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This Poem Made My Day

Earlier this morning, I was paging through an old copy of Longfellow poems my grandmother had given me. I had always treasured the old volume from 1896, embossed with silver etchings and delicate roses. I thought that I might bring it with me to share with my students in Russia; after all, Longfellow was from Maine and it would be a unique thing to share with them. While scanning the yellowed pages, I happened upon a perspective-giving poem that is a must read for any Christ-follower who gets a little too focused on the “meaningless” cries of Ecclesiastes, who forgets that for us, mortality is truly of little significance,  that trials of this life pale in comparison to the hope to which we are called. Thank you Longfellow, for reminding me of who I am, of who we are.

A Psalm of Life

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

What the heart of the young man said to the psalmist.

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,

“Life is but an empty dream!”

For the soul is dead that slumbers,

And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!

And the grave is not its goal;

“Dust thou art, to dust returnest,”

Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,

Is our destined end or way;

But to act, that each to-morrow

Find us farther than today.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,

And our hearts, though stout and brave,

Still, like muffled drums, are beating

Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,

In the bivouac of Life,

Be not like dumb, driven cattle!

Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!

Let the dead Past bury its dead!

Act,— act in the living Present!

Heart within and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time;—

Footprints, that perhaps another,

Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,

A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,

Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us then, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

Learn to labor and to wait.

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The Heart I Want to Have

Prayer has always been a battle for me, an enigmatic pursuit that I often am lazy in pursuing. I confess that I have often avoided prayer simply because articulating my heart before the unseen Creator seemed so elusive and vast. Vague words would waddle around in distracted circles, coming out more like a laundry list of complaints and centerless generalizations:

“God, please help so and so.”

“Lord, thank you for who you are.”

It is not that these types of prayers are somehow wrong; it is not as if God judges based on the articulateness of our words. But I had become lazy in the pursuit of communing with God. Instead of running first to Him with a broken heart or overwhelming anxiety or even blossoming joy, I would first run to my friends, to my family, overwhelming them with problems and dilemmas that were meant for Him to carry. In the center of this “praying” to humans around me festered the core of unbelief. Unbelief in the freeing, peace-bringing power of exposing the heart to the One who created it. And because of this perpetual unbelief, I had become complacent in repeating half-hearted Christianese collocations, and I knew that I needed to rise from this lethargic daze and trade passiveness for activeness. To begin believing that opening up to the Creator and laying all on him would infuse joy and purpose and precise perspective into my life.

But where was I to begin? How was I to break myself from these shallow and vague habitual mutterings? For me, the answer lay in discovering a little red book filled with recorded prayers of Christians throughout the centuries.

I grew up in a very non-liturgical tradition, and although liturgy was never outright condemned, there was always the sense that to repeat or memorize prayers from a book was somehow inauthentic and mechanical, the harbinger of legalism. And for this reason, I think I always felt that I had to “make up my own prayers” in order for them to be genuine.

But as I began to read this little red book filled with prayers, I began to realize how small this view of prayer was. One of the joys of reading for me has always been when the author has articulated something in my heart that I could never put into words. In the same way, I found myself savoring the words of Christians before me because they articulated precisely and powerfully the heart I want to have and the heart I know that God desires for his children to have. The following prayer by Thomas Aquinas has given focus to my prayers and I am so thankful that I can learn from the heart and examples of Christ-followers before me.

“Grant me, I beseech Thee, Almighty and most merciful God, fervently to desire, wisely to search out, and perfectly to fulfill, all that is well-pleasing unto Thee. Order Thou my worldly condition to the glory of Thy name; and, of all Thou requirest me to do, grant me the knowledge, the desire, and the ability, that I may fulfill it as I ought, and may my path to Thee, I pray, be safe, straightforward, and perfect to the end.

Give me, O Lord, a steadfast heart, which no unworthy affection may drag downwards;

give me an unconquered heart, which no tribulation can wear out; 

give me an upright heart, which no unworthy purpose may tempt aside.

Bestow upon me also, O Lord my God, understanding to know Thee, diligence to seek Thee, wisdom to find Thee, and a faithfulness that may finally embrace Thee. Amen.”

Jay Gatsby’s Unforgettable Sermon

I love going to movies that make me cringe.

I love going to movies whose themes reveal something ugly in my heart, that challenge me to shuffle my paradigm of perspective, that pierce me with the sin in my own life by making me identify so closely with a character that it hurts.

Jay Gatsby is one of those characters.

For anyone who hasn’t read the book or seen the movie, Jay Gatsby’s life is dominated by his pursuit of Daisy, a girl whom he loved and lost five years prior. Gatsby obsessively pursues the now-married Daisy through the passive means of moving close to her then throwing an array of extravagantly lavish parties in hopes that she will meander in one night. If he obtains Daisy, he sincerely believes, his life will be complete, a paradise of love and fulfillment.

What Gatsby doesn’t realize is that he has elevated Daisy to a level that no human being can live up to. To him, she is a symbol of the nostalgic perfection of the past that must be reclaimed to escape the drab, mundane present. She has no flaws. She is the one thing needed. She is a god. She is memory embodied.

No specific spoilers, but the pursuit of this idealized version of Daisy and the past precipitates an Anna Karenina size train wreck for Gatsby and all those around him.

And as I sat in the dark theater watching chaos and death and broken lives all set in motion by a selfishness fueled by putting hope in a mirage, I could not bring myself to judge. No, I could only sit still, breathe slowly, and feel the weight of the destruction humanity loves to pursue.

I could not judge, because I saw myself in Jay Gatsby.

I idealize the past and those people who shared it with me, walking a precarious line between reminiscence and idolatry every time I open a photo album.

I romanticize the past, replaying over and over the feeling-charged beautiful clips while discarding the shots of relational strains and conflicted feelings.

I idealize the far away, swallowing the age-old lie of greener grass and manmade perfection.

I saw myself in Jay Gatsby, and I cringed. Caught once again in the act of pursuing an idol mirage. Convicted once again of obsessively pursuing the creation rather than the Creator.My eyes are accustomed to turning both back and inward, searching for something that is both forward and outward. But unlike the hopelessness I observed on the screen, I am an heir to a hope that doesn’t need to construct wobbly, ephemeral ideals. My cringing turned to praise and perspective, to thankfulness for the vivid jolt that shook me to realize my eyes were on myself and not on Jesus Christ.

Yep, Jay Gatsby preached one of the best sermons that I’ve heard all year.

Letters to a Striving Daughter

Romans 7:23

But I see another law at work in me, waging war

against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner

 of the law of sin at work within me.

            Dear daughter, it wasn’t long ago that I watched you in the kitchen, raspberry mop top framing your distressed face as you strained to sound out the word on the page. You stopped and started a few times, flustered at your shameful failure. “Dad, can you please tape over this!” you pleaded to your earthly father. At four years old, the seeds of sin were already taking root inside you; fear was sprouting in your heart, the fear that you were not, and would never be “good enough.” You, my darling, have been a perfectionist for almost your whole life. This is your signature sin. This is the prominent filthy rag of all your supposed righteousness. It is the vice that makes me weep with compassion when I see your contorted face and hopeless sobs, for your mind is diseased, blind to the truth when the weeds choke your thoughts to death.

Isaiah 30:15a

In repentance and rest is your salvation,

in quietness and trust is your strength.

    

            You are miserable because your eyes are on yourself. I was with when you spoke the lies, “I am worthless. I have nothing to offer.” These words snaked into your vulnerable mind as you read the frank comments that the program assistant had typed onto your essays for the Fulbright competition.

“A lot of work needs to be done! Lacks enthusiasm. Too dry. Work on style.” You took each of those comments as a harsh attack when they were merely meant as a push in the right direction. You were so easily wounded because your eyes were not on me; your ambitions and self-concept and self-esteem and every self-ish word in the English language was usurping the throne in your heart. You had quite the puppet government going, when you said with your lips that I was your King but muted my commands and affections for those of a crass, snorting dictator. My darling, you are miserable because this is not the purpose for which I made you. It does not matter if you are inarticulate or unintelligent in comparison to other human beings; such adjectives are not the measure of a man or a woman. In fact, I don’t measure you like you believe I do. You try so hard to tiptoe around failure, fearing that if you fail by the standards of “perfection,” I will be ashamed of you, embarrassed to have a daughter with such lazy tendencies. You expect with each “mistake” that I will angrily disown you.

I do not measure you like this. I know that you are dust. I know that you cannot exist without me. I accept you not because of an A on the paper or good reviews at work or your unfailing promptness; I accept you because my son was tortured and died in your place, and for me to ignore his passion in order to focus on your failings would be to spit on his sacrifice. I don’t call you to be “the best” at what you do. I don’t call you to please others. No, I call you to rest and to repent of trying to be me.

Isaiah 55:2

Why spend money on what is not bread,

and your labor on what does not satisfy?

 Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,

and you will delight in the richest of fare.

 

 I know that for the past four years, you have lived in a place where you feel like a recovering alcoholic working at a bar. I know that the evaluative nature of your culture’s concept of school feels like iron chains to someone with your tendencies. When you have to write a paper, depression paralyzes you, because you are convinced that you have to prove yourself again. To your professors. To your peers. To yourself. It is from those around you that you draw your strength; I ache, for you are trying to breathe through a straw when to look to me would allow you to gulp full, fresh breaths. Sometimes their words are enough to sustain you, but like a ration in wartime, it is never enough; the scratchy lump of bread only whets your appetite. If you receive an A on the paper and a contemplative nod from the professor, then you go to bed superficially happy. If, though, you received the dreaded B or blank stare, you question that anything you have ever done is worthwhile. And this, daughter, is the wrong question to ask. Nothing that you do will ever be worthwhile unless it is done in me and through me and for me.

Psalm 127:1a

Unless the Lord builds the house,

the builders labor in vain.

 

            On a sleepless night a few months ago, a disturbing caricature formed in your mind. You imagined that you were attending a woman’s funeral, a P.h.D who had achieved immense success. One by one, her boss, colleagues, and son came up to speak about her. Her boss was first. He looked mournfully out into the sea of onlookers.

“She had such a beautiful resume.” He choked up, but continued. “I-I just will never forget the article she wrote on hierarchical binary opposition in Freudian linguistics.” He began to sob and quickly took his seat. Her coworker was next.

“She never missed a day of work in her life.” The coworker sniffled.  “She was prompt, gregarious, and exceeded all our expectations as a member of the organization.” She blew her nose into a white handkerchief and left the podium. Finally, the deceased woman’s son, a young man in his twenties, walked to the microphone.

“My mother was…” his voice trailed off and he bit his lip, a hint of fire in his dark eyes. “My mother was responsible.” His voice held a bitter bite. “My mother was an enthusiastic member of her firm and did everything in her power to contribute to the success of the company. She graduated with honors in her Ph.D. program, received a prestigious research grant to India, and she is venerated as one of the top researchers in America. That, my friends, was my mother.” The son violently shoved the microphone back in its place and stormed out the back door of the funeral home.

This twisted vignette disturbed you, disgusted you, chilled you, all because it revealed how utterly selfish and evil you could become if you give in to the anxious itch to control your destiny and be your own god.

Genesis 11: 4a, 6-7

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city,

with a tower that reaches to the heavens,

so that we may make a name for ourselves…

The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same

 language they have begun to do this,

 then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.

Come, let us go down and confuse their language

 so they will not understand each other.”

 

When you begin to feel your eyes being darkened by the deadlines and responsibilities and self-interest, remember my revelation to you last summer, when I showed you the view from outside the prison of perfectionism. I put your nothingness in perspective in the same way I humbled the proud builders of the tower of Babel, those who strove to make their name known through proud words and relentless work ethic.

I freed you from the fate of idolaters through confusing your language. When you arrived in Russia last summer for your language program, I placed you in the advanced class, where I knew you would be the poorest speaker in your group of six. You stuttered your way through every conversation lesson, feeling like a kindergartener trying to converse with astrophysicists. To your surprise, though, this failure did not shatter your life. In fact, your “failure” freed you to speak boldly and to laugh at your mistakes and to admit that you were human. This was no real failure though; it was a victory, the shattering of your pride by the inability to even feign this slave-driving life-sucker that you call “perfection.” No, my daughter, this messy summer where you failed and leaned on me and laughed and admitted you were human, this was much closer to my standard of perfection than your small and stingy one.

Deuteronomy 33:12

Let the beloved of the Lord rest secure in him,

for he shields him all day long,

and the one the Lord loves rests between his shoulders.

 

My child, this is ultimately the crux of the matter: you will not stop grabbing at control like a starving prisoner grabs for bread until you believe in my unconditional love. My definition of the word “beloved” is foreign to you, for you have always thought that to receive love, you had to earn it. You accept the love you think you deserve, which is why you tense up and refuse my embrace. You are right in one thing: you don’t deserve my love. Yet in spite of this, I love you. Without condition. You don’t yet see the beauty in this, because you want to be worthy of love. You hate the idea of someone loving you because he has to; you picture a disgruntled husband wishing he could escape the ties that bind but begrudgingly sticking with the wife because of a piece of paper he signed. I am not like that husband. I do not love you for your utilitarian value. So rest in my, my daughter, and do nothing for a while. Do not achieve. Do not strive. Do not write. You are not beloved because of these things. You are simply beloved.

A Grainy Photograph of the Unseen

  Dedicated to my father, who has shown me what it means to follow Christ.
 
I don’t see God the way he truly is, and this bothers me. I logically assent that he is the God who delivered his people from Egypt in an epic of miracles, the God whose glory would kill me if I looked on it, the God who is love incarnate in the sacrifice of his one and only Son. I affirm these facts about God, yet so often he seems as flat and scratchy as a mini Jesus on a Sunday school flannelgraph.  Attempting to fit the infinite Creator of the universe into my finite human paradigm leaves me with an unimpressive, blurry photo that I can fit in my wallet. Although logic tells me that this photo is nothing more than a crude representation of reality, I feel constrained by my humanity to perceive this grainy four-by-six as the real thing. I don’t see God the way he truly is, and sometimes I wonder if I am just worshiping an idol I’ve carved to fit the puny dimensions of my brain.
~
Andrea* and I sat across from each other in the quaint Salem pizza place, discussing whether some people were destined from the foundations of the earth to spend eternity being tortured. She was convinced that they were. I met Andrea, a young seminarian’s wife, my junior year at Gordon. I began attending a Bible study at her home, and it soon became clear that her favorite flower was definitely the TULIP: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. Back home, Calvinism was often the butt of jokes, an abstract theology that evoked the image of a crotchety man in Shakespearean dress high on his own hot air. My father, a devoted follower of Christ, often expressed frustration not only with Calvinist theology but with what he saw as the arrogance that was its center. His experience with Calvinists had been dominated by exchanges in which those not agreeing with their viewpoint were treated as second-class Christians. Not only was his viewpoint anecdotal; he explained his side with firm Biblical support. Everything I experienced confirmed my father’s viewpoint; it only took a cursory glance at the blogosphere to find a myriad of arrogantly judgmental comments from Calvinists, some going so far as to question the salvation of non-Calvinists. But when I saw Andrea’s life: her dedication to God’s word, her commitment to mentoring college girls and her love for the Lord, it frustrated me that she didn’t fit into a mold that was less attractive. She had definitely studied the Bible more than I had, so who was I to disagree with her conclusion? The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, right?
At this point, I was secretly chagrined that Andrea hadn’t come across as judgmental and crazy, like the puffed-up Calvinist commenters I had discovered online. That would have been easier to swallow. Instead, two godly Christians in my life had come to different conclusions about an issue that seemed to define the character of God.  It wasn’t that I had to know the answer. I didn’t really care whether it was Calvin or Arminius who would be saying “I told you so,” the moment they entered heaven. No, what scared and frustrated me was the realization that I do not have the capacity to see God as he truly is.
~
Growing up, I don’t remember ever questioning my perceptions of God. I am one of those saved-since-she-could walk Christians, and God was just a natural part of life, so much so that I rarely stopped to stand in awe of Him or think about what it actually meant to be divine. He naturally knew me personally, loved me, and had great plans for my life (which I thought he needed to be constantly reminded about). But he was also very American. If I didn’t work hard enough, he would be displeased with me for my laziness. If I happened to miss “his will” for my life because of a poor decision, he would likely tell me “you’ve made your bed, now you lie in it.”
~
I have been taught from the womb to pray that the Holy Spirit would lead and guide me when I go to the Word of God. In junior high school, I may have had a passing question about the possibility of my faulty interpretation, but I was more into taking the Bible extremely personally. I’ll never forget the gleeful entitlement I felt when I found Proverbs 6:5, which said “free yourself… like a bird from the snare of the fowler.” Fowler was the last name of the boy I wanted to marry. He didn’t return my sentiment.
I still use that same Bible, and I am always slightly embarrassed when I have to share with someone, because I know they will see the confident personal applications of junior high in words like “basketball,” “high school,” and the initials of the boy I liked. But looking back at these scribblings, I have to wonder if I don’t do much of the same thing now, if maybe we all do. After all, even though Andrea and my father had prayed for the Holy Spirit to lead them when they approached the Scriptures, they had still come to opposite conclusions. My flustered question at this point was “why was the Holy Spirit leading them to believe totally opposite things?”
~
In my favorite novel, The Brothers Karamazov, two brothers, Ivan, an “atheist” intellectual, and Alyosha, a novice monk, discuss the problem of suffering and what it says about the character of God. Ivan brings in newspaper clippings detailing cases of child abuse in order to illustrate his assertion that “I accept God, but I do not accept his world.” For Ivan, the suffering of children was irreconcilable with a loving God. Alyosha, though, remains firm in his faith, willing to accept the paradox that God is good even when his world seems unjust.
My RA staff last year had a habit of getting into theological conversations about unanswerable questions such as those raised in The Brothers Karamazov. We had one “Ivan” on our staff who wanted answers that would reconcile a loving God with his sense of justice. Last year, I was the one who watched these conversations quietly, confused by his zealous anger towards not understanding.  “Ivan’s” perspective was fascinating, but I never could truly relate to it. I saw the world with the same eyes as Alyosha, and what others viewed as lack of engagement, I counted as peace.  This year though, I have been able to relate to Ivan’s perspective more than ever. Unanswerable questions have claimed a permanent home in my mind as I have become more and more aware of the seemingly unjust suffering and death in the world. But even in my questioning, I still am an Alyosha; I am more comfortable with paradox than many.
This comfort with paradox does have a negative side; I often am fearful to express conviction in any point of theology not contained in the Apostles’ Creed. If theologians who have studied the Bible their whole life have come to different conclusions, then who am I to approach the Word of God? I am often scared out of my mind about approaching Scripture, the one thing that I’ve been taught for years is the main ingredient necessary for my spiritual growth. Do I believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God? Absolutely! Do I believe that I will come to it with my own biases and preconceived notions about God’s character? Again, absolutely.
Left to my own devices, I will inevitably distort God’s words, but I am learning that the Christian life is not about my ability to comprehend, but about God’s grace and power in my weakness. He knows that each and every one of us views life through glasses shaped by our culture, family, personality and experiences. This does not scare him, and maybe it shouldn’t scare me either. What should scare me is attempting to live as if I do have the capacity to comprehend God. It seems that the urge to fit God into a systematic theology might stem from the subconscious desire to usurp his place in our lives and become our own gods. Perhaps one of the reasons God has only allowed us to see him in a grainy photograph is to remind us that he is God, and we most definitely are not.
Maybe the differing conclusions of Andrea and my dad have less to say about the leading of the Holy Spirit and more to say about what God actually wants his followers to focus on during our few years this side of heaven. To me, the fact that they disagree says that having a monopoly on “good theology” isn’t one of God’s priorities for us during our short stint on planet earth. Jesus didn’t tell us to go therefore and make theologians; he told us to go therefore and make disciples. My focus should be on the tenets of the faith that all Christians agree on. I can trust that God is good; I can trust that God is love, and I can trust that it is his Son, not my theology, that saves me. And if I’m not taking it out of context, 1 Corinthians 13:12 tells me that one day I will know God as he is: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully.”
I don’t see God the way he truly is, and I am okay with that…for now. Now I hold a faded photograph, but one day I will be joyfully overwhelmed by the reality that it represents. Unanswerable questions and disagreements between Christians will continue to remind me that it is not my job to fully comprehend God, but to follow him, and I can take comfort in the fact that I worship and serve a God who refuses to be constrained to the puny dimensions of my brain.
*Name has been changed to protect the privacy of the individual mentioned.

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