Hope taught me years ago that “without worship, we shrink,” and I’m convinced that’s true. It certainly is for me. Worship doesn’t come easy to me, though. My song, my own voice raised in such worship, has been hard to come by now for a long, long time. I think “real” worship, the kind in which your own heart is brave and raw and reaches out in response to the offer of God’s own brave, raw heart is by definition an act of intense vulnerability. It requires being present in your own skin enough to offer your own true self, minus all the pretense and perception managing we’re so busy with all the time. To be vulnerable like this obviously means taking a risk, and risk-taking for we walking wounded requires bravery, indeed. More than that, though, it requires faith, and I don’t mean the kind that answers questions like “Is the Bible true?” or “Do I believe what it says?” I mean more the kind that dares not to answer questions but to ask them, questions like:

  • “Are you true, Jesus?”
  • “Do you really love me, and if so, why?”
  • “Is your love enough, Jesus- is it big enough, bigger than my pain, and will it really win in the end?”

I know my problems are First World/white people’s problems. I am the 1%, after all, among the richest people to ever walk the face of the earth, regardless of how low my credit score is and how much debt I carry. Still, they’re my problems, and my pain is real pain, inflicted by an inadvertently cruel mother and a sometimes all too cruel (First) world. As well documented on this blog, I had been through so much before Kirsten and I ever met, and together we’ve been through so much more still. Sadly, some of my pain is self-inflicted as I struggle to escape the sins of my parents and my own anxious, depressed, and aspie (-like?) nature. All that said, though, for me to truly worship not just with my life but specifically in song requires me to acknowledge that I am not the center of my own universe, that God is God and I am not, that love and hope and joy and justice and peace and indeed all things are truly possible. It requires me to not just hope for those things but to live into them, even if just for a moment. So if you hear my voice raised in worship, you should know that it’s no joke- a curtain is being pulled back; God’s kingdom is upon us; I’m entering the future.

That’s so very hard to do, though- to live as a person from the future, for whom God’s kingdom of peace, justice, and love has come. It requires “eyes to see”  healing in the midst of pain, justice and peace in the middle of conflict and strife, and love in the midst of hate- or worse- indifference. Harder still, it requires eyes to see myself as I can only trust that God does- as a broken but healed and beloved child of God. I want to be beloved; don’t we all? But I rarely know myself in this way, and I think I know why. You see, Circle of Hope also taught me that the Church exists for those yet to become a part of it, or as God told Abraham, to whatever extent we are blessed, we are blessed to be a blessing. God’s love is so great that even a trinity couldn’t contain it, and it spilled over into God’s good earth and all of us. So surely it’s so great that I couldn’t contain it; which means that if I want to keep experiencing it, deep in my gut, I have to be a conduit of it. The more I give, the more I get. “Break my heart for what breaks yours” from the song above, indeed.

All of this brings me to tonight. Tonight, the Resistance gathered for worship, and Ben started a sermon series on Revelation. As I hoped, he reminded us that prophecy was less about telling the future than it is about telling the truth. He said that it rarely prescribes a fixed outcome that cannot be changed, but rather like Scrooge’s entreaty to the ghost of Christmas future, it describes only what may be (to the extent that it describes the future at all). It offers a choice. It pulls back the veil on the false empires of this world and reminds that we’re called to be citizens of God’s kingdom instead. It reminds us that God’s kingdom will come, in the end, but we’re offered a chance to experience that coming kingdom right here and now. “We all gotta serve somebody,” Dylan sang. Why not serve the One who served and loved us first, and is doing so even now? Why not serve each other? Why not break the cycle of violence and pain in the world with unexpected and undeserved grace? Why not forgive our worst enemy and destroy him by making him our friend? That’s the story we’re invited to be a part of. It’s the only one I want told about me, and it’s one I may yet be able to sing about.

 

“I have standards for my God, after all…”

So my faith community, the Resistance, offers almost weekly Resistance LABS, which are described as

 

…one of the ways we say “Yes” to Jesus’ invitation to follow him and learn to walk as he walked in the world. From the first words of the Bible, where God declares his world “good,” Christians have understood that all of life is sacred and drenched in the divine. Every moment, person, and occasion is spiritual, and God wants to make everything holy. Resistance Labs are a powerful way we come together to declare that creation is good and God’s fingerprints can be found on every inch of it. Labs are totally optional, one-hour classes meeting for exactly four weeks around a variety of subjects: parenting, marriage, food, fitness, personal finance and investing, home repair, beginner and advanced theology, Bible study, etc. Our expert teachers come right from our community: we share with one another the gifts of knowledge and wisdom we’ve been given. Think of them as pro-tips, life hacks or brain food. Just know that they’re awesome.

 

I’m very grateful for and proud of our community for offering the latest LAB, which dealt with human sexuality, including the Church’s relationship with the LGBT community. Of the four one hour sessions for this LAB, the latter topic (the Church and the LGBT community) was reserved for just one of the hours, with some time for follow up questions available during the final week/hour. Naturally, the conversation was much too big to flourish under such constraints, but I’m glad we made an attempt to begin this discussion, and I hope it continues.  I’ll admit that I left the final night of the LAB last night disheartened, but again this was mostly a function of the conversational constraints noted above. That said, this is what I like about the four week conversation we had (so far):

  • I appreciate the way our lead pastor, Ben, framed the Church’s relationship to the LGBT community. He said that for many long years the Church and the larger culture stood united in their universal condemnation of homosexuality and, sadly, homosexuals. Both seemed to find  homosexuality abhorrent and held the homosexual at arm’s length, if outright rejection, exclusion, and judgment didn’t occur.  Over the past thirty or so years (roughly), all that has changed. Culture has clearly moved on and acceptance of homosexuality and homosexuals is ever more common, even in legal terms as laws change and courts rule in favor of equal rights for the LGBT community. This, Ben said, has left the Church very much at a loss as it determines how it should respond to these new developments. Ben was quick to say that the Church was utterly wrong for joining in with culture’s previous treatment of the LGBT community, but challenged us not to repeat the mistake by blindly joining in with culture now as it moves in the opposite direction. He went on to say (as I interpret his words) that our task first and foremost is to love our neighbor. He said judgment belongs within the Church (presumably in the form of holding each accountable to behavior consistent with the right relationships God calls us to). It is not, he said, to be leveled at those outside of the Church. Our stance, then, toward those who have no interest in following Jesus or who are just discovering him should be clear. We love them, unconditionally. If most faith communities did this- just this- the world would be a very different (and much more Christ-like, I would argue) place.
  • I like that we wrestled with Scripture. Ben went piece-by-piece through the very few verses that may deal with homosexuality, explaining why many of them simply don’t relate to the current practice of monogamous, consenting homosexual relationships between adults. When left with just a few verses that could be interpreted as applying to such practice, Ben led us in wrestling with the implications of the apparent Biblical witness against it, however limited it may be.
  • I like that both throughout the LAB and repeatedly in conversation Ben has said that whatever guidance we get from Scripture about the practice of homosexuality, we again are to love our homosexual neighbor and not let this single part of their identity cause us to exclude them from fellowship, from relationship, even (I hope) from participation in the covenant community. Speaking of this single (however significant) part of their identity, I like that both Ben and our other pastor, Joey, reminded us that people are complex beings created in the image of God and are therefore irreducible to one single issue or aspect of who they are, like sexual orientation. This is an important reminder, echoed by some great thinkers and practitioners in the Church like Jenell Paris.

All of that said, I found myself dissatisfied with how things officially ended last night. Of course, I cringed when someone attending the LAB uttered that great conversation-killer “It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” but my frustration I think goes beyond that.  I should probably preface any further comments by repeating the game-changing realization I came to some years ago. Emerging from a lifetime steeped in rules-based, checklist oriented “fundagelicalism,” it finally dawned on me that I needed to unlearn much of what I had been taught because while the rules regarding how to live and what it means to follow Jesus were terribly important, counter to what I had been taught growing up they were not the only or most important thing. The rules serve a greater purpose; they are there to point us in the direction of right relationship with God, one another, and the world. Thus, as I like to say now, “rules are for relationship.” Rules are signposts and markers. They show us where boundaries lie. They can lead us down the path we need to follow to keep up with Jesus and love our neighbors and God’s world best. They don’t define who we are, though, and we can never hope to follow them completely. Always, our greatest consideration should be the right relationships we’re trying to pursue. As we read in Scripture, after all, “the Sabbath was made for man,” not the other way around. Likewise, often Jesus said, “You have heard it said-” after which a rule followed- before adding “but I tell you-“ after which Jesus expands or changes the rule, flips it on its head, or takes it to an absurd extreme (a mere lustful thought about your neighbor’s wife=adultery?), thereby showing that the rule cannot be relied upon to set us free, to make us whole, to save us; that even if we were following all the rules we knew, perpetually we “still lack one thing.” If it’s salvation we’re after, the rules and any attempt to follow them (even rules about right thinking, I would argue) offer us little hope.

In my own life a rule that my father followed was not to get divorced. I’ve thought about this often because my mother struggled with many mental health issues and was very, very abusive. So that rule to not divorce was meant to point him in the direction of right relationship with his wife, my mother. However, making a rule to preserve the right relationship within a marriage had a larger purpose and was meant, I believe, to serve the greater good, which in this particular marriage should have been the health and well-being of not just both of my parents and myself but also my dad’s other three kids from his first wife (who died) and the larger community they were a part of, etc. In honoring that rule to not get divorced, my Dad allowed all those other relationships (and moreover some of those people) to be utterly destroyed as a result of my mother’s abuse. I mean lives were ruined. I don’t know that either of my parents were particularly better off for staying together, either. I believe that God hates divorce and I understand why. I have to believe, though, that he also hates child abuse and would prioritize the health and well-being of a child over preserving a very damaged, and damaging, marriage.

 

So, rules are for relationship.

 

Jesus is our only hope.

 

So what, then? Another thing I like that Ben did is both this week and last prior to the LAB conversation about the relationship between the Church and LGBT community and the follow-up Q&A this week, Ben preached sermons related to (last week) how God is ever on the move, leading us into new understandings of what it means to follow him and how to do it best- and- (this week) how (in my words) Scripture works best when understood for what it is. We do not have a single source text dating back thousands of years that was uttered by God, perfectly preserved, and flawlessly translated over the centuries. We have instead many, many fragments of a variety of source documents written (and actually first spoken before being written in some cases much later) over thousands of years (counting both testaments), none of which perfectly agree with one another. Moreover, a word in some languages cannot be found in another or has several possible meanings, meaning that every time Scripture is translated many, many interpretive decisions are made. Of course, when those words in Scripture finally reach our own eyes or ears, that interpretive process happens once again, as any single word is filtered and understanding is reached- or not- based on our previous understanding of and experience with that word.

The point of all of that is simply to say that we do God, his written Word, ourselves, and our neighbor a great disservice when we try to reduce all of this to simple pronouncements like “the Bible says…” whatever. I would add that Scripture also works best when understood for what it’s for. It’s not (merely) a rule book, and certainly isn’t meant to serve as a science textbook or even (only) as a written history. The Bible is story. It’s God’s story and ours, the story of God’s wooing of humanity throughout the ages, a process that continues to this day. It is, Lord willing, gospel, good news for all the people, meant to bring great joy. Sometimes, to be sure, it’s bad news before it’s good news. Part of the story involves some hard truth-telling about relationships that have not gone right, about what happens when those rules that are meant to point us toward right relationship are not followed. Sometimes even the rules themselves are bad news when they call us to do better or when rules that pointed 1st century people in the direction of right relationship are judged by 21st century people for how far away from those right relationships they still were. Nonetheless, if the good news isn’t eventually gotten to; if Scripture is only bad news, I can’t help but think we’ve missed something.

I fear that we’re still missing something now. If we 21st century Christ-followers do 1st century Christ-followers a disservice when we judge them and their rules because they still allowed slaves and tried to silence women in church, I wonder what 41st century Christ-followers will say about us, about our relationships and the rules we use to try to make and keep those relationships right? There is reference in Scripture to God’s law being written on our hearts, and I believe this is what he desires for us. I do not (merely) believe and follow the rules- the Bible- after all. I believe and follow Jesus. The rules are not the foundation of my faith. Jesus, the living Word, is. This is a much harder way to go, I would add, a much narrower path. It requires me to relate to a living God rather than a (in the view of some) dead book. It is a relationship between “I” and “Thou,” not “I” and “It” (a book, the rules).

In all of this I was reminded of a story I heard on NPR about a new book I’d like to read. The book is An Idea Whose Time Has Come by Todd Purdum. The subtitle will give you a sense of what it’s about. It is: “Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” The book opens by telling a story about a young African American serviceman, recently returned from “fighting for freedom” in Vietnam. In the anecdote the Army captain was “tired and hungry one day after fixing up a modest rental house for his wife and baby son.” He went to a local drive-in, hoping for a burger. He knew they wouldn’t serve him inside, but he tried to get car service. Finally a carhop came out and asked him if he was Puerto Rican or an African student. He said “no,” and explained who he was. The carhop then explained that she was “from New Jersey” and “didn’t understand any of this,” but wasn’t allowed to serve him. She said he could drive around to the back of the building and she would bring him a burger through the back door. He said he wasn’t that hungry and drove away. His name was Colin Powell. After describing the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the book goes on to relate that shortly after passage of the bill Colin Powell went back to that drive-in and was served without incident.

I mention this story because I find it very illustrative. Clearly God’s word- God’s good news of love for all people- was written on that woman’s heart, but she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, act on it because the rules stood in the way. At that time in our nation’s history God was leading people on to the next step in right relationship with one another, and it meant finally abandoning and rejecting practices that had once found support in Scripture. More and more, I suspect we’re at another one of those moments. I’m reminded too of something I’ve spoken often of on this blog, Bart Campolo’s seminal talk about the limits of God’s grace and his approach (at the time) to Scripture. Christianity Today did a little piece about it at the time. They said:

“Some might say I would be wise to swallow my misgivings about such stuff, remain orthodox, and thereby secure my place with God in eternity. But that is precisely my point: If those things are true, then God might as well send me to hell. For better or worse, I simply am not interested in any God but a completely good, entirely loving, and perfectly forgiving One who is powerful enough to utterly triumph over evil.”

The quote comes from Ivan Karamazov, the great skeptic of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov. No, actually, it just parrots Ivan’s famous rejection of God. The quote appeared in The Journal of Student Ministries, written by the founder and chaplain of Mission Year and a national representative for Compassion International. That would be Bart Campolo, son of Tony, the activist/evangelist. Elsewhere Bart Campolo describes his “article of faith,” saying, “I required no Bible to determine it, and—honestly—I will either interpret away or ignore altogether any Bible verse that suggest otherwise.”

Campolo explains that he reached these views while processing the rape of a 9-year-old girl, whose Sunday school teacher said God must have allowed it for a reason. Again, the parallels with Ivan Karamazov stand out. Ivan denounces God, whose justice he refuses to trust. “And if the sufferings of children go to well the sum of sufferings that was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price.” Campolo likewise favors his conscience over the biblical view of justice. “I am well aware that I don’t get to decide who God is. What I do get to decide, however, is to whom I pledge my allegiance. I am a free agent, after all, and I have standards for my God, the first of which is this: I will not worship any God who is not at least as compassionate as I am.”

Dostoevsky knew Christians were ill-prepared to answer these questions about theodicy. That’s why he created Ivan. What would you tell Ivan and Bart?

 

A writer for the BBC wrote about it too and references the CT piece above. He said:

 

Since the bishop of Carlisle now has us talking about whether God sends storms as a judgment for sin, now is probably a good time to mention the storm that is currently engulfing the American evangelical activist Bart Campolo (pictured). It all began with an article published last October in The Journal of Student Ministries — an article (or the “Barticle” as it’s now become known) which some Evangelicals in the United States say is “heretical”.

Bart Campolo is a keynote speaker at this year’s Summer Madness festival at the King’s Hall in Belfast, which ends tomorrow, and came into the Sunday Sequence studios today to talk about the controversy (“listen again).

You can read “The Limits of God’s Grace” here and Bart Campolo’s attempt to quell the storm of protest following its publication here (broken link).

Christianity Today writer Collin Hansen has written that Campolo is an evangelical equivalent of Ivan Karamazov, the rationalist atheist in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Hansen writes:

 

Campolo explains that he reached these views while processing the rape of a 9-year-old girl, whose Sunday school teacher said God must have allowed it for a reason. Again, the parallels with Ivan Karamazov stand out. Ivan denounces God, whose justice he refuses to trust. “And if the sufferings of children go to well the sum of sufferings that was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price.” Campolo likewise favors his conscience over the biblical view of justice. “I am well aware that I don’t get to decide who God is. What I do get to decide, however, is to whom I pledge my allegiance. I am a free agent, after all, and I have standards for my God, the first of which is this: I will not worship any God who is not at least as compassionate as I am.”

 

So what is Bart Campolo actually saying? I asked him this morning, “Why didn’t God intervene and stop the appalling gang rape of the nine year-old girl? What answer do you give her when she asks?”

He told me, “If God pre-ordained that rape, I hate him, and I won’t worship him. If God stood by and allowed it, I want nothing to do with him.” The explanation he appears to have arrived at is this: God loves the nine year old completely and (he writes) “the suffering of that poor little girl—evil’s doing—will somehow be redeemed, and she herself will be healed as part of the complete redemption and absolute healing that is to come for all of us”. But God is unable or unwilling to force his way into people’s lives; and sometimes God’s will is thwarted in our world.”

 

All of which adds up to an extremely difficult series of questions for many evangelicals to even countenance. If God’s mercy wins out in the end — here, there and everywhere — doesn’t that mean that everyone is eventually saved?

Universal salvation as the ultimate gift of a God whose power is temporarily limited in this world, and whose character is only partially revealed in a sacred text whose meaning is re-negotiated by every generation: these are claims that will not seem outrageous to many contemporary theologians. Some (though not all) within the evangelical community of faith may cry theological foul play and get angry with Campolo for raising these discomfitting questions, but that nine year-old girl deserves an answer, doesn’t she?

Universalism isn’t necessarily the topic here, though it may be related. I think the limits of God’s grace is, though. I have standards for my God, too, but more importantly I think he has standards for me, for all of us. Life with Christ is a journey, after all, individually and collectively as the Bridegroom leads his Bride ever closer to their home, a kingdom which has come but is yet coming, one in which enemies are reconciled, sin is forgiven, and all of creation is made whole. Our identity- whether gay or straight, man or woman, Jew or Gentile, is to be found in Christ and will be fully realized and made right in that kingdom. For that reason, I can only add my voice to the many who say, “Lord, come quickly.”

We Are the Resistance

I was privileged to be able to give a “cross testimony” tonight to the Resistance. This is a semi-regular chance for folks to come forward and share something about their faith and how they’ve connected to the Resistance, and then literally sign their name to a wooden cross. Below is what I said:

Hi, everybody. So, for those who don’t know me, I’m Robert Buck. My wife is Kirsten, and I have two boys, Sam and Nathan. We’ve been part of the Resistance since the week before the launch, and currently I serve by helping out with social media, organizing our efforts with Refuge of Hope, and being part of the “tear down” crew on Sunday nights. I’m also part of Ben’s Pocket that serves at the Pregnancy Support Center. So, I want to start out with a quote:

Man cannot live without acts of exaltation, without moments of trembling and revering, without being transported by grandeur. For weeks and months he may be confined to the routine of sensible interests, until an hour arrives when all his habits burst under the strain. Common sense may sign a decree that life be kept under the lock of average conceptions, but much in our lives is made to be burned up in a holy flame or it will rot in monstrous deeds, in evil thoughts. To satisfy his need for exaltation, man will plunge into rage, wage wars; he will set the city of Rome afire. When superimposed as a yoke, as a dogma, as a fear, religion tends to violate rather than to nurture the spirit of man. Religion must be an altar upon which the fire of the soul may be kindled in holiness.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, from God In Search of Man

I had a mentor figure in my life who used to say that he was less interested in why you became a Christian, and more interested in why you stay one. Another way of putting this is to ask the question that Kaylie answered last week: “Why follow Jesus when there are so many easier and less costly alternatives?” I would answer that in several ways. I have a pretty dramatic story, I guess you could say. I grew up in a Christian home and was very much immersed in the Christian bubble. I also grew up in a very broken and abusive home and have some pretty wild stories I could tell you. Since Kirsten and I got married almost 18 years ago our story together has been pretty wild too. My mom and her dad died within a day of each other, half a country apart. Since then we’ve tried to take care of our remaining parents as best we could until my Dad died a few years ago. When I went to seminary, for example, I was the only seminarian living on campus with my wife and my father, who came to live with us because he was really sick himself at that time, basically dying. Our son Samuel was born 4 months early, weighing one pound, five ounces. They told us he wouldn’t live through his second night of life. We’ve moved across the county multiple times, often in the midst of some trauma that was happening.  Along the way we’ve really been challenged to make our faith our own or abandon it, and honestly there have been lots of good reasons to give it up altogether. I have good friends who have done just that- quit following Jesus- and they wonder why I still struggle to.

I try to be honest with them and tell them that it’s really hard, but that basically I can’t help it. Like Martin Luther, all I can say is, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” Let me give you another quote that may help explain why. Frederick Buechner is a writer and one-time pastor that has been indispensable to my journey with Jesus, in no small part because of this quote. He says:

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and the pain of it no less than the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.

You see, stories are very important to me. The best ones tell us about their content, for sure, but often they tell us quite a lot about ourselves, if only we have ears to hear. Jesus’ parables are like that. Nathan standing before King David and telling him “You are the man” was like that. And for me, Jesus’ story is very much like that. Honestly, half the time I don’t want to follow Jesus, and if love is something you do and not just something you say, most of the time I probably don’t love him very well either. But try as I might, I can’t get away from him, which would be great if he would just pop through the clouds and force us all to get along and care for and feed and love one another. But he’s not like that. He hides. He hides when we yearn for him in obvious places, and pops up instead in the most inconvenient and challenging ones. I see him in the faces of the disadvantaged special needs kids I work with. I see him in my annoying co-worker who makes my job a thousand times harder than it should be. I see him in Fred Phelps and Elton John alike. I see him in the faces of starving kids in Africa, and hungry ones in Canton. I see him in Jews and Palestinians. I see him, quite annoyingly, in Tea Partiers and the President too. So I still try to follow Jesus because I believe him. I don’t just believe things about him. I believe Him.  I believe that he made me in and for love, and that because love is something you do, it only exists in community. I believe that he created the world and all of us because he couldn’t help it, because he’s so full of love that it couldn’t be contained; it needed a world with all of us in it to receive that love.

I don’t believe I was made to pursue the American dream or even my own happiness necessarily. I wasn’t made to follow a checklist of rules about my behavior or beliefs or voting practices or anything else. I was made instead to receive and express God’s love and to do so fiercely, which is necessary because so many of the world’s systems are set up in direct opposition to the kind of world that love is working to create even as we speak.  I would even dare to say that I was made for all of you. We were made not to attend a church, but to be one. We were made to be outrageous fools in the eyes of the world. God wants to do something wild and crazy and extravagantly beautiful, and for reasons only God could know he’s chosen us for this holy and glorious task. It’s crazy to start a peace-loving church in a time of war. It’s crazy to use most of our resources to love people and meet their needs rather than pay for a building or our pastors. It’s crazy to insist that we have a life together as the church that is right at the very core of who we are rather than just add a few good programs and a nice worship experience once a week to whatever life we’re already trying to pursue on our own. It’s crazy to think that some of us could pool our resources and share them with the world better by moving in together, but by the grace and wisdom of God ALL of these things are happening. You see, I believe that there is nothing better, and nothing harder, than following Jesus. I also believe that it’s so hard if you’re following him very closely at all that it simply can’t be done alone. It requires community. It requires us to really be an “us.” So if you ask me today why I’m following Jesus, I’d simply say that it’s because of you.

I’m Robert, and I alone am not the Resistance, but God knows we sure are.

“…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 Backroom Conversions and Whether or Not God’s the “Decider”

So I guess Samuel said the “sinner’s prayer,” or something like it, last Sunday. I’m making this guess based on an email I got from the Children’s Director at the faith community we’ve been participating in. Her email mentioned a “discussion centered around dying and what to expect, and as many of the children have experienced death in some form or another, there were lots of questions and ideas about fear, heaven, and how we are certain of our salvation.” It goes on to say that they “prayed together, as some expressed a desire to ask God for forgiveness and Christ to be their Savior.” She further expresses her excitement “that some made a decision to follow Christ in their hearts and with their lives” and relates that some “of our children now have their names written in ‘The Book’ in heaven, and they are sure to be there.”

Folks who know me or have read this blog for a while will rightly guess that this raises lots of questions for me. It’s said that having children forces parents to come to terms in some way with many things, including their own faith life. Many people who have not been regular church service attenders for some time, for example, may go back for the sake of their kids, or at least send the kids. Anyway, I’m certainly experiencing something like that now. One of the issues this situation raises is a basic question of theology. I grew up, as you, dear reader, may know, in the “evangelical” milieu wherein being a “Christian” at least seems to be largely about making such a “decision” for Christ so that you don’t go to hell, and then following certain rules, like: don’t cuss, don’t drink (much), don’t watch certain movies or read certain books or listen to certain music, don’t participate in Halloween (in some circles; there’s remarkable inconsistency on this one), don’t have an abortion, don’t support social programs that would limit abortions or otherwise mitigate their impact, do support the death penalty, do support war, do “go to church” on Sunday, do be patriotic and do vote Republican, etc. That, in my experience, was basically it. There was an easy formula: say the prayer, follow the rules, recruit others to do the same, and you’re “good;” you’re otherwise free to pursue the “American dream” just like everybody else. Sure, there was some talk of being distinct or separate from “the world,” but it was a distinction with little difference because the “Christian life” as described above is little more than an affirmation of USAmerican civil religion, an amalgam of God and country that so dilutes the meaning of the former so as to make it irrelevant, if not meaningless. God, in this context, becomes a tool for serving the needs of the state. Religion is certainly an opiate, then, a drug used to keep the masses in line or whip them into a patriotic fervor, as the need may arise.

There is little in this that resembles the life of Jesus, who was crucified on a Roman cross in the ultimate act of “church”/state complicity. The religious leaders of his day saw him for the threat that he was, the ultimate threat to secular power whether wielded by the state or the “church.” Jesus spoke of a “kingdom that was not of this world” and said it was already “upon you.” He gave lip service to state authority by saying to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” (in that case, Caesar’s coins) but to God “what is God’s” (your heart, your soul, your life, everything that is). He further called into question state power by showcasing the injustice of state/military practices such as forcing civilians to carry soldiers’ gear for a mile by, in that case, saying that one should carry it for two. More subversion can be found in the admonition to “turn the other cheek.” As one writer has noted regarding this:

“Imagine being struck on your right cheek.  You probably get hit by the striker’s right hand, which means you get backhanded.  Backhanding does not happen in a fair face-off.  Backhanding is an insult, punishment, or just plain abuse.  Back then it represented a clear situation of oppression or dominance. So you could 1) fight back (not smart), or 2) meekly take it, maybe with ‘Yes, Sir’. Now Jesus suggests a third approach.  Offer the other cheek.  You are not fighting back, but neither are you meekly taking it.  You are asking for more.  You may get it or you may not, but either way you’ve made a point or two.  You are not exactly what they think you are, and you know it; you are a person, and deserve more equal treatment and respect as a person; you are aware of the truth behind the fraud.  You are amplifying awareness of, and insulting, their bullying behavior and the system that allows it.”

Jesus’ religious subversion was no less troubling for the powers that be. He repeatedly said, “you have heard it said…but I tell you…” and thereby either took the Bible of his day and turned it on its head or stretched “the (religious) rules” so far as to make them impossible to follow, thereby showing the ultimate impossibility of a system dependent on them. An example of the former can be found when he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:43-45).” An example of the latter is when he spoke about adultery, saying “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27). Moreover, he repeatedly broke the religious rules by healing (doing work) on the Sabbath, touching (or being touched by) the “unclean,” claiming the power to forgive sin, etc. The Roman overlords at the time were not so quick to call for his death, but the Jewish religious leaders could not allow him to subvert their supposed authority any longer, and saw to it that Rome would help them put him down. In short, Jesus was dangerous, and this was no small part of why he was killed, the simultaneous cosmic significance of his death notwithstanding. Obviously, then, his life and witness bears little resemblance to the “Christian life” I described above.

Perhaps obviously, it is my hope, then, that following Jesus is more about living as he did and less about living as far too many of his supposed followers do now. It’s more about loving my local and global neighbors, enemies included, and less about fully identifying with the country in which I reside, let alone with either one of its political parties, however sympathetic I may be toward one or the other of them. Jen Hatmaker says this far better than I could. This is slightly long, but worth it. She says:

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. I particularly like how John Piper discussed voting in his post “Let Christians Vote As Though They Were Not Voting”, referencing 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 (by the way, do not google “John Piper election” in hopes of pulling up this article, because you will find seven hundred thousand pages of predestination sermon links):

“So it is with voting. There are losses. We mourn. But not as those who have no hope. We vote and we lose, or we vote and we win. In either case, we win or lose as if we were not winning or losing. Our expectations and frustrations are modest. The best this world can offer is short and small. The worst it can offer has been predicted in the book of Revelation. And no vote will hold it back.”

These things remain: God’s kingdom exists anywhere believers are choosing love and grace and reckless obedience; it is undeterred by a red or blue context. Sisters and brothers in Christ will vote differently, because as we all must, we simply have to choose between two platforms that each include some gospel-centric policies and others that contradict. Either way, we will swallow some ideologies that belie the message of Jesus. Regardless, God is still on His throne, and our true allegiance rests in His sovereignty. Four or eight years of an administration cannot compromise the historical work of a holy God.

If discipleship means loving the broken, then love the broken.

If following Jesus means abandoning our rights, then abandon them.

If you care about the sanctity of life, then devote yourself to its care – womb to grave.

If you worry about the vulnerable, then give your life away for them.

If Scripture tells us perfect love drives out fear, then it does.

If your trust is in a Servant Savior, then put it there and leave it there.

 

As children of God, we should be unthreatened by secular power. The Law was never able to bring redemption, and it is still insufficient to make all things new. The healing and hope and goodness we long for is realized fully in Jesus, extended through His people despite hardship or distance or the passage of time or the changing of guards. No political party can see it through or take it away. It was finished on the cross, and the discussion is over.

So may we deal kindly with one another in a manner befitting the Bride, as a people who loosely engage the system of the day, retaining our prophetic voice and refusing to malign one another for a false kingdom that will soon pass away. May we preach Jesus crucified and risen, the only hope of the world. And whether we vote red or blue, may we reach across the lines, join hands, and proclaim:

“To the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.” ~Romans 16:27

 

That, my friends, is the Christian life I hope to be a part of, someday perhaps.

Anyway, this brings us back to what happened in Sunday School with Samuel. “Evangelicals” follow a pattern in which a baby is born and then in some way “claimed” by the community on behalf of God through a “baby dedication.” A sympathetic spin on this, I think, would be to say that it’s less about the community dedicating the baby to God, though there may be some good symbolism to be mined there, and more about the community dedicating themselves to love and raise the baby in the grace of God. Nonetheless, later the child grows up and makes the faith that was claimed for them as a baby their own through baptism, after making the “decision for Christ” described above. Lutherans follow a similar pattern. For the record, though I was raised in the “evangelical” milieu as noted above (or as a “fundagelical,” as I like to call it), I went to Luther Seminary and the faith I hope to have as an adult is grounded in Lutheran theology, which is part of why- for good or ill- the faith community we now participate in is an ELCA one. The afore-mentioned Children’s Director at this Lutheran congregation, however, is a paid staff person who is not a member and in fact is part of the local “evangelical” mega-congregation, perhaps obviously.

So Lutherans follow a similar pattern to the one I just described, but I think the meaning is much, much richer. For Lutherans, a baby is also “claimed” in some way in God’s name, but in this case this occurs through infant baptism. If, for “evangelicals” baptism is the act that somehow “seals the deal” of the baptized’s identification with God, this is no less true for Lutherans. For the “evangelical,” however, the onus is put on the person. You have to make a decision to say the prayer and accept God’s forgiveness, and then you’re “saved;” you’re “in,” and you show this symbolically by getting baptized. For Lutherans, conversely, what “saves” you is so much less about you that you’re removed from the equation. It’s ALL about what God does. God does the saving; God’s “the decider.” God claims you in the waters of baptism as an infant. God, who stands at both ends of time, dies for you “while you were yet a sinner.” In Lutheran theology, and, I would argue, in Scripture, faith is a gift, fully given by God. This raises lots of other questions which are more appropriate for another time, but obviously I find this theologically much more compelling.

The second part of the pattern, then, for the Lutheran occurs when one is older through Confirmation. In Confirmation the child who has been baptized, who has been “saved” wholly by God’s grace and nothing more (or less), then takes the initiative to more fully live like someone who has received the gift of faith. They may not take “ownership” of it, I would like to think, because it’s God’s good gift, but they live much more intentionally like a beggar who has received bread and knows where to get more.

As my seminary buddy Mark said about all this:

Samuel has both been baptized and made some sort of decision for Christ now, is that right? Lutherans would say he became a Christian upon baptism, and if he had a moment of illumination in Sunday School, well, the Spirit is involved in those too I figure…but I would want Samuel to know that he has a relationship with God that will last forever because of God’s initiative in adopting him and unconditional promise through the sacrament. What (the Children’s Director) is teaching here really suggests that baptism is irrelevant, and the equating of salvation with getting into heaven is narrow and doesn’t resemble much the Bible, as N.T. Wright has probably shown best in Surprised by Hope.

I couldn’t agree more.

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.