The Subversive Church

Becoming ever more convinced of how little I know about what it means to be the Kingdom of Heaven.

Location: Boston, MA

Friday, June 22, 2007

A Question of Faith

It's been a really long week, and my brain is mushy, but I want to get this down before I forget it.

An old friend called last night, and we talked for thirty minutes or so. I'm afraid I wasn't much of a conversationalist - mushy brain and all - but along the way, he said something I needed to hear.

He was describing an upcoming transition, and all the difficult decisions it would entail for him and his family, but said, "You know, God doesn't want us to be consumed with this stuff. He wants us to be consumed with Him."

I've been consumed with a lot of things recently, and I'm afraid my Lord and Savior hasn't made the list very often. Ironically, one of the things that's consumed most of my time and brain cycles has been a quest for tangible fruit - ha! - in my spiritual life. It's like I've been trying so hard to grow a few grapes on my little branch that I've lost my connection to the vine.

So the question, really, is one of faith. Am I willing to give up trying to fill in all my little spiritual check-boxes in order to focus on God? "But seek ye first His kingdom, and His righteousness, and all these things will be added as well...?"

Monday, May 21, 2007

Kicking myself. Maybe.

I still wonder if I should be kicking myself right now.

It was a good weekend. I got together, for maybe the last time, with a large group of my friends from college. We hung out together on the river, cooked a great meal, then sat around the fire and told stories till the wee hours. We even broke out a few guitars and sang bad old songs from the old days.

I had been praying for this weekend for along time. You see, as far as I know, none of those friends of mine are believers. Especially since this may have been the last time I'll see them all together, I wanted to take the chance to share with them the hope I have in Jesus, the reason I'm following God's call on my life. I prayed in earnest for that one moment, when the evening was quiet and the time was just right, and somebody asked, "So, why exactly are you doing what you're doing?" You know, one of those 'WITNESS HERE' moments, when you know you've been put there just to share the Gospel.

And the moment never came.

Oh, there were plenty of opportunities. There were plenty of conversational lulls within which I could have spoken up, "So, uhh, y'all are probably wondering why I'm doing what I'm doing..." But I never did. It never seemed right. And now that chance is gone, and we're all back home again, living our separate lives.

So I'm wondering if I should be kicking myself. Did I wisely resist the temptation to force something that wasn't there, or did I just chicken out? On the one hand, tact is important. I want my friends to know that I care about them for who they are, not just as targets for evangelism. On the other hand, tact is hard. It's much easier just to tiptoe around a subject, perhaps never even bringing it up at all. It's more comfortable for them and for me to just ignore my faith, to ignore the difference between us and 'just get along.' But if that's all I'm doing, then what good am I? If my faith is without works, is it really dead?

Friday, February 02, 2007

A Hard Teaching

"This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?" - John 6:60

I've been chewing on this one for a while now. See, I'm finding that reading and understanding God's Word isn't as simple as it's made out to be. It's not like other books. Usually, if I put my mind to it, I can slog my way through something and understand most any book I've read (except maybe Milbank - that guy's impenetrable). But the Bible can be elusive... in parts, anyway. Not that I don't get any of it, but all the time I'm going back and reading a passage or book I know I've read a dozen times, and seeing things for the first time. Stuff I must have just glossed over the last eleven times I read it.

Of course the Bible is all true, valid, inerrant, whatever. But I wonder if sometimes we see some parts of it more readily than we see others because it's easier for us to understand, to break down into a simple do/don't rule. For example, 1 Tim 2:12, "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent," is an easy teaching, in its own way. Straightforward, clear, easy to parse into a rule. The Bible says not to allow women to teach, therefore a female professor of Hebrew at a co-ed seminary is clearly acting contrary to Biblical principles, and must be dismissed at once. Easy. Easy to defend, anyway, and hard to argue against without "arguing against the Bible."

But how about 1 Thessalonians 5:12-15: "Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else."

This, my friends, is a hard teaching. Not many easy rules in there, nothing to hold up our actions (or the actions of others) and point out obvious discrepancies. Hard to make a case, say, that firing a professor for being female violates the rule of "holding workers in the highest regard in love," especially when one can just say, "Of course I hold her in the highest regard... and she's still fired."

I've been convicted in the last few months about those parts of God's Word that don't parse easily. I used to sort of skim over passages about being kind, gentle, loving and whatnot, and think to myself "Yadda yadda yadda, be nice, whatever..." I didn't treat them as actual rules for living, but more like cliches, platitudes. Like saying, "Have a nice day!" A nice sentiment, but not hard theology, not a firm doctrine for Christian living. But now I wonder...

I'm writing this, thinking that the brother who lives according to the Biblical command in 1 Thess 5:12-15 would never be so callous as to fire a fellow worker in Christ (at a seminary, not a church!) because she was female. Yet I read Philippians 2:3, "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves," and think about my conceit in imagining that I have a better handle on Christ-like behavior than my brothers who fired the professor. Do I consider them better than myself? Paul says I should! Ah, but this is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?

Saturday, November 18, 2006

A Truly Private Prayer Language

If you have been following the debate in our convention regarding Private Prayer Languages (PPLs), I encourage you to read Alan Cross' series of posts on his blog (pt 1, pt 2, pt 3, and pt 4). He argues persuasively, and biblically, for a continuationalist viewpoint, or the belief that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit as described in the New Testament are still extant today. Of course, in doing so he also argues strongly against our mission board's current policy against the use of a PPL by missionaries or staff.

Many others have commented on this policy already, and I will not add to the fray here. But I do want to say something about private prayer langauges.

Prayer is a funny thing. Once we get beyond rote prayer, which certainly has its place, prayer becomes a kind of conversation with God. To an outside observer, though, it looks like we're talking to ourselves. We may have our eyes closed or not, speaking out loud or not, but in most cases there is no audible response from our Lord. Verbally, it's one-way communication.

But of course, we know that it's not just talking to the ceiling. Prayer is truly two-way communication, in that the Holy Spirit talks to our spirit. We hear Him in our hearts, and are comforted, or chastised, or directed. There is communication happening that does not involve the actual words I say, or hear.

When prayer is at its best, I often find myself putting into words what I hear the Spirit saying. That is, I share a concern, or question, or doubt, and the Lord responds. I then articulate what I feel, and can understand what the Spirit is saying by listening to my own words. It's the Lord speaking, but He uses my own prayer to talk to me. I understand, then, that what I am really doing when I 'speak' my prayer is translating. Prayer, at those times, is not a verbal communication at all, but a spiritual one. The actual words I use are at best an approximation of what I have prayed, and of what the Lord answered.

I really think that what happens in prayer, underneath the English words I use, is a heavenly language, a way that my spirit communicates with the Holy Spirit. I'm just translating.

But you know how, when you learn a new (earthly) language, you spend a long time translating in your head as you speak it? Like say you learn Italian, but for a long time, even after you're completely fluent in Italian, you still think in English, and translate as you go? Eventually, they say (I have never experienced this), your new langauge gets so natural that you don't have to translate anymore. You simply think in Italian. I think our prayer is the same way. In so many ways I am still a novice speaker of the language of prayer. I have to think in English, then let my spirit translate. But some people, who have grown far closer to Christ than I am now, are so practiced in the language of prayer that they don't need to translate.

I think that's what Paul was talking abaout in Romans 8:26-27, when he said, "In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will."

On reflection, I have done this. It happens when I give up trying to pray, and release the spirit within me to pray by itself. When I get out of the way, my spirit groans. And God hears my prayer. Is that a private prayer language?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Keepin' It Real

One of the greatest, most sublime joys I have found in my old age is that of listening to my iPod while washing dishes. It's the only time I get to use it, because I'm usually otherwise in class, working or watching my two kids. It's especially nice because, since the iPod headphones are too small for me and keep falling out, I use the Sennheiser HD-280 cans I use for audio editing, which are huge, closed-back 'phones that block out everything but the music. The kids are in bed, my wife is doing other chores, and I'm dancing in front of the sink, lip sync'ing and doing dishes.

The best part of the iPod, in my estimation, is the numerous ways to organize and arrange the listening experience. You can set up your own playlists, listen to whole albums, or - and this is my favorite - just listen to every song in order, alphabetically. My iPod currently has 508 songs so there's enough material I'm never sure what comes next. I find particular joy in the random, sometimes humorous juxtaposition of songs.

For example, yesterday over dishes I was somewhere in the G's, listening to Caedmon's Call singing God of Wonders. What a beautiful song, what a beautiful rendition... all the way into the distorted opening riffs of Blue Oyster Cult's Godzilla.
With a purposeful grimace and a terrible sound
He pulls the spitting high-tension wires down... Godzilla!

Today's was even better. I was grooving to Vineyard's Hallelujah (Your Love Is Amazing), when the next thing I hear is the inimitable voice of Kermit the Frog:
"The time has come to answer that question that has baffled mankind through the ages; namely, can the frog tap-dance? The answer is... Hit it!"
If you haven't heard Kermit sing Happy Feet, then you haven't truly lived. But just about the time I'm grinning like a fool, getting my dishtowel wet trying to tap-dance while washing dishes, Switchfoot follows up Happy Feet with Happy Is A Yuppy Word.

It could be that no one else out there in Blogland sees the humor in my iPod playlist. But for me, it's all about keepin' it real. Switchfoot captures so much of what I find myself trying to say but can't, but just when I'm starting to take it all too seriously, Kermit puts it all in perspective with his hap-hap-happy feet.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Being Right

Let me ask a loaded question:

How important is it to be right?

Let us speak, for instance, of our personal theologies. Each of us has a set of beliefs about who God is, who Jesus is, what He did for us on the cross, what it means to be saved, how it is that we become saved, etc. For the sake of this discussion, let us call our set of personal beliefs and doctrines a "personal theology."

Each Baptist's personal theology is unique, on some level. I mean only that, though we may all affirm the inerrancy and authority of Scripture, yet we read and interpret it differently. Perhaps the differences are small, and most of us agree on the "essentials," but they're different nonetheless.

Our personal theologies differ not only in the details, they also differ on how many details there are. If your experience is anything like mine, you will have added individual beliefs to your belief structure only as you encounter and consider them for the first time. A new Christian (or an immature one) may have only the most basic essentials: Jesus died for my sins, and God raised Him from the dead. If you ask him whether he is a dispensationalist or not, he will only look at you blankly - he's not wrong, he just hasn't thought about it. And of course, the deeper we get into the finer points of doctrine, the more hairs there are to split.

Our personal theology is not only unique in details and content, it is also changing. As we live this life, and "work out our salvation in fear and trembling," our beliefs change. The Holy Spirit is a great schoolmaster, and always has a lesson plan. We read Scripture, and He reveals truths and insights we didn't even know were there. We mature and recognize flaws in our old way of thinking, and are "transformed by the renewing of our mind."

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that there is no right doctrine, that there is no truth, or that there are many "truths" of equal validity. I am saying that it is a very difficult thing to nail down exactly what Truth is, especially when our own ideas about it keep changing. Has anyone ever known the fullness of God's glory? Or do we all as yet see dimly?

In fact, I might go so far as to say that a significant number of the beliefs that you and I hold strongly, that we are just sure of, will we shown in the light of God's glory to be flat out wrong. How do I know this? Because what I believe today is different in any number of ways from what I believed just last year, not to mention five years ago. I have been convicted by the Holy Spirit in the light of God's Word of my pride and self-deceit, and the ways I was not "loving my neighbor." And unless I have just now reached the pinnacle of knowledge and grace (unlikely), I expect the Holy Spirit will continue to show me ways in which my current faith and practice are in error.

So how important is it to be right? Maybe that wasn't the best question. Because it is undoubtedly important that we continue to strive for a fuller understanding of God and His truth. A better question would be, How important is it to win an argument, convincing someone else that we are right, and they are wrong?

We can spend so much time arguing doctrine and practice, and not in an academic sense, but as though the most important task before us is to correct false doctrine. We argue about whether the gift of tongues is still valid, whether it matters who baptized us, whether we should have to sign some paper, whether we can drink alcohol or not, and most tellingly, whether we can worship and witness with anyone who disagrees with us on one of the other points. And that doesn't even touch our arguments with other Christian sects.

I just have to wonder, when I see how much time and effort we spend arguing, is this really what we should be doing?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Just Drifting

It was a perfect day for canoeing.

The sky was a perfect blue, a light breeze was whispering through the cypress and tupelos, and the air was just cool enough to ward off a sweat. My wife and I had left the kids with the grandparents and taken an hour to explore a millpond. We paddled hard for a while, leaving the dock and mill behind.

The local wildlife was restful, too. We saw a stand of cypress full of sleeping wood storks. A partly submerged log held a family of turtles. A great blue heron took off right in front of us, flapping silently between the trees.

After a while my arms were getting sore, and I felt like, I don't know, like I was missing too much. So I stopped paddling. After a few strokes my wife stopped too. In the clear water we didn't stop, we just... drifted. The canoe grew quiet. I started noticing sounds I hadn't heard before. I could hear the water of the millpond slowly moving downstream. I could hear a swarm of water bugs skittering across the surface. I could hear my heart beating, slowing down. My wife turned around and smiled.

Slowly, slowly, I felt a peace I had been missing for some time. As the canoe finally slowed, then stopped, it occured to me that we weren't making any progress, and that was okay. The place I needed to be in that moment was not further upstream, but right there in that canoe, with the woman I love, basking in the joyous glow of God's creation.

We've been paddling hard in other areas, too, and I think maybe it's time to put down the paddle and drift awhile. We're in the middle of applying to work with a missions agency, and it's a bit overwhelming. We're supposed to be writing autobiographies and formulating our statements of belief, but we're so busy right now doing all the other junk I think maybe we're missing some things. Things we need to hear. Maybe things we have to stop paddling to hear.

I don't want to miss the important stuff. I don't want to paddle hard upstream, get to where we're "supposed to go," only to find that the whole point of the trip was being in that place where we stop paddling and just listen. If we miss that, what was the point?

So I think were going to put down the paddles and drift awhile. Stop working on all the missions stuff, for a little while. There will be time for all that later. I think that, right now, just drifting is exactly where we're supposed to be.