Walking westward, finally closing in on the spires guiding me like the Bethlehem star, I was in for a disappointing surprise…
“I keep thinking what good wine and beer I have at home as well as a beautiful wife, or should I say boss?”
The town of Wittenberg is a thousand years old, but took nearly half that time to produce the famous reformer who wrote this about his wife. The half millennia since have seen Martin Luther’s thinking spread worldwide, including the little church in Florida via Scotland where it set the tone for my upbringing. By that time Continue reading “The Half-life of Reform”
The more I’ve tried to write about this, the more it bothers me.
The usual balm of reading and data digging backfired – it only showed me just how awful the problem is. What seemed like one symbol was actually hundreds, out in public, for the whole nation to remember.
As Ulysses sailed into the straights known for its seductive Siren songs, he was prepared. Homer’s Odyssey details the resolve Ulysses took to stay the course – being rope-tied to the mast and stuffing wax into his crew’s ears, lest they hear the beauty of the voices around them and change course.
One modern take on this story is a “Ulysses Pact” — medical slang for an advance directive: I instruct my future doctor to ignore my future wishes, trusting my current health and information is the best I’ll ever have.
A Ulsysses Pact approach is very useful for avoiding temptation – If I were trying to kick alcohol I would make a plan to avoid happy hour situations, knowing when I got there my resolve would go up in flames faster than liquor on bananas flambé. If a friend were thinking of cheating on his spouse I could recall to him the wedding vows made, (maybe put blinders on his wandering eyes?).¹
But should we follow the pact for interpreting how our faith interacts with the world?
When technology, science, medicine, art, travel and globalization continue to give us more information about the earth we live on, our understanding of God’s mysteries evolve and so must our faith. This adaptability – letting the interpretation change while keeping the main thing as the main thing – has been one of the keys to Christianity’s survival all these centuries.
Temptations aside, making a Ulysses Pact with our course of faith can be stunting. With wax in the crews’ ears, we cannot hear or take in new information – our beliefs are set and that’s that.
Shoving my ears with wax means choosing to become tone-deaf to the world around me.
To put it another way, shoving my ears with wax means choosing to become tone-deaf to the world around me. Ostensibly, to protect myself. Afraid of being swayed by their words, the wax means I can no longer hear that my own words now sound disparate to the next generation.
Into this exact mindset walked Jesus, two thousand years ago.
The religious of that time had set their minds on God’s kingdom, and, picturing just how it would look, shut their eyes tight in order to stay the course.²
So how do we remain open to new information when we already, “know what we know”?
Pursuit of Truth
Here’s a crazy suggestion: look to the scientific method.
Brian McLaren makes a great case for religious communities to learn a lesson from science that’s worth considering: “Science is deeply interested in facts – in determining them, organizing them, presenting them in an orderly way, and using them in practical ways. Religion, we might say, does the same thing with beliefs: it determines what beliefs are acceptable, organizes them and presents them, and uses them in practical ways.”³
He goes on to say that science’s primary loyalty is to its method or practice, rather than the facts it currently proclaims. It starts with a mystery, moves to hypothesis, and after experimentation and time, can be considered scientific fact and acted upon. But notice: if new evidence arrives that undermine accepted facts, there is room to incorporate new evidence, and emerge with conclusions that are even closer to the actual truth.
As opposed to putting fingers in our ears and saying, “Nah, nah, nah I can’t hear you. But the Bible says it and that settles it.”
“Breaking up with old facts is hard to do…but doesn’t discredit science as being unfaithful to its tradition…[instead] it enhances credibility because of its relentless pursuit of truth…even to the point of overturning previously proclaimed certitudes.”³
Late to the party
But if learning from science sounds like something the church should never do, I would argue that we already do it, we’re just perpetually late to the party. Well, first we deny there even is a party, then start listing all the dangerous things that could happen at the party, then through some emergency phone call step into the party and see that it’s not so bad, and at one point or another we call an uneasy truce with the party and finally come to recognize the image of God in the faces of those at the party.
The church survives by latching onto God’s big story and adapting itself to cultures, languages, and epochs, interpreting anew the powerful and innovative words of Jesus.
We must today acknowledge that we are, right here in our seats, living in a new culture and language, maybe even epoch, and begin the process of adapting. God’s grace is too good to keep it all the same.
Even if we think we have agreed upon an answer, the scientific method asks us not to forget the questions.
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²Since there were no movies to quote back then, maybe Jesus was making a Homer ear wax reference when he said, “For him who has ears to hear?” (c’mon, you know he would have been a movie quoter with that omni-memory)
³These quotes and paraphrased explanations come from The Great Spiritual Migration by Brian D McLaren, pages 35-38. I would recommend this book to you. As a start, hear him on this Nomad podcast and then see if you are so excited that you can’t go back to sleep either.
I’m continuing to quote McLaren because I think he’s onto something, as usual about a decade earlier than the rest of us. [remember how mind blowing, “A New Kind of Christian” was? (well at least the ideas in it, not the shabby fiction he wrapped it in). He wrote it in 2001]
Source for N.C. Wyeth’s illustration of Ulysses at the mast: http://comicsbookstories.blogspot.com/2010/04/n_10.html
“He leaves the creature to stand on its own two legs – to carry from the will alone duties which have lost all relish.” ¹
It doesn’t exactly paint a picture of fun, this quote from C.S. Lewis, “to carry from the will alone duties which have lost all relish,” though standing on our own two legs is quite fulfilling.
Any lofty goal requires discipline to set your mind to it and stay the course, and this includes faith.
But should we always power through, whatever it takes?
If we woke up each day deciding whether we felt like going to work at our jobs – our feelings would rarely lead us there. To survive we must do the needful, ignoring our yawning mornings and beach-hooky visions.
But we do, from time to time, change jobs.
Likewise there is no athlete in the Premier League who grew up playing soccer only when he felt like it, when the teammates were fun or the weather cool. Working out is an age-old and proven metaphor for the rewards of the disciplined life.
But we do vary the workout in seasons, change up the route of the run, keeping the end goal in mind.
And here is what I can miss about the life of faith: distinguishing the goal from the course we take to get there. We want to simply say:
Know the goal + choose the course + stay the course = finish well
This equation works for stretches of time, but we must be willing to review our workout regimen, lest we overuse some muscles and atrophy others.
The trouble comes when we confuse the course with the goal:
Know the goal + stay the course + don’t question the course = trouble
We first come into a faith community agreeing that we want to understand our creator more than we do, tacking snapshots of Him onto the communal wall, then pulled onward by the joy of discovery. Posting more pictures each week, the collage fills in as we see God in more settings, in each other’s lives, through service and praise.
The goal is seeing God more², but eventually we stop adding photos, content merely to visit the wall, mimicking the settings and poses in the pictures already on the wall. We’ve found a course toward the goal, and it seems to work, so why change it?
The goal is reduced to protecting the course. We’ve changed from being primarily explorers, innovators, and learners, instead becoming protectors, watchmen, fearful of the outside. (Fearful even of the insiders who might begin to rearrange the photos).
We’ve changed, and so has our image of God.
Throughout, we’ve been learning to make up our mind to follow God “no matter what” (more on that next week), so when we see a few people here and there drop out, we might pity them, concluding they’ve lost the end goal when in fact they may have only changed course.
Into this mystery I suspect that God may be changing up the ways He reaches us
I am challenging myself to keep adding photos to the wall. Thinking beyond, pictures themselves may not be enough to hold the eternal mystery. The collage I am beginning to see has paintings, sculpture, tear art, even wild stuff like Cristo’s umbrellas
strewn about the countryside. All contributed by so many people (who, back to the earlier analogy of photos on the wall, might not even own a camera)
At times, we can see how extraordinarily good God is, how extravagant with us, how stable and unchanging a rock to hide away in. He is also a living God who created millions of different organisms with varied ways of living into their “Imago Dei” – the image of God.
Into this mystery I suspect that God may be changing up the ways He reaches us, maybe always has been.
Varying the course has not changed the goal, but does give glimpses of “the relish” to Lewis’ creature learning to stand on its own two legs.
“He leaves the creature to stand on its own two legs – to carry from the will alone duties which have lost all relish.” ¹
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1Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape Letters. Ireland: CrossReach Publications, 2016 (but it is much older than this)
2Is this an oversimplified faith goal? Enjoying and glorifying God, for instance, captures the goal defined by the Shorter Heidelberg Catechism.
Photo of Harry Kane / Tottenham Hotspur from Getty Images
Anger is a great motivator, driving us to rant, agitate, and wake up in the morning – and too often in the night.
But writing is also pushed along by anger’s focus. Wanting your voice to be heard makes adults and toddlers alike do audacious things, screaming from the backseat of the car, hoping the driver will hear of your injustice and recalculate the car’s GPS.
When I’m upset about something – but don’t want to hurt those around me – my brainwaves spin up a nuclear power plant to analyze the thing, working down the levels of what bothers me, who is to blame (me?), and the likelihood of change.
My pastor recently told me that when hard things come along, people are invariably angry, and usually turn that on their spouse. Fortunately for my marriage, that wasn’t the case – because the anger was focused elsewhere: the church. Not necessarily MY church, but THE church. But certainly we’re all a part of the whole.
How could the church be so sure about everything?
How could the church be so sure about everything – her teachings so consequential in people’s lives, at times denying, insisting, shaming towards the narrow way? And now look what’s come from it: this one hurt, that one hiding, the other has left it all behind. Anger.
It’s ok: the church can take it.
People have been mad at the church since it first began and everywhere in between.
And the church is used to it, even expects it, because its visionary founder said there would be trouble in this world.
Quick word though: trouble comes in many forms and needs to be heard – is this constructive criticism or just criticsm? When fresh wind blows in, the hatches may need battening down, but sometimes the windows need opening up.
To push the analogy: with the windows only half-open to start with and the issues of the day blowing about, too often the church’s first reaction is to slam the window shut, then crack the window slightly, cautiously, wait about a decade too long to follow the world’s lead and inch the window up (“ok, maybe, but you can’t be in leadership”), and in the end discover its core message of grace survived the whole episode. Each generation has had its issue, so there’s a track record here to learn from.
Why wouldn’t our gut reaction be to throw the windows open and share that grace?
If we’re in touch with the grace we are living in, why wouldn’t our gut reaction be to throw the windows open and share that grace? To first of all pull closer and declare, “I’m with you” (Moving Inward) and then go find out what that means.
Recently though, the anger fog has been rolling back a bit. It seems the anger and the pain finally drew their guns and said to each other, “there aint enough room in here for the both of us.” The anger lost, though it’s still wriggling in a severed lizards’ tail sort of way. Maybe re-organizing itself for a grow-back, who knows.
Anger may dominate for awhile, but then it finally pulls back from the shore and reveals other emotional tidepools to be explored.
When this point came, well, we headed into church – where else did we have? When we feel hurt by or angry at God or the church, the friends who have carried us through it have largely been from the church. (not ironic: by design)
Though church history, doctrines, and institutions may challenge us, in the end it is full of regular people, who are sometimes willing to be honest about life’s complexities. For us, those people have been our community, including many long-term, for-better-or-for-worse friends. The depth of conversation, the willingness for and relief of confession, the readiness to wrestle with God’s big story.
Maybe the left hand knows best how to heal the damage caused by the right hand, I don’t know, but the body analogy sure works. I didn’t come up with that one. Each part playing its role to keep the whole thing moving toward wholeness? It’s been said before: “If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.”¹
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For another sequence asking if the church is late to the party, see Ulysses Pact
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¹ Eugene Peterson’s phrasing of Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 12:26
Note: this post is building on the image of seeing God through stained glass and will make more sense if you read Stained Glass first.
If we have been talking as though we had direct access to the “sunlight”, it can be shocking when we become aware of how our worldview refracted that light. My worldview is the stained glass through which I see the world outside my cathedral but also God. Art, music, my DNA, science, experiences, friendships, parents, leaders, and increasingly news sources contribute to and sustain a worldview. It’s important to note that it’s not the experiences themselves, but how I interpret them – or who I let interpret for me – that form the worldview. Becoming aware that we are interpreting at all has felt like a crisis.
I’ve always had a worldview
I’ve always had a worldview – everyone does – but I haven’t always been aware of it. One example of this occurred during the months I spent in conversation about race with my friend Reggie. As he generously shared his experience as an African-American I realized the view from my pupils were framed entirely by the whites of my eyes. I would have said America works a certain way without acknowledging that it doesn’t work that way for all Americans. I found myself in tears at a Martin Luther King Jr rally, seeing for the first time how my worldview had led to my conclusions, and how King’s vision for America was not just better for African-Americans, but for all Americans.
When we first travel to another country it surprises us to learn that the once-perceived universal experience, was only (in my case) an American view. We were measuring the world in inches and feet and come to find out most of the world uses metric. Steadfastly clinging to the way we’ve always done things, even when centimeters and kilometers make more sense.
I’ve been travelling lately
I’ve been travelling lately, at least ideologically (see Two Tribes), and wondering just who else is seeing this. There was a time when our community of faith was a small, homogenous group, going the same direction with the same set of beliefs. Or did I just imagine it that way? But then my own young family was the same: two adults seeing eye to eye driving around a minivan of kids to the same destination, eating identical ham sandwiches and interpreting the world together as it passed outside those tinted van windows. Now those kids are young adults with differing views, off to college and back carrying new ideas to integrate with the old.
I feel like a congregant gone off to college, trying to figure out “what else” father church may have been wrong about.
And likewise, as I approach my community of faith, it feels both wider and narrower. Narrower in its stated doctrines and statements; but surely wider in the views of the people sitting around me. As I start to think more critically in my adult years, I feel like a congregant gone off to college, trying to figure out “what else” father church may have been wrong about. When we realize voices that we trusted for direction are also looking at the world through stained glass, it magnifies the shock. Their interpretation of the world’s events and sacred texts, mixed with their experience of what has worked for them in the past, what they have thought through and already decided, all contribute to the advice they pass on to us. If I’m honest I feel disappointed that we are not all interpreting new experiences in the same way. Being together was better.
Going back home
If you are in leadership, ask yourself if this was not also true about your leaders growing up. Did you find yourself growing to the point where you disagreed with them and would lead in a different way? That is your maturity and freedom do so, especially since they were leading in a different time and world than you are now. This idea then is timeless, and generational, and should not be thought of in a personal way.
But it is scary to confront those you’ve been treating with god-like status. Even though we ourselves gave them too much power it’s still hard to take it back. This is especially tricky with religious leaders because who God is, and who the leader has told us God is, will need separating. This is a common point where people walk away from both, but we must push through because God is too mysterious and expansive and generous to be lost over a mere human.
Have we lost the hope of standing on common or solid ground? No! Only when we put too much weight on that which cannot bear it. We can learn from our leaders if we retain a sense of thinking for ourselves. We can grow in our community – and retain our sense of self – when we enjoy the commonality but don’t glom onto others as if every single DNA chromosome is a match. We can grow life out of sacred scriptures that don’t pretend to be science books but whisper the story we long to hear: where we came from and where we’re going, how loved we are and that we don’t bear the burden of being the center of it all.
The glass may be stained, but the light still shines through.