Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Cloven Viscount

One of the challenges of sharing the story of God is knowing where to start.  In my experience, in today's culture there doesn't seem to be much question that the world is broken or even that we ourselves are broken.  But I've been talking recently to someone who's probably philosophically a secular humanist.  From our conversations so far, this seems to impact her view of her own brokenness and the brokenness of the world.  I have been trying to think of meaningful ways to illustrate or bring up the question of what is broken and if there's a way to fix it.  I'm interested to hear her opinions about that and I'm curious to know whether she has a desire for redemption and restoration of all things, or whether she just thinks that we're stuck with things the way they are.  I'm curious to know how far she thinks that humanity can take fixing the world on its own.

So this weekend I read a book a friend lent me about a man who was cut in half by a cannon and he was running around in the world in 2 pieces--one good and one bad.  Here's what the man had to say about his experience:

The bad half said:
    “If only I could halve every whole thing like this,” said my uncle, lying face down on the rocks, stroking the convulsive half of an octopus, “so that everyone could escape from his obtuse and ignorant wholeness.  I was whole and all things were natural and confused me, stupid as the air; I thought I was seeing all and it was only the outside rind.  If you ever become half of yourself, and I hope you do for your own sake, my boy, you’ll understand things beyond the common intelligence of brains that are whole.  You’ll have lost half of yourself and of the world, but the remaining half will be a thousand times deeper and more precious.  And you too would find yourself wanting everything to be halved like yourself, because beauty and knowledge and justice only exists in what has been cut to shreds.” (pp 191-192)

A little later on, the good half described his experience:
    Then the good Medardo said, “Oh, Pamela, that’s the good thing about being halved.  One understands the sorrow of every person and thing in the world at its own incompleteness.  I was whole and did not understand, and moved about deaf and unfeeling amid the pain and sorrow all round us, in places where as a whole person one would least think to find it.  It’s not only me, Pamela, who am a split being, but you and everyone else too.  Now I have a fellowship which I did not understand, did not know before, when whole, a fellowship with all the mutilated and incomplete things in the world.  If you come with me, Pamela, you’ll learn to suffer with everyone’s ills, and tend your own by tending theirs. (p 217)
Eventually, after a sword fight with himself, he gets patched back together and becomes a whole person again.  This is how the author described that:
    So my uncle Medardo became a whole man again, neither good nor bad, but a mixture of goodness and badness, that is, apparently not dissimilar to what he had been before the halving.  But having had the experience of both halves each on its own, he was bound to be wise.  He had a happy life, many children and a just rule.  Our life too changed for the better.  Some might expect that with the Viscount entire again, a period of marvelous happiness would open, but obviously a whole Viscount is not enough to make the whole world whole. (245)       

Quotes taken from Italo Calvino, The Nonexistent Knight and The Cloven Viscount (trans. by Archibald Colquhoun) (Harcourt 1962).

I think there's so much to this story that I could use as a foundation for a conversation.  I deeply connected with what the two halves of the viscount said about life.  What I would like to ask my friend is how she felt about the two statements.  I would like to ask her whether they match with her understanding of the world.  Does she feel that things are broken?  Has she ever gone through a time when she began to see that, to identify with pain and suffering of others?  And finally, I'd like to talk with her about whether she sees that there's any way to overcome that.  Once recognizing the brokenness of self and the world around, what can be done?

I don't know that this would lead to the kind of conversation I'd be hoping for, but I think it presents an opportunity.  Sometimes I tell my own stories as a foundation for dialogue.  Sometimes I tell God's stories from the Bible.  But lots of times I am looking around at the world and seeing something profound or interesting and trying to figure out how to use that as a starting point to listen to another's beliefs and approach to the world.  Who knows what, after listening and connecting and relating, I might have the opportunity to share?

Because for me, following Christ is a little bit like that viscount's story.  Before Christ, I walked around thinking that I was whole and seeing the world incompletely.  But after surrendering my rights and my identity, I could see things more clearly - I could see the brokenness of the world, I could see the brokenness of myself, I had more compassion and understanding.  And it's only in recognizing that brokenness and surrendering to the ministry of the doctor that I can be made whole again.  It's not a wholeness that will save the whole world, but if God can recreate and restore me to wholeness, then I think he is also doing that with the world.  And I want to be part of that.  

In the bad half's statement, I also see echos of what it is like to lose your life to Christ--what it is like to give up everything.  Jesus said that to find our life we must lose it for his sake, and that's what I hear in the bad half's statements.  Even though it doesn't make sense, it's been my experience that when I voluntarily give up my rights and surrender my choices to Jesus, I live life in a more fulfilled and deeper and more meaningful way than I ever did when I was living a whole life all for myself.

So I don't know... it's an idea.  We'll see if it ever makes it into a conversation with my friend or anyone else.  But I connected with the story so deeply, I think that it probably will.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

When storying becomes community

If I’d questioned what kind of community we’ve been building on Sunday nights, I don’t any longer.  If I’d questioned that we had built community at all, I don’t now.

The last few times I set up to have a Sunday night storying group, no one showed up.  People got busy, maybe they didn’t feel like coming, the weather turned nice, whatever.  So I wasn’t sure where we stood or how hard to push to maintain something that maybe no one else cared about.  I felt like maybe we’d accomplished everything we needed to in at least exposing everyone to who Jesus is and how he lived while he was on earth and how he impacted the people around him.  I was kind of ok with letting it go if we needed to.

But my father passed away this week, and I felt so much support from this little band of friends.  They showed up.  They showed up the minute I got home from the hospital where my dad died.  They showed up to keep me company between visitations.  They loved on me and ministered to me and prayed for me and walked beside me.  Even the people who I haven’t heard from for weeks or even months showed up to be there with me.

This is what the church is supposed to be like.  I think we are becoming the church.  I think that they actually view what we have as their spiritual community.  It may not look exactly like what church usually looks like.  We don’t meet as regularly, for example.  But it seems like we’re doing something the right way if this is the way people respond during tragedy.

One of the most powerful things that I think we’ve done on Sunday nights is the time after the story where we pray for each other.  I don’t think that I’ve talked much about that when I’ve been debriefing the stories.  But from the very first week we started, after we shared with one another how the story impacted us, we prayed for each person specifically.  We prayed for the spiritual needs they’d identified during the discussion and we prayed for anything else that came up.

In order to reach this level of community, though, you have to be vulnerable.  One of the refreshing thing about people outside the church is that they don’t seem to have the same barriers to sharing who they are as people who grew up in the church.  They’re generally willing to share, so long as it’s a safe environment, the things that they’re struggling with.  They aren’t trying to hide their weaknesses or pretend to be perfect so that no one will know how much they’re struggling or how awful they are.  They accept humanity and they accept their own humanity and they’re willing to share from that.  Within this context, we successfully created a community culture that is built on interdependence.  And when I had needs, they all came–every single one of them. 

That kind of community is a gift.  I don’t exactly know how to go forward or what shape it should take, but I feel now that I must go forward.  We must go forward together.  We’ve got to find a way to continue to build spiritually into the lives of the people that we’ve been given so that we all can continue to be transformed into the image of Christ.

Monday, May 23, 2011

How can you be friends with an atheist?

Another interesting question my friend asked me this weekend was how my Christian friends would respond to me being good friends with an atheist.  He seemed to think that this might cause some controversy.

He's definitely right that in some circles my having a close friend who doesn't even believe in God's existence would be a huge problem.  Thankfully it's not something that my closest friends fear or don't understand.

It makes me wonder though where that controversy comes from.  I definitely have belonged to Christian groups in the past where it would be a big deal.  I think that in part it goes to a person's interpretation of being in the world but not of the world--that desire to be separated and holy and pure.  Is there a fear of contamination or of allowing yourself to be corrupted by the world?  I don't know.  But I can't make that approach fit with what I know about Jesus, who sat with tax collectors and sinners and spent much of his time with the people that religious people despised.  He was in the world but ever calling and inviting people into a deeper and more meaningful life of service and sacrifice.

And so on a daily basis I follow Jesus into the world and seek to love and listen to and serve people the way that I see he did in Scripture.  I can't help but think of this song by Gungor...

I do find Jesus in the prisons and in the streets and with my non-believing friends.  Learning to love and to relate and to listen and to serve calls me ever deeper into being transformed to be like Christ.  Yes, sometimes it's difficult.  Yes, sometimes it is uncomfortable.  Yes, sometimes I put my heart and soul at risk.  But I'm not happy with the antiseptic life that's lived within the walls of a Christian community that will not reach outside of itself.  I have been there too, and I have found that life wanting and more dangerous than anything I have encountered on the outside.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A prayer for the church

If there's one thing we can't escape as Christians it's that how we live and what we say affects how people view God.  God kinda set it up that way with his people long ago, calling first Israel and then the church to be his image-bearers and ambassadors in the world.  I so often wonder why he did that as I think we often end up preventing people from having a fair chance of seeing God for who he is.

When this image-bearing goes right, it can be a really powerful thing.  You can have people who don't even believe in God questioning their beliefs or at least willing to talk with you about the possibility of God's existence.  When we live like Jesus and love and serve and protect and sacrifice and love and love and love, people can be drawn first to us and then to him.

But when it goes wrong, it goes really wrong.  It devastates a person's desire or ability to seek God or to follow him.  It creates animosity.  It creates barriers.  And over time, the wealth of injuries the institutional church has caused to humanity's ability to see God is overwhelming.  It seems like it's impossible to get over.

I had a conversation with my atheist friend yesterday--a really long conversation and I'll probably have post after post of things to say as I process the conversation.  But this is the first of many things that sticks out to me.  His objections to God are actually objections to the God that the church has preached through her actions and through her words.  It's not the God that I know or run after.  But I find it overwhelming and nearly impossible to think of how to overcome all that history of all of us Christians who have lived lives aimed at having as little pain as possible and protecting ourselves from what we perceive as the taint of the world.

God, we have failed you.  We have put our need for comfort and safety above all things.  We have so often been filled with a passion to preach or convert but not to love or to serve or to sacrifice.  We have not cared about justice.  We have not loved the outcast or outsider.  We have wanted our own place in society to be preserved at the cost of inviting and sharing and being hospitable.  We have been threatened by people who believe differently.  We have allowed race and social class to divide us.  We have been like the pharisees instead of like the fishermen.  God, transform us, the church.  Make us over in your image and in your likeness so that we can be the picture that we are supposed to be of who you are and what you care about.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Preparing to share...

I've been working on formulating the story of my whole spiritual life to share with a friend who considers himself an atheist this weekend.  I am very much looking forward to the discussion--both to sharing my own story and listening to his.  But it's different than sharing with anyone I've talked to before.  Most of the people I have known in the past have had some sort of religious experience or position.  It's somewhat intimidating to think of sharing with someone who doesn't share even the basic assumption that there is a God in the universe.

I mean, how can I explain why I've done the things I've done?  How do I explain how I've interacted with God?  How can I explain that I sense God leading me to do certain things at certain times?  How can I explain what a relationship with an invisible God looks and feels like?

I think it's really important to share my struggles with God over the years.  I think it's important to be honest about the questions I've had and the questions I still have.  I think I have to own my doubts and my issues and my fears and my frustrations.  I think it's important that I don't pretend that I have all the answers--because I don't.

It kind of has me wondering though--what's the core of this whole relationship-with-God thing?  What is the most important thing to communicate about it?  I know that I don't have to take responsibility for presenting God in a certain kind of light--he's God and he can defend his own honor.  But I don't want my own human questions and frustrations to get in the way.

I've done the preparation of thinking through my journey and the spiritual signposts along the way.  I've thought through the major events of my life, spiritually and otherwise.  Now I'm simply praying that when I describe my life and what I perceive as God's interactions with me, God will be able to speak through me.  And I'm praying that I'll be able to hear his questions and objections with a humble and loving spirit.

It's such an amazing gift to have friends like him and to have the opportunity to share so deeply from my heart.  If you're reading, I hope you'll pray with me, that the Spirit will lead and guide and be present in our interaction.  If he doesn't mind, I'll try to debrief the convo afterward here.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Harold and the Purple Crayon

If you struggle to conceptually understand the different between a modern thinker and a postmodern thinker, this link may help.  It's a video remake of a book that was written over 50 years ago.  It's about a little boy who creates his own reality by drawing what he wants to see and experience.

I don't want to say much more about it because I think to truly see the differences in the ways of thinking, you probably have to experience the book yourself.  But it's as good an example as I've seen of postmodern thinking.  The book itself is available here.

Friday, May 6, 2011

marching to the beat of a different drum

I've talked before about how I believe that doing what I call the works of God helps to authenticate the message of God.  I would count things like taking care of orphans and widows, loving neighbors and enemies, living within a community of people dedicated to loving and serving one another and the world as works of God.  In my own life, I would also see working hard to help the community find justice and protect people from oppression as something that falls right in line with God's character of loving justice, which also serves to authenticate the message of God.

So I haven't been surprised when, as I have conversations about spirituality and my own relationship with God that these are the things that people who are not Christians appreciate about the way I live my life.  I have not been surprised that they sometimes want to communicate a deep respect for those activities and the kind of person that God has made me.  Now they would never put those words around it of course--they usually give me the credit instead of God.  But that always gives me the opportunity to share that it really is God working in me that allows me to do what I do even in the midst of struggle or even when I don't see the results that I would want to.

What's been surprising to me is actually that I'm finding more affirmation and acceptance and even love from people outside the church than I ever did from those inside.  The person I am becoming because of God's transformative power in my life is inherently attractive to many people outside of the church.  They want to spend time with me.  It's kind of shocking, particularly in light of how on the fringes I always felt within a church community.

And the funny thing is that my values and activities and actions don't necessarily match the people's who appreciate who I am.  I am still very much living counter-culturally and marching to the beat of my own drum, as it were.  I suppose the reality is that I'm also living counter-culturally to the culture of the general West Michigan church.  But inside the church that life creates controversy or discomfort.  Outside it appears to be intriguing and somewhat attractive.  I wonder why that is.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

on blogging

I had a conversation with a friend a couple of days ago that reminded me how careful I need to be when I am using language to describe my perception of reality.

This blog is an attempt to observe and describe my reality, particularly as it relates to having spiritual conversations in everyday life.  But in order to do that, I find myself having to draw bright lines around categories of people - people who are "outside the church" or who are "post-Christian" or who are "unbelievers."  The very need to label and categorize people is counter-cultural and makes me very uncomfortable.

Yet I find that in order to share what's going on and to analyze what's happening and to perhaps suggest some things that might "work" or have a positive effect in the real world, I have to do it.  But I'm always afraid that I'm going to violate the privacy or trust of someone I love.

So I find myself walking a very thin line.  I want to be able to talk about what's going on in my world because I think that the successes and mistakes can be instructive for my future actions and those of anyone who might be reading the blog who cares about the same things I do.  But things said on a blog can't really be erased and there could be a few people reading who come to their own conclusions about what's being said without ever asking for clarification.

I guess what I'm saying is that I realize that this medium lends itself to conversation without relationship.  Part of my hesitancy in writing the last month has been trying to balance that.  I don't want to alienate the people I care about by what I might flippantly say on here.  And no matter how carefully I word things, it's still possible to say something the wrong way.

And I guess what I'm asking is that if you're reading this and you're a friend of mine, then I'd like for this to be a dialogue instead of a one-way conversation.  I actually want to know what effect my words might be having and I want to be able to clarify if I haven't been as careful or as precise as I should have been.  I really don't want to alienate people or make friendships impossible because of how I speak about what I observe and experience.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

on universalism and evangelism

In this article, Dan Kimball expresses a concern that I share: that in the firestorm of discussion about heaven and hell and universalism, the need to walk beside people on their journey toward faith is being lost in the fray...

That said, I think the article misses something that Rob Bell probably does bring to the table, which is a desire to focus on what it means to walk with Christ today.  In his Rob Bell way, he seems to be trying to point people toward the fact that eternal life with Christ is supposed to make a difference today. 

And the reality is that, in my world, having spiritual discussions centered around what will happen when everyone dies is less than worthless.  It's just not where people are at.  It's so much more relevant to talk about what life with the eternal one looks like now--today. 

I think that's ok.  There may come a time in a person's faith journey where they have to work through the theological issues of heaven and hell and eternal judgment and the possibility of grace and mercy that astounds and surprises.  But I don't think that discussion is essential to the question of what it means to walk with God today.

Walking with God is hard.  It's all-consuming.  The sacrifice of just following the commands to love God and love your neighbor is a lifetime's worth of challenges.  So here on the ground, that's where I'm choosing to spend my time when I have the opportunity for spiritual discussions.  And I so wish that the community of Christ-followers would be spending its energy on thinking and praying about how to speak about that in a way that's understandable within today's culture.  All of this time, and all of these resources, and I'm walking around here on the ground bumbling through these conversations and relationships hoping that somehow God will be able to work and speak his invitation of life with the eternal one to those around me.  I long for the community of Christ-followers to rise up and put its resources and energy into answering those kinds of questions.