Friday, October 26, 2012

True Believer: A Confession of Faith

Election years always bring out the true believers, those who know God best. God wants, God intends, God supports, God is on our side (not yours).
This year's election has made me think not about political battles but the nature of belief. Within certain expressions of Christendom, people don’t simply believe, they believe fiercely. They’ve staked their lives upon the conquered soils of truth and will defend their beliefs with every ounce of strength and courage they can muster. They will stand strong upon their words of Conviction, those words themselves culled from the written word of God. Some even go so far as to boldly confess those beliefs in public forums for all to hear—this is the rock upon which we stand, and we shall not be moved.
Belief is typically treated as a matter of accepting certain ideas. That is, if we agree in our minds that x, y, and z are “true,” then we are believers of that truth. Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ? Do you accept that proposition? Then you are a believer.

But the more I read the biblical text, the more I’m convinced that we’re wrong about belief. In the ancient world, belief wasn’t a matter of mere mental assent; belief was something you did. In other words, what you do reveals what you really believe, regardless of what you say you agree to.
It is in that spirit—that belief is revealed in living and not through mental agreement—that I share with you some of the things I believe:

I believe that (more) money will save me. I believe that the poor are cursed and the rich are blessed, that God loves more those who have more and loves less those who have less.
I believe that if I work just a little bit harder, put in just a little more effort, and produce just a little bit more that life will get just a little bit better for me; and I believe that God, as a result, might love me just a little bit more.
I believe that some people deserve what they get, but I believe that I’ve gotten a raw deal.

I believe that God uses commercials and advertising to tell me that I’ve failed at life.

I believe that people should endanger their lives in sweat shops to make products that make my life more comfortable, more convenient, and more fun.
I believe that my rights are more important than your well-being, that sacrifice should benefit me and not you.

I believe that what’s in my best interests should be in your best interests.
I believe that politics, like money, will save me. I believe that the law reigns, not God.

I believe that God is a very present absence in a time of need.
I believe that God is honored when I pretend that I have it all together.

I believe that suspicion beats trust.
I believe that being bitter is better than being naïve.

I believe that a cold heart wins.
I believe that I must be wise in the ways of the world, that innocence only makes things worse.

I believe that I have to look out for myself, that no one else will.

I believe that Christendom is one of the worst things to happen to the kingdom of God.
I believe that I have all the answers.

Lord, I believe. Help thou my belief.

Friday, October 21, 2011

This Present Absence

In the Psalms, we have prayers and songs offered up to God that shatter our conceptions of what communication with the Divine should look like. Known as psalms of lament, they rage against God, questioning his care and his love.

Lament, complaint, tears are all worship when offered to God, and we need to grasp this very real heritage as an essential part of our faith. Sometimes, faith is a refusal to release the God who demands that you do just that (Gen 32:26). To lose our tears, to lose lament in the name of faith is to follow a God that refuses us in the midst of our heartache.

My professor recently asked those of us in his class to compose our own psalms of lament. At first, I was hesitant to do so -- a sort of holy darkness has taken up residence within me, and some days, my heart is simply too broken to share with others, much less God.

I wrote one nonetheless. And I thought I would offer it to God in the midst of your company. Because I need my brothers and sisters in Christ.

Great God of Absence, hear my sorrow.
Words fail my heart just as you have,
Still my lips dare to give voice to the anguish of my soul.
I will shout to the nothingness of your presence.

You have left me, forsaken me
In accordance with a promise you could not keep:
You who are the great Immanuel
Are anything but -- you are not with me.

But still I search for you.
Because I cannot escape the iron-cold grip,
The terrible beauty
That men call your Love.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Dust of the Road

Karl Barth is arguably the most prominent theologian of the twentieth century. His most famous work is a massive, fourteen-volume project titled Church Dogmatics. You can buy it for me here: :-)

Fourteen books that attempt to explain the Bible and the One to whom it points.

One critic took Barth to task for his audacious undertaking:

"The angels laugh at old Karl. They laugh at his trying to capture the truth about God in a book on dogmatics. They laugh, because volume follows volume, each thicker than the last, and as they laugh they say to each other: 'Look! There he goes with his [wheel]barrow full of volumes on dogmatics.'"

Why do writers dare to contain with ink that which cannot be contained? Why are readers drawn into these stories as if they were their own?

I'm as guilty as anyone. I write like a madman as I chart my own meanderings across the landscape of the Divine. My library is threatening to overtake our house. What's going on?

I think I just can't help but be drawn to these stories. Life can get lonely sometimes, and I love it when I can share the experiences of other road-weary travelers. They show me breathtaking views I might not have otherwise seen. We revel in one another's joy and hold each other when our hearts are broken.

Of course, the company of another human being in the same room only adds to this beauty and mystery.

Their presence serves as a constant reminder that my story isn't the only one out there, and that maybe I shouldn't take myself so seriously. Because I have a lot to see and even more to learn.

By the way, the critic with the angelic laughter? It was Karl Barth.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Hope(lessness) of Christmas

Tonight, we celebrate one of the darkest nights of the year.

A young girl turns up pregnant, claiming that it's the mystery of God (would you believe such an outrageous story from your own daughter?). Disgraced, her soon-to-be husband has to be convinced by an angel that she speaks the truth and that he should not leave her.

They travel to Bethelehem in order to register for a census. A census meant taxes, taxes that were shouldered by the poor. As the story continues, Luke doesn't tell us what he assumes we already know: pregnant out of wedlock, Mary is a glowing symbol of shame, and there is simply no room for her or her shameful husband in the guest-room of more honorable family members.

And to us, a child was born...given...

It wasn't the obvious favorites of God -- the priests, the wealthy, the rulers of this world -- who were made privy to this Beauty and Mystery. Shepherds, perpetually unclean simply because of their vocation (and thereby displeasing in the eyes of the Lord and his favorites), left their flocks to pay homage to the Lamb of God (a Johannine term, yes, but one that reaches beyond itself into the rest of the New Testament). Astrologers, those who sit in darkness in order to scout the divine, arrive in Jerusalem, the city on a hill, to congratulate Herod on the birth of his son (because a prince is born in the palace of his father, the king). Herod, ever-fearful of any threat to his own power, celebrates through a vicious slaughter of the innocent.

A far cry from the sanitized pageantry that we read into the story.

The story of Christmas is a dark story. It's about the omniscient gaze of those who know what it is that a young girl has done. It's about the poor getting poorer. It's about a puppet king doing anything he can to preserve his power. It's about darkness, despair, and hopelessness.

And yet...

In the midst of this unconquerable evil, God arrives. The divine response to all of this darkness is a helpless baby, an idea so absurd and so beautiful that I can't help but be drawn to it -- because who sends a child to do the toilsome work of a God?

If Christmas is "about" anything, it's not about hope. It's not about light. It's not about peace. It's about hope in the midst of hopelessness, a light that can only be seen because it shines in the midst of the darkness, and peace in the midst of a seemingly insurmountable chaos.

"There has been born for you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord..."

I need this Advent, this Immanuel, this "God With Us." Because I have no other light to follow in the midst of this years-long night. I have no other hope that can tear out the hopelessness that sometimes seems to take root in my soul.

"Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?" He's out there, somewhere in the darkness. Go. Find him.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Crucify Him

My former philosophy professor, drawing from Karl Barth, once quipped that Jesus is the question to all our answers.

Too many Christians have answers, yet few ask questions. As far as the religious establishment was concerned, Jesus was crucified because he threatened their cherished systems -- systems that were built upon centuries of good answers.

Sometimes, Jesus is a real problem for the people of God.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

I'm a Very Lucky Girl (Only God Can Save Us Now)

Music seldom overwhelms me the way it used to. Maybe I'm too busy to appreciate good art, maybe there's so little good art to be found. Maybe I can't even recognize good art when I stumble across it. Maybe, and most likely, the past several years have taken their toll, leaving me cold and calloused, unable to give in to the siren songs that would seek to drag my apathy to the depths.

That changed on December 3, 2007. Jessica and I were trolling through Barnes and Noble because a bookstore is a great place to go when you're out on a date. We came across Over the Rhine's The Trumpet Child and, having heard nothing but good things about them from our friends Chris and Elissa, decided to give them a chance.

We fell in love. Between Karin's husky voice and Linford's leaning into the keys, we couldn't help but allow ourselves to be caught up in the magic of it all. One song, one verse in particular stuck out:

"This oyster is my world -- my oyster's got a pearl.
This ain't no dress rehearsal, I'm a very lucky girl.
I'm on a roll."

Jessica immediately thought of Judy. "Darryl, this song has 'Mama' written all over it!" And even though we were out on the town for some always-appreciated "us" time, Jessica simply had to call her mama, something that only spoke to the depths of their relationship. No, this was no contest between a husband and a mother. Far from it -- their's was a love that transcended the boundaries typical to most mothers and daughters. The sparks of friendship and laughter that forever flew between them were some of the surest signs of the Divine, and I was always thankful to be graced with such good company.

Jessica told Judy that she couldn't wait for her to hear what we had just heard. And, of course, like any good friend who thought only of the one she loved, Judy told her she couldn't wait to hear them. Unfortunately, sadly, bitterly, Judy would never hear the song that carried her to her daughter's thoughts. She went into the hospital the very next day and died a few weeks later just before Christmas.

Since then, it's been Over the Rhine who has given us, especially Jessica, a chance. Their music has softened the painful memories that tear at our hearts, allowing us to drink from a well of healing.

At last night's show, Karin told us a story about her own mother. After having served forty years as a nurse, after caring so selflessly for others, after countless midnight vigils at the sides of those who simply needed to know the comfort of another human being in the same room, she suffered a debilitating stroke and ended up in a nursing home. A different struggle entirely than what Jessica has faced, but just as real and no less painful, I'm sure.

Jessica, of course, fell in love with Over the Rhine, particularly Karin, all the more. Here was a traveling companion who had also been waylaid by highwaymen, a bruised soul that had experienced, yet still needed, comfort and healing. Somewhere in the middle of a crowded bar in downtown Kansas City, Jessica found something of a kindred heart.

As Karin continued her story, she told us about a woman in the nursing home who was growing frailer with each passing day. After walking into the woman's room as she had done countless times before, Karin approached the ghost of a body that laid beneath the sheets and asked her how the day was going. The brief answer she received was haunting and beautiful, ringing of an ancient and timeless truth: "Only God can save us now."

In an instant, a wave of heartache, joy, memory, and bittersweet relief washed over us. Judy is gone, life is a relentless deluge of frustration and regret, and there seems to be no end to the holy darkness that has decided to take up residence on our doorstep. In the midst of it all, though, we were reminded from a road-weary troubadour of a hope and a love that lies beyond ourselves yet is ever so near to us. Through ribbons of cigarette smoke, over the din of the crowd and the tinkling of glasses, God seemed to find us, reminding us that we are not forgotten.

I really am a very lucky girl. I'm on a roll.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Christian and the Con Man

Two men went up into the church to pray, one a Christian, and the other a con man.

One sat in the pew, tears streaming down his face, unable to find words fit enough for a meager prayer. Had he been able to pray, he was quite certain that God would want nothing to do with a man like him...

The other, however, knelt at the altar and began to pray to himself: "God, I thank you for your goodness -- for my family, my home, my job. Where else but from you could such blessings come? Thank you for a church where others have experienced this kindness, as well. Your blessing is evident to all.

"I also thank you for sparing me from whatever has befallen this man. Thank you for rewarding my faithfulness with peace and safety."

And with that, he went over to the brokenhearted man to show him the error of his ways so that he, too, might come to experience the blessing of God.