To speak of love or forgiveness or mercy or grace apart from the story through which they take their form, shape, and meaning is like speaking about a character in a movie as though that character has significance apart from the stories in which he or she is known. It’s like speaking of Spiderman without first deciding which comic universe you are referencing. There will be recognizable elements across all universes – such as the name and the ability to shoot webs. But to think of Spiderman as a good or a bad guy, to define his normal disposition, to ask if he is emo or romantic – the answers are not the same in different comic universes. In the same way, love and grace and mercy and forgiveness will all take a different shape depending on whether the stories of Jesus or the stories of hollywood or any other stories supply the context in which each concept comes to life.
The most intriguing and challenging idea that I discerned through hearing about my wife’s education and training as a marriage and family therapist is this: “Everything in a marriage is 50/50.” I can’t say whether she would agree with my precise wording or explanation, but I’m more and more convinced that at least a healthy, Christian marriage is always 50/50. That goes for every joy, every problem, every accomplishment, every argument – everything is 50 percent the success/failure of one spouse and 50 percent the success/failure of the other spouse.
I imagine that statement is relatively obvious in at least some arenas. Money is shared. Jobs promotions, transfers, and firings deeply affect both spouses. Feelings are hurt in both directions. Communication has to be a two way street for anyone to know what’s going on. But at least one act is quite the challenge for deciding how far you can take the statement: infidelity.
Infidelity is 50 percent the fault of the cheater and 50 percent the fault of the cheated. Just making that claim sounds inherently flawed. Especially in a digital age, infidelity takes on more forms that just sex and even a sexual affair is quite often not actually about sex, but such deep betrayal of trust cuts to the core of almost any relationship. No matter what either person has done, infidelity is never an acceptable, reasonable, or appropriate response. But healthy, stable, emotionally fulfilled people in healthy, stable, emotionally safe marriages don’t cheat.
The reasons for infidelity are too myriad to list, but to create the space in which infidelity is an option requires contributions from both spouses. Loneliness, bitterness, anger, grief; feeling unheard, unappreciated, unloved, forgotten – none of these are possible without the participation of two parties. Until both sides recognize their contribution to the brokenness, healing is not possible. Unless both sides are willing to put in the work, healing won’t happen.
The present brokenness of the United Methodist Church is a lot like the brokenness of a couple that has to face the reality of infidelity. I’ll absolutely grant that there are far more than two sides to the present impasse and the complexity of relationships between factions within and across the main divide have roots much farther back than any human life. But at the core of the impasse over human sexuality are voices crying out like a marriage in which someone cheats.
The conservative side has done nothing concrete and overt enough to be charged with violating the covenant relationship established in the Book of Discipline. It is like a spouse so caught up in the appearance of the way things are “supposed” to be that it cannot see, much less respond to the needs of the spouse that realizes no one fits neatly into the boxes made by “should.”
The liberal side has openly flaunted the fact that it has and will continue to violate parts of that covenant that it believes are harmful to children of God. It is like a spouse crying out to be heard and embraced, but left to feel like the pristine image of an imagined past is more important than the lived reality of present people.
The dynamic is playing out exactly like one would expect to see in the messy aftermath of infidelity. If the marriage is to be saved, our brokenness has to be recognized for what it is: a 50/50 conflict that requires a 50/50 resolution. Can this particular marriage be saved? I have no idea, but certainly not unless we figure out how to listen to one another and have the fight we intend to have.
It may surprise most people that the majority of couples choose to stay married after discovering a partner’s affair. And many of those marriages wind up stronger after the affair than before. The trauma of infidelity is never a pleasant or desired outcome per se, but it can create the space in which each spouse is finally forced to listen and hear what the other is saying. When we truly listen and hear each other, there is hope for a stronger marriage in which we don’t simply not break the rules of the covenant. In pursuing the dynamic, growing, passionate heart of God, we may actually find the unity in difference that defines the body of Christ.
Imagine yourself standing on a field in the midst of a game as you stare down at a solid white line in the grass. The ball is at your feet, your teammates and opponents several yards away, and the crowd is completely behind you, waiting with bated breath to see what you will do next. Will you be the hero and lead your team to victory? Time is running out, your opponents are moving fast, you only have seconds to make the right move or it might be too late. What do you do?
The answer, of course depends on what game you are playing and where you are standing on the field. If you’re standing at your opponent’s goal in soccer with the ball at your feet, the correct answer is to kick the ball over the line and score the game winning goal. If you’ve fumbled the football to the back of the opponent’s end zone, you better not kick it past the line or they’ll get the ball back and kneel out the clock; pick the ball up, score the touchdown, be the hero. If you’re a left fielder reaching to pick up a fair ball while your opponent sprints for home, you better pick up the ball and make the throw to the plate. Given long enough, I could probably name a thousand possibilities that fit this bare bones scenario, but just a few will suffice to make the point. You can never know what to do next without knowing the game you are playing.
The ability to know and study the physical world (science) is like the ability to say that there really is a ball and there really is a line on the ground. You could do complex studies and deep analysis of the composition and weight and movement of the ball, and doing so might very well help you understand the best way to do what comes next; but if you simply hold onto the baseball or pick up the soccer ball or kick the football, you still lose the game.
Having faith is like knowing the rules of the game. It’s the type of knowledge that allows us to see any particular thing or action in the context of the game called life that we think we are playing. You have to know the meaning of the line and ball if you are to have any realistic hope of doing the right thing when you see them. Conversely, knowing the finer points of the rules and strategy of the game doesn’t guarantee victory – sometimes overthinking strategy makes it harder to simply score the goal/get a touchdown/throw the out.
This analogy of the relationship between science and faith implies at least three things:
1) To think of science and faith as opposites is to misunderstand the nature and role of each. Neither the particular items involved in a game nor the game itself have any meaning or make any sense without each other. And the contingent nature of human knowledge combine with the limitations of human rationality to guarantee that we never know for sure where the line is between the what (the concrete objects or actions we experience) and the why (the game we think we’re playing) of the world. Put differently, we can’t step back far enough to guarantee knowledge of what the game is nor can we zoom in close enough to figure out the game from perfectly understanding the building blocks of nature. But we also can’t play the game without some willingness to explore and understand the field in which the game of life takes place.
2) Treating faith and doubt like the difference between knowledge and ignorance is a categorical mistake. A better analogy is to ask if you see the world like a baseball, football, or soccer player. You could of course be wrong, but your error is not in what you see and experience as much as it is in the point of what you’re doing on the field. And to have faith or not isn’t nearly a yes or no question – it can take a lifetime of training to be any good at it even if you do understand the rules. Conversely, there isn’t much point in drawing lines between those who know the game and don’t because we can’t know enough about the game to know where a meaningful line would be. The choice is not one of deciding who is playing the ‘right’ game or playing ‘well enough’ – our choice is deciding whether or not to teach and learn from others the game we all think we’re playing.
3) To assume that we could ever act or think about the what (science) in distinction from the why (faith) is to misunderstand the nature of human life. There is no way to say what the world is without implications for how we understand what life is and is for. But there is no way to make a claim about what life is and is for without implying something about how we ought to view and understand the lived realities of the world. Thus, so many of our conversations pitting science against faith devolve into incoherent drivel. What we need more than anything else in this arena is the epistemic humility to see that neither faith nor science could mean what they mean without the presence of the other.
The bible is like the rebar of faith. Rebar is a strong and important part of reinforcing structures, but it will not, on it’s own, produce a viable building. To build something out of rebar may very well produce a structure that can grow to great heights and stand strong even in the midst of horrible weather. But to walk along a floor of rebar will always leave you just a few inches from falling straight through the cracks. What may feel and look like solid ground is actually a structure so full of holes that you cannot even move without risking a great fall and without focusing intently on precisely where your next step will fall.
The Holy Spirit is the concrete that supports the foundation upon which the faithful stand. It doesn’t matter much how it is laid or where it falls – as long as we are standing upon the foundation of the Holy Spirit, we are on solid ground. Concrete can be used to build structures as well, but without the reinforcement of rebar, those structures are not likely to withstand the things nature may throw it’s way. A building of concrete will crack and fall in the midst of a storm or an earthquake if it is not properly reinforced. It may provide a sure footing upon which to stand and a complete surface on which to walk without hesitation; but without reinforcement it will not survive its first disaster.
To build a proper life and house of faith requires that we receive the sure foundation of the Holy Spirit AND that we seek after the reinforcement of God’s Word to learn how to build our house. It is dangerous to think we can simply read and accept the Bible at it’s face because there will be constant holes and edges off of which we will fall when left to our own devices. It is equally dangerous to think that we can build something meaningful and Godly through unquestioned experiences of God without the lessons God reveals in the Bible; when tragedy strikes or when egos get involved, it’s far too easy to stray from the path God lays out before us and to see our foundation crumble beneath our feet.
I ask every couple in marriage counseling to consider how their childhood affects their expectations of the marriage. This same topic was on the table for one particular couple whose childhoods didn’t share much in common because they were from entirely different states and cultures. The man (white, mid 40s, from an upper middle class family) and the woman (hispanic, early 30s, from a poor family) were asked who cleaned the house when they were growing up. The man responded, “Well, her mom would do the cleaning in their house because they couldn’t afford a maid. And her mom would clean our house because we could.” He grinned from ear to ear, proud of his joke.
My heart beats just a tad faster even typing out the joke because I think it might just be offensive to hispanics and women and maids. But after just a few seconds of silence, the woman burst out laughing at the man’s joke. She loved his sense of humor. I can only imagine how my wife would feel if I told an analogous joke at her or her family’s expense. It would not go well.
When a Christian tries to parse out whether or not a particular action is a sin, I cannot help but think of this man and woman. To ask “is it a sin?” is like asking “was his joke offensive?” The answer is probably almost always, “yes and no.” Yes, it would be offensive to a lot of people. But no, it was not offensive to her.
Zoom in or out on your perspective regarding just about any word or action and you will find a similar dynamic at play. Every action will hurt and help someone. No matter your intentions or desires or the consequences, we exist within so many various and competing frames of reference that there is nothing we can do to prevent a word or action from harming someone, somewhere, at some time.
The question “is it sin” is ultimately a useless question to ask. The better question is the same one you have to ask about the couple above – does this word or action build up the relationship or tear it down. The best we can hope to do is align our intentions with building up all of God’s children in love and apologize when (not if) the consequences don’t match our intent. A life of faith is not a life in which we do not tear down; it is a life in which we participate in God’s mission to build the kingdom here.
The way I hear many people talk of salvation makes me think of creation as one large beach with a big line drawn in the sand. On this beach there are three judges, one on each end and one in the middle empowering people to step from one side to the other. The Father’s side is the one to be on, the Son is on the other side encouraging people to cross over to the Father’s side, and the Spirit makes the cross happen. There are others all over the place directing people where to go, but only the three judges really know the rules of the game. At some point a whistle is blown and the judges take note of who is where. Those on the right side of the line have a party with the judges – complete with party hats, hamburgers, and ice cream. Those on the left side are cast aside to anguish in their defeat forever (or perhaps if one is feeling particularly harsh, they are thrown in the fire pit to serve as charcoal for the burgers). Getting lost in the mix or following the wrong directions is no excuse for being found on the wrong side at the end of the game.
If this depiction were the best way to think of creation I don’t think I could argue much with those who say Christians are exclusive and hypocritical. I don’t really think we’re all running around and hoping to be found on the correct side of the line when the whistle blows. I don’t think our lives are nearly as simple as that and even if there is a big line in the sand I don’t think we have the perspective to say where many (if we can even say where any) people are standing. Even if it is true that there is finally a big line in the sand, we are clearly acting like children running around drawing so many lines (and boxes) in the sand that we have covered from our sight the only line that really matters. Even if there is a line, thinking in these terms is almost exclusively more of a distraction from what we ought to be doing than a gauge of spiritual health. I don’t believe our knowledge influences the outcome of the game anyway and, it’s not so much about us and where we stand as it is about God and how much we are transformed by the light of and from Christ.
I find it more helpful to think that creation is like an unmeasurable warehouse, with no walls and no windows, no electricity and no skylight. Hanging from the roof at the center of that warehouse is a single point of light. The source of the light is infinitesimal; the reach of the light infinite. The light shines day and night, winter and summer, rain and shine. The light is carried out so that the whole warehouse receives some measure of the light. From everlasting to everlasting the light has shone forth from the center and it has returned as by a clear and perfect mirror just beyond the edge of infinity. At some point, humans were created in the midst of the warehouse like a small mirror to reflect the light, but its surface was quickly dimmed and its edges quickly broken.
Humans are given free range of the warehouse to walk as they see fit; wandering to and fro as mirrors dimly reflecting a portion of the light. From time to time they give birth to new mirrors as they fragment where they stand and each can see in the other a portion of the light. The beauty of the light draws some toward the center like a moth to a flame, though they still stumble and fall in the dimness along the way, or are distracted from time to time by the reflections they see in their companions. They can never reach the true center of the light, though it’s brilliance grows as they come closer. As they move closer to the light, they begin to see more and more how far they must travel to reach the light. As they continue to walk, their eyes adjust and what was once blinding now appears dim and faded. Some lose heart, preferring to stay where they are rather than continue the quest. Some press onward hoping to see the pure brilliance of the light in its fullness.
Others ignore the light and prefer to follow after the dim shadows towards the outer reaches of the warehouse. They strain their eyes to see, thinking that if they look just a little harder, their surroundings will become clear. What they see is a tiny portion of the light, but instead of turning to its source, they prefer their own reflection. From time to time, someone on the far reaches of the warehouse turns, whether by accident or intention, and sees the light for the first time. Though they see but a fraction of the true light, it is blinding to their eyes that have known only darkness. Once they have seen the light, they are drawn to the light, its power is overwhelming and they begin to move forward, towards the center where others have begun to gather.
As more begin to journey towards the center, they see their cracked and broken edges. Some of their edges fit better with others and when they find their best fit the light that they reflect together gets just a little brighter. As more and more join to walk together, they find strength in each other and are moved by the power of the light even when their own portion has grown dim. In groups, they zig and they zag, moving forwards and backwards, but always seeking to be closer to the radiance of beauty, to the source of the light. From time to time, parts of the group grow weary and rest. At times, some zig while others zag, none realizing their separate reflections have grown dim. Sometimes mistaking their union for the source of their newly found radiance, they become afraid to move for fear of growing dim. At other times, groups join one another to shine more brightly.
At some point, the mirrors shall all be cleaned. The pieces will be fused together and made perfect once again. In that day the light and the darkness shall become as night and day. To those who fail to turn and see that the light is good, it will be a time of despair. Either the shadows that once testified to the presence of the light will be removed and utter darkness will be their sight. Or perhaps they will at once be blinded by the full force of light’s pure source. To those who are facing the light and have grown accustomed to its brilliance, it will be a time of rejoicing. Even the tiniest specks of dirt have been removed and they will glory in the pure light forever.
*Written spring 2013. There’s far too much going on to analyze, but it’s still an interesting visual.
Intercessory prayer is important in at least the same sense that it is important for a child to ask a parent for a pony. What matters most in the parent child relationship is not the answer to the request, but the process by which the encounter happens. No child has ever been hopelessly broken merely by a parent’s refusal to buy a pony in the same way that no child has ever achieved everlasting joy by receiving a pony. On the flip side, plenty of children learn resilience and patience when a parent can’t offer such an extravagant gift and plenty of others have been hopelessly spoiled by the assumption that they deserve everything they desire.
Neither answer inherently changes anything, but the process by which a yes or a no occurs does dramatically affect the way a child develops and relates to parents and others. To simply not ask does as much to reflect and shape the relationship as getting either answer. In prayer, as in asking for a pony, almost no lasting or meaningful change happens based on the answer – what does change both parties is the willingness to make what is inside of us known and the embrace of what is found deep inside. To no longer make known the desires of our hearts is to forego the possibility of intimacy with God.