Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sunday School Answers

As long as I have known her my wife has talked about her frustration with what she calls Sunday school answers. For example, statements such as “God loves you,” or “All things work for the good of those who love God,” or “God sees,” or “Jesus suffered and died for us, or “there won’t be any more pain in heaven,” and so on. All these statements are true, but when a person has just lost their child, or is in the throes of a horrible divorce (is there any other kind?), or has been without work for a year, these truths don’t seem to carry the day. They can be in many situations like pouring gasoline on an already raging fire. At one level I have sort of understood what she has been talking about, but it wasn’t until yesterday that I read something that made it click for me.

In his recent blog, Dr. Roger Olson, of Baylor University, has been reviewing a book on The Gospel Center. In this particular post his discussion centered on how Evangelical Christians have traditionally come to know and understand what they confess and believe. In short, Evangelicalism has approached knowledge deductively—that is, they start with concepts, and then make sure their interpretations and decisions conform to those concepts. As with the so-called Sunday school answers mentioned above, these concepts might be absolutely true, yet by themselves they tend to be ineffective for us during times of real crisis.

For example, my physics professor in college told us that he knew all there was to know about the theory of sailing—and he did. He told us he had decided to rent a sail boat and take his girlfriend sailing. She asked him if he had ever sailed before. He replied proudly, “I know everything there is to know about the theory of sailing.” Well, after several hours of floundering around in the bay, he ended up walking the sail boat along the shoreline, with his girlfriend steaming at his other side. Apparently, she never went out with him again.

If concepts primarily determine how we understand our Christianity, then we will more than likely find ourselves bereft during the troubles of life.

It wasn’t Dr. Olson’s analysis that led me to this epiphany, rather a comment to his blog by someone who addressed him/herself as Chris. The following is an excerpt from Chris’ comment:

Kant, borrowing from Hume, wrote that “Concepts without percepts [those things we perceive through our senses and experience] are empty…..I can only speak for myself, but I suspect that most honest people, at least unconsciously, come to realize that propositions and “truth claims” fail to have real import if they are not adequately perceived. After all, it’s one thing to have someone say “Jesus loves you,” but another thing entirely to have your feet washed by him. Because of this, I have severe misgivings about the presuppositionalist [those who start from concepts] evangelical epistemology [how we come to know what we know] (which you’ve identified as mainstream); I think it leads to the kind of pedagogical [how we teach each other—in this context, about our faith] problems that I’ve pointed to as a source of dissonance that almost drove me away from Christianity (or at least from the church). Unfortunately, I don’t see many pastors, authors, and teachers addressing these kinds of pedagogical problems. Maybe they don’t recognize them? Or maybe they haven’t faced their own struggles with dissonance, or keep them to themselves? I don’t know, but I wish someone would speak up!

“Of course, Kant was quick to add that “Percepts without concepts are blind.” That, I’m convinced, is also true; it is, I think, the reason for Scripture. Still, though, I’m convinced that perception necessarily precedes concept in the building and imparting of knowledge. After all, don’t we love because “he first loved us?” That’s why now, as often as I remember to bring about my Christian witness—to believer and unbeliever alike—I think in the back of my mind: help them perceive first. Explain later. Give them reasons to believe.
” [bracketed comments are mine].

Chris hit the nail on the head. The only way we can sail a boat is by experiencing the process with an experienced guide. Only then will the theory be of complete value to us. We do need the theory and other practical concepts to ultimately be a successful sailor, but we must start by perceiving the process—by actually practicing it.

Contrary to the belief of some, Christianity is not a religion of the Book, but of the risen Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. We must begin and end with Christ. God first loved us, but we will only begin to understand what that means by loving Him back by obeying Him, which is to love others as He has loved us; we follow Christ in real, objective ways, and through these acts in perception we learn firsthand of God’s faithfulness, the cost and glory of love, and what it means to depend on Him. Then all the concepts we stand on such as grace, faith, resurrection, atonement, and on and on become real and comprehensible to us—not just ropes of abstractions we desperately cling to over the abysses of life.

As Chris so adeptly pointed out we need the concepts to complete this knowledge: we need God’s revelation to us that is the Bible. And in this holistic education of perception and concept, we truly understand how to live as dwellers of God's kingdom in a dark and treacherous world, and are equipped to help others in their struggles, without resorting to Sunday school answers.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Frodo's Epiphany

I have been enjoying the extended version of the film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring trilogy. It’s been a little over thirty years since I read the books, so I don’t know how true the movies are to the originals. Friends tell me there are differences—a few especially irritating to the Lord of the Ring connoisseur. Regardless, I’m enthralled with each viewing, and find my eyes tearing up frequently at the rich Christian allegory prevalent in these tales.

At one point early on in the story, Frodo expressed his distain at the tragic character, Gollum, who was following Frodo and his company in the shadows. Frodo told Gandalf that he wished he could kill Gollum and finish the job Bilbo should had done years earlier. Gandalf admonished Frodo to not be so quick to pass judgment, and to realize that Gollum would yet play a significant role in the ultimate destruction of the evil in Middle earth; Gandalf told Frodo that Bilbo had been right to extend mercy to Gollum. The implication was Gollum might have appeared to be a hopeless case, but it wasn’t for Frodo or any of them to make such a judgment.

Why is it so easy for us to pass judgment on others? There are several reasons. For one, in can be a way of dealing with our own guilt. A friend once suggested—accurately, I think—that we often despise traits in others that we ourselves practice. The evil of the ring oppressed Frodo more and more as he bore it. Frodo didn’t like seeing what the same ring had done to Gollum; consequently, Frodo wanted to destroy Gollum because in so doing he thought it might save himself of the same end. The logic is certainly false and twisted, but guilt often works that way: we think by stamping out the guilt in others our own guilt will disappear. However, Jesus teaches us otherwise.

Jesus tells us that before dealing with the speck in the other person’s eye, we need to take out the plank from our own eye. When we see how faulty we are and struggle against these imperfections, suddenly we have a great deal more compassion with the other person and his faults. We first have to be made right before we can even know what that means and then dare attempt to lead others right.

This happened to Frodo later in the story. The ring’s effects became unbearable to Frodo. And in this state of suffering, Frodo changed his attitude toward Gollum and began extending grace to Gollum. Why? Frodo explained that if Gollum could be redeemed in the end, maybe he could, too. Frodo saw his own salvation in the salvation of Gollum.

Notice in this how Frodo’s reaction to the speck in Gollum’s eye moved from one of total selfish-ambition on Frodo’s part to one seeking Gollum’s good. Frodo certainly hadn’t become totally altruistic, but as he started to truly understand his own weakness, Frodo became less selfish and more compassionate toward the tormented Gollum.

The point Jesus makes is when we remove the plank from our own eye—and we can only do this through grace that God provides—we no longer seek to extract the speck from the other person’s eye for our own benefit—whether it be for reasons of guilt, or domination, or prejudice, or revenge, or whatever—rather out of a genuine love for that person and therefore the person’s ultimate good.

Jesus actually begins this discussion on judgment by warning us not to judge others: “Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For by the standard you judge you will be judged, and the measure you use will be the measure you receive.” [NET] The judgment He means is that which proceeds from selfish-ambition—the kind easily generated by a self-righteous conceit.

What Jesus doesn’t mean is turning a blind eye to the sins of others so that we place ourselves or others at risk of falling into the same sin or its consequences; by not judging, Jesus doesn’t mean we are not to discern the disposition and situation of others. He also doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t at any time point out to the other person his/her faults.

For example, the best parent instructs his/her child in the way that is right, and this necessarily involves pointing out the child’s faults. Yet the best parent does this by first considering when he/she was a child, and then attempts to correct his/her child through that lens of understanding. The best parent first remembers his/her own old plank and responds by instructing his/her child by extending mercy; the best parent is fully concerned with the child’s present and future well being, not the parent’s exercise of power and control or need to look good to his/her peers.

Jesus’ concern is, of course, the same as the Father’s: to bring justice to a fallen world. We have discussed this in earlier blogs. Justice is a course adjustment from the wrong order of things to the right order of things. And justice is accomplished by mercy not judgment; we won’t justify (i.e., move them to a just state) people by condemning them, rather by extending them mercy.

Jesus finished His lesson on judging with the following: “Do not give what is holy to dogs or throw your pearls before pigs; otherwise they will trample them under their feet and turn around and tear you to pieces.” To be honest, this has always baffled me; what does this have to do with judging others?

The answer is bad judging—the kind that Jesus tells is to avoid—is bad because it seeks the judge’s benefit and not the benefit of the defendant, and so seeks to condemn. But good judgment seeks to restore, so it necessarily first considers the disposition of the defendant. Here the evangelical has been wrong for years because he has attempted to bring unbelievers into belief by telling them they are sinners burning in hell instead of leading them to Jesus. And what happens nine-point-nine times out of ten? The sinners turn on the evangelical—sometimes violently. And of course they would because they don’t know what justice looks like any more than the evangelical in question did before he entered the kingdom of God because such understanding comes from God; all the sinner sees in such a confrontation is someone attempting to demean or subjugate him.

When we approach others by extending to them the hand of mercy instead of judging them, the light of that love will instruct the recipient of the recipient’s lack of love and consequently, his sin; he will turn to God for forgiveness, and God will begin to restore him—justice will be worked out. For a time, Frodo’s mercy--exemplified by Frodo calling Gollum by his original name, Smeagol--succeeded in restoring Gollum back to his former self—that is, who he had been prior to seeking the evil of the ring. This is powerfully portrayed by Smeagol confronting his evil self and demanding he leave and never return.

The character, Gollum, represents all of us. We are all in the torment brought on by our own selfish-ambition and conceit. If we are being restored out of this condition, it is only because God, in His great love, extended the hand of mercy to us through His son Jesus the Christ. We must be like minded as we reach out to the other Gollums in the world. We need to learn from Frodo who saw himself in Gollum and therefore had compassion for him.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Why don't I get what I want?

What do you want? Are you getting it? Do you have a secret frustration because you ain’t getting what you want? I truly hope that you are content—that within you lies the peace that comes with knowing your name and living it.

To be honest I struggle a lot with an inner dissatisfaction. Some friends have told me that I’m just experiencing a mid-life crisis. My answer to that well intentioned insight is I was born in a mid-life crisis. I secretly want to be a participant in everything, and never only remain on the sidelines. This can be a positive trait because it definitely helps breed a broad base of knowledge that, for one thing, helps one effectively socialize with a large cross-section of people. My problem is I’m not satisfied to be a participant; I have to be the best participant. And that kind of ambition will turn the sunny climes of opportunity into the stormy gloom of discontentment, every time.

Unless you’re James Bond, you simply are not going to be remarkable at everything, or let’s face it, even good at everything. My problem has been I have convinced myself that isn’t true. Consequently, I have wasted a great deal of time trying to overcome my weaknesses, pursue impossible dreams (yes, despite what my dear friend Don Quixote might sing, some dreams are impossible), while overlooking or qualifying the successes that have rewarded my few strengths.

As I’ve aged, the Lord has patiently taught me things to grow me out of this immaturity. For example, I learned I don’t have to be the best, average is okay. More importantly, I recently learned the need to focus on my strengths instead of weaknesses—to take advantage of the community God has established around me, and willingly delegate my weaknesses; why should I feel rotten because a plumber can do a job that he is an expert at in fifteen minutes, that I might, if I’m lucky and can afford the gas for the seventeen trips to the hardware store, take a whole day to finish. Good grief, Bruce, call the plumber in to do the job, and you go pursue your strengths.

Yesterday, the Lord got me thinking about all this at a slightly different angle. The fact that I don’t get some things I want isn’t because A) God is raining on my parade, or B) I don’t deserve them, or C) they aren’t actually good things; the problem is what I want is not what I should want.

I started this off giving a clue to one side of what I mean. If you don’t know who you really are—that is, what God created you to be—then you don’t know our name, and you’re trying to live under an assumed name. That’s bad for a lot of reasons, but it most certainly means you will want those things your alias wants, not what you want. And guess what? You’ll never be content.

But that’s still not exactly what I learned yesterday. As a Christian, you are first and last a kingdom dweller—Jesus is your King. Consequently, if you desire what your King desires--if you want what He wants--you will always get what you want—you will be content--because that is the way it is meant to be.

One should immediately see by this that seeking the King’s wants and knowing our true name and then wanting what that name desires are all inextricably intertwined. God has not created you to be a mindless robot, but a being who ultimately lives intimately with Him. This is what Jesus meant when He said, “I tell you the solemn truth,the person who believes in me will perform the miraculous deeds that I am doing,and will perform greater deeds than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified [praised] in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”[NET]

If we really believed this, should hell and high waters rise, or others violently oppose us, or people crap on our good reputation, or other’s get the limelight or rewards or accolades we might genuinely deserve, or others seemingly experience a better life (an illusion 99.999999999% of the time)than us, we would remain satisfied and at peace within ourselves.

Why don’t we believe this? Primarily because even though we who love King Jesus are truly dwellers of God’s eternal kingdom—like, right now--that kingdom has not yet fully come; we remain also in an opposing kingdom that has been defeated but not completely destroyed. And that dark kingdom constantly bombards us with quite reasonable and palatable sales pitches; some of these come-ons are so close to the truth that it is difficult to discern the counterfeit from the real McCoy, and we often succumb, and yes, end up dissatisfied. I for one remain pretty gullible in my immaturity, and that results in the majority of discontentment I experience.

The first thing we must do is understand that it isn’t first about us but about the kingdom. The second thing we need to know is that walking in God’s kingdom is about faith: God created a unique us for a unique and eternal purpose in His kingdom, and God is faithful to achieve that purpose; therefore He will see to our purpose, our good conscience, our needs, and our wants as we live it all out in trust of His faithfulness.

How was Saint Paul able to honestly confess, “I have experienced times of need and times of abundance. In any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of contentment, whether I go satisfied or hungry, have plenty or nothing.”? Because Paul wanted what God wanted. How do I know this? Because of what Paul said next: “I am able to do all things through the one who strengthens me.” [NET]

Living by faith with God in His kingdom is a safe and satisfying place to be; in fact, it is our eternal salvation. And if our intent remains on God’s kingdom intent, then what we want will be what we should want, and we will never be wanting.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Stuck in the Quicksand Again

Lately I’ve felt like a lion pacing back and forth in a cage. Frustration seems to meet me at every corner. The more I try, the worse the outcome. It appears as if I have been cursed with a kind of inverse Midis touch. Some have told me to quit my whining; they are my real friends. After all, despair is a sin because it means one has turned ones back on God; despair is the absence of faith.

Perhaps you have felt this way; maybe you haven’t but will in the future. I hope you can avoid falling in this quicksand. But if you do—hmmm, is that your silhouette I see across the murky marsh from me?—let me offer some advice to help us back to forward momentum.

My wife and I recently listened to our friend who heads the Navigator’s ministry at the University of Illinois as he recapped the Lord’s recent work there. He said a couple of things germane to this present discussion.

First, he spoke of a Muslim student who had come to some of their meetings and later asked one of the student members why Christians believe Christ to be God. Wouldn’t that mean there are two gods? The student came to my friend for advice of what to say to the Muslim. My friend’s answer surprised me. He said something to the effect of, “Good grief, don’t waste your time explaining Christianity to him. Have him read one of the Gospels. Let him meet Jesus face to face.”

This was the second time I heard this advice. The first came by way of Alister McGrath through his recent book, Mere Apologetics, where he observed that when Andrew told his brother Nathanial that Andrew had found the Messiah who had come from Nazareth, Nathanial replied, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” And instead of going into a long dissertation on the Messiah and prophecies, complete with theological proofs, Andrew simply responded, “Come and see for yourself!”

Sometimes we get stuck in the quicksand because we think we are responsible to convince people of the truth. We approach each situation as if it were a chess game that we must win. But only God can change hearts. It’s our responsibility to introduce people to Him and let Him speak for Himself.

Our friend also reminded us that Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry.” It’s a favorite passage of mine, but our friend pointed out something I have missed. He explained that we are yoked to Christ; and even though His yoke is light and easy, we can tire ourselves out when we try to lag behind or run ahead of Christ. We need to go at Christ’s pace, not our own. Whenever we fight against Christ’s momentum, we actually stop, and despair soon comes creeping ‘round our door.

The common denominator of these two points is the person who sees himself as needing to take matters in his own hands—a person who no longer walks by faith. Before long exhaustion will overwhelm him and despair will set in. This had been Elijah’s situation.

The exhausted Elijah had run for his life in to the desert away from a vindictive Jezebel. Once there beneath a shrub, Elijah cried out that he was good for nothing and wanted God to take his life. Instead, God rested and fed Elijah. Energized, Elijah traveled a long way and entered a cave. God asked Elijah, “What are you doing here?” Elijah explained that he was the only faithful one left in all of Israel; they killed all the others and they intended to kill him, too. In other words, Elijah was hiding out. God told Elijah to go stand on the mountain, and God would pass before him there. Elijah did what he was told. Finally in a very still, calm voice, God again asked, “What are you doing here?”, and Elijah repeated what he had said before. God then assured Elijah that he wasn’t the only faithful person in Israel, and told Elijah what to do next.

Elijah had fallen into the quicksand of despair because he had turned his eyes from God to himself. In his fatigue, Elijah’s self-interest manifested itself in a self-deprecation that sought suicide. In his renewed vigor, Elijah’s self-interest morphed into a self-importance that attempted to protect itself through the inaction of hiding. Only after waiting on God and then listening to God did Elijah regain a proper perspective of his self, which was a servant of God, and start moving again. Putting it another way, only when Elijah moved from the egoism of self-deprecation and self-importance to a self defined by God, did Elijah start moving again.

Man, it’s so easy to fall into the quicksand of despair because we so readily take matters into our own hands by believing it’s up to us, and so run ahead of God or lag behind. And what’s really amazing about this is it most often happens after God has used us powerfully for His kingdom. Remember, all I related concerning Elijah happened right after God had used Elijah to silence the Baal worshippers, which was why Jezebel wanted to kill Elijah.

We shouldn’t miss that last observation. A sure sign of despair is when we interpret resistance as ineffectiveness, or failure, or time to quit. Because when we are depending on ourselves, which always leads to despair, we tend to judge our performance on the basis of other people’s approval or disapproval, rather than God’s good pleasure.

Okay, if that’s you I see with me in this quicksand, here’s what we need to do to get out and get going: Stop thrashing around, wait, and listen for that still, calm voice of God to tell us what to do next. Saint Paul was so right when he said, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.”