Thursday, July 20, 2006

That's what I've been saying!

To quote Doug Padgitt, "That's what I've been saying!"

Except the way I say it is not as funny, and more confusing. This isn't for the easily offended, but it's not too bad.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The other side of the narrow way

After I got to thinking about my last post on the narrow way, I got to thinking that it was incomplete. Without a doubt, I believe that finding the narrow way is more about finding the path that, for you, leads to balance, though not in the yin-yang sense. But the Christian life isn't just about a single individual finding the narrow way. The Christian life is also about communities of hope, healing, and salvation.

As I think about the interaction between the two - being a single individual and being in community - I find myself thinking a lot about the writings of Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard lived in the mid 1800's and said (among lots of other things) that truth is only helpful if it is internalized in such a way that it becomes an integral part of the living and thinking of the single individual. In this way, truth is subjectivity. Truth must be turned inward and made your own.

This has special implications for the narrow way, and it's other side. The narrow way is what happens when the truth of the infinite God starts to color our days and become internalized into the single individual. The narrow way happens when we try to figure out how to make truth mean something to us, rather than it just being something we are taught, or something "Baptists believe" (instead of "I believe"). But the other side of the narrow way has to do with the teleological purpose of embarking upon the narrow way. (Teleological means end goal or end purpose. It's a cool word - you should look it up if you don't already know what it means.)

We don't just travel the narrow way for our own benefit, as single individuals who are searching
for truth. That might be why we start on the narrow way, but at some point we look around and realize that we need support through the ambiguity and pain we experience as we internalize truth. We look around and realize that other people are on a journey, too, and that our experience might be able to help them on their way.

At some point, we gather together to take care of each other. We come together, realizing that we have all been wounded as we've walked upon this razor's edge called the narrow way, and want to help each other. We want to reach out to those who have fallen off of the path, on one side or the other. We do it because we understand the hardships of the narrow way - we know how easy it is to get off track and end up in a place where you don't want to be. And even though some of us are in a place we hate, we aren't able to admit it, but instead desperately wish someone would break in with a message of hope to guide us onto the path of real life.

Some of us have never been on that path before. Others of us have been on the path before, but have forgotten how to get back on it. The other side of the narrow way is something I can't describe. It's not community - that's actually part of the narrow way. The other side of the narrow way is not a "way" at all. The other side of the narrow way is what happens when people go anywhere and everywhere precisely because they're not really going anywhere at all. It's what happens when people try things just to feel alive, or try to fit in, or try to be something that we're not all for the sake of finally becoming something. But the more people follow this road to nowhere, the more we realize how far into despair we are, the more we realize that everwhere we go we are a visitor, in search of a home. We realize that we might never reach a place where we're satisified, never reach a place where we are loved in such a way that we don't constantly have to seek out more love, never reach a place where we can let go and be ourselves in our pursuit of good things because the truth of the infinite God has never started to become OURS, a part of us.

Teleologically, we, as Christians, embark upon this narrow way so that we can offer up some hope against the other side of the narrow way. We come together and form communities of believers in order to help each other on the journey, and in order to show others how to let the journey begin. These communities are sacrimental - they are something that brings others to a point where they are willing to start internalizing truth in such a way that it can actually make a difference in their life. As outsiders look upon the sacrimental community they should see the difference the narrow way has made in our lives - how internalizing truth has changed everything, and as a result want to try it for themselves. They're not going anywhere anyway. And as the truth hits them, as it becomes their own, one piece at a time, they begin to understand the value of the narrow way.

Why do we do it? Why do I do it? I do it because it was done for me. I do it because there was a dark time in my life - not so long ago - when I found myself in a place I couldn't get out of, a place that I didn't want to be. No one was there to help me - no one was there to discover the pain I kept hidden. But instead as I screamed at God in bitterness I realized that there was someone who came to show me how to get out of the quagmire. He came and gave everything he had - he allowed himself to be crushed for my "transgressions" - for the way I've wondered off the path. And as he hung on a tree as the reward for showing us all the narrow way, he screamed out in despair to his God, too. I do it because somewhere inside me I think I understand part of the pain he experienced while traveling the narrow way. I do it because I want to reach out and help that savior of the world as he cries out in despair. I do it because as I have internalized the truth of the infinite God, I have come to understand he wants me to look into the face of people at church, at work, at school, in the mall, and see the face of despair looking for a savior. They're not looking for the exact same path that I am on, but each and every one of them is looking to leave the the other side of the narrow way. They're looking to find the same truths that I've found, and embark upon the narrow way of making those truths their own.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Narrow Way

About once a year, my church asks me to preach because the pastor is gone. This week is my week. While I usually feel like I have something worthwhile to say (does that make me arrogant?), I'm also stressed out about it. I'm a much better writer than I am speaker, and if I must speak, I do much better if I can interact with people and ask questions while I'm teaching. Maybe I'll give an update on how it went on Monday or something.

In any case, as I've been working on my message the past week, I realized the exact way in which I think of the narrow way. If anyone has been a close reader of my blog, they'll realize I refer to Christianity as the narrow way a lot, and truthfully, as I live each day looking for the face of God, I consciously think about the path I take as the narrow way. To me, following the narrow way and being a Christian are synonymous.

But, what do I mean when I talk about the narrow way?

When most people I have met think of the narrow way, they think of something that is a path through the woods. The entrance to the narrow way is hidden - you have to look and look and look for it, but once you find the trailhead, the path is faint but clear, and it winds through the mountains and valleys of life all the way to God. The path never splits or disappears completely, though sometimes it might be hard to see, but if you are diligent and pay attention, you'll never have a problem staying on the path. Sure, trials will come and sometimes the route the path takes will be difficult and full of stress and pain, but the path itself is clear.

But what if the narrow way isn't like this at all? What if the narrow way isn't a path that someone else has blazed that you get to follow, but is instead a path that you blaze yourself as you try to navigate life? Or, what if the narrow way has nothing to do with paths at all?

Real Christians know that the Christian life is full of ambiguity as we approach a world full of sin, and we all know that the Christian life is full of pain as we slowly learn to take up our cross daily and follow the example of Christ. But the fact of the matter is that every step each one of us takes as single individuals is unique. No one has ever taken the path I've taken before, having my same experiences with ambiguity and pain. The path I take is mine alone, as I try to integrate the experiences I've had with a God who constantly touches me and colors my days. My path (and yours) is unique because I am (and you are) unique.

So if I am to really take full advantage of what God is trying to teach me, I can't just follow someone else's path - I must follow the unique trajectory God creates for me. But this is scary, because as I blaze this trail I could get it wrong and hurt myself or someone else. It's scary because I could easily fall into the trap of just going through the motions that someone else has done, and thereby lose the unique message God has for me.

So, I walk on a razor's edge. On the one hand, I don't want to grieve the Spirit of God as I simply follow the motions of people who've gone before me and ignore the unique opportunities meant entirely for me. And on the other hand, I don't want to descend into chaos as I pursue every heresy in creation looking for something new and cool. It's like I'm walking a fine line on the top of a mountain. There is no path. The going is treacherous and fraught with peril. Falling off the one side means I sell out and take the easy way, which is to simply do the same things people before me did. If I fall off the other side it means that I've descended into chaos and heresy as I blaze a trail that has nothing to do with where God wants me to go.

This is probably why I also think that individuals work out their salvation in fear and trembling. Christians walk this tightrope - this narrow way, and in fear and trembling take each and every step as they navigate the ambiguity and pain of following Christ's example. This is also probably why I find so much meaning when the apostle Paul says in Acts 17:

26From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps grope for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.
God sets us up uniquely in time and place, and did it that we might perhaps grope for him. Not find him as if we started walking upon a path and stumbled upon his cottage, but grope for him.

Interestingly, this means that we lose control of our ability to find God on our own, but we become more and more dependent on Him to reveal Himself to us through Christ, and through the Spirit which indwells us. And it is precisely with this loss of control, in finding our true identity in the uniqueness of our path as we relate to God that we find hope and freedom and life.

I don't know about you, but to me the source of this hope and life seems so strange, so counterintuitive that I can't help but ask as I navigate the narrow way, "What kind of God is this?"

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

What kind of God is this?

I was going through some old clothes the other day, and I found some t-shirts I had as a teenager. A good number of the shirts were just your ordinary t-shirts that said "Hard Rock Cafe" or something on them. Then, there was another kind of shirt in the pile. I'll call this group the Jesus shirts.

As their name indicates, they had something to do with Jesus. Some of them were from my BSU days, and aside from words like "thang" printed on them, most were pretty innocuous. Others, however, made me borderline angry with both myself for buying the shirts, and with marketers of Christian clothing who produced them.

Most of the shirts with any sort of depiction of Jesus or spiritual things showed monster trucks, or a ripped, muscular Jesus wielding a sword. One showed Jesus riding the four horses of the apocalypse in such a way that he was "breaking" them.

As I looked over these Jesus shirts, and I thought of some other ones I had seen recently, I realized that this is the kind of God and Jesus that we want to serve. We want to serve a God who punishes the guilty with everlasting torment. We want to serve a God who seems totally in control at all times, who has all the answers for us. We want a Jesus who is a buff, kung-fu man of combat, who is waging an all-out war against Satan.

We want a God who tears through town like James Dean, driving a pimped-out ride and wearing sunglasses and a faded bomber jacket. We want a God like Neo in The Matrix who bends all the rules of reality in order to destroy the adversary and save those who are good. He's smooth, good looking, cool, and can't be outdone. And when God leaves town in a cloud of dust as his Monster Truck leaves rubber on the pavement, we want the kids to stand around in awe and say, "What kind of God IS that?". And we want to say, "Our God, kid. That's OUR God."

On some level, I know this mentality is true because the names on the tags of some of these shirts are things like "Christian Apparel with an Attitude". Cuz, you know, Jesus can't compete if he's not as cool as Avril Lavigne or Tony Hawk. Anyone who is going to make it big has to have an attitude. I mean, Jesus dying and coming back to life? That was totally rad. I love how he faked out Satan with than one! He was all like, "I'm dead. NOT!" Man, the devil never saw that one coming! That was SO kewl. Kinda like the time Rambo blew up the entire US Army with only a bow and arrow. THAT's how strong OUR God is! He's like Rambo-Jesus, with body piercings.

When I take a step back and try to get the picture of Jesus that non-Christians might get from such portrayals, I see that they ask the question a different way. They see a God who aims to judge people and send them to Hell for eternity. They see a God who seems full of anger at humanity, who can't stand sin, and wishes to demand conformity. They see a Father who sent his Son to be abused by humanity, and is therefore guilty himself. They see a coy Son who says he wants to save them, but never really tells them what they need to be saved from. And at the end of the day, non-Christians reject Christ by saying, "What kind of God is THIS? If this is what the one true God is like, I don't want to serve him."

But real Christians know that God the Father and God the Son are not like that. When the people of Israel went astray, He sent them prophets who acted bizarre (really, really bizarre, if you ask me) and wandered naked through the streets of Jerusalem proclaiming a message of repentance. God the Father is not a person like James Dean who always leaves the women swooning, but instead who finds himself constantly married to a humanity who whores herself to others. But he doesn't leave her or forsake her, but he continues to pursue her and woo her. He gives up dignity in order to do anything to get her back.

And when the Jews looked for a messiah who would rush into the city on the back of a war-horse, clear the temple, and drive the Romans out of Jerusalem in a spectacular coup, they instead found a humble man who entered the city on the back of a donkey, who preached a message of love, and who was crucified, naked and bleeding, for all the public to see. They wanted a shining hero, and instead got a suffering servant.

I believe the narrow way begins when we finally take on the challenge of understanding this tension, and pursue an answer from the God we serve.

We want a savior who will obliterate the things that cause us to sin, but instead get a Jesus who teaches us how to love even though sin exists. We want a healer who will heal all our wounds, but instead find a Jesus who commiserates with us because he suffered, too.

What kind of God is this?