Writing My Statement Of Faith

I’ve been working on it for five hours, and here’s all I’ve got:

I entered seminary with a million questions. I’m leaving with a million questions. I entered seminary barely gripping onto faith, waking up each day with the prayer “Lord have mercy on me a sinner” and I’m leaving seminary with the prayer “My God, my God, I beg of thee, don’t abandon me thou my heart may abandon you.”

The mantra of my seminary is: I believe, help my unbelief.

My statement of faith for this blog is: love God, love others, love the questions, love the madness.

I’ve wanted to edit that for three years, to include words like “eschatology”, “soteriology” and “geniusology” but I’ve never gotten around to it.

I dread the day that I might stand up in a church and someone looks at me like I know anything more than they do. All I know is that I don’t know anything but for some reason God decided I should be here.

Either my seminary education has been a complete waste, or a complete success. I’m not sure which, but in faith I move forward hoping it’s the latter.

 

Caring & Praying For Over There … From Over Here

iraqi-christians

A month ago, news feeds and Facebook threads were alive with the news of Christian persecution in Iraq. Christians around the internet cried out for mercy in the wake of news of civilians being slaughtered, women and children raped, families forced to flee. Reports leaked of starvation and hunger; the UN reported that the country was on the verge of a mass humanitarian crisis.

But today there’s more being posted about nude celebrity photos than what’s going on in Iraq.

I was reminded of this when I saw the following video. It was surrounded by several posts regarding #celebgate and had garnered almost no attention. In fact, I think the only reason I saw it was because it’d just been posted just a moment previously by a friend of mine who’s particularly passionate about this topic.

It’d be easy for me to heap on the “you should be praying about this, thinking about this, obsessing over this” brand of guilt that is all-too common in Christian circles. It’d be easy to write a blog post with a catchy-title – even a controversial one – to make a compelling case for why we should all care more than we do, to subtly compel everyone to feel guilt about not being as moved as this man by the suffering of his neighbors.

But the reality is that emotion, human emotion, is produced by experience. Even Jesus did not experience emotion abstractly, but rather he experienced it in the context of grieving, in the moment when real pain, real life reached out and touched him. John 11 shows us a Jesus who viewed the tomb of his friend and wept over it. There. In a place where his friend was buried. In a place of grief, mourning and loss. He did not weep with a vague notion of the idea. He wept in the midst of an experience.

What American Christianity needs is not another dose of abstract guilt but experience with tangible, real love. What America needs is to scrape our knees and get our hands dirty with love. The problem is, we keep convincing ourselves that the only possible way to do this is by going somewhere else. 

But what struck me in viewing this video was that this man is not a Christian. The man weeping in this film does not share the same faith, convictions or beliefs as his Christian neighbors, and yet he is weeping over them.

Now, the following may seem like a harsh statement, but I don’t think it’s unfair: how many American Christian leaders would find themselves weeping on national television over a similar plight of their Muslim neighbors? Put differently: how many members of the ‘moral majority’ would break down sobbing during an interview if there was a sudden forced deportation of peaceful, loving Muslims from our country?

Better yet: how many of us regularly weep over the ragged veteran sitting day after day at the corner of Main Street, the one with a hopeless expression and a cardboard sign? How many of us regularly break down sobbing on national news for the plight of 1,750,000 homeless people that live in our neighborhoods? How many of us weep over the fact that there’s nearly half a million orphans living in the US, that every year 20,000 children age out of foster care without being adopted? What about the rampant sex-trafficking that takes place in our own backyards?

trafficking

Grief over the pain of the world doesn’t have to be abstract. In fact, it can’t be. And to believe that this is the case, to believe that the only problems to be fixed involve places over there ignores the reality of human depravity and the calling of the local church.

When I saw this video about Iraq, I was motivated to continue to pray for Iraq. But I realize that’s the most I can do regarding that situation: pray. And any guilt beyond that pushes me to the brink of apathy, depression, immobility, uselessness.

Which is a shame because there’s plenty more to be done. There’s more to Christian life, faith and hope than just praying for something over there. There’s more wrong with the world than something a miracle of God, a missionary, or perhaps government intervention can help.

And it happens every day.

Because when I wake up and walk out my front door, I pass my neighbor’s door.

There’s 613 laws in the Old Testament. When asked which of these, above all the others, is the greatest, Jesus answered:

 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’- Mark 12:30-31

Love God. Love others. And the “others” that we’re supposed to love isn’t an abstract. It isn’t over there, it’s right down the road.

The way to love and care for those over there is to start by loving and caring for those right here, where you are.

When Jesus said to love God and love your neighbor, he couldn’t have been more clear. He literally meant the people to whom you have immediate access.

The word Jesus used for ‘neighbor’ (πλησίον) means: near, adjacent or adjoining

To further elucidate his point, he told the infamous parable of the good Samaritan, in which “your neighbor” is the person you literally have to step around and over to avoid loving.

There is no concern in the Bible for loving someone over there until you’ve first accomplished the task of loving the person near, adjacent or adjoining you.

Because Christ was human. He understood that human experience deals with just that: experience.

It deals with spheres of influence.

And our human sphere of influence is only so big. There’s only so much we can do.

And if we’re wondering to begin, there’s a video from an Iraqi non-Christian that gives us a beautiful example: love the people next door, weep for their hardship, pray for them. It doesn’t matter what their religion. It never has and never should.

If you want to love and care for people over there…we have to start by loving and caring for those who are right here.

Because as Jesus says:

There is no commandment greater than these.- Mark 12:31

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On Loving God (Part I)

Christ teaching in the synagogueA new preacher is in town. He doesn’t preach sermons in a church after the mandatory hymns and worship songs have been completed and he doesn’t stand behind a pulpit with a wireless microphone clinging to his ear. He doesn’t have the gelled hair, Greek tattoos up and down his arm, nor does he don a suit and tie with respectably marshaled grey hairs. He doesn’t wear any sort of provocative clothing attempting to raise our social awareness. In fact, he wears the most unbecoming of clothes possible, the type of outfit one might put on in the hopes of slipping in and out of a room completely unnoticed, even though he never does. He wears clothes that look as though he went to a thrift shop and tried to find whatever fit him best for the least price. Sometimes it’s a brand-named polo, other times it’s a stained button-up.

He did not come to make friends, he says, though ironically many people do befriend him. He’s seen lingering outside strip clubs, in the parking lots late at night where all the deals go down. People spot him emerging from the homes of the desperate housewives of the neighborhood, the women who seem to live out the stereotype without the comedy. One of his best friends is an IRS agent; one of them is a fundamentalist known for screaming about the judgment of God coming upon the country, another works in the fishing canneries one town over and swears like he’s getting paid for it. The preacher’s company does not speak highly of his standing.

He teaches in high school cafeterias and local restaurants after church. Sometimes he appears clean-shaven, crisp and clean, other times it appears as though he’s let it slide for a few days. Everything he says is divisive while simultaneously unifying, like applying a band-aid to a wound he just created. The Conservatives of the town despise him because he preaches more about social issues than those of morality; abortion and gay marriage don’t seem to concern him nearly as much as taking care of the poor. Liberals who listen to his words find him repulsively narrow-minded; he makes definitive statements that no one has the right to make. He has an answer for every question, and though he has no office with a framed diploma hanging over his head, he appears to be more knowledgeable than the best on both sides. He speaks as one who has authority though no one has given it to him. In this he manages to unify leaders in the town on both sides under mutual despise.

So they attempt to trap him. You’ve read the story; you know how it goes. The brightest minds from the town assemble together in the hopes of debunking him once and for all. Doctors and lawyers, journalists, priests, pastors, an author and a professor: all the intellectuals of the town brainstorm to find a question that will stump him, that will reveal to everyone he’s just another nobody from nowhere, and his message is nothing.

They consider their options:

“Are you for or against homosexuality?” No, they decide, too relative.

“Where do you come from?” Too open, he could say a lot of different things.

Finally they have it. The light bulb goes on, and they have their question. They turn to the lawyer in the group, a middle aged man with three kids, an ivy-league degree, tax receipts from his local church and a wife who hasn’t felt loved since their second honeymoon in Bermuda on their tenth anniversary.

“You’re good with words,” they say, “you ask him.”

And he does. The next Sunday they find him, talking to a modest crowd on the lawn of the Presbyterian Church, sitting on the grass. They approach him as a group, slowly. The lawyer glances back at them, united on this one front, then steps forward and interrupts:

Teacher,” he says.

The man turns and looks at him, through him.

The lawyer sputters for a moment, but a diploma, six-figure salary and twenty years of experience in a defense court push the words forward: “ What is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

A hush falls on the crowd. The group of leaders looks at each other, smiling not on their faces but with glimmers of vengeful confidence in their eyes. They got him! They know it. He loves to answer in questions, but there’s no question to answer this one. He thinks he knows religion, thinks he knows the Bible but there’s no way he can know this. If he gives them one law, it will make it sound like all the other laws don’t matter; heresy to everyone who hears. And he knows that. He knows his only answer is to say “I don’t know” and in doing so he’ll have been stumped, humiliated and embarrassed in front of all these other people who worship him so.

The man pauses for a moment then looks the lawyer straight in the eye: “The greatest of the commandments,” he says, “is to love the Lord your God with all your heart all your soul and all your mind.”

There’s silence for a moment on the lawn. His gaze doesn’t lift from the lawyer, as if these words were meant in all infinity for this moment, for the lawyer with a wife who was at home wondering in the back of her mind when she would leave him and tell him she’d been seeing their neighbor for two years now. He spoke as if the words were meant in all of time for the young man who dreamt he’d be something more than his parents, who dreamt he’d find a way to “make” something out of himself, and having arrived at the top of the ladder he’d set out to climb, found that his salary, home, reputation and everything he worked for felt like sand in the fingers of desire. And yet, even in speaking these words to this lawyer, he moved his voice in a manner as though he were speaking for the entire cosmos.

“And not that you asked,” he continued, “but here’s the second: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these commands rest all the law and all the prophets.”

There was a hush before he turned and continued what he was saying to the people gathered on the lawn.

And there you have it. Love God. Love others. The mantra of every reformed evangelical who grew up with WWJD bracelets, attended youth group, partied through high school, grabbed cynicism with education, but then came back around after college by finding their way to a church that cares about social issues, hipster culture and seems to have a backbone. We tithe on Sundays, attend “Theology on Tap” on Wednesday nights, vote cynically and listen to Sufjan Stevens and Kanye West as we clean dishes each night. We take our theology with a sip of Chardonnay all the while wondering if the shirt we wear was sown by a poor child living somewhere on the other side, with the other half. We roll our eyes when we read another “progressive” blogger give a “relatable” perspective on some words of Jesus we’ve already heard a million times, but we’re interested so we pull up our Itunes, bring in some Bon Iver and declare that we are not Christians, we are Christ followers. We love God and we love others.

But this, of course, begs the question: what, in all of hell and heaven combined, does it mean to “love God”? This, of course, is the foundation upon which our religious and philosophical worldview is bent: but what does it mean? We all went to elementary school and took vocabulary quizzes, in which we knew that to define a word with the word itself equaled “wrong!”. “No,” our teacher wrote in the margins, “thoughtful does not equate to someone who is full of thoughts” (read: “smartass”).

So why do we now accept the phrase “Love God” as a satisfactory foundation for our faith when our very cultural association illuminates that we haven’t a clue what it means to “love” anything, much less who the object of our love may be.  “What is love?” We scream on the dance floors every Saturday night, we scream in the midst of our broken marriages, the cuts on our wrists and politics on TV. “What is love?” We ask of our siblings that can no longer look us in the eye, of the woman who’s had an abortion and the man on the street corner holding a sign that says “God hates fags”. “What is love?” We cry through the flipping car of a driver who had one too many and lands his Toyota upside down in the ditch, of a memorial service for a man who was somewhat bored, somewhat confused and ended up shooting someone else before himself to prove it. “What is love?” We contemplate through our hymnals and praise songs on Sunday mornings before pondering it into the face of every pornographic advertisement and email from local dating sites our lonely hearts absorb. “What is love?”

If we can possibly find ourselves an answer to this question, if we can settle into our rocking chairs after sixty years of marriage, look at our spouse and see, in one moment, a collage of all the fights, sex, tears, screams, laughter, hatred, despise, hurt and commitment that a lifetime can hold, if we can hold a child in our arms, know they are our flesh and blood and there’s not a thing we wouldn’t do for them, if we can possibly bear the grace to be given a chance to lay down our life for a friend…if we can possibly attain to any sort of moment like this and declare to ourselves that we know what love is…well…then…what/who/how/which is God? If we can grasp the idea of love, but cannot grasp God…then where does that leave us? All filled up on love and nowhere to pour?

The question still eludes us.