A Vocabulary of Faith

A few months after I entered college I hooked up with a campus ministry that spoke continually about having a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus Christ. The summer after that, and often since, was spent puzzling over that terminology, wondering what it meant if I had that of which it spoke. It was not, really, a matter of faith – it was a matter of the vocabulary of faith. The words spoke of a reality in a way that caused me to question the presence of the reality in my own life. I think I know what was meant then, but as these words are not biblical words, I tend not to use them today.

Poet and essayist Kathleen Norris in her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith addresses the power words posses to shape and to repel; to build up and to confuse. This is true in any arena, but in Christianity our desire is to see words open eyes and reveal Jesus. So complex can be the vocabulary that some leave the faith, and others who would understand give up in confusion.

I am reminded of how hard it is to be in a setting where no one speaks my language. To not hear the familiar rhythms and comforting resonance of one’s own language can leave us weary and longing for silence. Norris speaks of her own experience of trying to return to the church after a twenty-year absence.

When I first ventured back to Sunday worship in my small town, the services felt like a word bombardment, an hour-long barrage of heavyweight theological terminology. Often, I was so exhausted afterwards that I would need a three-hour nap.”

And though it is already difficult for someone new to learn to understand basic terms like ‘faith’ and ‘salvation’ and ‘love’ and ‘heaven’, we tend to complicate matters by creating our own internal jargon (which my friend Mike Osborne is busily battling) adding another layer to the fog. But even without that, we can give specialized meaning to words not meant to bear that.

Any language can become a code; in religious terms, this means a jargon that speaks only to the converted. But in my long apprenticeship as a poet I leaned to refuse codes, to reject all forms of jargon. [I have] a preference for the concrete and specific language of poetry….

Norris’ book is her attempt to provide some concrete ways of thinking about dozens of words from our Christian lexicon. I probably will not agree with all she will say, but I’m enthusiastic about the project. Perhaps it might help this preacher open pathways for others to have a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus.

Whatever that is.

Slandering Eeyore

I’ve been accused of ‘channelling’ A. A. Milne’s (or Disney’s) Eeyore. If something can Eeyore color1possibly go wrong, I expect it will. If I get a headache, I expect to die of a tumor. If there is an unusual noise coming form the microwave, I immediately calculate how we are going to afford the new one I know we are going to have to buy. And if things are going well, I worry about when they will fall apart.

I defend my identification by saying that people like Eeyore, or C. S. Lewis’s Puddleglum the marshwiggle (surprise! – my favorite Narnia character) are not pessimistic, just ‘realistic’. They don’t get caught up in unrealistic expectations from a fallen world. But that logic simply covers up my sin.Puddleglum

My love affair with Eeyore is really one of pride.

I, and perhaps Eeyore, are terribly proud and self-protective. If I say that things are going to get worse, and they don’t, everyone is happy, and no one cares what I said. If I say, though, that things are looking up and they go south, I look stupid. So, being negative is positive. See?

But this unfairly slanders Eeyore. I’m the one who is proud. The Eeyore I channel has lost his childlike faith and drinks deeply from a cynical well. I live on the down side of life because, at my most Eeyorish, I have lost hope that there is an up side.

I’m grateful to Paul Miller for shining an honest and penetrating light on my inner Eeyore. In his wonderfully helpful and practical book (A Praying Life) Miller strips my so-called “realism” down to its cynical core. My ‘realism’ is really cynicism which at heart is hopelessness, a hopelessness that suggests that one has lost touch with the reality that he is a son or daughter of a good and kind and gentle God.

Ouch.

When I first read Miller’s reflections on cynicism, I was deeply touched. I am so accustomed to things not working out that when things are going well I wonder where (as he puts it) the cloud is in that silver lining. I have forgotten that I have a compassionate heavenly father. Not even Eeyore or Puddleglum can be accused of that.

This does not mean that I do not still lie awake at night puzzling over problems I cannot fix, or ponder unhappiness at 5:00 AM Monday mornings. But it is good to know what I am doing, and to know why, and to remember that the God I’m having so much trouble trusting is one who did not spare his own Son, and therefore can be trusted to graciously give all things. (Romans 8:32)

Disney, though, is going to sue me before the day is out, I shouldn’t wonder.

Sacrificium Intellectus

Even a non-Latin scholar can figure out the meaning of the title of this post. It reflects what is so hard for us to swallow, isn’t it? There are paths down which our rational intellect can’t lead but for which we need revelation and the admission of the supernatural. But it has always been hard to swallow.

[The virgin birth] is highlighting the essentially supernatural character of Jesus and the gospel. Alluding to Barth again, the virgin birth is posted on guard at the door of the mystery of Christmas; and none of us must think of hurrying past it. It stands on the threshold of the New Testament, blatantly supernatural, defying our rationalism, informing us that all that follows belongs to the same order as itself and that if we find it offensive there is no point in proceeding further.

If our faith staggers at the virgin birth what is it going to make of the feeding of the five thousand, the stilling of the tempest, the raising of Lazarus, the transfiguration, the resurrection and, above all, the astonishing self-consciousness of Jesus? The virgin birth is God’s gracious declaration, at the very outset of the gospel, that the act of faith is a legitimate sacrificium intellectus. (37)

That is from Donald Macleod’s marvelous book The Person of Christ, in a section in which he also says that

“The truth is, man will always find God’s procedure offensive.” (35)

My desire is that my heart and mind will find less offense and more faith and hope this Christmas. I pray that for you as well.

Safe Doubt

Rob Edenfield preached a helpful sermon on doubt this past Sunday at the church I pastor. The reaction to the sermon has shown that many are fearful of sharing their doubts and others (happily) surprised to find out they were not the only ones struggling with doubt. Doubt is real, and real to all honest Christians. Tim Keller has noted that “a faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it.” (The Reason for God, page xvi) It’s good to be aware of and to admit our doubts.

But often we do not express our doubts because we are fearful of how others will receive us if they know we are struggling. To ponder how to respond to those giving honest expression to their doubt is a helpful exercise. To that end, I shared with our community group this anecdote from Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, the daughter of noted apologist for the Christian faith, Francis Schaeffer. This story has always been immensely helpful to me. I share it here hoping it will be the same for all of us as we welcome doubt among us.

I started the process of thinking through my beliefs almost accidentally, when I was eleven years old, growing up in Switzerland. What touched it off was a squabble with my two sisters, Debby and Priscilla. We had nearly finished weeding the family vegetable garden, and we were hot, tired, and crabby. As I grew more and more obnoxious in my side of our argument, one of my sisters piped up and said that I wasn’t being a very good Christian example to any villagers passing by.

Without thinking, I said the most shocking thing that came into my head — pretty shocking, at least, when your father is a minister. “Well, I’m not a Christian anyway!” I yelled. “I don’t believe any of it!”
I was received with the dramatic reaction I’d wanted: shocked silence.

As we picked up our hoes and walked down the mountain path toward our home, I suddenly felt a tingle of fear creep up my spine. Inside, I had the dizzy sensation of standing on the edge of a dangerous cliff. I had said that I wasn’t a Christian because I’d wanted to shock Debby and Priscilla. But now I wondered: Did I really believe in God? Was the Bible true? Did I have reasons to think so, or had I just blindly accepted what my parents had told me?

The more I thought about it, the worse I felt. I had loved this God of the Bible since I had been tiny. Now all that I’d heard about his teachings and his love seemed to be turning to ashes in my hand.

At the supper table, Priscilla announced, “Susan says she isn’t a Christian.”

By then I didn’t feel like denying her words, even though I could see that my mother looked sad. I was sad, too, for I felt as if I had lost God and his love. I wasn’t sure that there even was a God.

But I was also determined. I couldn’t believe in fairy tales! I had to grow up.

That easily could have been my last day of knowing God was there, and that I was safe in the order he had provided. It could have been the death of my faith.

Or it could have been the end of my progress into thinking as an adult. All it would have taken was a comment like, “Of course you’re a Christian, Susan,” or, “You’re only eleven; you don’t know what you’re saying,” or, “Don’t be foolish — it’s obvious that the Bible is true.’

But something else happened instead. That night when I was ready for bed, alone and quiet in my room, my father came in.

“Let’s talk, Susan,” he said seriously. “Tell me why you said you are no longer a Christian.”

I confessed that I’d first said the words because I was mad. “But as soon as I said it, I was scared,” I explained. “I can’t call myself a Christian! All this time, I’ve only believed it because you and mother told me about it. Now I’ll have to wait and see if it’s true or not. Maybe the other religions are true. Or maybe there isn’t even a God at all!”

There was a moment of silence. I still remember the quiet, friendly companionship in the atmosphere when my dad finally answered me. “Susan,” he said, “those are good questions. I’m glad you’ve asked them.”

What a relief! That dizzy, lonely feeling left me. It was OK to ask questions! It was important for me to find out for myself if what I’d believed was true.

As we talked that night, I discovered that my dad had asked these same questions about God in his own search for answers. Dad opened the door for me into a new adventure. He said that I didn’t have to go through life with a blindfold on my mind to believe in God, merely clinging to hopes and feelings. Neither did I have to throw my beliefs out the window.

If something is true, he explained, you can look at it hard, and think about it, and compare it with other beliefs, and it will stand. It will be reliable.

I decided to do just that.

[From How to Be Your Own Selfish Pig, pages 15-17.]

The full sermon will be found here when posted.

“Their Faith in God Is Strong”

This from the front page of yesterday’s NY Times:

More Christians Flee Iraq After New Violence

(If you click through, you may be asked to sign in. I don’t believe there is a charge to create an account.)

And this from that story:

“Their faith in God is strong,” said the Rev. Gabriele Tooma, who heads the Monastery of the Virgin Mary, part of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Qosh, which opened its monastic rooms to 25 families in recent weeks. “It is their faith in the government that has weakened.”

For many of us, the opposite is true. We trust government more than we trust God.

What would we be willing to endure to switch that around? I thank God that I live under a stable government. But I don’t want my faith to rest in it.

Pray for these Christians in Iraq and other places from whom we have so much to learn.

I’m with My Daddy

With my mind, I eschew the so-called prosperity ‘gospel’, that system of thought teaching that God wants his people to expect good health and financial prosperity, and that the sign of God’s blessing is fitness and riches.

But with my heart, I find I am a card carrying believer. When the script of my life goes contrary to my desires for comfort and safety, I am taken aback. I wonder about God’s love and question his goodness. In the darkness of my heart my assessment of the NORM for the Christian life is prosperity. When it does not come, it can only be that God has failed me.

Such thinking shows that I am a true blue believer in the prosperity ‘gospel’, not in that part of my mind which forms the words I speak and the convictions I articulate, but in that part that feeds my heart and my emotions and my desires and my faith.

This morning I was reading about Peter in Acts 12. Peter is imprisoned, and yet the church prays for him. As a result, an angel comes, leads him through miraculously swinging gates, and into the still night a free man. This is the kind of thing my prosperity trained faith would expect. It is a wonderful thing, and we praise God for it, and we look for similar experiences in our own lives.

Too bad that James did not get to see any of this.

James, the apostle, the brother of John, did not get to see or celebrate Peter’s miraculous release. Herod did not bother imprisoning James. He just flat out killed him.

So, Peter lived out a miracle, and James just died. Both faithful men. Both among Jesus’ inner circle. Both leaders in the church. Both according to my ‘prosperity’ thinking deserving of God’s best. One is simply slaughtered, the other delivered.

James, though, not Peter, is the norm. The norm in a world Jesus described as a place where his people ‘will have tribulation’ is not Peter being rescued, but rather the saints in Hebrews 11 losing meals, body parts, and loved ones. The norm is James.

When I make Peter’s deliverance the norm, then I grumble and question God over every problem in my life (currently: broken timing belt on daughter’s car) and am blind to the plethora of blessings around me (currently: I slept in a comfortable bed last night, with a full tummy, in reasonable health, with a loving family, and a wonderful church, and…).

When, on the other hand, I take Jesus seriously and believe that the world he has overcome is a world in which tribulation is the norm, I am not shocked by James’ death, though saddened, and I am thrilled by not only Peter’s deliverance, but deeply thankful for the smaller and seemingly mundane blessings of food on my plate and daughters who still call me ‘Daddy’.

When I retrieved my daughter from along I-4 on Tuesday as a tow truck hooked on to her dead car, she was talking with a friend on her phone telling her what had happened. “It’s okay now,” she said, “I’m with my daddy.”

That is the gospel we are to embrace, the gospel of a Father’s love displayed in the faithfulness of the cross. In this world there will be tribulation.

But it’s okay, now. We’re with our ‘Daddy’.

Barriers to Belief

This, if true, explains a lot, about me, and about those to whom we speak (in reference to John 5:43-44):

“If a man is not thoroughly honest in his professed desire to find out the truth in religion, – if he secretly cherishes any idol which he is resolved not to give up, – if he privately cares for anything more than God’s praise, – he will go on to the end of his days doubting, perplexed, dissatisfied, and restless, and will never find the way to peace. His insincerity of heart is an insuperable barrier in the way of his believing.”

(J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, quoted by Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, page 334)