Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Plus ca change, the more things

stay just like they've always been.

Do you remember the altar calls?

Back when I was getting ready to enter the adult world and leave college behind, I went to a little conferrence put on by Campus Crusade called "KC '83." Elizabeth Elliot, Howard Hendricks and probably Bill Bright (though I can't remember now) spoke. Scratch that. They commanded the 20,000+ students gathered there to be "the next generation" that would change the world because we had finally understood the real mission of the church. Go to the ends of the earth. Die for Jesus, if need be, just like Lizzie's hubbie Jim. (I must have memorized Shadow of the Almighty.)

I hooked up with the U.S. Center for World Mission (USCWM) in Pasadena after that. Those folks took missions seriously. They had maps of remote, least reached-peoples locations like the Maldives Islands glued to the walls of their church basement apartments with prayer reminders on post-it notes. I remember feeling like I had descended into the depths of the most important room on the planet when I first visited the leader of the Maldives team at the time.

The USCWM was a magnet for serious Christians. We read the Bible through the lens of the Abrahamic covenant of being a blessing to the ends of the earth. We would bring a contextualized message, not the usual missionary strategy (so we had heard) that brought hymns and jackets and ties along with individual style salvation to indigeous peoples. It would work because we were following the true Gospel principles.

It all made a lot of sense, the Bible sprang to life, the young adults signed up.

By the time I hit thirty, the whole thing felt hollow and I was hearing a new message about what the Bible really meant, how we were to understand the Gospel in light of this "better" interpretation. We were being called to not ignore the gifts, to trust God's Spirit to use miracles to reach the ends of the earth, to create houses of prayer in every city on the planet so God would be moved to send a mighty wind of the Spirit to sweep the lost into the kingdom for God's glory, not ours.

I dedicated the next ten years to pursuing that vision. It hurt to hear preachers tell this new crop of kids that they were the ones who'd really do it this time, who'd really bring God's glory because of their much "better understanding" of the Gospel.

But I went with it... until I couldn't any more and started grad school.

What is eating at me now is that I am listening to Rob Bell and his sermons about the marriage of the personal salvation message to the social gospel message as though we have "finally" got it right, we now have the right mix. Maybe this next generation of kids will "be the ones."

The rhetoric is toxic for me.

I am not able to be moved, broken, open, inspired, surprised or even enlightened by these kinds of sermons. They remind me too much of the old altar call, of the old Bible studies, of the thousands of sermons... like a rehash with a new twist.

I started asking myself what is moving me these days, what vision of the Gospel do I care about, what role do I see myself playing in the scheme of things (now that grandiose idealism is dead)?

I realized that I don't have the heart any more to be swept up into idealism, answers to complex theological issues, well-crafted systematized explanations of ancient texts. I am a living question mark. What moves me now is to be around people who ask really good questions.

Somehow in the mix of questions ought to be some recognition that Christianity just doesn't have the answers. It doesn't. It offers some lamps along the road, it gives us some principles and narratives that help us to reconsider our selfish ways, it even creates a collecting pool where lots of interested people intersect.

But it is no longer an answer to me. It is one big question... which keeps me interested, which causes me to wonder. When someone sews it up too neatly, I start to lose my interest and I feel myself shut down... remembering how genuinely I have given my heart, have listened to others, have believed and trusted the answers I was taught. I am weary of needing answers. Maybe that will change, but not today.

As long as Christianity can sustain the questions, it is of value to me. The day it answers them, I lose faith.


Matt said...

Julie, great column, and at the very heart of it you have identified something that everyone in the Episcopal church is dealing with today: "what vision of the Gospel do I care about."

While my political beliefs are very conservative, I find that I find my religious beliefs -- my own social gospel, I suppose -- to be much more liberal. With the appointment of Gene Robinson three years ago to his diocese in New Hampshire, and with the recent actions of the Episcopal Church, the liberal and conservative elements of the church (or orthodox or traditionalist or whatever word folks wish to use) have moved into a real conflict of ideals. As I've said in my own blog several times, I'm proud of the actions we've taken as a church, regardless of how some vocal segments of the Episcopal communion feel. We've been criticized by some for taking the whole "big tent" philosophy well beyond the bounds of what is acceptable according to the Bible, but I think that the folks who raise those points are -- in my own opinion -- selectively ignoring other aspects. I'm no Biblical scholar, but in my reading I find that Jesus went out of his way to associate with those who had been marginalized by society -- the lepers, the thieves, the prostitutes, the tax collectors -- and took it a step further: he loved those people.

Similarly, the actions I see of the church are to love those who have been marginalized by society. And it seems to move in cycles; thirty years ago, it was the horrible thought of ordaining women. Now, it's the thought of ordaining gays and lesbians. I've heard several people -- including Jack Spong -- say that if people think Gene Robinson was the first gay bishop in the history of the Episcopal church, they were fooling themselves. When in the world did the ECUSA move away from the sign reading "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You!" to "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You...if you adhere to certain norms that we believe, and if you lead the lifestyle we feel you should lead, etc."

Before rambling on much longer, I would also add that Sheldon Vanauken (author of a great book entitled "A Severe Mercy") told me several years ago (and I'm paraphrasing here) that annual revivals would be unnecessary if folks could learn that the "high" of God is something that can be with them always, and not something artificial that fades and needs to be regenerated through revivals.

Just my two cents for the day.....

Emily said...

I think this is why Jesus talked about being the way instead of the end. I can't really get into being the generation that gets it because I'm not sure that's how God intends the world to work. Julian of Norwich talks about seeking being just as good in God's view as contemplation. I think I'll go with that for now.

Dave said...

Where are you hearing Rob Bell?

I had an experience the other day, sitting in a devotions session with some kids where I work. I wasn't leading the discussion, but as we got to talking, a couple of the girls started asking questions about the afterlife, seeking clarity and definitive answers about "what happens if I die before I have a chance to confess all of my sins?" or "how can I be sure that God really forgives me if I sometimes don't really know what I believe or if I believe in him the right way?" My answer to such questions was, "you don't really need to worry about those things, because the Bible speaks of God's justice and so we can trust that God's judgement of us and everyone else is right and fair and true. Some questions are beyond our ability to answer, but I believe that we shouldn't worry about that because we aren't the ones who have to get it right - we can leave that to God who created us and the world we live in." That answer seemed to be fairly well accepted, but one of the other adults working with me seemed uncomfortable with my response and got a lot more specific with her recommendations, and not surprisingly, a lot more dogmatic in detailing the specific steps to go through, quoting Romans 10:9 and encouraging a reading of the Gospel of John.

I was OK with her adding that to what I had to say, though I actually prefer my answers to hers. Like you, I much more appreciate good questions and more of a simple openness to whatever the possible answers to those questions might be. Not everyone is ready to embrace such a non-insistent style of Christian faith, but I have enjoyed the opportunities to validate the curiousities, questions and uncertainties that the young people I work with express without feeling the need to rush them to accept some kind of a rigidly defined "package deal" that seems more intent on escaping the uneasy tensions that arise when these "ultimate issues" are raised by honest inquirers than in seriously exploring the limits of what we might know and what we can never really know for sure in this life...

Kansas Bob said...

Great post Julie! I got fairly emotional as I read your story. Unfortunately your journey is more common than many think ... disallusioned and confused many have dropped out of churches because, in the end, the rhetoric they embraced in their youth was empty and devoid of any power.

My adult children are survivors of the fundamentalist dogma that I once embraced ... sad how, in the long run, fundamentalism has left so many victims ... some survivors and some not.

As I get older (in years and faith) I am discovering that it is not about the answers but about the journey (yuk - sounds like a Hallmark card). The journey is about seeking ... it is about relationships ... it is about humility ... it is about questions that have NO answers ... it is about faith and love. This kind of journey challenges me because it takes courage that I don't have ... it takes repenting of old ideas ... it makes me feel uncomfortable ... but it makes me feel alive ... it gets me out of my head and embraces my heart.

I am looking forward to reading more about your journey.

Blessings, Bob

Chuck said...

As usual, this post echos my recent thoughts. I remember it dawned on me a few weeks back, on the way home from work one day, that I really have no desire or interest in convincing others that Christian doctrine and beliefs are true. 20 years ago, I would have felt that was the highest calling of one who calls themselves Christian. How time and life change us all...

What I do still thirst for is to contribute to the positive forward motion of humanity - affirming and strengthening where I can, being present and active where I am planted, demanding to be part of a community committed to similar goals. That's what being a "Christian" has become for me.

And Dave, as usual, you are more graceful than I would have been in the situation at work. How hastily we all want to "fix" things, or provide ourselves and others with prepackaged truth.