‘The Response’ and My Response

It’s a tough thing to be challenged in church. It’s even tougher to be challenged on an issue where you’re certain you’re right, only to wonder whether you’re not as right as you thought.

Let me explain.

I visited our old church yesterday. We have some fond memories there, in part because we still have some great friends who attend, in part because I’m not sure where we’d be today without the family we developed there. We moved just two weeks after our younger daughter was born in late 2009, but we returned a week later to have her dedicated there, and I told the congregation we named her Grace because we had learned so much about that precious gift through our time fellowshipping with that incredible community.

But it’s an unusual congregation. In many ways, it’s like how I grew up, with no single preacher and a worship service without any published order that frequently changes depending on how the Spirit moves that day. But there was also a praise band (I grew up with a cappella worship), and once in a while someone would prophecy or speak in tongues (definitely not allowed where I grew up), but probably not often enough to please most people who really believe in that sort of thing.

The leader of the local Republican Party attended, and sometimes he would blend his day job with his faith from the pulpit to a degree with which I wasn’t comfortable, but it wasn’t terribly often, so I endured. That congregation ministered to us in a dark place, and through its members, God showed us what grace was, and how, whether we knew it or not, he was going to use his grace to transform our lives.

So I was excited to return yesterday, and it was with considerable dismay that I heard the pastor say he was going to devote “however long it takes” to some testimony time from a team that had gone on a missions trip to New Orleans (no problem there) and spent the day at The Response in Houston on their way back.

But, as usual, God had some things to say to me and, not surprisingly, they mostly dealt with judgment.

Principally, just because we believe something is out of line with our convictions does not mean God doesn’t have great things planned for it.

Now, I have some friends who have been saying the same thing to me for a few days, but I mostly dismissed their arguments as tantamount to the ends justifying the means. And I’m not ready to totally concede that argument.

But listening to the testimony of people whose faith I would readily describe as stronger than mine, people who said they heard God speak clearly that he wanted them to take a team to Houston and participate in Gov. Rick Perry’s prayer event … well, how do I respond to that?

I can dismiss them as liars or deceived, or I can recognize that God is using an event with shady origins to do great things anyway. In other words, God is taking an imperfect instrument of humanity and using it anyway. Kind of like he does with me.

Continue reading ‘The Response’ and My Response

Letting Faith Be Faith

Another thing Rachel Held Evans and I have in common is we both came of age at the height of the Christian apologetics movement, that two- or three-decade push for Christians to be able to “be able to give an answer” to critics of the faith.

As Evans writes on Page 78 of Evolving in Monkey Town:

To experience the knowledge of Jesus Christ, we didn’t need to be born again; we simply needed to be born. Our parents, our teachers and our favorite theologians took it from there, providing us with all the answers before we ever had time to really wrestle with the questions.

Emphasis mine. I was attracted to the idea of a rational faith, one that could be defended on evidential grounds, as if this was a court case. And, of course, apologetics was all about court cases: Evidence That Demands a Verdict. The Case for Christ. Etc.

Here’s the problem with court cases though: Once the verdict is in, you stop thinking about the arguments.

What I mean is that, at least in my life, when I reduced faith to a series of evidentiary statements, I stopped, well, having faith.

This is where Evans and I differ. In her story, the tools she had been given with which to critically analyze and, to put it bluntly, pick apart other faiths she eventually used to do the same to her own, and she found the answers increasingly wanting.

In mine, once I had solved the crime and won the verdict, if you will, I was done. I had reduced faith to a logical series of facts, and as such, it withered and died inside me. There was no mystery, no excitement, no reality. Faith was another argument to which I had the right answers, no different than my faith in supply-side economics or the Christian beliefs of America’s founding fathers.

There was no room anymore for faith to be faith.

In the end, God had to perform miracles in my life to reawaken my dormant faith. I had to reform my view of God from one of “Jesus loves me / This I know / For the Bible tells me so” to “You ask me how I know he lives / He lives within my heart.”

Because ultimately faith is nothing if it is not living inside you. That doesn’t mean you stop worrying about the contradictions or ignore the questions raised by skeptics. I am going to grad school, after all. But it means recognizing that sometimes it’s OK not to have all the answers.

I’m not very good at that. I’ve always been the smartest kid in the class. I won most, if not all, of our school’s spelling bees and geography bees. I love to debate, but most of all I love being right. I love having The Answers.

But it’s time to realize that although I know God exists and loves me and died for me and wants me to spend the rest of eternity with him, the only proof I have of that is anecdotal — what God has done in radically reshaping my life. And as I’m fond of saying, anecdotal evidence isn’t really evidence at all.

And that’s what faith is, isn’t it? It’s about relying on God, even when you aren’t sure he’s going to catch you. It’s about believing a story as preposterous as the perfect, omnipotent Creator allowing himself to be squeezed through a birth canal so he could ultimately be subjected to the worst torture his own creation could devise — all because he wanted to live forever with those very same people.

It’s about believing the answers, even if you can’t prove them.

Rachel Held Evans and Evolution

My wife and I are going through two books simultaneously, reading a chapter aloud from each before we fall asleep: Crazy Love by Francis Chan and Evolving in Monkey Town by Rachel Held Evans.

There’s some tension between these two books. On the one hand, Evans’ life story is about moving from certainty to doubt, or as the book’s subhead states, “How a girl who knew all the answers learned to ask the questions.” Chan, meanwhile, is a pastor (at least he was when the book was written); his job is to actually have the answers. More than once, we’ve found Chan stating something with certainty, only to have Evans walk it back a little bit.

It’s a good tension, a healthy tension. It’s not conflict, and it’s not so much point-counterpoint, but it’s giving us some good discussion material, at least until we devolve into delirium and pass out because we have, once again, stayed up too late.

I’d like to make a habit of sharing some thoughts as we work through these books. I have two toddlers and a full-time job, and I’m about to start grad school, so I can’t promise anything so regular as a daily post, but I’ll feel pretty good about it if I can have something up every other day.

Right off the top, I’m struck by several things in Evans’ book, not least of which is how uncannily similar our lives have been. I could easily have written this paragraph on pages 30-31 of the paperback edition (though not nearly as well, of course):

The culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s raged throughout my most formative years, culminating with the election of George W. Bush my freshman year of college. In this political environment, being a good Christian meant adopting a range of causes, such as protecting the traditional family, keeping God in the Pledge of Allegiance, and supporting the right to bear arms. I knew what abortion was before I knew where babies came from, and i learned how to effectively blame everything from crime rates to suicide rates on the removal of prayer from public schools. I cried for hours when I learned that my paternal grandfather, a lifelong Democrat, supported Bill Clinton in 1996. I was under the impression that meant Grandpa would go to hell.

Every single sentence except the part about her grandfather is accurate about my life, as well. My paternal grandfather had died in 1993, but that doesn’t mean I was any less under the impression that you could not be a Christian and vote for a Democrat. The two, in my mind, were completely incompatible.

All that to say: Evans and I come from extremely similar backgrounds culturally despite growing up in states as diverse as Connecticut and Alabama/Tennessee, so I guess it’s not surprising that some of the things I’ve been pondering as I’ve begun my own journey away from spiritual certainty are spoken so clearly in Evans’ book.

In the prologue, Evans explains why she is a spiritual evolutionist.

Just as living organisms are said to evolve over time, so faith evolves, on both a personal and collective level. Spiritual evolution explains why Christianity has thrived while other ancient religions have perished. It explains why our brothers and sisters in rural Zimbabwe and those in the Greek Orthodox Church can worship the same God in much different ways.

I’ve lived my entire life in a New Testament restorationist setting, worshipping with people whose aim is to follow the Bible’s example in running a church. Needless to say, the propensity for judgment when you’re claiming that everything you do is specifically authorized by the Bible (and, conversely, that everything you don’t is not) is fairly high.

Yet somehow I ended up marrying someone whose faith tradition is Pentecostal, which is something like George W. Bush picking Barack Obama as his running mate, or Roger Ailes hiring Rachel Maddow to host a new show on FOX News. And so I began to learn that, for one thing, the Bible isn’t as clear as I thought it was on issues like worship style, spiritual gifts and the role of women in the church. And, for another thing, it turns out God appears to be using other denominations to reach people and change the world as much — if not more than — the ones I approved of.

I attend a Church of Christ because I feel comfortable there; it’s much more liberal than the church I my parents attended, but it has some of the same familiar elements that were part of my childhood. But I’ve also attended services at, and gotten to know quite well some people who attend, a local Assembly of God-affiliated church. Needless to say, the styles at these churches are completely different. I know our Church of Christ is liberal because they don’t frown when someone decides to raise their hands — or even, gasp!, clap — during a song. Meanwhile, I’m pretty sure there’s an unwritten rule that someone must speak in tongues during an Assembly of God service.

I’m not comfortable hearing people speak in toungues. I didn’t grow up with it, and I was taught it was a gift God no longer gave. That those who did it were wrong (and let’s walk that through to its logical conclusion; if God isn’t helping you speak in an otherworldly language, who else could it be? Could it be…. Satan?!?).

Yet I know so many people whose lives have been changed by coming into contact with the Assembly of God and their decidedly louder worship. People who speak casually about being slain in the Spirit as if it’s no big deal, but who are clearly on fire for God. People with crippling addictions who were freed on the spot during a service I would have condemned as unscriptural no more than five years ago.

And as I’ve become good friends with someone who ministers to the unchurched in Kenya and Tanzania, he tells stories about the way Africans worship that blow me away. Miraculous healings and interventions the likes of which I’ve never seen.

And so it’s slowly been dawning on me: God works differently for different people. And in most cases it’s not about who’s right or wrong, whether this form of worship is explicitly spelled out in the New Testament or not, but about Christians worshipping together, praying for each other, reaching out to their communities, and offering the life-giving power of God to anyone within reach.

We have evolved into different denominations with different emphases and different styles, but we all share a common ancestor, if you will. And that is undoubtedly what is most important.

Prophets and Politics, Part 2: The Response

In my previous post, I noted the prophets seem to be primarily concerned with justice, particularly how its administered toward the poor. On top of that, God says more than once through different authors writing no fewer than 100 years apart that he doesn’t care what we can do for him; he cares what we do for others.

This point strikes me as particularly salient given what’s happening in Texas right now. Gov. Rick Perry, who seems likely to join the 2012 presidential race, has organized a massive prayer vigil in Houston for Aug. 6. In announcing the event, which is called “The Response,” he wrote the following for the event’s website:

Right now, America is in crisis: we have been besieged by financial debt, terrorism, and a multitude of natural disasters. As a nation, we must come together and call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles, and thank Him for the blessings of freedom we so richly enjoy.

Some problems are beyond our power to solve, and according to the Book of Joel, Chapter 2, this historic hour demands a historic response.

There is hope for America. It lies in heaven, and we will find it on our knees.

Meanwhile, comes a report from The Dallas Morning News that the state, despite experiencing record-high levels of extremely dangerous heat, is withholding money usually allocated to help the poor and elderly pay their electric bills.

The Dallas Morning News reported Saturday the state has collected $130 million this fiscal year to help financially strapped Texas residents pay for the cost of electricity used for cooling, but has provided only $28 million so far to those who need it.

The reason: State lawmakers have locked away the money to deal with the budget shortfall. The state is now spending only half as much as it did to help the poor and elderly get through the summer a decade ago.

Texas has a rainy-day fund, one that could significantly alleviate the state’s major budget shortfall for the 2012-13 fiscal years, but Perry refused to tap into it. And since he has veto power, the Texas Legislature made up for the $12 billion shortfall it faced in those years by slashing education and items that help the poor, such as the above-cited assistance for electric bills.

So, given the verses cited in my last post, it seems Perry’s priorities are not really in line with what the prophets indicate are God’s priorities. He’s focused on giving up thank offerings to Jesus when God is really interested in how Perry is helping the least of his people. Which is ironic because Perry himself cites the prophets as justification for the event.

But this brings up a larger issue: When Christians enter politics, to what extent should they mingle the perceived demands of their faith with their constitutional duties?

Continue reading Prophets and Politics, Part 2: The Response

Textbooks!

On a whim, I swung by the Campus Center this afternoon to see whether any of the textbooks for my upcoming class had been released, and indeed they had. I’m most excited about this one:

According to Amazon, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament by Peter Enns is “an evangelical affirmation of biblical authority that considers questions raised by the nature of the Old Testament text.”

Enns looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture. First, he considers ancient Near Eastern literature that is similar to the Bible. Second, he looks at the theological diversity of the Old Testament. Finally, he considers how New Testament writers used the Old Testament.

Based on his reflections on these contemporary issues, Enns proposes an incarnational model of biblical authority that takes seriously both the divine and human aspects of Scripture.

Sounds exciting! I’ll have much more to say on this topic in the days and weeks to come, particularly about the alleged conflicts between science and scripture.

The other books for this class:

I have to confess that learning about the Psalms doesn’t automatically appeal to me. Growing up in a church culture, the Psalms are drilled into you seemingly every day, to the point that they lose their meaning. I do identify with a handful of them, but by and large, I avoid them when I’m seeking inspiration from the scriptures.

So it was interesting, given the title and purpose of this blog and my antipathy toward the 150 chapters in the middle of the Bible, to read this excerpted review of Praying the Psalms.:

‘The Psalms just don’t speak to me.’ Anyone who has ever felt this way should read Brueggemann’s book.  . . .  He shows how these ancient prayers can lead us from the disorientation of our chaotic lives into a reorientation of transformation. His treatment of both the post-Holocaust Christian use of these very Jewish prayers and the troublesome call for vengeance is most timely. This book shows how the Psalms can indeed speak to us.” — Dianne Bergant, CSA, author of ‘Preaching the New Lectionary’

Well, I’m willing to give it a shot. Are you with me?

Prophets and Politics, Part 1

Every morning — well, the ones when I wake up on time — I read a chapter or two in the Bible and read the study guide notes at the bottom of the page (because why have an NIV Life Application Study Bible if you’re not going to read the notes, right?). It’s nothing fancy, but it works for this stage of my life, when I feel like I’m rediscovering the Bible and what it means for me on a day-to-day basis.

I didn’t really pick the prophets. Maybe they picked me.

An acquaintance of mine in a men’s group said he recommended to people just starting to read the Bible for the first time to start with Jeremiah. I thought it was an odd choice, but as I was trying to restart a scripture-reading habit, I figured I’d give that a go. Having read through Jeremiah … I still think it’s an odd choice; I wouldn’t recommend it to someone just starting out. But for my life, where I was at the time — and where I still am a lot of the time — starting there and just continuing on actually worked.

From Jeremiah, I moved through Lamentations, then Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah and Jonah. I’ve just finished Micah. In a way, the minor prophets reward you because they’re short, and you can work through one in a week — or, in Jonah and Obadiah’s case, a day. But they’re not easy books to read.

For one, there is a lot of anger. God spends most of these books instructing his prophets to condemn the nations of Israel and Judah using every manner of colorful metaphor, analogy and description, some subtle, some not. In Ezekiel and Hosea, God minces no words by describing the countries as prostitute sisters in quite a bit of detail (Apparently, God didn’t get the memo that “G” and “PG” are the only appropriate ratings for Christians because that’s definitely some “PG-13”- to “R”-level stuff.)

In his wonderful blog, one of Dr. Richard Beck’s frequent exhortations is to capture “the imagination of the prophets.” For Beck and his belief in universal reconciliation, this means understanding that judgment is not a permanent state, that the prophets always follow despair with hope.

I certainly don’t disagree with that analysis, but for me, I’m finding that the language of the prophets is a window into the very heart of God. These are God’s words to the people he chose, pleading with them to come back to him, warning them desperately of the consequences of living apart from his protection, willing to accept them no matter what they’ve done, eager to “repay you for the years the locusts have eaten.”

And as a record of God’s efforts to communicate directly to his people, it seems the prophets are especially instructive for us. After all, we too are his people. And I keep seeing a thread revealed throughout these books, written over a span of hundreds of years. See if it becomes clear to you, too:

“Among my people are wicked men who lie in wait like men who snare birds and like those who set traps to catch men. … Their evil deeds have no limit; they do not plead the case of the fatherless to win it. They do not defend the rights of the poor. Should I not punish them for this?” declares the Lord. “Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this?” Jeremiah 6:26, 28-29

“Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight.” Jeremiah 9:23-24

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. Lamentations 3:22-23

Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. Ezekiel 16:49

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from al your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. Ezekiel 36:25-26

I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord. Hosea 2:19-20

I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me grain offerings and burnt offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the noise of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! Amos 5:21-24

With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with 10,000 rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:6-8

God is a God who loves to dispense mercy and forgiveness. Not because he has to or feels obligated by some covenant he set up thousands of years ago. But because he wants to. Because what he wants most of all is for us — for me — to be with him.  I love the imagery God employs through his spokesmen: a heart of stone replaced by a heart of flesh, a holy betrothal, the aforementioned repayment of destroyed property. We are broken people, and God has an eternal supply of glue and paint.

Believe it or not, it’s taken me quite a long time for me to learn that. It’s so easy to project onto God our own failings of character, our own imperfect ideas of love, forgiveness and justice. It’s so easy to make being a Christian about what we think we can do and forget it’s about what he’s already done and what he’s asking us to do in return.

Because, yes, it seems clear that God definitely has some expectations for his children, just as I have expectations for my daughters and any good but imperfect parent has expectations for their parent (“How much more will your Father … ?”). And what are those expectations?

They are summed up so well in Micah 6:8, but I fear that verse has become something of a cliche, probably around the time it became part of a Steven Curtis Chapman song. The context is so much more meaningful to me, especially when viewed in light of the other prophets and what they have to say on the same subject.

Amos and Micah both ultimately say: God cares nothing for my prayers, my songs, my churchgoing, my sacrifices — none of it — if I cannot practice justice, mercy and humility in my daily walk with others. And the indictments God levels against his people in Ezekiel and Jeremiah indicate that these qualities manifest themselves chiefly in how I treat those less fortunate than I am. In how we as Christians treat those less fortunate than us. The mercy I’ve received means nothing if I cannot pass it on to others who need a glimpse of it so desperately.

You’ve probably noted the title of this post, and perhaps you can sense where this ultimately is going, but we’ll get to that later. For now, I’d rather focus on the language of the prophets — the beautiful, timeless language of mercy.

Disoriented Theology

I sat with my graduate-school adviser, discussing what class I should take this fall — the class that will begin my completely unforeseen journey toward a theology degree — and we agreed on a logical choice: Advanced Introduction to Old Testament.

“Now, this class will probably disorient you,” he warned. “It will totally reorient the way you look at the scriptures. A lot of people have trouble dealing with that.”

It was a kind gesture. He went on to let me know he or my professor would be happy to help me if I struggled with this disorientation. I chuckled a little. If only he knew.

Disorientation and reorientation. You can’t have one without the other, I think. And though I initially think of the two as a series of self-contained actions, I’m finding that in my life, God is taking me through a simultaneous process of disorientation — a fundamental shaking free of my assumptions, my biases and my preconditions for understanding God and the world he created — and reorientation — a grasping for faith deeper and realer than anything I’ve ever known.

There’s a pressure in our culture to have everything together, to win the debate, to grasp the prize. I fit well into that culture. I love to debate. I’m competitive. I need to know, and armed with knowledge I need to share, even if it’s not knowledge you particularly need to have — even if it’s knowledge you think might not be correct. Sharing quickly takes on an evangelistic quality, followed seamlessly by a pugilistic quality.

I’m learning this is not correct. That perhaps the answers I had were incomplete or — gasp! — wrong. But if the old answers are wrong (and I should hasten to add they were wrong for me. I’m not convinced those answers are necessarily wrong for everyone.), what are the new answers? Do they exist? It’s … well, disorienting.

But it’s incredibly freeing, as well. To recognize that my ingrained assumptions, the ones with which I was raised, are not necessarily the correct ones is to allow myself to begin a journey, an exciting adventure of discovery that may not ever end. I may be, as C.S. Lewis wrote in The Last Battle, simply moving “further up and further in” to a deeper realization of who Christ is and what he’s calling me to be.

Join me, won’t you? For perhaps the first time in my life, I can’t promise any answers, but I hope we can have some stimulating discussion and share in some amazing revelations as God reveals more and more about his nature to this student.

Let’s become disoriented together and see how God reorients our lives.