The Great Deficiency of The Bible

I’ve been thinking about why so many people have trouble with getting past things like pattern and organization when it comes to religion, when Jesus stressed changes in heart and life and action. As I thought about this earlier, I was reminded of something a dear friend once said to me. It went something like this, “You people in the church of Christ only pay attention to the letters of Paul. You should be called the church of Paul.”

In a sense, he’s right. We spend more time dealing with the details of Paul’s interactions with and instructions for the early churches who were experiencing specific issues from growing pains, to poverty, to inertia, to misconduct the likes of which was not even tolerated by the pagans of that day.

When we were children, we heard the stories of the great heroes of the Old Testament. Every child in Sunday school knows about Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses, Joseph, Jacob and Esau, Elijah, David, Solomon, Samson, Daniel and the other exciting stories. In the New Testament, children hear about Jesus and the apostles. And this is well and good. But somewhere along the way, we read about needing strong meat, and not milk and we get the idea that the gospel story of Jesus is just milk, maybe because we tell the stories mostly in Sunday school. Paul serves up the meat in the New Testament. All the other stuff is just background. That seems to be the perception, at least. And I was told by a wise dean once that perception becomes reality.

I believe with all my heart that we have gotten things turned around.  The gospel message of Jesus is as strong a meat as any in our practice of religion.  We need to tear apart every story about Jesus in the gospels, every teaching he presented, and get every bit of truth and meaning from each and every one of them. Jesus is the focus of the gospel message. His life is the one Paul said he was emulating.

So what is the deficiency I am talking about? First off, that was just one of those “made you look” phrases. Writers call them hooks. If you’re reading this far, the hook has been set, and I hope you will continue through the conclusion of the essay.

The deficiency is not so much with the Bible itself, but in our understanding of it. The Christian life, or the Way as it was called in those days after the Crucifixion and that first Pentecost after it is not an organization. It is indeed a Way of Life. It is Jesus, translated into the life-language of every follower.

What did Paul say in Philippians 1.21? “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Contrary to what some seem to think, Paul never said, “To live is church….” So what did he mean? I think he was saying that it was needful for his friends that he not die at that juncture, but carry on and teach and serve and encourage them. To live is to act.

Paul’s writings are rich with truth. Make no mistake. But many of his letters were addressing specific issues experienced by the groups to which he was writing. Personally, I have never been tempted to eat meat sacrificed to idols. I don’t think I would be offended by it if anyone did. I have never known of a case of step-mother/step-son incest in any church with which I have been associated–not that there cannot be such. Certainly, principles applied in dealing with those situations have value and merit and are instructive to us.

But the letters are not histories, either. They tell us precious little about how people lived and what they did. Paul alluded to some of these things throughout his letters, and a rich cache of comments praising the actions of many of Paul’s friends and associates is found at the close of Romans and in other letters.

While there are those who would squeeze the scriptures to find commands and patterns to follow and bind them on all, there is a wealth of examples that we have rarely ever considered, at least not in the light of “living Christ.” So who did “live Christ” in the New Testament? In Acts 9, there is the story of Dorcas, or Tabitha of whom it was said, “…she was always doing good and helping the poor.” Sounds like Jesus to me. In Romans 16, Phoebe is commended as a servant of the church at Cenchreae. Later in the same chapter, Tryphena and Tryphosa and Persis, all were praised as women who had worked or were working hard in the Lord. Rufus’ mother had been a mother to Paul–that takes action, not words. Urbanus was a dear co-worker. Mary worked very hard for the Christians in Rome. Sounds like Jesus to me.  What about Paul’s description of Timothy as showing genuine concern for the Philippians’ welfare like no other: it was not just spiritual welfare.  It was  their physical, temporal well-being, as well.  Epaphroditus was commended as one who saw to Paul’s needs, and was distressed for his friends at their concern over him in his recent, near-fatal illness. Sounds like Jesus to me.

In these examples and in many others, the emphasis is on action, not perfect, lock-step conformity.  In Matthew 25, at the scene of the great Judgment, the separation of sheep from goats was based on acts of service and mercy, not doctrinal purity and organizational correctness.  I am in no wise saying that those things are not important.  They are.  But they must not be pursued to the exclusion of justice and mercy. 

 Jesus addressed such issues throughout his ministry.  Work on the Sabbath was forbidden by Jewish law, but Jesus and his disciples plucked heads of grain and winnowed the kernels in their hands, working for a bite of sustenance. Jesus gave relief to the suffering on the Sabbath in direct violation of the Law, and made the point that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. In each of these examples, an action was taken to address a physical need. He reminded the Pharisees of the prophecy, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” His brother James reiterates that “mercy triumphs over judgment.” Mercy, in any time and in any culture, carries the connotation of action in service to another.

So to set the record straight, The Bible is not deficient. We are. When we fail to see the shadow of Christ in the merciful actions and service of every disciple mentioned even in passing, we are deficient. When we plow the field searching for shards of buried commands and cover over the precious jewels that are the wonderful characters who lived Christ, we are deficient.

We should always remember Paul’s comment, “To live is Christ.” We should internalize it, and live Christ, too. He is the Way. He is the Truth. He is the Life that leads to a better and unending life. Let the world see Jesus in us, not just Peter, or Paul, or Martin Luther, or Alexander Campbell or any other reformer who tried to light the way back to Jesus.

To live is Christ.

That should certainly give us a lot to think about.

And much more to do.

“star stuff* [*and then some]: essays at the intersection of science and faith” is now available at the Kindle Store

I am pleased (and maybe a little proud) to announce the publication of my second Kindle book, a collection of essays titled star stuff* [*and then some]: essays at the intersection of science and faith.  This work represents a group of essays that attempt to bring together the logic and practice of science skills to religious themes, while remaining true to a core of Christian faith.  

This effort has been a labor of love, including a love of learning, a love of nature, and a love for the author of it all.  I must be true to the evidence I see in all realms or suffer the bleak misfortune of being intellectually dishonest.  The following excerpt is taken from chapter 1, and sets the stage for the succeeding essays.  If you find this interesting, I invite you to follow the link at the right to learn more about star stuff*.    

Life, or what we know of it so far, is indeed a wondrous thing.  The person of faith exults with praise to its creator.  That there are those among people of faith who can observe it and not want to know why it works or know more about any and every aspect of it is odd to me: learning more reveals the mind of God. The scientist wants nothing more than to understand.  That there are those among scientists who can observe its complexity and not be in awe is also puzzling to me. 

For a moment, consider a purely naturalistic view of everything.  According to Stephen Hawking, the universe is, it exists because of gravity.  Perhaps it is overly simplistic, but the complex interplay of matter and energy happened because gravity exists.  Hawking declared God redundant when he made this pronouncement.

 That’s all well and good, but from a purely naturalistic perspective, the story is never complete. I have no problem with a Big Bang.  It makes good sense.  But I do have trouble with why.  And from what.  That pesky one step back from what can be extrapolated, that question of first cause, is the fly in the ointment, at least to me.  It is impossible to answer that by science.  And the science side of me is annoyed by that.

 But I accept that there is indeed more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in the naturalistic philosophy of science.  I believe there is more to life than can be experienced by the senses.  It is not measurable by scale or ruler. It is not observable by the most powerful microscope or telescope.  The more I firmly believe in and accept simply is.  If gravity is Hawking’s creative force, in a sense his god, mine is more.  My God is more complex.  More intelligent.  More responsive.  More compassionate.  More forgiving.  More merciful. 

 More.

 I have no scientific evidence for any of it, despite the volumes written professing to “prove” the existence of God.  But my sense of wonder is not confined to the physical.  Beyond nature is a realm vaster than the universe.  It is a reality beyond the physical, which has been variously characterized, but generally considered to be that of the spiritual.  The physical and spiritual are by no means at odds with each other.  They are complementary in every way.  Each supports and refines and clarifies its counterpart.  The trick is in knowing how to listen to each.  It is in knowing that each realm is the palette and playground of a boundless God.  He is greater than our theories, but welcomes our investigations.  He is beyond our dogmas, but welcomes our exploration.  To me, life is a journey of discovery in both worlds, a balancing of what can be observed in the physical realm with spiritual truths that can only be known by faith. 

 The greater wonder is in celebrating both.  To dismiss either is to lose a dimension, an integral piece of the puzzle of existence.  We are more than atom and molecule, flesh and bone, breath and blood.  We are star stuff and then some: we are the image of the one who conceived those stars. 

Of Broken Lives and Broken Dreams

NOTE: This post is not a cry for sympathy, or just random, self-absorbed, self-pitying or venting.  This is real.  This is what it’s like to deal with a never-ending stress every day of your life.  Many people have no idea how much baggage we carry around as parents of a special needs child.  We don’t have extra skills or abilities to deal with it.  What we have is simply stretched to the limit and beyond.  And our situation is far less severe than that of some.  But I wanted to give you a small glimpse of how life looks from the inside of this particular fishbowl.  It’s not always pretty.

Life happens.

No matter what the best-laid plans may be, there will always be something that will come along to upset the apple cart, and all the polished produce goes flying beyond your reach, becoming bruised and maybe even damaged beyond use.

When I was a young man, like so many other young men throughout history, I dreamed of finding a wife, starting a family, having a quiet but successful career, growing old, retiring, enjoying life, reflecting…. I dreamed of normalcy.

Long story short, the first part happened, and so did the second, but after that….oy.

My wife and I had both spent years in college and grad school and beyond, preparing for a career in higher education. We met soon after we both were hired into the same department at a middle sized, student oriented school. We became friends. And good marriages are made with good friends.

After our first child was born, we discussed whether or not our family was complete. Ever the pragmatist, I suggested that two children would be a good number, so that when we get old, the burden for decisions about our care would not fall on one. So we had a second child.

Then, the world caved in. That quiet life to which I aspired became a life of not-so-quiet desperation in what seemed like the blink of an eye.

Our son was slow to reach the early benchmarks of development. His mother saw it, I refused. He continued to experience developmental delays. His mother saw it, I refused. With each new problem that cropped up, it became more and more difficult for me to keep my eyes closed.

And then one day, we were faced with the diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder.

The last several years have been filled with medical appointments, therapies, meltdowns, school suspensions, school conferences, more medical appointments, showdowns with disrespectful people in public, the odd police report…. In short, a nightmare of sub-epic proportions.

The epic part may yet arise.

We have experienced more lows than highs through the years. More than once I have nearly reached the end of my rope. And more than once, the stress on our marriage has been so severe that I have wondered if staying together was worth it. Of course, the realization that one of us would then be even more responsible for the daily care and upkeep of a child with autism was more than I could take. I couldn’t do it alone. And I know that she couldn’t either, nor should she. He is our responsibility. We must both share in it.

I have seen figures that the divorce rate among parents of children with autism is in the vicinity of 80%. Recent studies have disproven that figure, and the actual numbers may be lower than the national average. One writer speculated that it may be because of the support the couple provides for each other. But if I were a betting man, the scenario I just described is more likely the reason why. The marriage may be in shambles, but the shame of running away and the sense of responsibility are so great that a person of integrity will carry on despite the pain and agony every day may bring. As trite as it sounds, it feels like you stay together for the sake of the children. You hope for the best. You hope to rekindle civility if not passion; friendly tolerance, if not sustaining love.

The deeper pain there is not the loss of romance, although that’s stressful in and of itself. It’s in the terrible feeling I get sometimes that I may have lost my best friend, and I hate autism for having come between us. Make no mistake: I love my wife. But after the third argument or sternly serious (and usually well-deserved) “discussion” of the day regarding my inadequate actions and poor displays of parenting, I sometimes wonder if she still loves or even likes me anymore. I can’t blame her. She is the mother lion defending her cub.

The stress of trying to physically manage a boy who is big for his age, his weight disproportionately so because of the vicious side effects of medications, is getting more difficult with every day. He has outgrown my wife’s abilities, so the physical redirection tasks have fallen to me almost exclusively. Outbursts and meltdowns in public are harder to contain. Physical interventions are misinterpreted by well meaning people who think the child is being abused or abducted. The indignity of having the police called is one of the worst things I have experienced, but then it is not out of the ordinary for parents of children with autism in today’s society. Recently, I have started developing a lot more pains from overstressed muscles and tendons. I often reflect that this kind of parenting is a younger man’s game. And I’m never going to get any younger.

The stress of preparing for the future is daunting for anyone, but when autism is factored in, it goes off-scale. How will we provide for our child after we are gone? For typical children, there is hope and expectation that they will grow up, get the training they need to get a job, find a job they love and become successful, even more so than we have been. But the future for a child with autism is not as bright, no matter what rosy pictures are painted in the movie of the week.

Through it all, we are expected to be happy and involved and engaged with society. The reality is that we are prisoners of autism. Sometimes, it seems that for every step we make in progress, we lose two in other things. Trying to make sure a sibling gets enough care and attention is hard, and there is always the nagging question as to whether we have done enough for either of them.

When your life feels like it is in a downward spiral, faith should be a refuge. I have no complaints about my fellow church members at the tiny congregation where I worship. They have shown nothing but love and concern as we have gone through this crucible of a trial, and I love them dearly for it. My concern is with the specific emphasis of the teaching that goes on in so many churches. Sometimes I come away wondering why I bother anymore. The teaching focuses more on frequently ineffective evangelism and first principles and minutiae of doctrinal differences among denominations and less on things that I, for one, so desperately need. The emphasis is on getting people in, but when they get there, they are supposed to be fully self-sufficient and functional to make the rest of the trip on their own. Too often, the teaching they get deals more with the “correct” organization of the church than dealing with real-world trials and problems.

There are so many things I need to hear from a pulpit, and so many things I either don’t hear or don’t need to hear. I need practical things that help me get through the next hard day and the next endless week, or even the next public meltdown. I need to be encouraged to keep going even when it feels like I can’t go on at all. I don’t need to be told that many of the painful thoughts and feelings I have revealed in this very essay could get me eternally damned. I need to know I am not alone, that God really does care about me, and about my suffering family, and that things can get better. I don’t need to be told to buck up and pull my weight. I need to hear ideas and suggestions for dealing with this difficult, soul-quenching life, not a constant barrage of dogmas and damnation.

When you get right down to it, life is more than church membership. It extends beyond the doorway of the so-called “sanctuary.” It’s out there in the streets and in the home and in the workplace and in the marketplace where people interact, maybe in tense conflict. What spiritual armor will protect me from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?  How do I cope with all I have to deal with, day in and day out?  Why is there so little emphasis—especially in the conservative churches—on helping people in the here and now? Why did Jesus heal the sick, and relieve people who were oppressed and afflicted with many other things, from accusations of sin to evil spirits? It was not only to show his power and divine nature. It was to show his compassion. I need that compassion and understanding and deep comforting help.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. I think many other people are feeling the same thing.   I need help with this life. If I can’t fix my life here, I’ll never make it to the next one. And just focusing on the sweet by and by only means admitting defeat in the not so sweet here and now. It means we give up on trying to make things better here, because all of our suffering will just make that ethereal bliss of heaven sweeter.

I can’t buy it. I can’t give up, and I won’t. But there are things I have come to know as I have floundered about these last years in a seemingly losing attempt to find my way. In order to get to where I need to be, I need more action and less axiom. More faith and less formula. More compassion and less condemnation. More Savior and less system. More love and less law. More emphasis on the church family and less emphasis on the church organization. More Christ and less conflict.

“Pray about it.” I have. “Work on it.” Always. But sometimes, I just need to shout down the pain and stress and turmoil.

We will continue to provide everything in our power to help our son. But we need to remember to save something for ourselves and for each other, too. I know Jesus never promised perfect comfort in this life. He told his friends to expect hardship. But he also told them to love each other and bear each others’ burdens, no matter how heavy.

Right now, I’m about as broken as I’ve ever been. My hopes and dreams lie scattered, shattered and fading. I could use some mending.

Oh God, I could use some mending.

Patriot Day, September 11, 2014

(Today, I break from the pattern of theological discussion and share a post I composed for social media. I remain sensitive to the losses of the 9/11 attacks. But I believe we must use that fire to temper the steel of our resolve, and be stronger and more united than before.)

Rough night. I awoke to a thunderstorm a little after 3 a.m., yesterday’s indignity and near misapplication of justice still playing through my head. But then my puny concerns are irrelevant compared to the realization that today is an anniversary of one of the darkest days in US history. As I fired up my browser, the headlines on my homepage were much the same: sleeping kittens, celebrity fashions, inane blather about nothing. Maybe those headlines that force us to look back will come later.

As I consider the social and political landscape of the recent past, I compare it to the weeks and months after 9/11. That was the only time in my memory that people in this country were Americans first, and something else political or ethnic or social somewhere down the line. It is sad that it took a tragedy for us to come together as much as we did for as long or short as we did. But memory is short, and egos and political aspirations and machinations have long shelf lives, and we soon forgot that brief moment of unity, born of pain though it may have been. We are constantly assailed by the yellow journalism of the politics of outrage from both right and left. It should not be so.

As I think about where we are today, I see a nation where corporations are people, but too many real people are forgotten, much as the victims of 9/11 have begun to fade into little more than the fabric of time and history. The evil that brought about those attacks has matured and evolved and spawned more evil. It has been wounded, but much like severing the hydra’s head resulted in two more growing back, the threat is multiplying with each ineffectual stroke.

It should not take the reading of a list of martyred victims and sacrificed heroes to make us remember who we are, put politics aside and come together as one people to rebuild the vast nobility that is our birthright.

Those who seek to harm us have never tasted liberty. It is as fine a wine today as when it was made. But politics as usual makes it bitter. Putting profit before people turns its sweet complexity to vinegar. Fighting amongst ourselves spills that special vintage and wastes it.

Not only on this day, this Patriot Day, but every day, we should remember who we are and remember the words that open the greatest government charter ever crafted: “We the people….” Let us stop pointing fingers at our neighbors and hold out our hands in peace and brotherhood. Let us live up to our creed, “that all men are created equal.” As we pledge allegiance to the flag of this country, the words come easy when we in unison recite, “…and justice for all,” but the understanding and application are far from fruition. It is not too late to make that a reality.

This day should not be one of mourning only, although we must never forget. It should be a day of resolve, when we consciously revisit the hope and promise of this nation. We are a nation of immigrants, the fiber of ethnic pride strong among our many strands. But those fibers must be united into a many-fold cord that is not easily broken. No matter the variety of each individual heritage, we have a common heritage as Americans, a people of promise and privilege. Be proud. Be united. Be free.

Suicide

I have learned a lot of things over the years.  Much of it useless bits of facts and trivia.  Some of it useful in my daily work.  But the things I think I value the most are things I learn that I can use to help people.  That’s one of the reasons that I value my involvement in the Students of Concern Team at the college where I work. 

College is a difficult time for many.  I know starting college was hard for me.  I had led a very sheltered life and I was not ready for the sub-culture shock of raucous dorm life.  My dad talked me into staying a semester to give it a chance, and I reluctantly did.  That was the beginning of a long journey into education and finding my calling as a teacher.

The pressures of college life were real.  I guess I probably bordered on depression a few times.  I had friends, though, and I did have times I still remember fondly.  I fell in love for the first time there, and even though it ended badly, I eventually soldiered on, sadder but wiser.  I used the pain to write a lot of (probably very bad) poetry.    

But unlike numerous cases with which I have become acquainted, I never reached a point where I became so depressed, so desperate for relief from mental and emotional anguish that I contemplated ending my life.

When I answered a call for a faculty volunteer for this university assignment, I had no idea what I was getting into.  I went to a meeting and was encouraged to take part in the QPR suicide prevention gatekeeper training program.  I learned more about suicide in the intense week I studied for my QPR certificate than I had ever imagined before.  Since then, I have tried to expand my knowledge of suicide with an eye toward helping people to understand it, bring it out of the shadows and give people the tools they can use to help a friend or loved one choose life.

One of the things that has bothered me about suicide is the attitude that many religious people have toward it.  It’s mentioned in hushed tones, as if speaking that devil’s name will summon it.  I have heard different people including preachers pronounce a victim of suicide to be in hell, because they committed murder, and thereby committed a sin of which they could never repent. 

I have taken a stand against that sort of narrow-minded prejudice, and will continue to do so in defense of the victims.  For those that take their lives or attempt to do so because of mental illness are no less victims than the person who dies of cancer or heart disease.  If an irrational suicide is a sin, then death by colon cancer initiated by a poor diet and lack of exercise is also a sin.  (I know, there are hereditary links to various cancers.)  A person who dies of heart disease brought on by smoking and a poor diet has also sinned.  Rarely if ever is the finger pointed at such a person.  But choices are choices.  Using that reasoning, there is no difference.

But I know that suicide is often linked to mental illness, and quite often a major depressive disorder.  Contrary to what some armchair psychologists may bandy about on blogs, depression is an organic disorder that involves what is probably the most complex organ in the human organism, the brain.  A person who is depressed or has some personality disorder or has suffered a tragic loss experiences serious and measurable changes in brain function. 

I have been told by people who have been to that dark, dark place that the pain is so intense, they would do anything to make it stop.  And being told to snap out of it is pointless and counterproductive—if they could snap out of it, they would.  But they don’t know how.

I have never been there.  And I pray I may never even approach the vicinity of it.  But I am not immune.  I may only be one traumatic life event away from slipping over the edge.  I hope that if I ever lose my way, someone will care enough about me to reach out his or her hand to bring me back to the world of the living.

I’ve been thinking about this because of all the recent talk about suicide after the death of Robin Williams.  I heard someone say the other evening that one of his friends said that he had known Robin for years, but never really knew him, because he was always in character. 

That suggests to me that his mind was constantly in motion, and that the characters were a mask for a great internal turmoil.  Maybe he even had difficulty facing himself, and the ever-changing personas shielded a very private man from a very prying public.

I never met the man, so I could never know anything about him with certainty.  Nor can anyone else in my place:  I’m talking about the self-righteous people that condemned him, called him names like “coward.”  I’m talking about people who aren’t willing to learn about this very real enemy because they already know everything, and have the audacity if not authority to sit in judgment over someone.

I remember a story about a primitive culture where people were given an everyday name, but they were also given a secret name, as well.  Few if any would know the secret name, since wielding it would give another person power over the one bearing that name.  Shamanistic, at best, but a good model for what I have decided I would do to try and face my own demons.  If I can recognize my weaknesses and struggles for what they really are and call them by name, I will have power over them.  Conquering them may require help from someone else, but if I refuse to acknowledge these problems, I will never overcome them.

I return to Cain’s question in his feeble attempt at a defense against God’s scrutiny in the aftermath of his murderous act against his brother. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” he asked.  As I have written before, my resounding answer is, “YES!”  We have the responsibility to care for the weak, strengthen the feeble, help the hurting and bear their burdens.  As children of God, we are to seek out those in need, and bring relief, whatever relief that may entail, to the best of our abilities.  We must not bury the talent of kindness, but rather invest it and watch it increase.  We must not store the treasures of mercy and compassion in ever bigger barns, but tear them down for the purpose of distributing their bounty.  We must not quench the flickering candle of grace that freely dispels the darkness and gladdens our souls.  We must light our lamps from that candle, and shine together  as one great light.     

My experience is extremely limited with respect to dealing with people who are so damaged and hurt that they entertain the idea of suicide as a last resort.  My heart tells me that kindness, compassion and mercy are needed.  I hope I have the presence of mind and strength of resolve to share them if I am ever called upon to throw out a lifeline.

I recommend an article by Patrick Mead appearing in the online Christian community magazine, Wineskins.  (http://wineskins.org/2014/08/19/the-christian-robin-and-suicide/#more-1917) Currently a minister, Patrick was a professional in the field of psychology in an earlier chapter of his life.  His observations about suicide are focused, to the point, and tempered with those rare gifts of mercy and compassion.

It is not our place to judge the hurting.  It is our place to help them.  Jesus pronounced judgments on the self-righteous, not on the suffering.  We would do well to follow his lead.

Rest Easy

I was introduced to the work of Christian singer/songwriter Andrew Peterson a couple of years ago when Lipscomb theology professor and writer, John Mark Hicks quoted a few lines from Peterson’s album, Light for the Lost Boy, in his blog.  On his recommendation, I gave the album a listen, and I was immediately impressed.  Peterson’s lyrics are literate and thought-provoking without venturing down the “Jesus is my girlfriend” path of what sounds virtually like romantic love songs for God.

The song from that album that probably resonates most with me is his “Rest Easy.”  The lyrics are so reassuring and comforting, especially when the world seems to be crumbling all around you.  Take a look at the lyrics, or better yet, listen to the song for yourself.  (YouTube is a great place to experience music you want to try.  Give it a search.)  

You are not alone
I will always be with you
Even to the end
 
You don’t have to work so hard
You can rest easy
You don’t have to prove yourself
You’re already mine
You don’t have to hide your heart
I already love you
I hold it in mine
So you can rest easy
 
Do not be afraid
Nothing, nothing in the world
Can come between us now

You don’t have to work so hard
You can rest easy
You don’t have to prove yourself
You’re already mine
You don’t have to hide your heart
I already love you
I hold it in mine
So you can rest easy

You work so hard to wear yourself down
And you’re running like a rodeo clown
You’re smiling like you’re scared to death
You’re out of faith and all out of breath
You’re so afraid you’ve got nowhere left to go

Well, you are not alone
I will always be with you

You don’t have to work so hard
You can rest easy
You don’t have to prove yourself
You’re already mine
You don’t have to hide your heart
I already love you
I hold it in mine
You can rest easy

Peterson writes as if Jesus were directly talking to the listener, the concepts and comments garnered and gleaned from throughout the gospels and apostolic letters.  The application is so real and true on so many levels.  The song will resonate with anyone who has struggled with pretty much any of life’s challenges.

I can admit it: I struggle each and every day.  I am frequently discouraged and angry and disappointed with myself when that discouragement and anger spill out and affect others.  My faith falters and I lose sight of the higher calling.  I blame others for my own poor state of affairs, when I am responsible for making the best of what comes my way.

What kind of struggles do I face?  There have been times when I have been so discouraged with my job that I just hated even thinking about going to work in the morning.  I attended faculty meetings and experienced chest pains born of anxiety and dread.  Another struggle I face is in marriage: probably every married man in America, if not the world, has had moments of doubt as to whether that relationship would be strong enough to weather the storms that life sends.

One of the biggest challenges I face on a daily basis is dealing with a son on the autism spectrum.  Autism is a constant challenge, not only from the behavioral issues and developmental delays, but also in trying to make sure that my son receives the services that he needs to give him the best chance of success later in life.  I get discouraged when all of the appointments and therapies seem to be having little effect.  My plate is so full at times that I don’t have as much time to devote to my work as I would like.  The stress of dealing with autism makes trying to maintain a working marriage far more difficult than a “normal” life would—if indeed that normalcy does exist for anyone.

I struggle with matters of faith, too.  I have been on an extended journey of spiritual discovery that began when I came to realize that God is more about love and grace and less about retribution and punishment.  That journey has led me to question many of the tenets of my faith tradition, and through that lens of love and grace, the legalism I was raised in becomes less appealing and more difficult to defend and maintain.  I have been unhappy with my church situation for a long time, but I remain, because of a perception of duty to, as well as love for my dear friends who make up that tiny congregation.  Such a conflict of spirit wears a man down, and brings him to some of the deepest lows of life.  In my experience, to be soul-sad and soul-weary shakes me to the very foundation.

And then I hear Andrew Peterson, and through his words and organizing thoughts, I remember the great invitation that Jesus gave to all who were soul-weary and heavy-laden.  In Matthew 11.28, Jesus offers, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Jesus was likely talking to people who were tired of the Pharisaical burden of law.  I can’t help but believe that the offer stands for all time and for all who labor under any circumstance that would break a person’s spirit and drive him to despair.   

In light of my own experience, I hear Peterson’s words decry the burden of legalism when he relates that, “You don’t have to work so hard…You’re already mine.”  Jesus paid the price, took the burden on himself, and made the gift of soul-redeeming grace possible through his life and example of selflessness. 

Sometimes, I think we make things too difficult.  Life gets harder as we pursue ridiculous things that have little in the way of lasting–let alone eternal–value.  Religion gets difficult when form and pattern distort and obscure the most important pattern and example for our lives, that being none other than the one we say we revere and worship and hold with gracious esteem, that earthly son of a carpenter, that spiritual guide of common fishermen, that friend of tax-collectors and sinners. Jesus.  The journey home gets so much longer when we get sidetracked chasing elusive and often inferred rabbits.  We look for more religious tasks to do to the exclusion of becoming what we are called to be: people defined by the love and mercy and kindness that are not just actions, but qualities that become our very essence and suffuse every aspect, every facet of our lives.

In matters of faith and in the mundane exercise of daily life, the bridge rings so amazingly true:

You work so hard to wear yourself down
And you’re running like a rodeo clown
You’re smiling like you’re scared to death
You’re out of faith and all out of breath
You’re so afraid you’ve got nowhere left to go

I’ve been there.  Out of faith, out of breath.  Running on a hamster wheel with no relief and no end in sight.  I’ve been there.  I’m weak, but by faith, I know a fountainhead of strength is only a heartbeat away.  I’m so very tired, but Jesus invites me to rest easy.

I need to listen.  Oh, how I need to listen.

Why Is It…?: The Value of Answered Questions vs. Unquestioned Acceptance

I am an inquisitive person. I want to know things. I want to know why things happen. I want to know how things work. I like to think, although thinking has gotten me into trouble on occasion. I like learning. Even at my age, I am constantly learning. I hope I never stop.

So why is it that others don’t do those things—ask questions, seek objective answers—especially in the realm of faith? Why can’t people question the status quo and challenge the system without being threatened? Questioning is not the same thing as apostasy. In fact, questioning is scripturally approved, because it leads to truth.

How do I know this? I am drawn to the story of Thomas in those dark days after the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus’ followers were continuing to meet, perhaps to commiserate, perhaps to encourage each other on the first day of the week. Thomas was not present at the meeting where Jesus first made his presence and continued life known to the disciples. They told him the news, but he refused to believe it without proof. When he was gathered together with the others on the next meeting day, Jesus appeared and challenged him to touch the wounds and believe. I do not believe that Jesus condemned his action. If he had, he probably would not have acquiesced to the request for proof. After all, if a man was not willing to believe the corroborated testimony of his peers, men he had known and worked and studied with for years, what would that say about his intellectual honesty?

Perhaps Jesus realized how incredible this claim of resurrection might be. Of course, Thomas knew the Old Testament record, how Elijah had raised the widow’s son in I Kings 17. But like other cases in the New Testament, that took an external agent to channel the power of resurrection. But here was Jesus, known to have died and been buried, and without a visible external agent, without someone to speak or lay hands on the body or pray for reanimation, here he was alive again.

Some might see Jesus’ comment about those being blessed that had believed without proof as being superior to Thomas’ need for physical evidence. Those Jesus pronounced blessings on would include, I suppose, us as believers, because the only proof we have is the testimony of scripture that we accept as substantiating the story, and that provides the foundation for our faith.

Later in the apostolic period, Paul tells the Thessalonians in chapter 5, verse 21-22 of his first letter, “20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good.”

“Test everything.” That does not mean try to find a way to merely poke holes in a doctrine, nor does it mean to blindly, mindlessly accept all teaching. No, with respect to prophecy—which we might extend to teaching—we are not to despise it, but test it. To test or prove is to observe and consider objectively, as did the Berean hearers, who searched the scriptures to determine if what Paul taught was true based upon scriptural evidence.

But is there anything truly objective in religion? We often talk about and encourage study, but is that study in an objective sense? Too often, the study that is encouraged is merely the rehearsal of the doctrine of the particular group with which one is affiliated. In fact, in many instances, it is possible that objective questioning may be actively discouraged, because it may lead to rejection of the group’s accepted teaching.    

So what happens if a person objectively studies and finds the position of his or her faith tradition to be wrong? There are several possibilities. One may be that this person quietly remains in submission to the group’s standards, seeming to be a satisfied participant, while inwardly he remains miserable. Another possibility is that she speaks out and is castigated for her heretical candor. A third possibility for such people is that they decide that they can no longer remain true to themselves and what they have determined to be true and stay with that group.

There are probably elements of every group, evangelical or otherwise, that looks at any such defection with derision. The group will try to badger the seeker into returning. There may be little consideration that this decision was reached with thought and care, and since the heretic has departed from the group’s dogmas, there is little effort to hear the arguments and genuinely study to know if this person’s conclusions are true or right.

That is perhaps the most ironic part of the progression: the one who has objectively studied beyond the limits of his group’s teachings is not met with the spirit of God’s invitation to Israel through the prophet Isaiah: “Come let us reason together.” It is more like “You have left the only true path or position on this topic, and you stand condemned for departing.” There is no real offer of objective study. There is only condemnation.

Perhaps the most dangerous example of this is found when one questions something like the method by which the group determines authority. In the churches of Christ, that method has been, since the 19th century, a method known as Command, Example, Necessary Inference, and Silence, or CENI-S, for short. If a person has examined this fourfold pattern and found it to be based not wholly on scripture, but largely on human reasoning, that person is considered to be in error. The establishment will brook no question contrary to the pattern, and will refuse to even consider if they are possibly in the wrong. To question CENI-S is to question the infallibility of scripture. To reduce the list by one or two allows too much liberty. Freedom is erroneously equated with anarchy, and that simply is not true. The other illogical conclusion is that greater freedom is found in greater bondage to tradition. Such paradoxical conclusions are far from scripture.

When a person reaches a point where “pattern” no longer means specific regulations with respect to organization but an example of how to live, his religion changes from one of fear for getting something wrong to one of joy for making something right. The life of faith is more expressed in action toward others and forward thinking, not focusing on questionable minutiae. As long as we argue and quibble over the correct interpretation of a single word, we are not doing the good that we are expected to do. In Matthew’s record, Jesus twice quoted Hosea when he charged the Pharisees with finding out what God meant when he said that he desired mercy—a word that is often associated with the concept of “steadfast love”—rather than sacrifice. I’ve thought about what that means. Maybe it suggests that if people would only do the good toward others that they were expected to do there would be no need for sacrifice. Maybe he meant that if your heart is seeing to the good of others, you won’t have time to sin. Mercy looks outward and forward. Sacrifice looks inward and back.

Too often today, people are caught up in getting the “sacrifice” just right, whatever they perceive that sacrifice to be. They lose sight of the fact that there was one perfect sacrifice, and we accept that and honor it by means of emulating the one who willingly laid down his life. In trying to get the “organization” of the church right, we forget what the function of that collective body of believers was really meant to do: build each other up and look out for each other, body, mind and soul. The attention we pay to the qualifications of elders and deacons often fails to really address what those recognized as such actually were and are expected to do. In trying to reconstruct the form of worship, that form is elevated above the function of the gathering. The expression of joy and gratitude succumbs to the fear of a spiritually fatal ceremonial misstep, and the exercise is relegated to checking off the parts rather than experiencing the whole. In trying to identify those with whom we fellowship, we apply honorifics of “Bro.” and “Sis.” as titles, but fail to recognize the people for what they really are: adopted siblings sharing the care, love and grace of a common father.

Maybe people don’t ask questions because it’s easier to just accept what someone else tells them. But when we start seeing a chain of acceptance we may also see a chain of misunderstanding. Life is too short to blindly follow and not enthusiastically, emphatically know. To be a believer does not have to mean gullibility. Belief is stronger if it is built on investigation and questioning. The basics of “who, what, when, and where” are easier to tackle. But to answer “why and how” can take a lifetime, or maybe even more. But that’s okay in the long run. Eternity may just be long enough to find and savor those answers.

 

 

 

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