In the midst of our broken and divided moment in the life of the UMC, one of the talking points that so often frustrates me is the implication that how we are supposed to live never changes. While I believe that we have been and always will be called to embody the love of God, I cannot help but think that living out that love ought to look different in different seasons of life and at different moments in time. The question should not be “do we do the exact same thing always?” but “do we seek to embody the exact same kind of love for our time and place?”
To assume it is a given that we should do the exact same thing is as absurd as assuming there is exactly one right way to parent for your child’s entire lifetime. Tucking your kid in at night and saying I love you at the end of every goodbye might both be vital ways of conveying love to your child. But one only makes sense for a season of life and the importance of the other endures.
We should always be striving to ask what the shape of God’s love looks like here and now rather than assuming that the specific practices that constitute a faithful life will never change. That we only ever seem confident about what counts as sin rather than what embodies love is a reminder of where our true brokenness resides.
Sin is secondary to community within the Christian life in the same way that fights and hurt feelings in a relationship are secondary to a lack of trust. In any relationship, specific words and actions are not nearly the most determinant factors in whether that relationship is built or broken. If your assumption about everything the other person says and about how they treat you is that they love you and are trying their best, then the exact same actions will feel entirely different than if you assume that they’re being mean or condescending or don’t actually care about you. To build trust, it is not sufficient to stop saying or doing particular things; it is necessary to develop the emotional intimacy by which you once again see the positive intent behind the actions of an imperfect person.
Often we treat sin as a first order concept; we act as if we get the list right of what counts as sinful words and deeds, then all we have to do is stop doing and saying those things. And, we assume, if we can take that step then Godly community is sure to follow. But, if we first understand the kind of community that sin breaks and the kind of love that God has for us, then no word or action will have the same reality in our lives as it would without the experience of love and community. What makes all the difference is not that we define sin right and stop sinning (both of which would be impossible anyway) but that we are perfected in love in such a way that no word or action overcomes our intimacy with God and one another.
The idea that one can say a sinner’s prayer and in so doing become a Christian is a lot like the idea that one can get married and in so doing initiate a solid a relationship. Marriage changes everything…and nothing all at once; just like a momentary prayer of repentance or commitment changes everything and nothing. In reality, there is nothing so practical, simple, or concrete that you can do to ensure a strong relationship. To assume such a transactional result is to assume that relationship is based on control rather than trust. Requiring trust may seem to place faith on shaky ground, but that requirement is also fundamental to the way life, love, and relationship work. In reality, the more we imply that certainty is possible because of some simple prayer or act, the more anxiety we produce. Experiencing the certainty of love comes first and leads to action, never the other way around.
To say the New Testament matters and the Old does not is about like saying that your parents matter but your grandparents don’t. It is entirely nonsensical to make that claim. Not only would your parents, and thereby you, not exist without your grandparents, but so much of why your parents are the way they are comes from their parents. That is usually true in a variety of ways even if those parents weren’t around.
We are who we are made to be long before we have any influence or response to the stories that write us. Only then do we get to accept or reject various parts of those stories and begin writing our own. In the same way, the New Testament is what it is precisely because it is born out of the Old Testament story and only then begins to push that story in a new direction.
The task of theology is always to point from where we are to where God stands. In what we say and do we seek to catch a glimpse of the reality of God so that our journey in faith might take us closer to the source of life. The problem is that the world beneath our feet is constantly shifting in ways that we cannot fully understand. Pointing to God is like aiming a golf ball off a boat that’s floating down river in and out of the fog – you may have just the right aim to start, but that aim can never be set in stone as long as the river flows. When the river moves fast, your shot can easily wind up in the bunker in just the amount of time it takes to complete your swing. When the fog is dense enough, you can’t even tell if the boat has moved at all.
It is deeply problematic to say that we shouldn’t care about shifts in culture and we should simply hold scripture to be our anchor in the midst of life. We are often pushed by culture in ways we cannot know and to an extent that we cannot define. As we are pushed, the way we talk about God has to shift or else our aim will be off without our awareness that we have in fact changed. Even the most faithful efforts to keep scripture as the sole foundation of our faith will fall short simply by the fact that we don’t know ourselves well enough to recognize if we’re still pointed in the right direction or if the boat beneath our feet has moved. We need God to constantly reveal Himself to us like a break in the fog that keeps us aimed not towards words of scripture but towards the Word revealed through scripture.
When tragedy strikes, using catchy sayings and trite moralisms is like throwing up a piñata and seeing what happens. As with every piñata, someone will eventually hit it with a bat, which makes the idea of exposing our actual selves terrifying. Watching the attack on what has already been said makes it nearly impossible to ever expose our deepest feelings and hopes. To expose our actual self by saying “this is me, these are my fears and failures” runs the risk that we’d be hit with a bat anyway. For change to occur, we have to be allowed to feel what we feel. Giving someone the space to feel is one of the greatest gifts we can offer one another.
Sharing Jesus can come across like hurling bricks at a stranger.
Imagine that we who have found faith are walking upon a solid foundation through life. The ground at our feet is like the roads paved with gold in Revelation. That road is like a perfect set of golden bricks, laid out in neat little rows. Those who have not yet found the sure foundation of the love of God are like people wandering about on sheets of ice all around the road. Why they have not yet stepped foot on solid ground may vary – perhaps it is fear of the unknown or maybe they just have not found it yet.
Evangelism in the church tends to look one of two ways. On one side, some don’t want to bother others with what is clearly our own preference – maybe others like slipping and sliding through life. It’s not for them to push an agenda if others don’t want the path for themselves. On the other side are those who take seriously the call to welcome all to the path. And, seeing the struggle that others go through, they take a brick up from the road, hurl it through the air, and thereby show those on the ice how much more solid the path is than the ice. Of course, plenty of people will be blindsided by flying bricks. Even those who try to catch that one small piece of foundation are pretty likely to face plant in the midst of the attempt. The motivation may be good, but the likelihood of positive change is tiny.
The message of the cross is that Jesus left the path for our sake. He came to us when we had no sure foundation on which to stand, invited us to climb on his back, and carries us for as long as needed to trust that we have been brought to solid ground. Evangelism for Christians can never be ignored, but it also cannot be a means of shouting words at others like hurling bricks in the air. Evangelism properly conceived is the process whereby those on the sure foundation venture onto the ice and offer whatever it takes until all have found that the foundation is sure and the ice is no more.
This has to be one of my all time favorite videos –
It also helps illustrate a profoundly important point in my theological formation.
I’ve long had a problem with the form and nature of most Christian theology, but am still working to figure out how to express that problem. I’ve tried twice to say that theology is relationship, full stop (see here and here). I’m also convinced that there is no “I” to do theology prior to or apart from the community and stories that wrote us – which means that any coherence or truth that comes from theological thought is at least as much a function of the time, place, and especially people that gave shape to the life that produced the thought that may in some part correspond to the truth of who God is.
“Nail in the head theology” seems like a more accessible and memorable way to make the same point. Human mortality/sin/brokenness/limitation/finitude affecting a relationally created rationality/language/meaning/life/being is like saying that we can only ever think through the perspective of someone with a nail in the forehead. Most prominent, historically male, mainline/evangelical Christian theology employs words that function analogously to the guy in the video. Defining the nail or strategizing to relieve the pain aren’t bad goals, but, as long as we are not God, doing so can never remove the nail – we can never fix ourselves.
The caricature of feminine relational focus is, almost by default, discounted in search of ‘true’ theological knowledge. But the most important function of Christian faith and life is not to get the words right, but to experience/know/share/witness to the love that God is. If this claim is true, then no amount of words/logic/thought can ever be sufficient for the formation of the god-words that theology seeks to convey. Emotional connection is not secondary to truth; emotional connection the only soil in which words can ever be planted and spring up toward truth.
The deepest call of Christian theology is to find new ways to stare into the reality that we are not good enough, strong enough, smart enough, faithful enough, and whatever-else-it-would-take enough to fix ourselves and remove the nail. But in those moments when we finally learn to give up control and stop thinking we can fix it all, the voice of God utters words of hope and grace – I am yours, you are mine.
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.