Nothing Happens When I Pray

In my final (and rather delayed) installment on Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic, I’d like to address a rather large elephant in the room for Christianity (at least as I’ve experienced it): When I pray, nothing happens.  I remember as a child reading stories in the Bible about someone saying “In the name of Jesus, get up and walk” and the paralyzed person immediately getting up, or of Jesus saying “If you have faith like a mustard seed, you can tell this mountain to move, and it will move”.  I would go outside and stare at the wall behind my house and say ‘move’ – not once did the wall move.  It left me wondering if my faith was real, if God was real.  I’ll admit I am a bit introspective and analytical, but I suspect my experience is not unique, and Spufford confirms it.  He writes:

The life of faith has just as many he-doesn’t-exist…moments as the life of disbelief.  Probably more of them, if anything, given that we believers tend to return to the subject more often, producing many more opportunities to be disappointed.  This is because, for us too, nothing happens when we ask for help.  The nothing that happens is universal, an experience shared by believers and unbelievers alike.

So where does this leave me?  Is God just a figment of my imagination?  Or worse, does he hear and just not care to answer?  Spufford offers this thought in response to the perceived silence when we pray:

I’d guess for most of us who do end up believing, the moment when we asked and nothing happened changes in retrospect.  It becomes, afterwards, part of the history of how help did after all arrive, though not in the way we were expecting it to.

I think this is the sentiment being expressed in Psalm 13, where the writer asks how long God will hide his face from him (that’s a pretty bold accusation, if we’re being honest).  He says he is left to ‘take counsel in his soul’ – which is another way of saying “It feels like I’m just talking to myself here”.  But then he looks backward to the past and says “God has been good to me.”  He holds those two things together: God, you’re not answering me; and God, you’ve been good to me in the past.

The point is that feeling like God is silent and not answering in the moment is a pretty universal experience, faith or no faith.  The difference comes in the interpretation of that silence – is it the silence of one who has been good to me, or the silence of one who is not there?  At the risk of over-simplification, I’d like to suggest that Jesus is the hinge-point on which the silence of God turns.  If Jesus was the Word become flesh who died and was raised again to give me life, then whatever silence I hear from God in the now cannot undo that word of pure love.  I can say with the Psalmist “God, you’re not answering me; you’re silent and I don’t understand why.  AND God you’ve been good to me.”

What do you think?  Is this too simplistic?  Unsatisfying?  Do you find you DO get an answer in the moment when you pray?

The Impossibility of Christianity

Christianity does not work as a sustainable program for life. How’s that for a defense of the faith? Not exactly what you’d expect to hear from someone claiming to follow Jesus. In this second post on Unapologetic by Francis Spufford, I’d like to explore this line of thinking and see why it’s actually an incredibly hopeful view of the Christian faith.

First, a bit from Spufford: 

Christianity does something different [from the other monotheistic religions]. It makes frankly impossible demands. Instead of asking for specific actions, it offers general but lunatic principles. It thinks you should give your possessions away, refuse to defend yourself, love strangers as much as your family, behave as if there’s no tomorrow. These principles do not amount to a sustainable program. They deliberately ignore the question of how they could possibly be maintained. They ask you to manifest in your ordinary life a drastically uncalculating, unprotected generosity. And that’s not all. Christianity also makes what you mean by your behavior all-important…Not only is Christianity insanely perfectionist in its few positive recommendations, it’s also insanely perfectionist about motive…

Wow, sign me up now. But really, this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has listened to what Jesus had to say. Things like: ‘love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you,’ and ‘anyone who hates his brother is guilty of murder,’ and ‘you must be perfect.’ Sure, we can try to explain and hedge our way around, but at the end of the day it’s hard to miss the crushingly impossible nature of these demands. But wait, there’s more…

So far, so thrillingly impractical. But now notice the consequence of having an ideal of behavior not sized for human lives: everyone fails. Really everyone…Christianity maintains no register of clean and unclean. It doesn’t believe in the possibility of clean, just as it doesn’t believe that laws can ever be fully adequate, or that goodness can reliably be achieved by following an instruction book…

So of all things, Christianity isn’t supposed to be about gathering up the good people…and excluding the bad people…for the very simple reason that there aren’t any good people.

Do you see the hopefulness in what Spufford is saying? Far from leaving us without a way forward, the crushing weight of impossibility built into the Christian program points toward the only hopeful path. One that, first, says: ‘We’re all in this together’ (yes, my kids have been re-watching High School Musical recently), and second: points to the possibility that hope lies, not inside of us (because if we’re honest, we know it’s not in there) but outside of us, in the one who makes the demands in the first place.

Let’s leave it there for now, rather than wrap it up nice and tidy…that’s another thing I’ve appreciated about Spufford’s book – our emotions are not cleanly wrapped packages, and neither is his story of Christian faith. There is hope, and we are going there. But for now, what do you think? It is a relief that Christianity ‘maintains no record of clean and unclean’? Is there freedom in knowing that failure is kind of baked in from the beginning, and that maybe the point is bigger than knowing whether you’ve been bad or good (for goodness sake)?

Lament for the World I Know

lament

Have you ever noticed how much time and energy we spend trying to keep ourselves safe from other people? Both as individuals and as a society, we assume that somebody, somewhere, is out to get us, and we have to do something to stop them. We lock our cars and our front doors; we install panic buttons in our classrooms; we teach our kids how to call the police. We employ vast numbers of people to police our cities, defend our borders, and protect our interests abroad. We may argue over the right means of protecting ourselves, but the assumption is that we do need protection from other people. (For example, the gun control debate is about how to regulate the type of weapons people can have, not about whether people need some way to defend themselves). Even the virtual world of computers is filled with ‘bad guys’, as evidenced by the fact that companies can’t seem to hire and train cyber-security experts fast enough.

My individual life has been relatively free from violence. Apart from the occasional fight as a school-boy and a few petty thefts here and there, I’ve had it pretty easy. But I live in a country that has engaged in violent conflict on at least eight separate occasions on four continents in my lifetime. My children have lived their whole lives under America’s ‘War on Terror’. War is given. There is never a question of whether we need to employ, train, and equip some of our citizens to kill citizens of other countries – the debate only seems to be around when to deploy, and how much to spend on equipping them. The violence of our world is undeniable.

A favorite slogan of gun-rights advocates is: Guns don’t kill people – people kill people. While there may be truth to that slogan, have we ever stepped back to think how irrational, insane, and horrible it is that people kill people? Animals kill other animals to survive. But there is no rational reason why one human should ever kill another. Humans killing other humans is not a necessity for survival, or even for enjoyment of a full life. We kill because we are broken people who live in a world ravaged by evil. Even in the case of self-defence, violence is only a secondary necessity, made unavoidable by the violence of another; ‘it’s either him or me’ is only true if one of you is unwilling to walk away and let the other live.

I guess this is more of a lament than anything else. It makes me sad that so much of life is spent having to defend and plan for the reality of evil. And I’m not immune to the influence of evil in my own heart – I’m part of the problem too. I have been reading in the Old Testament book of Joel recently. Joel 3:10 encourages the hearers to make weapons out of farming tools and come and do battle. Not because fighting is good, but because God is about to respond violently to evil. But Joel gives only a partial picture of God’s response to evil in the world.  The prophets Isaiah and Micah paint the opposite picture, of a day when swords will be turned into plowshares. And we only discover that this latter vision of the future wins the day when we see that Jesus is God’s ultimate violent response to evil. Jesus takes God’s violent response to human violence on himself in order to put an end to all violence and guarantee a future where nobody has to fear anybody else.

So, what if armies and war and locked doors are only a temporary necessity? What if gun ownership is less an eternal right and more a temporary sad reality of our world? What would it mean to long for the day when there will be no more guns on earth, when all weapons are melted down to make works of art and tools for cultivating the earth? Can we even imagine a world where everyone can be trusted and nobody is out to get you; where you can plant a garden and not be afraid that someone will steal from it, or build a house and not worry that someone will break into it; where our daughters and sons are safe and violence is unknown? It’s hard for me to imagine that world. I know I want to, though.

We Were Promised Too Much and Not Enough

lightstock_257785_xsmall_user_3911910

What if you keep all the rules and life still doesn’t turn out well for you? What if you make all the right choices and things still suck? Or what if you get everything you dreamed of and it feels empty? I worry that we have made promises we can’t keep; and that in the process we haven’t promised nearly enough. And I worry that I have bought into both sides of that bankrupt equation.

We Were Promised Too Much

I’ve been wondering lately if the struggle of faith for me and many in my generation isn’t centered around the fact that we were promised that if we followed the rules, life would turn out well for us. By ‘rules’ I mean everything from religious imperatives to social expectations: everything from “Don’t sleep with your girlfriend until you’re married because the Bible says so” to “You have to do well in school so you can get into a good college”. But when that turned out to be deceptive – either because A) we could never follow the rules anyway, and yet life still appears to turn out ok (maybe not great, but survivable); or B) because we did follow the rules (mostly) and things still didn’t turn out well (we went to a good college, got a degree, and that ‘great job’ never materialized; we didn’t party, didn’t buy into the hook-up culture, and yet God’s perfect spouse that we were promised hasn’t come along) – either way, we are left feeling empty and ripped off somehow.

We Were Promised Too Little

At the same time, what we’ve been promised doesn’t really hold our attention. A good job, a nice family, a comfortable life. Even if we manage to get all of that, we’re bound to experience a bit of post-purchase cognitive dissonance (my favorite phrase from college economics – it means ‘buyer’s remorse’). Because the third option is that we buy into those promises and they turn out to be true. What if keeping the rules does lead to the good life that’s been promised? What then? I think we discover that we’ve been sold an empty box…we went all-in for something we were told was worth it, when we should have held out for something better.

And so we have this nagging feeling that we’ve been duped. Maybe God failed us – I think some of us feel that way. Maybe the rules weren’t all that important, and even if they are; why bother following them because what they offer doesn’t sound appealing.   We have to change the terms of the conversation.

A Better Promise

My generation and the ones coming after us are often labeled as self-absorbed narcissists. And maybe that’s true, though I suspect that we aren’t that different from previous generations…we just have better tools for flaunting our self-love and receiving attention from all over the world. The call of Jesus to the self-absorbed in my generation is the same as it’s always been: Come die with me for the sake of others.

What Jesus promises is that we find life by losing our life for his sake. He promises a narrow and hard road. He promises sacrifice: his life for ours, sure, but also our lives for others. He promises the free gift of the water of life. Not rules that lead to a better life, but a free gift that is life itself.

The Dissatisfaction of Cheese

lightstock_231995_xsmall_user_3911910Cheese. It’s awesome. The runnier, moldier, smellier, the better. I once earned the nickname ‘The Stinking Bishop’ because I bought a hunk of cheese by that name. On the way home, we kept smelling dirty diaper – walking out of the cheese shop, in the car, in the elevator. We thought it was one of my children who needed a diaper change (sorry kids). It was the ‘Bishop’. Yum.

But here’s the thing: Cheese cannot ultimately satisfy me. I mean, I spend most of my week as a pastor either writing lessons or meeting with people, and my theme is pretty constant: Stop looking for life in yourself, in other people, or in things. Life is found in Jesus alone. So you’d think I would remember that cheese is not the source of life.

But when I’m home at night, and everyone else is in bed, this gnawing sense of dissatisfaction comes creeping in. I should just go to sleep. I know it. Nothing good happens after midnight. But I’m restless. I’m looking for something, anything, to make me feel better. I open the fridge, and there it is: a nice block of Cheddar, extra sharp (Stinking Bishop is no longer allowed in the house). Three official serving sizes later, and I can’t stop…I know I’m far beyond the recommended daily intake of full-fat dairy. I also know exactly what I’m doing: looking for life in cheese. Seriously? I know another bite of cheese won’t do anything for me – in fact, I’d rather not take that bite because I’ll just feel sick. But I do it anyway, because I’m looking for anything that will comfort/distract me from the vague feeling of being hopelessly unsettled in life

Cheese Is Not Crack

There’s an LA-Times article touting a study that outlines the Crack-like qualities of cheese. Part of me says ‘Yes! I know those qualities well.’ And part of me doesn’t want to minimize the power of drug addiction with a stupid story about cheese. So I’ll just say this: Cheese is not Crack. But Cheese is also not Jesus. And that is so hard to remember.

So where is the dissatisfaction coming from? I’m not sure, and that’s part of the frustration for me. I’m afraid that sometimes I give the impression that it’s easy to remember that Jesus is all you need. I worry that I act like it’s simple when I’m talking with other people about their issues, when in reality I know for myself it is neither simple nor easy. It is a life-long struggle to hold onto this thread of truth: The one who made me also loves me and gave his life for mine, and that is enough.

I was talking with a friend who jokingly asked if my dissatisfaction was caused by my recent move to the suburbs; playing into the caricature of the suburbs as the place where people have everything and are utterly bored with it all. But I really like living here, and anyway I don’t think the suburbs are the issue, any more than cheese is the issue. Stop eating cheese, and my heart is still restless. Move to a remote village or the dense urban jungle, and I still want more.  Life will never be as good or as easy or as exciting as I think it should be.

Finding Rest

I was on a weekend away with our young adults group at church, and one of the women led a devotion from Matthew 11:28 – Come to me all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. As she read the passage, I heard Jesus calling me to rest in him. Yes!! I want to do that. I know that’s what I need, deep down.

But there’s the nagging fear that resting in Jesus isn’t enough. That I’m missing out on something…I don’t even know what. So I eat more cheese.

Look, I know cheese seems like a trifling thing. What’s the worst that can happen from eating too much cheese at night? A stomachache? Crazy cheese dreams? A bigger waistline? But here’s the thing: resting in Jesus isn’t just about the big things in life – it’s about the day-to-day too. Everything I do gives a window into my heart and where I’m putting my hope. The fact that cheese is so trivial makes it that much sadder that I’m trusting it instead of Jesus. And still, pathetic as I am, Jesus says to me: ‘Come to me…and you will find rest’.

So what about you? Do you experience that restless dissatisfaction too? Do you think I’m making too big a deal out of cheese?

The (False) Gospel of Home Improvement

lightstock_78938_xsmall_user_3911910

You know that feeling when your clothes won’t dry, so you think your dryer’s broken and go buy a new one, only to discover that the problem was that the dryer vent was clogged? It’s a mix of rage and disgust, am I right? How could I be so stupid not to check the dryer vent? Why did I just pay $180 for a dryer when I could have stuck my arm up the vent and cleaned it out? So went my Saturday evening a couple weeks ago.

Being a good human, though, I didn’t stay mad at myself long. I’d like to say it’s because I was able to let go of my self-loathing and trust that whatever God brought my way with the dryer was part of his good plan. Psshh…I wish.

I’m a master of self-justification, and I was soon able to not only find a new target for my anger – the previous owner of the house – but also to raise myself to new heights of greatness and home-improvement mastery. My thoughts ran like this: Why didn’t someone ever clean the vent? Why was flexible vent used when solid vent pipe was required based on the number of turns and the distance from the dryer to the outside of the house? I would never do something that stupid. That thing was a fire hazard – it’s a good thing I caught it when I did! In fact, I see a bit of melting on the plug from where moisture from the clogged vent dripped back onto the dryer – this whole thing was about to go up in flames. I’m a hero for noticing the problem when I did and replacing the dryer right away – I have saved my family and possibly the entire neighborhood from certain disaster! … I wonder how many other pastors could do this. Gosh, not only is my family lucky to have me, my church is too. I wonder how many people know how awesome I am…maybe I should blog about this so they know…

Ok, so maybe that last part didn’t run through my head right away, blogging it was an afterthought. But the rest of it was there. And I’m sharing this not because I’m better or worse than the rest of you, but because we’re all in the same boat – seeking to justify ourselves by tearing others down (in this case the faceless installer of the previous dryer) and by exalting our own accomplishments. When we do that, we show that we are moving away from the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and embracing a different gospel – in my case, the Gospel of Home Improvement.

Now you might say ‘What’s the big deal? It was just a dryer, you got it fixed, you were a little pissed at first, maybe a little too arrogant afterwards, but really there was no harm done. Just relax.’ And I’d love to do that. But the fact is that if shifting away from the Gospel of Jesus were obvious, we’d see it easily and avoid it. But it’s not always that obvious. It’s subtle. It doesn’t seem like a big deal. It’s the normal/natural response. Sometimes it even seems respectable.

That’s what was going on in the Galatian churches that Paul was confronting. They had abandoned the Gospel of Jesus to pursue a gospel of respectability, of national and racial identity that seemed reasonable and right. ‘Yes, you need Jesus, we all know that,’ they were being told, ‘but you can’t stop there – you’ve gotta do what God requires – you’ve got to get circumcised, you’ve got to start living like a good Jewish person.’ And that temptation to add something – anything – to the work of Jesus, is the same temptation I faced (and completely caved in to) with the dryer.

Yes, I have Jesus, I know that. But in that moment, he wasn’t enough. I needed to be justified in my own eyes, and the eyes of my family, who I made sure to tell all about the clogged vent and my exploits in fixing the problem and how I had saved us from impending doom. I needed to prove that I was right to replace the dryer, and that I was better than whoever put the dryer in the first time. I have Jesus…but I didn’t believe he was enough for me.

Folks, it’s subtle. It seems the natural response. But tearing others down and justifying ourselves based on comparing our behavior, our decisions, our choices of dryer vent material…it stems from abandoning the Gospel of Jesus and embracing another gospel. Mine was the gospel of home improvement. What’s your false gospel of choice?

When Squeezing Joy Into Life Doesn’t Work

lightstock_232221_xsmall_user_3911910Yesterday, I took the first notes I’ve taken during a sermon in a long time. When I say ‘notes’ I really mean just one note – a 13-word phrase that really hit home. (Technically it’s 15 words if you count the ampersand as a word, and if you count a hyphenated word as two separate words). The sermon was on Psalm 91, which talks a lot about making God our refuge. The phrase that struck me was this: Trying to squeeze all the joy & experiences we can into a short life-span.

It’s exhausting trying to fit it all in

Why did that hit me? Well, partly because I see myself doing just that – trying to squeeze it all in – and I find it exhausting. When I take vacation I am usually frantic to pack so many joy-inducing experiences into the time that I end up needing a break when I get back home. I shared a couple weeks ago in a sermon I preached that I find everything interesting – everything. And that’s a blessing sometimes, because it means whenever I meet someone, whatever they do, whether it’s work in a paper-clip factory or stay at home with kids or sit in their basement playing video games, there’s some aspect of their life that I find fascinating and can engage with them about. But other times it’s a curse, because it means I want to experience everything there is to experience on earth. And no one can do that. I suppose, in a way, it’s another manifestation of the age-old problem of humanity: I want to be God. Instead of finding relationship with God to be the most satisfying thing, I try to cram as much as I can into my short days, always feeling that there just isn’t enough time.

Jesus lived a small life

Wait…what? Jesus’s life was small? Hear what I’m saying: His life was not unimportant – far from it. Jesus is the focal point of history. But geographically and experientially, his human life was small. Jesus didn’t travel very far and he didn’t experience very much. He didn’t visit white beaches in the Caribbean or the dark waters of the Bosporus Straights. He didn’t see the Parthenon in Athens or Stonehenge in the English countryside. His diet probably didn’t include Oreo Cheesecake or a Big-Mac and fries. Fireworks, rollercoasters, airplanes – nope. Apart from his journey to Egypt as a baby, I don’t think Jesus traveled more than 100 miles or so from his hometown.

While I haven’t seen the temple mount in Jerusalem and I haven’t sailed on lake Galilee, I have done all of those things I listed up there, and I’m almost positive I’ve seen more of the earth that Jesus made than he did when he lived on it.

My point is not to actually try to compare whether Jesus or I have experienced more in life – his experience as the second person of the deity pretty much trumps anything else I can come up with.  And I’m not saying that you or I shouldn’t travel – God called the Apostle Paul to travel extensively, for example. My point is that Jesus was sustained by something other than trying to cram as much joy and as many experiences as he could into his life. And if living a rather short life confined to a small part of the world was good enough for him…why isn’t it good enough for me? Why do I feel like I have to do and see more?

Refuge and long life

Psalm 91 has two voices in it – a human voice, and a divine. The human voice says ‘I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress.”’ The divine voice says: ‘Because he has set his love upon me, therefore I will deliver him; With long life I will satisfy him, and show him my salvation.’ I was struck by the phrase from the sermon because it exposed a deep brokenness in me: I seek refuge in stuff, in experiences, in food, in pleasure and comfort and laughter. Jesus was fulfilled because he sought refuge in the love of his Father in heaven. And though his life was short on earth, God satisfied him with long life – eternal life. That’s not to make what I experience here worthless; but it does mean that I can actually enjoy fewer experiences and not exhaust myself trying to cram it all in, because I know that God is my refuge, satisfaction is found in him, and I have a whole lot more time coming (way more than the 50+/- years left in my life on this earth) in which to enjoy him and his world.