The Kind of Faith I Want…

Every once in a while, I run into someone who is not happy with the theology department at our local Nazarene University.  Usually their complaint boils down to a story about a friend or a loved one who went to school to study theology and came home not sure if they believed anything at all.  The friends and or family of these students feel like the university has failed them. I would argue that it didn’t.

I would argue that the university was doing its due diligence in training up godly pastors and leaders.

You see, long before I ever took a real theology class, (my undergrad was in chemistry) I noticed something about the faith, and scripture in particular.  I noticed that the more a person reads and studies scripture, the less they seem to know about scripture.

Sure, when a person hasn’t deeply engaged scripture, it is easy to spout off a bunch of “bible promises” or single verses that “support” our faith.  But it doesn’t take a very thorough examination of scripture to begin to come across questions. In fact, sometimes it seems like the more you study scripture, the more the questions surface.  This is what happens to the theology majors mentioned above.  They are forced to wrestle with questions they have never encountered before.  Up until that point, most of them have lived on the faith of their parents or have developed a faith of nice, easy cliches.

The longer I live, the more I am worn out by the cliches and the faith that goes along with them.  I would never want someone to pastor my congregation who had never wrestled with the tough questions of the faith.  I would hope that my pastor was still wrestling.

That’s the universities job.  To send out pastors who have been willing to wrestle.

Have you ever read the book of Joshua?  What are we supposed to do with passages that seem to indicate that Yahweh instructs Israel to wipe out entire nations of people?  What do with do with this genocide that seems to be mandated by God?  Were the writers attributing something to God that was not of God as some would suggest?  How do we handle such texts?  There are no cliches to answer these types of questions.  Do we really believe serpents talked as we are told in Genesis 3?  What do we do with talking serpents?  Sometimes different passages of scripture seem to be in direct opposition.  How do we reconcile stories that flat out seem to contradict each other? Like I said, the deeper we get into scripture, the more questions arise…

I think a lot of times we believe that our faith has to be like a fortress.  We build up our fortress with passages like John 3:16, Romans 6:23, or Philippians 4:13.  We have the little family of Christian fish on our minivans and bumper stickers that say “God answers knee mail.”  We are poised to “defend our faith.”  We don’t want to get too deep into the questions because we might not have answers, and then the armor of our faith would have a chink in it.

Have you listened to the songs on Christian radio lately?  Yeah, me either…  But today I found myself listening to a Christian station in the car, and it was like every song had the same five cliches about grace, or being set on fire, or the like.  Not a lot of REAL music.  Not much of it spoke about the messiness of our existence.

The kind of faith I want looks a lot more like Jacob than K-LOVE. (The local Christian station)  Remember Jacob?  He spent an entire night wresting with God.  He grabbed on tight and wouldn’t let go.  Jacob’s hip even got wrenched in the process, but he still wouldn’t let go until The Lord blessed him.

Today, we were talking in my Hebrew class about the actual Hebrew verb in story of Moses and the burning bush.  God says that his name is “I AM that I AM.”  The actual Hebrew verb that is used there is the verb for “I will be.”  So one way to read it would be, “I will be what I will be!”

There is no way for us to reduce God to a bunch of simple answers, catch phrases, or even “bible promises.”  God will be who God will be!

I want the kind of faith that dives into the mystery of God and holds on for dear life like Jacob as he wrestled.  I want to wrestle with questions and trust God even when there seem to be no answers.  After all, isn’t faith really about trusting even when we can’t see the answer?

In other words, I don’t want the faith of some sort of shallow, self-help religion.  I want to dive deep into the mystery of God.  I want to be so deep in the mystery of God that I am way in over my head. And there, in the midst of my questions, I want to place my hand in the hand of the One whose name is “I will be what I will be…”

The Problem with Fundamentalism…

I have always had a problem with fundamentalism.  I am not sure that I have ever thought out WHY I have a problem with a fundamental understanding of scripture in depth.  I read this quote today from Dr. Tim Crutcher, one of our theology professors at Southern Nazarene University.  It is the best explanation of why a fundamentalist understanding of scripture becomes problematic I have personally ever read.

Enjoy…

“The problem with fundamentalism is not that its interpretation of Scripture is wrong. It may be, but as Wesley recognized, “there are a thousand mistakes that are compatible with true religion.” No, the problem with fundamentalism is that it prioritizes the selfish human desire for secure knowledge over an encounter with God that might actually make us feel very insecure. Certainty obviates the need for faith–which the Bible itself offers as the only possible foundation for a relationship with God. By confining God’s word to only those categories we can easily and comfortably grasp, fundamentalism trades the amazing–and sometimes terrifying–dynamic of interpersonal trust for the safe but selfish and static ideal of certain knowledge. A safely domesticated deity, however, is not one worth relating to. Any god who fits in our box is too small to have any hope of filling our heart.”

Exegeting Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

The other day our family was driving down the road in the car listening to Christmas music.  Thanks to Paula, we are that family that starts listening to Christmas music before Thanksgiving.  (Truth be known, I love Christmas music too so I don’t mind…)  While we were  headed home, the song “Do they know it’s Christmas?” came on the radio for the 5th time that day.

I had finally had enough…

I started screaming at the radio.  Really?? Have you listened to the words of this song?

“At Christmastime
It’s hard, but when you’re having fun
There’s a world outside your window
And it’s a world of dread and fear
Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears”

Really?  It’s hard, but while you are having fun and stuffing your face with Christmas goodies, just take a moment to think about someone other than yourself.  I know that will be difficult.  Really?  Paula, can you believe the words to this song.  I mean, the whole tone of this song is so USA centered.  It’s the most horrible way to do charity.  Really,” It’s hard, but when you’re having fun?”  Really?

By this point my family thinks I have lost it.  And then came the most awful line of all…

“Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you”

Now I am worked up into a good self-righteous lather.  

Can you believe this stuff?  This is what happens when Rock and Rollers try to do charity.  I really, really hope this line is sarcastic Paula.  If it’s not sarcasm this is one of the worst lines in a song of ALL TIME!  And it’s Bono!  One of my heroes.  It surely has to be sarcastic.

At this point I think my family has gone from being amazed at my rant to tuning me out.  This is just one more example of dad over-thinking things…

But then the other day it dawned on me how much the world has changed in the last 30 years.  When the original song was written, our world was much smaller than it is now.  There was no public internet.  Not many people carried around cell phones.  (The people who did were called doctors)  Cable television was not a necessity.  News channels like CNN and Fox news were just becoming a thing and weren’t staples of everyday life.  There was no DVR.  No twitter feeds or Facebook posts.  No bloggers everywhere writing about current events.

In 1984, the main way people knew about the events of the world was through the newspaper or the national news media at 6PM.  Most of us 80’s children never wanted to read a newspaper, we were too busy playing Atari.  The 6 O’clock world news always seemed pretty boring as well, because it was about a lot of places we’d never heard of, seen, or visited.

The truth is, in 1984 it wasn’t easy to see the “world outside your window” that the song talks about.  You had to make an effort.  The lyric had it right, It was hard.  Maybe the Band Aid song was the only way that young people in America were going to be informed that people in Africa were starving.

I think all this has a lot to do with our problem with scripture.  The Band Aid song is 30 years old.  Scripture is thousands.  We read it as Americans living in a technology driven age and sometimes, like the Band Aid song, it leaves us scratching our heads.  We see the violence in the Old Testament and fail to recognize the violence in the world of the writers.  Maybe people writing in violent times write more violent stories?  At times we miss the nuances of the genres in scripture.  We treat proverbs like promises when maybe they are more like fortune cookies.  We miss the sarcasm in the text, and it hits us like the lyric “Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you…”

One of the things we preachers are taught to do is exegesis.  Exegesis is an uncovering.  It is like peeling back the layers of an onion.  Have you ever noticed that the more you look into scripture, the more layers you find.  Maybe my problem with the Band Aid song was that I wasn’t doing proper exegesis.  I took the “text” and separated it from the culture in which it was written.

If I were to look at the song in light of the prevailing 1980’s culture, it stings a little more.  Because the truth is that the church in the 80s seemed to be more concerned about souls than bodies.  We wanted to save everyones souls and weren’t as worried about feeding people.  And here is the secular music industry raising money for people to eat.

Reminds me of a story Jesus tell about sheep and goats.  At the end of all things, the master is going to divide people up as sheep and goats.  The sheep are the good guys, the goats not so much.  He will welcome the sheep into his kingdom because they fed him, clothed him, visited him when he was sick and in prison, etc… They did stuff.  The goats didn’t feed him, clothe him, visit him, etc…

Both groups ask the master, When did we see you hungry, thirsty, sick, imprisoned, etc… The master replies, Whatever you did (or did not do) for the least of these you did for me. 

After taking the song in context, I am a little embarrassed by my self-righteous rant.  The truth is, while we were singing hymns in church, the rock and roll world was feeding Jesus.

Excuse me while I take this plank out of my eye…