Aspiration not Obligation

The speed limit is not up for interpretation. Sadly, I have had more than one occasion on which I have learned this. Plead as you might, you cannot make an argument against any reasonable officer that you just interpreted that 65mph meant 80mph or that you could drive 40mph in a 20mph zone because you thought that speed was better suited for the case. In some cases, interpretation is neither necessary nor welcome. When learning to drive a vehicle you are not offered a book of suggestions you might want to follow how you best see fit. 16-year-old aspiring motorists are given strict guidelines that are, under no circumstance, appropriate to re-interpret.

Most things in life however are not as cut and dry. Take the United States constitution for example. Many at the outset might say that the Constitution has a plain face value meaning. It is strict and literal. However when one begins to apply the text of the constitution into lawmaking and law upholding, term literal itself begins to be up for interpretation. How literal? Who’s literal? Was this not the case there would not be unbridled angst when Presidents are afforded the ability to appoint new Justices on the Supreme Court. The Justices job is to stand as final interpreter for specific cases; they are commissioned to take the text of the law and appropriate it accordingly. The very act of determining legality or the absence of legality is an act of interpretation into which we being our values, beliefs, presuppositions and worldviews.

As Christians we have projected the democratic system onto our religious traditions. Many hold that interpretations should be made on a very limited basis, if at all, when it comes to the appropriation of Scripture on life, while others believe that great interpretation and exception should be made in every case of the intersection of scripture and life, allowing for forgiveness in the divide between conception and application.

What if however, the way we approach scripture as a whole is largely misinformed? Taking the Constitution of the United States, that document is only good, worthwhile, and influential in the American life and democracy as we allow it to shape the culture of America. In other words, were we to disregard the Constitution as a whole, perhaps in favor in anarchy but more likely in favor of another theory for social life, the Constitution would lose meaning. The truth in it would not necessarily stop being true in some sense, but in another, once the document ceases to shape the community, the truth by which it used to shape has become irrelevant. Whether or not one had a strict or loose view on Constitutional interpretation would be irrelevant because neither view would have maintained the ability to shape the American culture. As Christians we appoint our own authorities of interpretation, an appointment we consciously make in agreement with our already held preferences. Typically, if those we read, listen to, hear sermons from, etc, begin to disagree with our preference, we cast them aside for someone who will appease us.

Stanley Hauerwas, one of the most Influential theologians of the 20th and now 21st centuries regarding political theology (the intersection of social life with the Gospel) reflected in A Community of Character that Scripture is not meant to give a list of rules or of dos and don’ts but rather to shape a community in what they should do. For those of you who think those two options sound synonymous, allow me to explain.

The one who is truly transformed by scripture should not feel shackled by the mandates but freed by the influence.  Perhaps we can tie specific words to the two options: obligation and aspiration. The point no longer is, “I should give my money to the poor because the Bible says so,” or, “I need to show her kindness even though I find he annoying,” becomes, “I give my money to the poor because the type of person I have become ought to meet the needs of the impoverished,” or,” I show her kindness because the person I have become ought to show kindness to all people regardless of who they are.” The first case communicates obligation to follow a moral code, the second, aspiration to continuously be transformed into the person who no longer ought to act as Jesus did, but acts like him out of their genuinely transformed spirit.  Therefore, unless we truly allow Scripture to transform us as the community of believers, interpretative endeavors are all lost causes. Interpretation must first stem from life intersection and transformation not from bias and preference.

We have reached an intersection in history where it seems like Scripture has lost nearly all ability to influence the culture we live in. That is not to say it cannot but it is to say that we are unwilling to let it. We feel freedom to throw out all sort of should and shouldn’t that perpetuate our way of life. The word of God sits static on the table or in the pulpit as we seek for it to establish the parameters of our life. While it often doesn’t is create parameters around us, preventing us from engaging with culture, preventing us from being relevant in the world. We take major political issues we are passionate about and seek out Scripture to justify them. We decide the way to raise our kids, manage our money, construct our diet, donate goods, and then we go to scripture and low and behold we are able to construct a mangled mess of words and phrases that support our beliefs. The truth is however, what we have arrived at is not Scripture and often not even Christian. We have lost sight of what Scripture is to do.

We try to do this in good conscious because it is the only way we can see that we can make it, that we can possibly follow all the rules. Newsflash, since the begging of time we have not been able to follow all the rules, even when there is only one. God doesn’t need us all to follow a bunch of rules; he desires to be transformed into the type of people who no longer have a need for rules. It is as if he is in the process of raising us as children, the rules we receive in adolescents are meant to transform reckless youth into responsible maturity. It is unhealthy for a 30 year od male to still have a curfew from his parents. He must reach a point that he has been transformed into the type of person that he can determine healthy lifestyle choices on his own.

If you have ever heard anyone say they either don’t understand the Bible or don’t think it is relevant, do you think it is because Scripture really no longer has the power to transform the hearts of humanity, or more likely, has the way they have seen Scripture implemented is not compelling enough to give their life to? We allow our culture to shape Scripture as opposed to allowing Scripture to shape our culture.

We have appropriated scripture out of obligation not aspiration in such a way that we are continuously doomed to fail.  We have made the Christian walk an impossible task, filled constantly with the guilt of letting down God and ourselves that we have been unable to jump through all the hoops. As a point, ask this question: with over one billion Christians in the world, shouldn’t the world look a lot different? What if instead we journey on of perpetual transformation, what if we abandoned the obligation that has been such a turn-off for so many, and embraced the ability of God to move in our lives and transform the brokenness of our world.

Karl Barth famously and controversially stated that Scripture is only what is inspired by the Holy Spirit. Barth was not stating that anything, from the People magazine you read at the salon to Romans chapter 8 all can be inspired with a simple sprinkling of Holy Spirit pixie dust. Instead he was making a commentary on what was and still is the current state in Scriptural interpretation in Christian communities and individuals. Like lawmakers and judges understand when dealing in their medium, the words on the page are not as clear as the words on the page. Just because you read it does not mean you can apply it in any way you like. Barth’s point was that the Holy spirit must be present and guiding in reading and interpreting Scripture, otherwise, you may have read words on the page, but that’s about it.

Scripture shouldn’t cause you to ask the question, “did I meet my quota today?” or, “did I follow those rules today even though my heart wanted so desperately to break them?” Instead the question it should spark it, “what type of people are we, and what type of community ought we be?” We can never transform the world if we have not ourselves been transformed.

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You are 50% wrong

In my sophomore year in college I had to take Introduction to Philosophy. I was greatly intimidated by the teacher as well as the subject matter.  I hadn’t ever taken philosophy and the extent of what I knew of Plato and Socrates was their names.

On the first day of class the Professor said something that I have not forgotten. He told us that about 50% of what we believe to be true is likely false. We were young, inexperienced students and at this stage in our life we were ignorant to greater truth by about 50%. He told us, since he was older as well as having had more education; he was likely more at the 75% truth percentile. Although I initially thought his comment was nonsensical, I have found and am continuing to find that he has been remarkably accurate.

Perhaps you hear this in the posture that I initially received it, with fervent opposition. We are all convinced that what we believed is 100% true, were we not, we would change out beliefs. However, if you take a deep inventory of your convictions, your presuppositions, and even the things you consider hard fact, how many of them could potentially be subject to upheaval? But what about cold hard fact? What about scientific truth?

It only takes thinking back a few centauries to remember that common perception once held that the earth was flat and you could sail to India from Spain heading directly westward. John Nelson Darby in the late 1800s as well as many other evangelists in history was convinced that the world will end on a specific date at a specific time. The Mayans may or may not be disproved this year. In the 16th century, European explorers were convinced California was an island. Galileo and Copernicus fought against the belief that the earth was the center of the universe. No one believed human beings could fly in airplanes. All but a few were convinced personal computers we thing of fancy and so on and so fourth.

The truth is, the likelihood that we are wrong about a great deal of what we are convinced, is not only possible, it is near certain. What happens is as we grow we continually construct a series of “truths”, some likely, some unlikely, all held at different degrees with passion, yet all held nonetheless. We create a narrative that embodies our reality consisting of these truths. The way you live your life, parent your kids, attend your school, obey your parents, construct your diet, handle money, purchase a house, schedule your day… everything you do stems from a complex intricate web we weave of our best sense of how the world actually works.

This belief in “how the world actually works” leads us to establish a pattern of behavior perhaps best summed up by saying that it is our “response to how the world actually works.” We construct everything we do within this framework. It is as if we establish a narrative – setting, plot, motives, moods – and then live within what our best guess is of the way things actually are. The problem comes when we are in need of correction. When our course has gone astray. When we have missed the mark. When you misread the narrative. If we have constructed this narrative, we likely believe it is right, and if we believe it is right, how can we be expected to change it? And yet, for most of us, a great deal of what we believe is likely wrong.

There is however a true narrative. There is a true story, a true context. The story reflects the dynamic history of a loving God in pursuit of a creation, which cannot quite seem to reciprocate a relationship. Both the beauty and frustration of this story is that it necessitates collaboration. We cannot understand it, cannot live by it, and cannot allow it to define our reality individually. As we try to gain identity by individualizing our perspective and deviating from community we in effect lose our identity.  When do we see the great travesties of history? Biblically we could take Moses’ murdering of the Egyptian; Peter’s denial of Christ; David’s adultery with Bathsheba. It is when we deviate from transparency with others, when we abandon accountability, that we find ourselves deviating from actual truth, the actual story. Extreme individualism radically influencing mass communities like a virus overtaking a body organ by organ is not unprecedented throughout the atrocities and the great disagreements of human history. The narrative we allow to embody our reality determines the ethics we live by. Community’s necessity is paramount, they interpret the narrative, they course correct the individual narrative. They don’t override individualism but rather provide a way to aid the individual in establishing the best possible pattern of life in response to how things really work.

Being unfaithful to the real story does not make any new story any more real, it just perpetuates our lostness, our difficulty to find our way back to a true narrative. Just as the letters of the early church we meant to be read aloud corporately; the human experience with God, the human pursuit of God, and the human realization that God has actually been pursuing us all along, should all be done corporately.

But can’t communities go badly? Don’t communities get it wrong? Like leftovers in a fridge, everything must be checked eventually if you are to avoid contaminated food. Look at the American political system. We have two primary parties who many times vehemently disagree with one another. Look at the American religious system. Hundreds and thousands of denominations and non-denominations, some agree, some condemn one another and yet who is right? We have built our own towers of Babel, refusing to descend toward one another in pursuit of a common story. This is not a uniquely American problem however the hyper individualism we are discussing is much more prevalent in Western societies. Kant’s “I think therefore I am,” has led us to see ourselves first, but all to often we are all that we see. We remain perched above the clouds believing we are all the more near to God, when in actuality we couldn’t be farther away.

What know? The key is not rightness; the key is expansion and collaboration. This does not mean concede for the sake of peace, this means open the line of interpretation into broad discussions. One of the most beautiful tings of God is that he is Truth. He is the embodiment of the real story, he set into motion what’s really going on. In believing that I think we can safely abandon fact and embrace faith. Faith, actually, seems to be more concrete anyway. While facts change, mold, and can be notoriously difficult to pin down as constant, faith is fluid, moving, persuasive. It is within a community of faith that we correct our 50% wrongness. We don’t get it perfect ut we are consistently perfecting it. Tweaking, changing, adjusting, and checking how we are living according to the story the community sees and is telling. Facts are believed. Faith is lived. Lived in community.

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Faith is Art

If you haven’t seen the show Shark Tank you should really check it out. Every episode features young entrepreneurs pitching their ideas to the wealthiest of the wealthy in hopes that someone will invest enough money in their idea to help them become a successful business. A recent episode featured a young man with a seemingly trivial idea. He wanted to draw cats. The entrepreneur pitched that he would sell hand drawn semi stickfigure-esque illustrations of cat. He admitted that he started the business years ago on a bet. He received $25,000 in exchange for a 33% stake in the business from Billionaire Mark Cuban.

Really? $25,000 for hand drawn illustrations of cats? What have I been doing with my life?

The thing is too, this guy actually sells pictures. People buy these things. They consider them art. I on the other had consider them overpriced cat drawings.

Art is a tricky thing to pin down. Although some may argue the point, art is really subjective. There is no guidelines for what makes good or bad art. What one person considers a foolish idea, another may consider a $25,000 art company.

I think faith is art in that way. It’s a hard thing to pin down. There are no guidelines that one can compare their faith to in order to figure out if it is good or bad, strong or weak. Some might say, what about tithing? Attending church? Being part of community? Reading Scripture? Etc? Although those are truly attributes that can strengthen a person’s faith, does someone need to do them to have strong faith? Can faith be measured on a metric scale?

I have a friend who told me about someone he went to Seminary with. This Seminarian was a devout Christian. Possibly the most devoted person my friend had ever seen when it came to spending time daily in Scripture. At one point in the semester the Seminarian told my friend that he was going to take six weeks and purposely not do his devotionals. My friend pressed why, worrying about the ramifications this might have to the fervency of the student’s faith. The Seminary student responded that he wanted to prove that he didn’t need to do the devotionals. He wanted to prove to himself that God wouldn’t love him any more or less, or that his faith would not be lessened by the absence of his daily readings. For him, devotionals were a way to quantify faith, they were the metric by which he could judge if he was or was not a good Christian.

I wonder how many of us do this. How many of us approach our faith like science? We quantify and label, we measure what we feel will bolster our faith. Its as if we see our faith more as an algebraic equation we need to balance on both sides over an artistic endeavor, existing simply for the purpose of offering beauty to the world. Art can exist in science. There is beauty in balance, in protons and neutrons, in anomalies and perplexities. Science however is not a governing factor in art. Art can exist with or without science. Like the seminary student, we need to embrace the notion that nothing we do, create, believe, or become can change the love God has for us. He loves us and our lives exist to be perpetual works of beauty that reflect our creator. It is not what we do, it is who we are that is beautiful.

Art can never fully be understood nor absorbed at face value. Art requires interpretation. It requires evaluation of the artist’s use of color and texture, their inclusions and omissions, musings of their motives and moods. Faith, in that way, is like art. Faith requires interpretation. It is interesting that the things we typically use to quantify our faith are not the points of evaluation that Scripture continuously points to. There is certainly room in scripture for the passages and portions that suggest our typical way of Christian life, however those take a backseat. What is dominant in the story of Scripture is themes. Refrains like “blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5) or “the meek will inherit the earth”(Psalm 37) permeate the narrative of God’s story.  The Ancient prophet Micah exhorts us to “walk justly, live humbly, and love mercy,” (Micah 6:8). Oh yeah? And with that we don’t ask, how just is enough just? How humble is enough humble? Our faith in itself is an interpretation and likewise need interpretation. We cant quantify who we are called to be, we can only creatively express it or creatively avoid it.

This interpretation is not simply free floating however. We don’t get to decide the terms. Our interpretation generates from the life of the one and only God who lived among us, died for us, and rose to free us. It is impossible for true beauty, true art to exist absent of a reflection of this truth.

Our pursuit of God is a creation of art more than it is filling a quota or balancing an equation. Perhaps our charity or our studiousness when it comes to scripture are bold blanket lines on the canvas, but the true substance of our faith stands for interpretation. What are the artist’s uses of color and texture, their inclusions and omissions, musings of their motives and moods?

Do not here me say here that Jesus is some sort of unconfirmed subjective hypothesis. Jesus is the genesis of all creative process. He is, within the Triune God, the beginning, the Alpha of all creation. All beauty generates from Him. It is impossible to experience, perceive, and create beauty away from interaction in Christ. And I think this changes the game. It causes us to interpret the faith and art of those around us in different lenses. When we no longer quantify what those around us are “doing” but interact with who they are being. Of course those who don’t fully understand Jesus, or even those who outright deny God, can possess beauty in the lives they lead. It is as if the remnants of their creator, no matter how oppressed, seep through the cracks in the surface to expose true reality. This is the beauty of the Church. the truest beauty of the Christian community is experienced not in a forced rigidity of life but in living expression of the artistic process, the embodiment of diverse beauty; the veteran believer and the persistent agnostic together encountering the face of Christ and called to question the art they are creating.

There is ambiguity in this for sure. How then can we know who is and is not Christian? How then can we evaluate growth? Isn’t this just postmodern nonsense, the unwillingness to commit to objective reality? I don’t quite think so. I actually think the freedom we are allotted in faith, the ability to create beauty in the loves we lead, establishes a far more compelling telling of the Gospel. I am not so sure that it is my responsibility to decide whether or not someone else is a Christian. Instead our job is to use the art that we create to point others toward the one from which all beauty, truth, and reality generates and to continue to create art that inspires those around us to interpret and pursue the one who calls the beauty of the universe into existence.

 

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God, Faith, and Fatherhood

It will be one week ago tonight at 9:58pm that I met my son Patrick for the first time. This time last week It had only been moments since I received a speeding ticket on the way to the hospital to meet Danielle.  In the last few hours, as I have had some of the first moments since his birth to meditate on weeks events, I have been struck with four things I have learned about God, faith, and fatherhood.

Messy is healthy. What one quickly learns after they have a child is that they are messy. Things, usually of the liquid persuasion, are frequently exiting through both ends of the new bundle of joy. Doctors however will say this is a good thing, (obviously not continuously). The baby’s internal systems are working correctly when you see the results externally, as unappetizing as those results are.

Faith is messy. When we encounter people who seem like they have it all together, typically we learn that this isn’t the case. The authenticity of someone’s faith is typically observed by their transparency, their brokenness, their messiness. The health of our internal systems, or our faith, is reflected not in perfection but in the beautiful mess that is the human pursuit of God. We live in a broken world. We are not called to cover up our messiness, just to have faith amidst it.

Creators created. I could never have appreciated the imago Dei or the “image of God” in which we are created until witnessing the birth of Patrick. The beauty of God’s creation does not end with his majestic creative work. His fashioning of human beings was just a prelude to the brilliance that is his magnum opus. God did not merely create creations he created creators. The difference is stark. In bearing the image of God we are privileged to continue to create, to write a new chapter in the book of creation, to pursue a new storyline in the narrative that God is telling.  We are creators created. We are created to create art, science, beauty, wonder, joy; created to create.

Perfect Parenthood. I have taught and heard messages on the fatherhood of God numerous times. The problem is always, how does one reconcile a broken home, or a broken relationship with their dad and embrace the understanding as God as Abba or Father? I have never understood the answer to that question more than this last week. Our problem is that we try to reconcile God as a “father” of us right now. The truth is, we are broken human beings and thus we are broken parents. I will let my son down in life more times that I want to imagine. It is the reality of being human. And so we try to humanize God’s fatherhood.

When I think of God as my father when I am a teenager means I likely have a lot of conflict with him. God as Father as an adult means I want him to se me as mature, as self-sustaining. God doesn’t see us as these things though, not as a rebellious teen, not as a developed adult. God sees us as an infant: helpless, cold, beautiful not because of our salary or our grades, our clothes or our performance, but beautiful because we are his creation.  I have never understood the love God has for me more than in the moments when I look at my son and see his utter dependence on me. My joy is not derived from anything that he does, but simply who he is. That is how God sees us. He dreams and aspires for who we will be come and yet, in no possible scenario could he love us any more than he does, simply because he is our father.

Met where we are. I have heard many people say in some form or another, “If I can just get my life on track, then I would follow God.” Their admission of brokenness, although beautiful, leads to a misguided conclusion: We must become something in order to meet God. The reality is God wants to meet us where we are. He is standing over us, gazing at us in all our simplicity and complexity, our beauty and our pain. He has met us. And yet before our vision develops, before we learn the truth about the world around us, many of us don’t know he is there. We wait to develop, thinking that if we only improve, or fix, or change, or grow, we can meet with God. He has been with us all along, he has been watching us, he has been whispering to us, he has been sustaining our existence. God’s presence in our lives is not contingent on who we are; our realization of his presence is the only contingency.

Perhaps it just takes trust. It takes faith. I don’t think Patrick can fully see my face yet, I know he cant verbally articulate who I am, but I see his grin when he hears my voice, I see him sleep when he feels my warmth. He knows who I am, he knows I am there. I am not waiting for him to grow up before I show up in his life. I am waiting for him to continue to show that he knows who I am, yet even if he doesn’t, I will love him all the same.

 

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My Dad’s Bigger Than Your Dad!

Do you remember when you were young and you would get into an argument with your friends? You might begin debating who had the cooler color shoes or who was better soccer player.

Ultimately, the decisive blow was delivered by the one who was willing to throw out this Tomahawk of destruction, “Oh Yeah? Well my dad is bigger than your dad!” As trivial and childish as it seems, I think this is really our best attempt at apologetics. And if I remember, that argument at six years old never really ended in the other kid conceding, “Oh Yeah, your dad is pretty big, you are probably right.” When we engage those arguments, on whatever the topic, we never win. It essentially becomes a contest on who screams the loudest, not a discussion with the mutual concern for reality and truth.

I have a really hard time with apologetics. The simplest way for explaining that term is a defense of the faith. Now it would be appropriate to questions at this point to question if I am fit for my job, considering that I daily speak with high school students who are wrestling with their faith or their lack of faith. If I am not defending, what am I doing? The answer is pointing. Not literally, that would be obnoxious. But in sincerity, I think God has called me as a pastor, and called us all as pastors to point people to him. We should listen, care, show compassion, and ultimately, get them to the one who can really help. God didn’t call us to argue, he called us to transform. Anselm reflected that his theology came from a point of faith seeking understanding. He wasn’t gong to argue himself or anyone else into faith, he knew that faith was something that happened between people and God, not people and people.

I don’t get upset when people criticize my belief in God or my faith in Jesus as trivial or antiquated. Honestly, I have a hard time defending it. Its not that I don’t think its not worthy of defense or that my training and calling have not adequately prepared me for such a defense but instead that I am not sure God needs me to get his back… God didn’t make us to play defense.

I will never forget sermon I heard Pastor Gene Apple, former pastor at Willow Creek Community Church, on the subject of Homosexuality. Apple reflected on the multiple interpretations and sometimes manipulations of scripture on this subject and then in his concluding remarks said this… “What I know for certain is that the truth has no reason to hide.”

I think sometimes we feel lake God has put us into position to argue for him. It’s as if God is in a schoolyard brawl and if we don’t get his back he will lose. Just for the record…God has already won.  He doesn’t need us to fight his battles for him. I am not sure we are called to fight at all. I reflect on Jesus’ life, the life all Christians are called to follow, and I don’t see much fighting.  “Perhaps the truth needs to be uncovered,” we think. “And I am just the person who can help God out, who can pull back the layers of debris and confusion and get others to see the underlying truth!”

I think our apologetic model should be straight from the life of Jesus. Submitting his life to the cross, Jesus allowed the full weight of sin and death and destruction to bear down on him in all of its fury and violence. And in the end, when it has all stopped, when the fight appears over and the victory bell has won… we are not meet with a weak impostor; we are met with a victorious savior. Victory resulted not from the offensive blows Jesus threw, but by the fact that his opposition gave him all that it had, he took punch after punch after punch, exhausting itself to the point of defeat and still Jesus stood strong.

I truly believe that the faith we are called to have is about the pursuit of truth. When we approach our faith more as a mission to defend our boarders as opposed to a mission to explore the world beyond our boarder, we have missed the mark.  It already shows that we don’t believe our boarders are strong enough on their own. Apple’s point is subtle, gentle, and brilliant. The truth has no reason to hide. It will never be uncovered as a fraud, it will never be shown as a hoax, it will never concede to lesser values. It is after all, truth.

I wonder what it would look like if we pointed people toward truth, not argued with them about it; if we allowed opponents to throw every weapon they have at the truth just to be baffled by its ultimate resilience; if we pointed people towards Jesus as they are, battered and bruised, and broken, as opposed to trying to fix them before they get to him. The faith I have reassures me that no matter what question, what argument, what insult, or what opposition I encounter, I follow a God who has victory over all things. It’s a beautiful thing really, knowing that we have won and we don’t need to fight. I want to point people toward that God.

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