Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Most Important Thing I Know about the Gospel, I Learned from Bill

I promised that in my "next post," I'd elaborate on the three needs churches need to hear and respond to. ("Pick me up. Don't drop me. Get me to my destination.") And I will. But I need to take an out-of-the-way excursion first. Hopefully, you'll bear with me, and it'll all make some sort of sense when I'm done.

I do some of my best thinking when I'm cleaning. Can't explain that, but that's the way it happens for me. Not to say that my best thinking is necessarily all that good, but only that its the best I do, when I do it. Anyway, I was scrubbing congealed cheese off last night's dinner plates this morning, and had a couple of thoughts that helped convince me, again, of the importance of "hearing" The Three. I had just finished reading 20 or so comments that were posted in response to a blog, which was, in turn, written in response to a recent postmodernist's book, which I haven't read.

Several of the folks who commented were students of or, in some cases, teachers or practitioners of philosophy or psychology. The majority seemed committed to the proposition that God was "knowable" by rational processes. Others weren't so sure it was that simple, but certainly affirmed that rational thought was the apex or linchpin of the thing. What struck me about the discussion was that the group quickly left the critique of the postmodernist's book and entered into a series of quibbles with one another about the accuracy or inaccuracy of each others' statements, logic, observations, etc. The discussion lapsed into sarcasm a couple of times, resulting in offenses taken and apologies offered followed by "what I meant was ...." Interesting.

There is a strain within Western Christianity that has elevated The Rational as the best means (for a few, the only means) to "know" the truth of the Gospel. At one time, I was quite enamored of this idea. I enjoyed the give and take of it, watching these brilliant thinkers construct their arguments. I was no match for them, of course, so as a young Christian, I sat at their feet for some time. I really got into the evolution/creation debate. And the atheist/theist thing, of course. The fact that few of these Christian philosophers were in agreement was something I ignored for a while. (I had taken a philosophy class in college (just one) where I was presented with a number of different "schools" of philosophy. So I knew the "godless" guys didn't agree on much. Some of them had "thought" themselves to a point where they weren't sure "knowledge" was even possible!)

While the good folks who constructed these rational Christian systems for me had the best of motives -- to give me a rational platform for certainty in my faith (who wouldn't want that?) and a sound apologetic, with which to convince my neighbor. But I have to confess that it is this group of rationalists, and not any postmodern writing, that first brought me to doubt the efficacy of The Rational -- primarily because I've spent years observing the kind of discourse I witnessed at the blog I was visiting today.

I was talking to my ex-wife the other day, and we were discussing the whole postmodern phenomenon, and she remarked how ironic it was that postmodern thinkers are saying things we had thought and discussed privately 20 years ago. While I don't agree with the postmodern conclusion -- that we, in fact, can't get at truth with a capital "T" -- I certainly think the questions they are asking deserve honest evaluation, and I agree with them that the rationalist approach to the Gospel leaves a lot to be desired.

Why question the rationalist approach? Besides the fact that rationalists (just like the rest of us) often fail to come to the same conclusions, I think we must do so on pragmatic grounds: First, I can count on the fingers of one hand, (and have a couple of fingers left over) the people I know who can track mentally with the philosophical discussion I was reading this morning. I can just barely follow it myself, after all these years. (For instance, early on, someone used the term ad hominem. Gulp, I thought. No clue. Someone later in the discussion actually made a stab at a definition for the term. But I was still not sure I understood it.) That doesn't make philosophical inquiry wrong. I'm still convinced that rational thought is valuable and useful. But my point is that because so few of us (you know, the cab drivers, fry cooks, waiters, art teachers, auto mechanics and all the regular folks who make up the real world we actually live in) can track with it, it has little practical value in terms of saving souls.

Second, and most important: I'm pretty sure I'm smart enough that, given enough time and some very patient teachers, I might be able to grasp most of what these philosophically inclined folks are saying. but truth is, I don't have time for it. I got a job. I got kids. Okay? But even if I did have the time and actually did get it, so what? Bill couldn't.

I met Bill at the height of my fascination with evangelical rationalism. Bill lived in a Group Home. He came to our church's College and Career Group meetings on Sunday afternoons -- although he wasn't likely to go to college or ever have a career. One Sunday, he was in my small group, and we were sharing around the circle in good "small group" fashion, the challenges that we were facing that week, so we could all pray for God's help to meet them. When it got to Bill, he said in his rather hesitant, halting way, that his challenge was getting his laundry done. Turns out it was a rather daunting, complex job, one the group home folks were after him to master and one he didn't like to face. As we prayed around the circle later for the expressed needs, his prayer, after a rather long, painful pause, was "Thank you, Jesus."

Thought was excruciatingly difficult for Bill. He was no philosopher. But he knew he couldn't get through this life by himself. He knew he needed help. And he knew, somehow,that Jesus loved him. Is that not the whole of the gospel? Over the course of a year, God used Bill to put to death forever The Rationalist in me.

You know what I think? Jesus never intended for our knowledge of Him to come through our own effort (rational or otherwise). When I read the Bible, I see story after story of God revealing Himself to people (from brilliant Apostles who has studied at the feet of the great Gamaliel to prostitutes and insane men who lived in graveyards) who would otherwise never get it. We must try to remember that the brilliant Paul had NO CLUE until Jesus Himself confronted him on the road to Damascus. And I don't recall Jesus sitting down with him and sharing a nice rational/logical proof. He knocked him off his horse and said, "Why are you kicking against the goads?"

The goads, of course, from God's Spirit.

I Cor. was written to a group of people who were in danger of exalting the Mind. The brilliant speaker Apollos was wowing them. Paul argues that, though he could probably match Apollos, brain for brain, educational pedigree for educational pedigree, he came rather in lowly humility, preaching, yes, but "not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross be emptied of its power." In Chapter 2, Paul goes on at length about the fact that God has "chosen the foolish things of this world to confound the wise." In Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians, Paul exalts not rational thought but faith, hope and love, with the greatest being love. He says that if I have all knowledge ...." but not love, "I am nothing." (And by knowledge, there, he meant not only human knowledge but that superior knowledge revealed by God, as well). He did not say (and I don't mean this sarcastically, please understand) that Love is rational. Or that Love is logical. Or that love delights in wrecking the godless -- and sometimes the godly -- opposition with a well-argued philosophical proof. He says instead that love is kind. Love is patient. Love is not rude. It doesn't keep a record of wrongs. Love never gives up. Love never fails. (All things Bill could grasp after a fashion, and seek to live out.)

Since God used Bill to knock me off my horse 30 years ago, I have come very slowly to appreciate The Story as one in which God's people are not primarily philosophers, but doers of loving deeds. I'm ashamed to think how long its taken. Before I finally gave up and bowed to God on the subject, the Rationalist in me became very angry with God at one point. "Why didn't you just write a decent Rule Book," I shouted, "instead of giving me this ... mess." Yes, I actually said that. Out loud. Afterward it dawned on me, by what I can only describe as a gracious bit of special revelation, that maybe the Bible's "mess" of difficult-to-decipher polemic, poetry, narrative, proverb and song indicated something about the nature of the message and the mission that it described. The Gospel, I began to suspect, was less about Propositional Truth than it was about a Real Relationship. We can wish all we want that the Bible is a science text, but it defies us. We can talk all day about the Bible as the Answer Book, but why, then, do we so deeply disagree about so many, many things? We are left to ponder God as both Knowable Father and Profound Mystery. If we're honest, we admit that's a very uncomfortable place to be. But I believe that it is exactly where God intended for us to be. We're left to consider the possibility that the Bible we have was not written to give us fodder wiht which to construct systematic theologies, but a wild, wooly, variegated, paradoxical epic, with a cast of thousands, that getts at the truth of the Gospel from a myriad of angles, leaving much for us to puzzle over on our knees before His Throne. Spiritual things, which, said Paul, are spiritually discerned.

Perhaps that's why Jesus did not say, "The world will know that you are my disciples when you can out-argue them in philosophical debate." Rather, he said, "the world will know that you are my disciples if you love one another." And that brings me to The Three.

About the same time I met Bill W., a guest speaker came to our College and Career Group. I wish I could remember his name. I'd like to find him and thank him. He's the one who came up with The Three. He prefaced his relatively short talk with the story of his own coming to faith in Christ. In the process, he used an illustration which, frankly, put off that church's leaders a bit, afterward, because it was an implied criticism of the "shepherding" movement with which they were flirting at the time (you know, the one where church leaders were your "covering" and that gave them license to basically tell you what to do with your life, while you submitted meekly to their "authority").

He said that when he came to faith, he was a smoker. Not cigarettes, but big, fat, smelly cigars. He loved them. There was nothing he liked better. When he came to Christ, he noted, no one bothered to tell him he should quit smoking. He also mentioned that no one told him he was supposed to have a daily "Quiet Time," which was pretty high on the "must" list back then at my church. (Most of us were privately horrified at this point.) He went on to say that in the weeks that followed, he adopted the practice, quite on his own, of going up to his attic, lighting up a cigar and reading the Bible. This went on for some time. One day, he was reading and smoking away and the thought just popped into his head that maybe smoking cigars wasn't such a good idea. The notion was not prompted by the passage he was reading. It was not prompted by any sermon he had heard. No one presented him a raft of medical evidence. It was just a quiet, unbidden thought. And it began to niggle at him. And it suddenly had a persuasive power. He looked at his cigar, stubbed it out, and went on reading. He never smoked another. It was his first encounter with the Holy Spirit, whose job, said Jesus, is to "convict the world of sin." And he went on to express gratitude to the group of Christians who had embraced him in his unbelief and loved him, and let God bring in His own way, in His own time. Where, he asked us, did we get the idea that it was our job?

He went on to explain his theory of church ministry, which was that when someone walked into a church, they came with three unspoken but heartfelt requests which we need to hear and respond to:

Pick me up. By this he meant many things: That people need friendship. Acceptance. Inclusion. Certainly. But more than that. They've often been knocked down, by grief, illness, failure. They need someone to pick them up and dust them off and encourage them. Affirm them. They need to belong. They already know they're a mess, that's why they came to your church. So they don't need to be convicted, they need convinced that they're likeable, lovable, worth saving.

Don't drop me. This was the most important one. Too often, he said, the church meets and greets the new (often, as part of a program) but then this week's newbies gets lost in the shuffle as we move on to meet and greet the newer new folks. He also pointed out that people often stumble after they "come in" and/or they wait to tell their worst secrets until they believe they might get a compassionate hearing. And if rejection comes, then its worse than if they'd never walked in the door. Unfortunately, what happens to most folks in not rejection but invisibility. How often have you looked up lately and realized you haven't seen so-and-so in church for a month? You ask around, and nobody has a clue. This, frankly, is one of the arguments used against big churches, but it happens just as much in small ones, too. The Great Shepherd left the 99 and sought the lost one. Why don't we?

Get me to my destination. The key here, he pointed out, is get me to MY destination. Too often, the church is interested in getting the newbie to a destination selected before they walked in the door. Got an empty slot in the so-and-so ministry? Plug them in. He argued that a failure here is usually tied to failures in 1 and 2. Do we ever really get to know people well enough to qualify as having "picked them up?" If we don't, how can we possibly know what God has in store for them? It takes a lot of listening to get to know someone well enough to help them find their destination as Christians.

At this same church, several years later, I went to the assistant pastor, who I worked with on the board, for some help in determining a career choice. I spent about two minutes trying to describe my dilemma before he interrupted (very kindly, of course) and launched into a long soliloquy about what he thought, based on his "sense" of who I was. Trouble was, the person he was describing bore no resemblance to me. He actually didn't know me at all. I was dumbfounded, but I shouldn't have been. Other than for purposes of church business, we really didn't talk. And he had no clue about how far off he really was. He went on in perfect confidence that he was giving me a wise word, fitting for the need. Truth was, I knew the cussing, dirty-story-telling people at my construction job better than I knew the people who had the care of my soul.

What about prophecy, you say? Can't people get "words" for other people, about their futures? Sure. Of course. I meet with a group of friends every week, several of whom have been left very confused by sincere, well-meaning strangers who popped off prophecies that popped into their heads. Prophecies unfulfilled, even after 20 years The jury's still out on whether that was helpful. The Bible doesn't have a lot of examples of that sort of thing, actually. What the Bible talks about is seeking wise counsel, and it says that there is much wisdom in a multitude of counselors. Maybe I'm nuts, but that tells me there needs to be a least a few people who know you through and through. That have picked you up and not dropped you. Somehow we can't wrap our minds and hearts around the idea that getting to know someone is "anointed ministry." But if that ain't anointed, then what is?

The real problem may be what we hear when he says "destination." When I first heard it, I assumed it meant some sort of ministry -- a position or job. But what if that isn't it at all? "Destination" is where you end up, not what you do on the way there. The Bible says we were predestined to be part of something he calls His Body. Our ultimate goal is to be in God's Presence. What we are to seek first is The Kingdom of God and His righteousness. We get there by following Jesus. Keeping our eye on His face. Being grafted into Him as the Vine, of which we are the branches and without which connection we can do nothing. These are destinations we can reach without a particular job description. These are destinations a Bill W. can find, with our love and support. Yes, yes, in Ephesians, Paul makes a short reference to a set of job descriptions to which some are appointed (apostles, pastors, teachers, etc.) One verse. Why do we focus so much on the content of a single verse?

Our destination is, primarily, a Relationship. In fact, a whole bunch of relationships with a whole bunch of people not many of whom are "wise by human standards" (I Cor. 1:26). Our destination is a community -- no, a Forever Community -- where love is our job description. Somewhere where Bill and I and the philosophers can stand on a reasonably level playing field. One that, if tipped, is tipped in favor of Bill.