Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Beauty of Doubt...

My doubts and struggles have been the greatest gifts that God has given me outside of Jesus. In fact I would almost go so far as to say that every instance of profound spiritual growth that I have had has come out of questioning what I believe. The "church" today often tries to get us to ignore our doubts, to hide our questions. It's done for good reasons, faith isn't about understanding everything. And we have to be able to move on in spite of not having all the answers. But if we cut the questions off too quickly we short-circuit the growing process. It's the struggle of asking that clears our heads to see more clearly.

Brian McLaren puts it all very eloquently in an article that he wrote for Christian Single Magazine called "Doubt: The Tides of Faith". Here's a great excerpt...

When committed Christians come to me to talk about their doubts, one of the first things I say to them is this: doubt is not always bad. Sometimes doubt is absolutely essential. I think of doubt as analogous to pain. Pain tells us that something nearby or within us is dangerous to our physical body. It is a call for attention and action. Similarly, I think doubt tells us that something in us … a concept, an idea, a framework of thinking … deserves further attention because it may be harmful, or false, or imbalanced...

So, if you ask, “Is doubt good or bad?” I’d have to answer, “Yes.” It can go either way. Frederick Buechner expresses this ambivalence about doubt beautifully: “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving” (Wishful Thinking)...

But again, isn’t that the way it ought to be? Shouldn’t a growing Christian have a growing understanding? Isn’t a vibrant, honest, tested faith worth some intellectual pain? In Finding Faith I talk about this in some detail. I describe how faith seems to grow in a kind of iterative, ascending spiral that has four stages. I call the first stage simplicity, where everything is simple and easy, black and white, known or knowable. Then there’s complexity, where you focus on techniques of finding the truth – since the scenario has gotten more complex. Then there’s perplexity, where you become a kind of disillusioned learner, where you doubt all authority figures and absolutes, where everything seems relative and hazy. I used to call the fourth stage maturity, but a friend pointed out it would be better called humility, because in stage four you come to terms with your limitations, and you learn to live with mystery, not as a cop-out, but as an honest realization that only God understands everything. You carry out of stage four a shorter list of tested and cherished beliefs that you base your life on, and a lot of your previous dogmatisms are now held more lightly. In a sense a person keeps finding faith and then becoming frustrated with it and in a sense losing it, and then finding a better version of it, and so on, maybe like a software upgrade….

That’s what has happened for me. At this stage in my life, I have sifted and re-sifted, and some beliefs I’ve had to release, while others have proven themselves as “keepers.” This is where Jesus is so wonderful and helpful to a person whose faith is in low tide, because Jesus looked at the whole religious system of the Pharisees, which was enormously complex and full of inconsistencies, and in essence, he doubted it. He sifted out a lot of clutter, and boiled all the rest down to some beautiful essentials … like loving God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving your neighbor as yourself. I would rather have someone be sure of those few essentials, and live by them, than have them be sure of a million fine points of systematic theology, and not live by Christ’s call to love.

So don't let your doubts and questions deflate you. See them as God calling you deeper. Let Him challenge you to move beyond where you are to where He wants you to be.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

God and Caesar and me.

One of the greatest issues that I have struggled with in the past few years is how faith and politics mesh in my own personal life, especially as it relates to being a Christian who is an American. I have become convinced that one of the greatest errors of the church is to fall into the trap of believing that all we need to do is to convert the political system and there will be peace on earth. It's way easier to see the problem in the halls of political power than to realize that the problem starts within our own hearts. When it comes to political solutions to spiritual problems we should all be a but wary. Today Will Samson directed me to an awesome post by Dr. Will Willimon that reiterated a lot of what I'm thinking. Willimon writes,

"One day Jesus was walking along and he was asked a political question. 'Jesus, should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?' (Note that Jesus, who appears to be utterly nonchalant, disinterested in politics, did not raise the question of the coin. It was our question.) You know what Jesus did in response to this perfectly clear political question? He asked, 'Who has a coin?' (His pockets were empty.) 'Whose picture is on the coin?'


'Well, it's kind of sad that he needs to put his picture all over money in order to feel better about himself, but go ahead and give it to Caesar since it appears to be his. But you be careful, don't you dare give to Caesar what belongs to God.' And then Jesus proceeds along on his journey.

Could I note just a couple of things there:

First of all, this is our question, not Jesus'. Why do we think politics is so important in the first place? Why has politics become the major source of our meaning and significance in our lives, the solution to every problem?

Point two, note that Jesus' pockets are empty. He seems to be practicing a life of very different 'politics' from ours. When politics gets degraded -- away from the search for the common good -- and becomes a greedy matter of how much money you can keep in my pocket for me, or how we can structure our government to benefit a few, it just may be that politics is something which Jesus has no interest in.

Three, notice that Jesus, when asked about politics, considers it a matter of worship. Whose image do you bow before? What would you sacrifice your children for? What is most important to you? Politics and idolatry are here linked by Jesus.

Four, note that Jesus really doesn't answer the question. He doesn't really define what Caesar owns and what God owns. That means that when it comes to politics, maybe the Christian point of view is to be permanently uneasy, never quite sure, when we're giving to Caesar what really ought to belong to God. This says to me that if Christians are going to get in bed with Caesar, if we are going to be deeply involved in politics, we ought to be tossing and turning all night, the most nervous and uneasy of bedfellows!

That's clear thinking. And I think wisdom. What about you?

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Living with the wind.

Jordon points us to a great article by Jim Wallis as a way to try to explain a little about his own thinking. I appreciated the article. I think that it makes great sense. Wallis writes,

I told the Moms on the Mall that I didn’t want them to waste any valuable time while they were in Washington. Instead, I wanted them to be able to quickly recognize the Members of Congress whom they had come to see. They’re the ones, I told them, who walk around town with their fingers held high in the air, having just licked them and put them up to see which way the wind is blowing. It’s quite a sight—men and women walking all around the Capital grounds with their wet index fingers pointed at the sky. The political leaders are really very good at figuring out the direction of the wind, and are quite used to quickly moving in that direction.It’s not a matter of malice for most of them. In fact, I’ve met quite a few politicians, and many came to Washington because they truly wanted to do the right thing. But after a while, they get entrenched in Washington’s ways, and change seems ever more distant. Power and wealth are the real governors here and people adjust to those realities. Even the ones who still really want to make a difference will tell you they can’t without public backing, and they don’t often find it. Many of us believe that by replacing one wet-fingered politician with another, we can change our society. But it never really works, and when it doesn’t we get disillusioned. We then get tempted to just grumble, withdraw, or give up altogether on ever changing anything. But that’s where we make our mistake.

The great practitioners of real social change, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, understood something very important. They knew that you don’t change a society by merely replacing one wet-fingered politician with another. You change a society by changing the wind. Change the wind, transform the debate, re-cast the discussion, alter the context in which political decisions are being made, and you will change the outcomes. Move the conversation around a crucial issue to a whole new place, and you will open up possibilities for change never dreamed of before. And you will be surprised at how fast the politicians adjust to the change in the wind. I think that’s what people of faith and conscience are supposed to be—“wind changers.” People motivated by spiritual values that give them a real vision for change are not like those with their fingers up in the air. They already know the direction to head in, and they lead by example. Their commitments, skills, sacrifices, creativity and, ultimately, moral authority are what makes all the difference, and changes the wind.

As I read this intially I thought, "Yes, that's what the church needs to be - wind changers." But as I've reflected I think that what I really believe is just a bit different. It's a subtle difference, but one that is important. Instead of being the "wind changers" we need to be the ones changed by the wind. The Holy Spirit is the change agent in the world. He is the one who Jesus said would
"...convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned." (Jn 16:8-11)

Our tendency is always to give our lives to changing the world. Maybe our role is just to give our lives. As we learn to move with the wind then it does have an impact on the rest of the world. The Kingdom of God is very contagious. But we are not the ones who move the wind, it's the wind who moves us. It's not a turning away from the need of the world so much as it is a turning to the Spirit, asking Him to work first and foremost in me. None of this is a poor reflection on Jordon or Jim Wallis, these are men that obviously are responding to the 'Wind" in their own lives. And that "Wind" is speaking to me. Jesus is saying, "Follow me. I'll take care of the world."

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Kingdom at work...

"It became very clear very early that the best disaster-preparedness system the United States has is that of the faith communities, those networks of people already joined together by their love of God and their conviction that lovers of God also practice practical love for their neighbors." - Kay Campbell, The Huntsville Times


Out of the mouths of babes...

A few good ones sent to me by one of my neices...

JACK (age 3) was watching his Mom breast-feeding his new baby sister. After a while he asked: "Mom why have you got two? Is one for hot and one for cold milk?"

MELANIE (age 5) asked her Granny how old she was. Granny replied she was so old she didn't remember any more. Melanie said, "If you don't remember you must look in the back of your panties. Mine say five to six."

STEVEN (age 3) hugged and kissed his Mom goodnight. "I love you so much, that when you die I'm going to bury you outside my bedroom window."

BRITTANY (age 4) had an earache and wanted a painkiller. She tried in vain to take the lid off the bottle. Seeing her frustration, her Mom explained it was a childproof cap and she'd have to open it for her. Eyes wide with wonder, the little girl asked: "How does it know it's me?

MARC (age 4) was engrossed in a young couple that were hugging and kissing in a restaurant. Without taking his eyes off them, he asked his dad: "Why is he whispering in her mouth?"

CLINTON (age 5) was in his bedroom looking worried. When his Mom asked what was troubling him, he replied, "I don't know what'll happen with this bed when I get married. How will my wife fit in?"

JAMES (age 4) was listening to a Bible story. His dad read: "The man named Lot was warned to take his wife and flee out of the city but his wife looked back and was turned to salt." Concerned, James asked: "What happened to the flea?"

And my personal favorite...

"Dear Lord," the minister began, with arms extended toward heaven and a rapturous look on his upturned face. "Without you, we are but dust." He would have continued but at that moment my very obedient daughter (who was listening!) leaned over to me and asked quite audibly in her shrill little girl voice, "Mom, what is butt dust?"

The rumors of my death...

...have been greatly exaggerated. I haven't posted since September 23rd, almost a month ago. I've been asking myself why and I don't really have a good answer. I guess there are times when you just have nothing to write. I have been thinking quite a bit though, and have found some excellent people to stretch me and help me understand in a deeper way what it means to follow Jesus. If you're interested here's a few suggestions that have been great for me...

Scot McKnight of Jesus Creed has two great series of posts - one on "What is the Gospel?" and a second on "Doctrinal Statements and the Emerging Movement". I had written something in line with the series on Doctrinal Statements here. I really appreciate what Scot brings to the table. He is solidly Biblical, but willing to ask hard questions.

Also I read an incredible book on vocation/calling by Parker J. Palmer called Let Your Life Speak. It is one of those books that continues to impact you for weeks after you put it down.

And there is a lot more percolating through this old head of mine. I'll try to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) and share some more of it with you in the coming days. Maybe my blogging sabbatical is over. Time will tell.