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.
The world of human morality is a tapestry of various and sometimes competing values and interests and ideals. To isolate a moral decision from the life in which it exists is like isolating a single strand of fabric in a quilt in order to argue whether it is blue or red. You can come to a conclusion, perhaps a very right and truthful answer, but you haven’t said anything meaningful until you have located that strand within the tapestry of life. We do violence to the gospel when we allow ourselves to pretend that moral issues and decisions are more important at the level of the individual strand than they are at the level of creation’s intricate tapestry of life.
At best, the way moral issues are discussed in today’s world is like trying to study a quilt by focusing in on a single square of stitches. You can question all you want whether the interwoven strands are blue or red, but there is no way to ensure that everyone else even agrees that you are looking at the right part of the quilt. To take a step back from your focal point, you may find that the tapestry of life is far more beautiful and complex than anything that could be gleaned from a single square.
Your argument over that square may very well be truthful and accurate, but at some point you have to ask if you have said anything meaningful by focusing so intently on just one square. And there is always the chance, if not likelihood, that everyone around you is focusing just one square to the right and coming to the opposite conclusion as you. Moral arguments, to get anywhere, have to involve first agreeing upon the level of focus at which the argument will take place and only then can we meaningfully discuss what we are seeing.
The way we talk about personal relationships with God, which is the necessary foundation to build up the notion that we can be “spiritual but not religious” or “Christian but not churched,” is like saying that we can be part of a family without ever interacting with members of the family. Technically, it’s not wrong. Plenty of people never speak with their parents or siblings, which doesn’t mean they aren’t related. But God desires more for us than to live in a constant state of isolation.
To claim Christianity without other Christians is to treat the bible as an old dusty photo album. The bible becomes a book you can pull out any time you like to look over the past photos and memories of what the family of God has been. You can think fondly of the stories and the images you find, which can uplift and encourage you through the hope that the same God is still present and active in your life. It’s a very powerful thing to occasionally flip through that old dusty album and to be reminded of who and whose you are.
At some point, however, it is time to put the album down and go out to make new memories with the family. The kingdom of God is more like an active family reunion than a solitary perusal of the family photo album. It’s all well and good to remember that you are technically part of a family, but God desires that we actively seek forgiveness and reconciliation and relationship with our brothers and sisters. There may be nothing wrong with looking through the good book, but isolating yourself in the past does nothing to heal the brokenness we experience every day and it does nothing to move us toward the fullness of what God desires for us.
Heaven is like one last family reunion where all the brokenness and hurt and “things we just don’t talk about” are washed away. All that is left is the beauty of the relationships for which we were created in the image of God. If that is the direction toward which God is guiding our lives, we might as well start learning what it’s like when we refuse to accept a photo album and start to expect a real family.
To say “you just need to pray more,” or “you just need Jesus,” or “you should just read the bible” is like saying “you’re just mad because you’re hungry.” True? Perhaps. But a horrible thing to say within a relationship.
That kind of rationalization is perhaps my greatest source of discomfort with modern ‘evangelical’ or ‘fundamentalist’ Christianity. So much of the language I hear is so overtly spiritual and so perfectly crafted that I feel like I’m being told something so true and obvious that I must be an idiot if I don’t agree. And yet, the most spot on nugget of truth doesn’t really help if I’m not in a place where I can experience the implications of the truth. And stating the most simplistic view of the truth is rarely a helpful way to experience or overcome the reality behind mere words.
Relationships are first about experience and only then about words to give shape and understanding to that relationship. “Christian culture” tends to speak with words as though the words have meaning apart from the experience of relationship – and if you don’t see the meaning behind the words, there is no logical or reasonable pathway between those words and the power of relationship toward which they are attempting to point. Just like telling me I’m mad because I’m hungry doesn’t make me less angry no matter how true – explaining Christian truth when I don’t experience relationship with God doesn’t make me feel loved. Feed me when I’m hungry; care when I feel unloved – and then we can talk.
In plenty of relationships, one partner will make a logical, reasoned argument regarding one thing or another and the response would lead an outside observer to believe that the argument was actually an attempt to burn the house down with the partner in it. One could say “we need to spend less money” and the other could hear “you’re a waste of money.” One could say “you’re doing that wrong” and the other could hear “your existence is wrong.”
The problem? One partner names a behavior that needs to change. The other feels a brokenness that needs to heal. No matter how good or right the arguments may be for changing behavior, the brokenness isn’t going anywhere until the need for healing is addressed. The problem is not that either of the approaches or any of the arguments and feelings are right or wrong – the problem is that building up the relationship is impossible until both are speaking the same language and dealing with problems rather than symptoms. As long as people talk on different levels, nothing good happens and the cycle of hurt feelings and intractable arguments continues.
The present partisanship in the United Methodist Church (and America in general) is like a marriage stuck in the same cycle. Conservative voices say we reject homosexual acts. Liberals say you reject people. The arguments of both sides are equally heartfelt and sincere but will never match logic and emotion until both sides can figure out how to build a relationship rather than win an argument. If a solution is to be found, it will have to be far more imaginative and creative than drawing a line in the sand and crystallizing the fact that we will always talk past and never with each other. Relationship is nothing without the coherence of logic and emotion.
Logic gives words, without which experience can’t be understood or lead anywhere. Emotion gives power, without which words are useless and void.
I tell every couple that I marry that there is no right and wrong in a marriage – there are only things that build up relationship and things that tear it down. If either person loses, nobody wins. I’d offer that same advice to the global church now. Even when you are absolutely correct in where you stand, you haven’t necessarily even addressed the problem that divides you from your partners in the Body of Christ. You can keep yelling, but that won’t make anything better as long each side continues to debate symptoms and can’t find a way to dig down to relationship.
Methodists have long claimed to represent a religion of both head and heart. It’s about time to unite head and heart in each person, movement, and side rather than just having a host of people and groups choosing one over the other and living under the same umbrella.
I know a few couples who fight about the right and wrong way(s) to load a dishwasher. What goes on the top rack? How much pre-cleaning is necessary? How closely can you stack dishes? I wouldn’t dare to offer a resolution to the fight here. But I will say that when a disagreement over loading the dishwasher turns into a knock down drag out yelling match, the dishwasher is only a symptom of something much larger beneath the surface.
The fight over the dishwasher represents the relationship dynamics that give life and meaning to the marriage. Sometimes that life and meaning is beautiful and can hold people together through anything – sometimes it is dysfunctional and can allow something as insignificant as cleaning habits to cause great harm. The fight is important because it is a fight, it is clear evidence that something is wrong. But this kind of intractable fight can only be overcome when relationship dynamics are healed. And if the relationship dynamics are healed, the couple is likely to find a workaround – like having only one person ever deal with the dishwasher – rather than look for a fight.
To argue over whether scripture means what it says is like asking if a fight over the dishwasher is really about the dishwasher. Yes, it does mean what it says, just like the fight is about the dishwasher. But meaning always goes deeper than a surface reading and if we never get beneath the surface, we’ll always fight over symptoms and never find relationship, with God or one another. There is no way to capture relationship inside of words but there is also no way to be in relationship without words.
To assume the question of truth or falsity is as simple as “did God mean it” or “is it true” (no matter whether the answer is yes or no) is to do violence to the way life and relationship work. Seeking truth in the words of Scripture is like digging beneath the symptomatic fights of a marriage and feeling the reality of the experience underneath. Finding truth by the power of the Holy Spirit is like mending the wounds that have festered for far too long. Only in lived relationship, community, and tradition can we even know what our question of scripture actually means. Only through the healing power of God can we begin to live into the fullness of the truth we seek in the words we say.
Facts are like stakes in an endless desert. A stake is necessarily located in the place where it is driven into the ground, but with no reference as to where you are in the desert, located-ness is no help at all. A network of interrelated stakes becomes more helpful, but still doesn’t tell you anything about where that network is in the larger desert. A fact, like a stake in the desert, is neither completely relative nor is it meaningful without relation to something else.
The bigger problem I find in our current “fact free society” isn’t the truth or falsity of particular claims. The bigger problem is the lack of a common narrative underlying the facts to act like a road map to locate ourselves in the same desert. As long as we lack agreement about the sand beneath our feet and where we ought to be headed, it will never be all that helpful to point at a stake. It is meaningless to talk about facts as though they convey anything apart from their relative spot in the endless desert of life.