Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Unnamed Group

I meet on Sunday evenings with a group of people at the local Presbyterian church. We started meeting over two years ago for a 21 week series called Living the Questions and then just kept on meeting. We've discussed Bonhoffer's classic The Cost of Discipleship and looked at spiritual implications in the children's classics of Dr. Seuss. The group wasn't a part of any real planned program, and so didn't start out with a name and somehow never acquired one. That's not really a problem except when someone asks me to do something on a Sunday night and my reason for not going is that I'll be with "my group that meets at the Presbyterian church." Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, does it? So anyway, the most recent study with my group that meets at the Presbyterian church is C.S. Lewis's treatise on heaven and hell, The Great Divorce. As a twist on our usual discussion, our group facilitator suggested that we somehow present our own take on Lewis's ideas. So with apologies to Jack up front, here's my chapter to insert in his classic work....

I stood like so many times before in my life - alone in a crowd. After exiting with a throng of folks from a most unusual bus I was reminded of a dream that had regularly visited my nights over the years.  I'm late and headed for a familiar destination. I'll be on my way, turn a corner, and suddenly realize that I'm in a different city hours away. I'm in the midst of an impossible journey. But for some reason, I don't stop. I keep driving, running, biking, moving somehow towards my target. I felt the same urgency now except that I had no real sense of where I was headed -- just that I should be getting there. One advantage of being a wallflower is that it's easy to slip away unnoticed. So I did. Slowly. Immediately into my escape I realized that the landscape before me was far more imposing than the time constraints I had encountered in my dream. Here, my very bodily form was ill suited to the reality around me. I looked at my hand and saw through it to the blindingly green grass below. Each step over the shards of grass was agonizing. As I looked toward the mountain ahead, I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me when I saw the image of a bicycle propped against a tree. I could see through the bike to the tree bark, and so I thought that maybe my pitiful ghostly form would have the strength to lift it. A solid bike would have been out of the question. I gingerly made my way over and hopped onto the bike. It was a perfect replica of one that awaited me one childhood Christmas morning with a metallic blue frame tricked out with trendy butterfly handlebars and a banana seat.  As I pedaled away, the bike hovered erratically over the ground and I was reminded of another dream -- the one where I'm flying around (without an airplane) with minimal control over my altitude and course.  It occurred to me that maybe this wasn't a dream-like state, but an actual dream. I've never had the ability to recognize a dream while I'm in it, but maybe it's a first. Or maybe those past dreams were giving me hints of a reality that I wasn't mature enough to understand.  I've always rolled my eyes at people who said things like, "Suspend your disbelief" but cliche or not, that's exactly where I found myself. So, it was with interest instead of terror that I applied the foot brakes and stopped in front of an enormous lion who cocked his head and looked at me in amusement.
     "Hey." I offered in a greeting totally lacking in intellectual substance. I half expected him to reply that hay is for horses, but he seemed a little too classy for that go-to answer of elementary school teacher through the ages.
   "How'd you like the bike?" he asked.
   "Loved it. I don't know how I would've gotten here without it. It didn't always feel safe, but it sure was good to have."
   "Good, but not safe?" If lions can smile, then this one did.
   "Oh, I get it. Aslan! Very clever."
As I watched, the tawny fur turned to brown tweed and I found myself standing before C.S. Lewis. The groupie in me kicked in, and I gushed,
   "Mr. Lewis, I've read everything of yours I could find. Mere Christianity changed my life. I read The Chronicles of Narnia to my daughters while they were still infants because I couldn't wait for them to learn English."    
    "You definitely spent a lot of time with your nose in a book."
   "Are you here to help me like George Macdonald helped you? And were you serious that Phantastes changed your life? Honestly, I was assigned that book in college and I've tried to read it several times since based strictly on your recommendation, and it just does nothing for me."
  "I think you've just explained why you found yourself on the bus instead of on the mountain."
   "Come again?"
   "Reason is a gift of God, but not to the exclusion of His other methods of revelation. Just because an idea presents itself in a way that doesn't fit your strength doesn't mean that it's not from God. The best way to understand is to listen for God's truth openly and with humility. There's only so much to be learned from books."
  "I noticed in The Great Divorce you were pretty harsh on academic types in spite of being one."
  "Not nearly as harsh as you were on Baptists in spite of being one."
I had to laugh. And agree.
  "Ok, I took some shots that weren't exactly edifying."
   "Are you ready to understand the rest? We can head toward the mountain."
   "Can I keep the bike? Just kidding. Let's go."
Immediately I noticed that my skin had morphed from transparent to translucent.
   "That's a start. Every barrier that you remove brings you closer to God's reality."
   "How many other barriers are there?"
   "You have eternity to find out."

Holy Week and Pascha

The collision of holy week and exam week left little time to write, but after another week to reflect, I'm still not sure how to compile everything. During the Lent season, we saw friends lose their 28 year old son and another family lose a beloved 44 year old wife and mother. Shortly after Easter, we saw friends lose everything they owned in the wake of a swath of tornadoes. It seems a little tacky to write about my experience of temporarily giving up most meat and some desserts. From my dinky loss, there's no comparison to substantial material loss and the incomparable grief that matches the capacity of love that was shared with one who is now gone.  

My Lent meditations on the hymn of St. Andrew focused on the humility that is the natural consequence of even a partial understanding of the power and glory of God.  Maybe an appropriate completion to these Pascha writings is to end with the first words of the canon:

He is for me unto salvation Helper and Protector.
He is my God and I glorify Him, God of my fathers is He and I exalt Him, for He is greatly glorified.
Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Give up the Comprehensible God

I've been attending services this week at St. Luke's Orthodox Church, and to be honest, it's a bit overwhelming at times. Everything means something. From the architecture and furnishings of the sanctuary, to the order of the readings, to the colors, and the smells, and the songs, everything is a picture of God's grace. Very rarely, there is a small blip in the flow of the service, and this always provides great comfort to me. Just when I'm feeling that I could never understand or even remember everything that's a part of the worship, there's an unplanned silence or someone starts over with a reading and I relax and am reminded that I don't have to learn everything at once. I'm also most grateful for the kind instructions and information that the other worshippers offer without any pressure or expectations. Exploring Orthodoxy has broadened my faith experience, and led me to a greater awe of God. Frederica Mathewes-Green points out that every statement we make about God is an analogy to something fleeting and earthly, and thus a mere shadow of the truth. She says, "We must give up the comprehensible God, the one lit by matchsticks of feeble human understanding." The services of Holy Week have served to remind me of the vast mystery of the love of God.

If I may jump from the sublime to the ridiculous, my daughter made a mix tape for me that contains a Regina Spektor song with lyrics that describe the bizarre ideas that humans have stuck on God. It points out the oddity of when the crazies say He hates us and they get so red in the head you think they're 'bout to choke and that while no one laughs at God when in they're in trouble:

God can be funny,
When told he’ll give you money if you just pray the right way
And when presented like a genie who does magic like Houdini
Or grants wishes like Jiminy Cricket and Santa Claus
God can be so hilarious.

We've certainly tagged God with some ludicrous characteristics, but even our best and loftiest ideas are grossly inadequate for the God who knows and loves us.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Searching for Salvation

A wealthy young man is recorded in Mark 10 as asking "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" and Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. The young man senses that there's more, and when he presses for further details, Jesus tells him to give away all his possessions and come follow.  At this, the young man turns sadly away.  In Acts 16, St. Paul's prison guard asks, "What must I do to be saved?" and Paul tells him to believe in the Lord Jesus.  So is it the law? Selfless acts? Believing the right things?

What salvation is and how it works is not exactly a tidy bit of information. I once bought a book about salvation based solely on the fact that people were mad about it. John Killinger's book, The Changing Shape of Our Salvation, was the topic of some heated comments printed in The Alabama Baptist newspaper and it was denounced from the pulpit of my own church. Add the fact that Dr. Killinger and I were on the faculty of Samford University at the same time, and it was just too much for me. Thank goodness for rush shipping on Amazon!  To my surprise and mild disappointment, it was a very low-key, common sense account of the views of salvation from the earliest scriptures to today. Killinger points out that in the Old Testament salvation had nothing to do with life after death, and was understood to mean survival and success in the world. An example is Job, whose story of trials and salvation ended when he died "old and full of days." Between the Old and New Testaments, the concept of eternal life arose, and from here the history proceeds to the New Testament writings of Paul and the "Roman Road" which many of us memorized in youth groups as a way to present the "plan of salvation." But as pointed out in the book, "The more detailed the instructions get, the more restrictive they are, and the more humanly created they are rather than God-given." This realization along with the problem of what to do with righteous people of other faiths has resulted in some modern definitions of salvation that sound like watered-down Psychology 101 -- "self-actualization," "harmonious relationship," "mindfulness." But of course, being too general is just the flip side mistake of being too specific.

Killinger ends the book with three conclusions. First, that God is the arbiter of salvation, not we. It is God who initiates human salvation and it is God who finally consummates it. Second, because it is God who effects our salvation and not we ourselves, our methods of seeking salvation don't really matter all that much. From the sacrificial system of the Hebrews to the sacramental system of the medieval churches to whatever modern twist we follow on the methodology of redemption today, we must guard against establishing a series of obstacles for believers to negotiate before they earn God's rewards for their trouble.  The point is not to huddle up and proclaim that we are the best and ours is the only way to God. Killinger quotes Billy Graham in reference to the fate of non-Christians as saying, "Those are decisions only the Lord will make. It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won't. I believe the love of God is absolute. He said he gave his son for the whole world, and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have." And third, if salvation is in God's hands and if the methodology is of little consequence, then God will save us whether we accept it or not, but acceptance is important to us in our understanding of grace. I can't quite get my head around that last one, because it's a little hard to square with free will, but I'm leaving that option open for now.

In the conclusion to The Canon of St. Andrew, Frederica Mathewes-Green says, "If we have been praying through this great hymn attentively, we arrive at the end less sure of ourselves, less confident, and more sensitive to our weakness in resisting the things that drag us away from God. And yet we can be more confident in God's mercy; we have less to worry about and more tranquility in the assurance of God's complete knowledge of us, inside and out, and His unceasing will to rescue and save us."

Holy Week

Lent is winding down, and this final week is filled with observances of the events leading up to Easter/Pascha.  This will be my second year to celebrate Orthodox Pascha which has coincidentally fallen on the same date as Western Easter both times. There are Orthodox services every day this week, with two services on some days, concluding with an 11:30 pm service on Saturday followed by a great feast. The thought and effort put into the celebration is still so new to me. It makes the evangelical approach looks downright skimpy. We were informed at church last Sunday that Bible Study time on Easter would be cut short and told in writing not to linger; that everyone should be gone within 10 minutes of the completion of the abbreviated study of the resurrection to make room for the next service. Yes, it was bold and underlined. It's assumed that Baptists are more interested in a good parking place than in worship or fellowship. I hope that's not true.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Other People's Sins

"O my soul, thou hast followed Ham, who mocked his father. Thou hast not covered thy neighbor's shame, walking backwards with averted face." Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.

St. Andrew compares his attitude towards others to that of Noah's son Ham who saw his father's drunkenness and ridiculed him. Noah's other two sons, however, walked into their father's tent backwards to avoid seeing him in an embarrassing condition. They covered their father's nakedness and departed. Which is worse? To sin or to expose the sin of others? Well, later in the story Noah's sin is not mentioned again, the ones who concealed his sin were blessed, and the one who exposed it was cursed.

Our lesson in Sunday School this week is from Philippians 4. Paul speaks to two women leaders in the local church who are in disagreement about some unnamed religious issue and a "yokefellow" who is a part of the same church. Paul refuses to choose sides, and asks them to find a way to work together to resolve the conflict. I wonder if Paul was remembering his own past acts of determining God's truth and then judging others by his conclusions even to the point of justifying the murder of those in disagreement.  According to The Interpreter's Bible commentary on the book of Philippians, "All the divisions of Christendom have originated in the claim that some human interpretation of the Bible was the actual, dictated word of God."

The lessons in these stories revolve around humility. Ham's "righteous anger" towards his father serves to remind us that we're not actually righteous enough to merit righteous anger. And Paul's words were intended to appeal to the best and highest instincts of his fellow believers, not to scold them. We've all chafed under the comments of the "improvers" -- those who do good to others as a means of revealing their pride in their own goodness. Maybe a guide for our reaction to other people's sins is to ask the question, "Does it bring out the best or the worst side of the nature of others?"

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

And Justice for All

I've noticed that I'm ambiguous in my use of the word "justice." Sometimes I use it in a harsh, wrath-of-God, opposite-of-mercy kind of way, and sometimes I use it as a utopian, world-peacey idea. St. Andrew prays to be "justified" in the canon. Frederica Mathewes-Green points out that Biblical references to justice refer to a condition of harmony between God and all Creation while the Roman Empire developed justice into a legal system that was quite effective at whipping the ancient world into shape. Whether justice reminds us of a relationship or a courtroom is an important distinction. The relationship lens is more demanding, thorough, and enduring, but the courtroom rules are easier to write down in a tract. My friend Ed Smith explains that thinking of salvation as a legal contract in the heart transforms a God bound by law to torment us forever into a God who is afterward bound by law to provide us with perpetual bliss. How convenient that we control the choice of which way to handcuff God.

While on a tour of Alcatraz prison I saw a display on the history of imprisonment.  I had never before noticed that the word "penitentiary" has the root of "penance" or "repentance" and in fact, the 15th century definition of penitentiary is "place of punishment for offenses against the church." The modern legal definition is "a state or federal prison for the punishment and reformation of convicted felons." In a legal view of salvation, repentance is almost irrelevant as long as we tremble in fear before the threat of punishment in hell. Somewhere along the way the incentives of humility and repentance were replaced by a fear of punishment. Maybe this tragic misrepresentation is why St. Paul kept harping on and on about the dangers of legalism. It is a drastically inferior model when compared to being in Christ and receiving the grace that leads to complete freedom. Experiencing salvation means that our healed heart will bear good fruit and strive for unity with God. We can pray with St. Andrew, "Thou art my beloved Jesus, Thou art my Creator; in Thee shall I be justified, O Savior."