Saturday, September 27, 2008

Theology in Aisle 7, September, 2008 (CT)

Theology in Aisle 7

Trying to organize a God who transcends.

I love office supply stores. Reams of fresh paper (Aisle 16) and boxes of unsharpened pencils (Aisle 5) still give me back-to-school butterflies, the sense that the future is yet to be written and anything is possible. But I'm most drawn to the bins, sorters, and all manner of organizational aids in Aisle 7. They glisten with shiny plastic promise, reminding me I am just one astute purchase away from transforming the paper-riddled chaos of my life into structured bliss.

Recently I found just the thing, a two-foot black box with an open front divided into eight sections. I used my label maker (Aisle 3) to give each compartment its purpose, happily imagining soccer notices and utility bills lying obediently in their designated places. My husband came home and grinned at the box, envisioning it as next month's addition to the rejected-organizational-aid pile. "That," he told me gently, "is a junk collector."

But it will be organized junk.

I labeled one of the compartments "seminary"; this time the back-to-school butterflies were not merely nostalgic. I've begun chipping away at a master's degree, and on the same day I bought my new organizer I decided on a concentration in Spiritual Theology. I've been longing for more structure, not only in my office but also in my faith.

I've been searching for frameworks, outlines, contexts; ways to more thoroughly understand what I believe. The studies I've chosen emphasize systematic theology. The very word systematic gives me that Aisle 7 rush. I can hardly wait to be organized!

But there are people—wise, godly people—who grin at me like my husband did at my organizer. "Do you think," asked my friend Barbara, who happens to be a theology professor, "that part of you is looking for control?" I stared at her blankly. No, part of me isn't looking for control. All of me is looking for control. I hate chaos and uncertainty. I am deeply bothered by doctrinal divisions within even the small confines of my own church tradition. And honestly, I really don't like it when God behaves unpredictably, when he seems to be as much about mystery as he is about revelation, and when he refuses to fit into the slots I have labeled for him.

Faith would be much tidier if God could be contained within mutually agreed upon doctrinal positions. Scripture would be much more manageable if it were pure exposition, if there weren't all those sprawling narratives, wistful poems, and cryptic apocalyptic visions. Why didn't God give us his Word in sermon points that spell out catchy acronyms? Why is it all so messy?

Even our most precise expositor, the apostle Paul, holds revelation and mystery in tension. In his letter to the Ephesians, he proclaims, "God has now revealed to us his mysterious plan regarding Christ, a plan to fulfill his own good pleasure" (1:9, NLT). But for all the time Paul spends explaining things, he still has the nerve to celebrate everything he can't understand about God. "Oh, how great are God's riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! For who can know the Lord's thoughts? … All glory to him forever!" (Rom. 11:33-34, 36).

This, I'm beginning to understand, is my challenge: to immerse myself in all that has been revealed about God while celebrating all that is mystery. We have a God who both transcends our messy lives and incarnates himself in them. That reality is hard to organize, but it's the best news there is.

There's a story, often credited to E. Stanley Jones, about a missionary who gets lost in the jungle. He comes upon a village in the middle of the trees, and asks a resident to lead him out. The local agrees, and for an hour he walks ahead of the missionary, clearing a way through the foliage with a machete.

Eventually the missionary asks, "Are you sure we are going the right way? Isn't there a path somewhere?" The villager smiles. "Friend, I am the path."

"I am the way, the truth, and the life," Jesus tells us (John 14:6); "I AM," declares Yahweh (Ex. 3:14). My ideas about God are not the path. My church tradition, helpful as it is in pointing to him, is not the path. I plan to spend the rest of my life learning the best terminology we have for our understanding of what God has done and is doing, but the terms are not the path. Only God is. Only he can lead me through the jungle that is my life and into the boundless adventure of life with him.

Praise God, there is not a thing in Aisle 7—or in the universe—that can contain him.

Here's To All The Losers, July, 2008 (CT)

Here's To All The Losers

Why defeat at the hands of God is magnificent.

If you like action-adventure, check out the Genesis 32 account of Jacob's Jabbok River wrestling match. Jacob is camped out and stressed out, awaiting a potentially dangerous confrontation with his estranged brother. His worries are interrupted when a stranger jumps him in the darkness. By morning, Jacob realizes he's spent the night wrestling God; somehow he manages to limp away blessed. In the process, he learns that God is more than willing to be grappled with, and that holding on for dear life is the way to go.

It's amazing—and sobering—to realize that Jacob has the strength to resist God. It isn't until the angel of the Lord dislocates Jacob's hip that Jacob surrenders and requests what he's really been fighting for—a blessing. My husband, a wrestling coach, tells me the hip is the wrestler's pivot point, the core of his strength. God can't give Jacob the blessing he desperately needs until he incapacitates him at the center of his human power. Frederick Buechner calls Jacob's resounding loss The Magnificent Defeat.

There's something familiar about Jacob's story.

I'm a singer and songwriter. I recognize that such a vocation is more fun and fulfilling than anyone deserves, and I've spent most of my professional life grinning at my good fortune. But last year, I found myself in the midst of a tour feeling miserable. My own company was handling many of the details, and every night I took the stage consumed with logistics. I've always loved the fact that performing forces me to be in the moment, but this tour I was definitely somewhere else. I'd find myself disoriented in the middle of a song, unsure whether I'd already sung the second verse. Something was wrong.

I prayed. I asked God to restore to me the joy of singing about my salvation. I begged for the ability to be focused and present. And I worried. I suspected that the blessing of my vocation had run its course, and that it was time for me to investigate Tupperware sales.

Three weeks into the tour, I lost my voice. As you might imagine, a singer's voice is an obvious and vulnerable pivot point of strength. I reminded God that it would be helpful to my singing ministry if I could sing. But my voice did not return.

I called a vocal coach and got instructions. "Hourly, sit at a kettle and breathe in the steam. Then add salt to the water and snort it. Put drops of oil of oregano on your tongue. Apply peppermint oil to your upper lip." (Caution: Over-application of peppermint oil leads to a condition I remember now as the moustache of fire.)

I spent 24 hours sequestered in my hotel room in an involuntary silent retreat. No interviews, no fretful logistical phone meetings. I steamed without end. By concert time, my skin had never been smoother or softer. But I still had no voice.

A funny thing happened when I took the stage. I felt calm, and present. The whole quiet day I'd had nothing to do but steam, read, and pray. A paraphrase of Psalm 23 ran through my head: You make me lie down by still waters—or steamy, salty ones. I walked up to the microphone and had a sudden conviction that my voice would be not only restored, but also brilliantly transformed.

It wasn't. I still couldn't sing. Not a bit. I croaked, I cracked, I sort of whisper-rapped. It was awful. But the audience leaned in. They smiled. They prayed for me and breathed with me. Never certain what my swollen vocal cords would do next, I was in the moment, adapting, adjusting, and—eventually—enjoying a new and improbably wonderful way of doing ministry. It was, to both my chagrin and my delight, one of my best concerts ever.

As wrestling matches go, my laryngitis bout was barely a skirmish. I've had much tougher (and longer) fights, and I've got friends facing challenges I don't even want to imagine. In some cases (cancer, AIDS, and worse) I'm pretty sure the opponent is no angel of the Lord. But there is testimony among believers past and present that at the end (and only at the end) of the human rope is strength and peace beyond compare. Maybe that's what Jesus was getting at when he said the poor in spirit get the kingdom of heaven. With death on a cross looming on his horizon, he was intimately familiar with the victory that comes only through magnificent defeat.

I don't know that it ever feels good to have our own strength overcome. But if we want to be blessed, if we want to relocate from living in our own resources to resting in the middle of God's goodness, power, and provision, sometimes a little dislocation is necessary.

Just ask Jacob.

The Grace of Wrath, May, 2008 (CT)

The Grace of Wrath

Is there any story about God that isn't a love story?

hen Evan Almighty hit theaters last summer, some evangelicals worried that elements of the movie were sacrilegious. One of their particular objections got me thinking.

In the film, God (played by Morgan Freeman) claims that people miss the point of the story of Noah's Ark because they think it's about God's anger, when really it's a "love story." Some Christians saw that statement as an offensive distortion of the Genesis account of God's wrath. Their protest left me pondering what I suspect is a fundamentally important question: Is there any story about God that isn't a love story?

Growing up, I had two images of God. The first was a painting on my bedroom wall, Bernhard Plockhorst's Jesus Blessing the Children. After bedtime prayers, I would drift off imagining I was one of those children in Jesus' embrace. Everything about that picture reinforced the first thing I was taught in Sunday school: God Is Love.

My other image was a mental one I'll call "The Vengeful God," a peeved Father Time crossed with an accusing Uncle Sam. That picture helped me remember that God hates sin, and reinforced the second thing I learned in Sunday school: God Is Holy.

We sang about grace at my church, and we meant it. But we suspected that an exclusive emphasis on God's love would lessen our desire to live holy lives. So periodically, our preacher would thunder about God's wrath and judgment, ensuring we were never "soft on sin."

God is love, BUT God hates sin. How does one hold those two realities in tension? I unconsciously developed a theology that intermittently had God the Son and God the Father in a good cop, bad cop routine, with the Holy Spirit stepping in as a sympathetic parole officer.

I professed that God was love all the way through, but deep down I couldn't help assuming he was a bit like me. Even his love had to have limits. It stopped at sin and turned into wrath. Naturally.

My understanding began to change when I read Baxter Kruger's depiction of God's wrath as his love in action—his emphatic "No!" to anything that leads to our destruction. That perspective flipped a switch for my husband and me. If our daughter stepped into oncoming traffic, she might perceive our reaction (screaming "No!" and yanking her out of harm's way) to be harsh and unloving. But in reality it would be an expression of our fiercest and purest love. Is that how it is with God?

What if God's wrath is not a caveat, qualification, or even a counterpoint to his love, but an expression of it? What if God grieves sin less because it offends his sensibilities, and more because he hates the way it distorts our perceptions and separates us from him?

Recently, my friend Liliane told me the story of her conversion. Years ago, someone handed her a pamphlet with Jesus on the cover asking, "Do you love me?" Honestly, I can't say I do, Liliane whispered to Jesus. I really like you, though. I want to get to know you.

For a year, Liliane attended church and spent time with people who knew Jesus. One day, with a start, she realized she did love him. He'd captured her heart.

"That whole first year, I didn't read the Bible, and I'm really glad I waited," she told me, laughing at my raised eyebrow. "You know how, when you're with someone you really trust, you can say the hard things if you need to? Now that I know God, I see his love all through the Bible, even in the hard bits."

There are some pretty hard bits in Scripture. It is difficult to frame, say, the saga of Sodom and Gomorrah as a love story. But if we truly believe that God not only loves, but is love, we must believe there is no action he can take that is not animated by love.

My church was right to be concerned that an inadequate understanding of God's righteousness would lead to sin. After all, one of Satan's strategies with Eve was to undermine the reality of God's judgment: "You will not surely die."

But his more sinister tactic was first to get Eve to doubt God's love and character: "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?" His strategy worked then, and it works now. Our sin is rooted not only in a lack of reverence for God's holiness, but also in a profoundly insufficient understanding of his love.

God is love, SO God hates sin. We are loved with a holy love that cries "No!" again and again to the things that destroy us. We are part of an epic love story, and what we all need desperately is to know the Author better.

Copyright © 2008 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.

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Carbonated Holiness, March, 2008 (CT)

Carbonated Holiness

Laughter is serious business.

Recently, I threw out three boxes worth of my kids' Sunday school crafts. I felt heartless and vaguely evil. But really, one can only store so much Fun Foam in a single house.

Still, there was one piece of art I was compelled to save. My daughter had cut out and colored pictures of children engaged in different acts of worship, and glued them onto a sheet. (She was three; you were expecting decoupage?)

Bethany had been particularly proud of this assignment because of the gluing part. (I think she may have a future in adhesives.) The day she brought it home, I acknowledged the excellence of the glue-work and then asked her to tell me what the pictures represented. "Praying! Giving! Reading the Bible!" she shouted as I pointed to each scene.

I saved the best picture for last—a boy with his mouth open wide in song. Singing is my favorite form of worship. I knew it would be Bethany's too, what with her mother being a singer and all.

"Laughing," said Bethany, when I pointed to the boy with the open mouth.

I stood corrected. Laughing is my favorite form of worship.

I've been backing up my laughter-as-worship theory for a while now, collecting various quotes on the matter. I was recently compelled to stop reading Anne Lamott's Plan B long enough to shout "Yes!" (complete with fist-pump), and scribble this line on an airplane napkin: "Laughter is carbonated holiness." And anyone who knows me will understand why I give a hearty amen to this bit of wisdom from Woody Allen: "I am thankful for laughter, except when milk comes out of my nose." (In my case, there was an unfortunate incident involving Diet Coke, and the memory of it gives poignancy to the idea of laughter as carbonated holiness.)

But my favorite quote may be this one from Karl Barth: "Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God." Of course, Barth must have meant the good kind of laughter, born from joy or relief or the sweet surprise of community. There is also derisive laughter, rooted in pettiness or vulgarity or cruelty. It's not hard to tell the redemptive kind—laughter that is reflexive, even involuntary worship—from the destructive kind.

Laughter can change and grow, and sometimes it changes and grows us. Consider the laughter of Abraham's Sarah, blossoming from incredulity into incredible joy. When Sarah had a baby at long, impossible last, she named him Isaac—which means, of course, "laughter."

A good laugh is a release—even if only for a moment—from worry, strife, and self. It is a sudden, often unbidden confession that someway, somehow, all is well, or at least there is a hope that it can be.

It's telling that we talk about "gales" of laughter. We instinctively recognize that laughter belongs to the world of wind, or Spirit—unexpected joy arrives on the gust of a fresh current and carries us to a different place from the one where it found us. That is why I suspect that Lamott is right—that laughter is holiness, that it is part of the life of God, and that to laugh from your belly is to worship the Giver of all good gifts.

Trinitarian theologians use the word perichoresis to describe the happy fellowship of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Their relationship is often pictured as a tireless and joyful divine dance. I can't think about that holy dance without remembering certain jigs that have been known to take place in our family room. (For shy, repressed, reserved, uncoordinated, Canadian Baptists, we can really cut a rug.) When our kids were toddlers, my husband, Mark, and I would twirl and spin them until they were helpless with laughter so hard it was soundless, and then we would laugh at them laughing until we were all worn out with gladness. If we'd have thought of it, we could have quoted the psalmist as we held our aching sides on the family room floor: "Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. … The LORD has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy."

It's serious business, laughter. It's the kind of sacrifice of praise that puts our insides right. The old cliché is true: Laughter is a medicine that reminds us that our sickness will one day be healed and we shall be whole and holy. Until then, laughter is the Elmer's Glue that attaches us to the goodness that inhabits this world, and to the gladness that hints at the world to come.

Copyright © 2008 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.

Comments Welcome Here