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?

Does Faith Create the “Problem of Pain”?

 

In this third installment on Unapologetic, Francis Spufford’s case for the emotional coherence of Christianity, we come to the problem of pain. Spufford writes “Without faith, there’d be nothing but indifferent material forces at work. It’s only when the idea of events having an author is introduced that the universe becomes cruel, as opposed to merely heavy…In the absence of God, of course, there’s still pain. But there’s no problem. It’s just what happens.” To be clear, I don’t think he’s saying that pain isn’t unpleasant for people who don’t believe in God – it’s definitely a problem in that sense – but as a challenge to their belief structure, he is saying that suffering in the world is uniquely an issue for God-believers.

I’m not sure I agree with him here. I’m left wondering on what basis someone who denies the existence of God can say that suffering or pain is evil or a bad thing – I think at best, they can say “I don’t like it.” And maybe Spufford agrees here – he says without God pain is ‘just what happens’ – it’s neither good nor bad, just a fact. But I have spoken with too many people who reject the idea of a God, and at the same time whose hearts break over the suffering in the world. We’ve worked together to care for the homeless and fight against human trafficking. They do not believe in God, but they are moved to action by the suffering of others, because that suffering is not right. So here’s the problem: If you deny the existence of God and at the same time want to call the pain and suffering of the world ‘evil’, or ‘bad’, or ‘cruel’ – then you have a problem with your belief system too – because there’s nothing on which to base that assessment outside of your own dislike of pain. Christianity does not have a monopoly on ‘the problem of pain’. It’s a problem for all of us, unless you’re really completely indifferent to pain and simply see it as a given, neither good nor bad.

But getting back to Spufford, pain is a problem for us Christians. And we’ve tried all kinds of arguments to solve the problem. “We suffer because God is refining us.” “We suffer because God has a plan in which our suffering is necessary.” “We suffer as part of a package deal that gives us free will.” “We suffer, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s only a momentary prelude to heaven.” Many of these arguments have an element of truth to them, but ultimately they all fail, because for Christians the problem of pain is not solved intellectually. It’s confronted relationally.

Spufford writes: as Christians, “We say: all is not well with the world, but at least God is here in it, with us. We don’t have an argument that solves the problem of the cruel world, but we have a story.” And that story is of Immanuel – God with us. What God offers us is not a defense of himself as creator, but simply himself to stand with us through it all. As I finished the chapter on the problem of pain, I was left feeling a bit unsatisfied – surely there is more to it than just ‘we have a story’!

But then I read the next chapter, and was reminded of the contours of that story. I can’t do justice to Spufford’s retelling of the story of Jesus; you’ll just have to read his chapter called Yeshua. But here’s how he ends it: one of Jesus’s friends has gone to his tomb after his execution, and finds the tomb already robbed and his body missing. She is in anguish. But then Jesus walks up to her. “Don’t be afraid, says [Jesus]. Far more can be mended than you know.” Folks, there it is. The Christian story that stands side-by-side with the pain of this world is not simply that God is with us in it (though he is, and that can be a great comfort). It is not an answer to solve the problem of pain, nor a denial that the world is, in fact, irreparably broken. It is a story that holds out hope that the death and resurrection of one man began the process, which is taking millennia to complete, of fixing the unfixable. “Far more can be mended than you know.”

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)?

Enjoyment and Everything Else

Unapologetic is currently my new favorite book. I like it because the author, Francis Spufford, acknowledges the intellectual tensions (doubts even?) inherent in faith. Instead of solving those tensions with clever mind tricks, he offers an emotional case for faith in Jesus. For the next few posts I’ll be interacting with his book. I want to say up front that the book resonates with me, but I don’t agree with everything Sufford says (how could I? I didn’t write the book). Some of it I’m not sure about, and that’s partly why I want to interact with it. So here goes – Unapologetic Part 1 – Enjoyment and Everything Else

 In my experience, it’s belief that involves the most uncompromising attention to the nature of things of which you are capable. It’s belief which demands that you dispense with illusion after illusion, while contemporary common sense requires continual, fluffy pretending…Take the famous slogan on the atheist bus in London…“There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”…I’m sorry – enjoy your life? Enjoy your life? I’m not making some kind of neo-puritan objection to enjoyment. Enjoyment is lovely. Enjoyment is great. The more enjoyment the better. But enjoyment is one emotion. The only things in the world that are designed to elicit enjoyment and only enjoyment are products, and your life is not a product; … Only sometimes, when you’re being lucky, will you stand in a relationship to what’s happening to you where you’ll gaze at it with warm, approving satisfaction. The rest of the time, you’ll be busy feeling hope, boredom, curiosity, anxiety, irritation, fear, joy, bewilderment, hate, tenderness, despair, relief, exhaustion and the rest…The implication of the bus slogan is that enjoyment would be your natural state if you weren’t being “worried” by us believers and our hellfire preaching. pp.7-8

When I first saw those signs on London busses, I felt a small amount of outrage too. But I was focused on the ‘probably no God’ claim. Spufford, on the other hand, gives ground to the atheist claim, if only to point out the absurdity of it. Ok, maybe you’re right – there probably isn’t a God. Who can prove it, anyway? But what does that leave you with? Life doesn’t magically get better. It’s still pretty bad, actually. Only if we pretend to ignore everything around us can we trick ourselves into believing life is primarily about enjoyment. That is the real act of faith.

And like the atheists and their bus, it’s an act I’ve pulled many times. And I’m not alone on this side of the pond (maybe I should have mentioned up front: Spufford lives in Britain). The entire American project buys into the same nonsense. Our declaration of independence from the British crown says that humans have been given three inalienable rights: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. At least there’s an acknowledgement that happiness needs to be pursued, that it the default state of things. But please – if life’s goal is to pursue happiness, then I’m a miserable failure at least 75% of the time, and I bet you are too if you’re honest. Because happiness isn’t the point. Enjoyment isn’t the point. They are one of the many emotions that encompass a full and fruitful human life.

Spufford points out that if enjoyment is the point, then we’re all missing the point of life most of the time, God or no God. Emotionally, belief in God doesn’t really impact enjoyment of life in the moment one way or the other. But it does hold out hope. Hope that the atheist slogan crushes and leaves choking in a cloud of exhaust as the bus drives away.  “What the atheist bus says is: there’s no help coming…It amounts to a denial of hope…”

So what do you think? Is the purpose of life to enjoy it? Does God hinder or help that enjoyment? What if there isn’t a God – does that make all the misery in the world disappear? Have you bought into the lie that enjoyment is all there is?

Getting Outside the Doors

It’s a bit ironic that this post comes after a months-long hiatus from blogging (unintentional, I assure you – I just didn’t have anything I wanted to write).  Ironic, because it goes back to why I started writing in the first place, and why I called this place ‘outside the door’.  In an interview earlier today with local public radio station WYPR, the Artistic Director at Baltimore’s Center Stage theater, Kwame Kwei-Armah, mentioned a program that brings Center Stage productions to prisons and homeless shelters. He said that the program is designed to take art out of the building and bring it to people who wouldn’t ordinarily come inside the theater. By itself, a pretty cool idea. But, being the church guy that I am, I also immediately thought of parallels between Center Stage’s efforts, and attempts by the church to get outside of her doors and meet people where they are.

I heard a statistic recently that 82% of people in America would not come inside a church building. The implication is that if the church believes that Jesus has something to offer people through us, then we have to go outside our buildings in order to connect with the majority of those people. We have to take Jesus outside the building.

And in some ways, that’s kinda what Jesus did when he was here. He traveled from place to place; certainly teaching in synagogues when the opportunity was there – but also teaching in a boat, on a mountaintop, in homes and places of business. He met people on the road and in the towns where they lived. He went into their homes…and yes, occasionally had people break into someone else’s home to get to him.

It shouldn’t surprise us that 82% of people say they wouldn’t come inside a church. I mean, really, why would they want to?   Apart from a few structures with minor historical interest, most church buildings are not remarkable. I hope 82% of people who don’t know me wouldn’t feel comfortable getting a random invite to come into my house either – I actually hope that number is closer to 100%. And this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon – people like the Wesleys and George Whitefield in the 1700s knew that they had to go outside the walls of their buildings if they wanted most people to hear their message.

But it is a good reminder that most people in our communities are not going to be found inside our buildings. The majority of people never come inside our churches. So if we want to connect with them, it has to happen where they already are. And that makes sense, right? People who do come into my home are friends that I have made when I’m outside of it – classmates and coworkers and random crazies at the bar (you know who you are). So thanks to Center Stage for taking art to those who can’t come inside the theater. It’s a good reminder for us in the church to get outside our buildings too.

Lament for the World I Know

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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

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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.