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.

Theological aim is like golfing from a boat

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.

Piñata Feelings

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.

Evangelical Bricks

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.

Nail in the Head Theology

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.

Love without Jesus is like Spiderman without a universe

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.

Infidelity, Schism, and the UMC

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.