Sep 12, 2006

a pocketful of theology

There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. (John 1:6-9)

One of my favorite games that I used to play a lot during my days as a youth pastor was called "What's in your pocket?" It's a fun mixer where you group kids randomly, designate a "runner," and then ask for different items to be brought up to you based on what the kids have on them.

There are some easy ones, of course, from student I.D. cards to a request for a quarter. Occasionally I'd stump them, though, by asking for something obscure that they weren't able to produce... because they didn't have it on them.

Different topic.

I was speaking with someone this weekend about a tragic event she'd gone through, but more specifically how it impacted the relationships she had. Many of her friends and family members simply found it weird to be around her because they didn't know what to say or how to respond to her tragic journey. Consequently, several connections got sifted over time, leaving the friendships that did remain to become more authentic.

What drew me into this thought was how much I identified with some of her journey. Let's face it - it's weird for people around you when you are going through stuff that they aren't… especially when the situation isn't finding any resolution. For instance, I know of a "nice Christian couple" who has gone through a long season of infertility and found that people who have kids didn't understand their journey. They'd often be met with quick jokes and comments like, "Just relax" or "Have fun trying" when in reality it was an embarrassing and exhausting trial.

Now let's combine the two topics.

It is my growing discovery that every one of us has a bit of a pocket theology with God and how we believe life works.

Here's how it fleshes out:

  • You develop a set of beliefs and ideologies about God (or lack thereof) from family as you grow up.
  • You refine those values through the opinions of friends and/or the lens of any religious experience you may or may not have.
  • You reach your teenage and young adult years and begin testing those ideals out in the context of your independence in the world.
  • You end up with a pocketful of theology.
As a result many churches allow this concept to dominate in subliminal ways, often peddling a "happy Gospel" where a skewed version of Christianity is taught. The extreme of this is an overt "prosperity Gospel” where God "blesses Christians who really love him" and sacrificially give money to the sweatiest and loudest televangelist they can find. Most of the time, though, it's conceptualized as a “happy Gospel” where Christianity becomes quite transactional:

  • You "say a prayer" and "ask Jesus into your heart."
  • You "go to church" in order to be reconvinced every week that this was a good idea.
  • You “invite your neighbor to church” because it seems as though part of the deal is to do this and help your local church become bigger.
  • You try to live a “good life,” try to have a “good relationship/marriage,” try to raise “good kids” who will attend a “good children’s ministry” or “good youth group,” and try to live out life saying and doing all the “good things.”
  • You receive (at least in your mind) a God who makes sense, biblical principles that can be figured out and applied in any situation, and a theology you can put into your pocket.
In a sense, what you've bought into is the idea that "If I do good things for God then I will experience good things from God." Sure, we expect a little persecution now and then, but in the end the good guy wins (us, that is) because we will have hung in there.

In the end, “life makes sense.”

Different topic.

There was this guy in the Bible named John who was famous for preparing people for the Messiah who was to come. Even though he lived out in the wild and looked like the kind of guy you wouldn’t give money to on the street, he had a lot of passionate followers who were moved by his scandalous message of truth and repentance. You might say that he seemed like the kind of guy whom God would favor and bless for all the ministry he put into the kingdom.

I hate to give away the ending, but Jesus came along and scooped up some of John's key followers. Essentially, John lost his gig. After all, the Messiah came, so… now what?
To top it off, a local king put him into prison and eventually beheaded him.

Combining topics yet again.

So how does the aforementioned theology gel up with John's story? Or that infertile couple's story? Or the gal I spoke with? Or even my story?

Then again, here's the problem... they aren't any of our stories, are they?

What is happening in this world is God's story and we happen to play a part in it. Somewhere in the mix of a "prosperity Gospel" and a "happy Gospel" we have lost touch with the fact that because (as my wife put it so well last night) God is God he has every right to mess with our lives as he sees fit. Perhaps that sounds a bit rude, but if there is a God doesn't he get to, well… act like it?

Sometimes I forget that.

Seriously... do you have a problem with that truth? Because that's what it is. Whether or not you believe in God, you have to concede that if one existed who created it all and was the overseer of it all... that he'd get to make the rules.

So in other (softer) words, it needs to be okay when God doesn't make sense.

I'll be honest - times have been hard for my family on many levels. I've been a displaced pastor for almost two years now and it has caught us off guard emotionally, intellectually, physically, and financially. Among the spiritual lessons, what has been most intriguing is how it has impacted us relationally.

I've lost friends.

As much as my journey weirds me out, what is even more amazing it how much it weirds other people out. Check it out - here is a "PASTOR" whose life isn't all peaches and cream. So often we will hear people tell us, "I'm sure God has a great plan for you in the end that will all make sense," but does he? Obviously they aren't taking into account John the Baptist.

Or Moses… who didn’t get to go into the Promised Land.

Or Jesus… and that whole cross thing.

And so since our life hasn't ended with "good guy wins" music and changed for the better they kind of stop being around us. Even when I left my last church there was this continual inquiry from a few key members about whether or not I had a job yet. Many of them genuinely cared, but a few simply needed resolution (and I could feel the difference). On one occasion someone shared, "It would be nice if you could tell the people any progress in your interviews... so we could give them a happy ending." Thankfully for my theology and theirs, I didn't have one but have continued on in a story where unemployment and displacement are a part of the bigger picture (even if I don't yet get what that is).

A close friend of my wife had someone recently say to her her, "Tony and Katie are doing okay... right? They found a place to land?" She explained it wasn't a question but a hopeful statement where the person needed some closure of their own and needed to hear that life had gotten understandable for us. The person who said it absolutely cares for us, so that's not even the issue. Yet they needed to know that sanity had set into a crazy set of circumstances. Thankfully my wife's friend said, "Actually, no. They're struggling through life right now. Pray for them."

(Sorry - this really isn't intended to be a post about me. Those are just two immediate examples. I'm sure you can think of one of your own.)

So here is the unfortunate truth - when someone else is in pain and we try to dispense a theological cliche or concept out of our pocket we unconsciously demand that they agree with us. Otherwise, we try another cliche... and another. Once we've emptied our pockets we either have to change our paradigm of how God works (because they are still in crisis) or we move away from the person in pain until their life resolves.

Similarly, when life brings us pain we start to use whatever little theological clich├ęs are in our pocket in order to explain it away. Initially, they get us by. Then there comes that day when you’ve emptied your pockets of all that there is and realize you are in spiritual poverty.

More on that in the next post.
When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"

Jesus replied, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me." (Matthew 11:2-6)


DJG said...

a great bundle of thoughts all wrapped up together... thanks for making me think tonight.

David M said...

We, too, are amazed at how much control fellow Believers wrestle from God. If someone is "down" for more than 2 months, it's as if "they just aren't trusting God." WHAT! All things become blatently good in 2 months or less?!?!

Former full-timer, now awkward in Phoenix,
David Malouf

momma, poppa & THE boy said...

This type of post is why I love your blog and find it to be a place of renewal in my own journey. Your honest. Your real.

God doesn't make sense. Bad things happen to good people. Yeah, I "know" that. But do I really?

I love this quote from CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters:

"Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy's (God's) will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him (God) seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys."

Thanks Tony & family for continuing to obey. I need these examples in my life.


Tony Myles said...

Isn't it odd how we see this and yet how the church at large often glosses over this? Maybe it's easier to sell American properity or glossy goodness than it is to explain what it means to carry a cross.

That's one of my favorite quotes from C.S. Lewis, too. Kind of makes me see pain in my life from an offensive perspective instead of just a defensive one.

Katie said...

Great, poignant, true, refreshing, convicting, comforting, and about a million other words I could think of right now.

Thanks, I needed to read this.

Heather said...

Amen. Folk theology, Job's friends, and all that jazz. Who among us isn't guilty of this at some point in our lives (at many points in our lives)?
And when in the gospels did Jesus say to ask Him into our hearts? I think it was more along the lines of joining His kingdom.
I agree that we have an underdeveloped theology of suffering. Heck, I don't like the idea of suffering. I would like to avoid it, thank you very much. But it's there, all the same.

brad said...

hey tony,
so I'ms till out here bloitering, and thought I'd tose this back as I am working through this question a bit myself, and was asking student to ask it to this last weekend, you wrote:
God is God he has every right to mess with our lives as he sees fit. Perhaps that sounds a bit rude, but if there is a God doesn't he get to, well… act like it?

Sometimes I forget that.

Seriously... do you have a problem with that truth? Because that's what it is. Whether or not you believe in God, you have to concede that if one existed who created it all and was the overseer of it all... that he'd get to make the rules.

So in other (softer) words, it needs to be okay when God doesn't make sense.

Ok so here's what is filtering to my head, and what I'm trying to flesh out... How fast do we go with this Gog is God and he get's to do whatever He wants thing? As I was thrown into a "teaching situation" this last Sunday totally unprepared the curriculum I had to grab off the shelf was talking about choices, and consequesnces, and using all the biggest stories where it just didn't seem like God was being fair... the punishment didn't fit the crime... Moses into the promised land, Annanias and Sapharia (forgive me for not taking the time to check if that's the correct spelling of names), Eli the priest, and a couple others. I'm sure we could make up more... but I'll try to stay focused... OK i agree that God is God, and He can do whatever he wants, but if God's not just and fair like would we even want to love and follow Him? Of course not we'd just do it out of fear. I recognize in my pocket theology that ultimately God is not being "fair" by not wiping out all us dirty sinners... grace and mercy extended to us... but then wouldn't, or shouldn't that grace and mercy be extended in these other circumstances if God is to be fair... or "just"? Next in my pocket of theology I pull out the voice that says, "Well, I'm just too lame a human to not understand God's divine perspective, His divine fairnes...'justice'" But unfortunately that just doesn't satisfy either. So now I sit... Loving Jesus with all my heart, soul, and strenth, trying to love my neighbor, and mystified by this "old testament" God that sometimes seems so out of sorts with the revelation he lived out in Jesus.
God help me.

Tony Myles said...

Totally tracking, Brad. And you're right - why would we want to follow a God who does whatever he wants?

(Keep in mind, by the way, this is the question that creates a prosperity Gospel mindset... a human question about a divine issue that creates a human theology about a divine truth.)

Perhaps I was shortsighted in my post, but I don't think God's sovereignty negates our freewill. If anything, it is a very cool interaction between the two. However, the micro-narrative of our lives must play into the meta-narrative of God's story.

Thankfully, God is a good God. Genesis 1 & 2 show that. He's also just and merciful, as Genesis 3 and the rest of Scripture shows.

Here's the kicker - what if he wasn't, though? Would he still get to make the rules?

And how would we feel about that?

And... should that matter?

Our human emotions want to respond to that quickly, don't they?

Which is where pocket theologies often spring from.

Good dialogue... sharpen me some more with any alternative thoughts.

Carolanne said...

Sounds like my husband and you are on the same ... "track". He's been working but not as a pastor for nearly 2 years and the people in the church are asking/stating the same thing. They want resolution for themselves and a "happy ever after". It doesn't work that neatly. And even though we stayed in the same town, we still lost friends who they thought would be friends forever.
There's a lot more I could say but thanks for this post. You're right: God is God and can do what He likes. We often forget that and think He should do what we like, what we think fits in with His nature.

Doug's Deep Thoughts....or not so deep said...

Aware that you have some sense of my circumstances, I'm puposely leaving out some details which may leave outside readers somewhat puzzled.

Since we are being vulnerable and in the raw, I just don't know what to do with you Tony. Man, can I SO relate to where you are. Displaced. Lost friends. Awkward. People wanting...needing to know you are ok so they themselves can feel better. Losing confindence in our understanding of how God works,and yet faith remains. Spiritual poverty.

I'm not really all that excited about forming new friendships yet I'm drawn to reach in your direction. I wish the friendships I thought were real were as solid as I once believed. Seems that maybe we just "worked together". I'm partially to blame. It's all awkward...I'm sure for them too. What to do, what to do. I'm at a loss as to figuring out how to love all of my different kinds of neighbors, objectively...absent my agenda...absent my remaining desire, with gritted teeth, to show them their offense. The face of love, the appropriate form, at the perfect time. It often looks SO different when you get it right in each moment. I've lost so much confidence in my own ability to discern the will of God in my life. The veneer, stripped away, and underneath it all, what remains seems pathetic for someone whose been on this journey for more than 22 years.


Tony Myles said...

"I've lost so much confidence in my own ability to discern the will of God in my life."

This is the statement that I most resonated with. Sometimes you get so tired of treading water that you forget how to swim. For me I've rationalized that there are at least three "wills" from God: the short-term (or daily); the mid-term (or career/ministry/etc); and the eternal (into heaven).

I know the first one is to love God, love others, and love those who hurt me (or my "enemies"). I know the latter will happen one day down the pike even as it happens now. The middle one is the tricky one.

David Moss said...

Thanks for the transparency. I've been on both sides of the fence...the one searching trying to discern where God is in my circumstance....and the "friend" fading away from another's hard place.

Thanks for shining a light on my humaness....and my need to keep working on letting His spirit transform me more into His likeness.

Reminds me of the importance of the gift of presence - for me to prioritize to have opportunties that I can intentionally remain and be still in God's presence; and to provide the gift presence to those God has put in my path as He reveals (in HIS time) the story He has put me in.

Anonymous said...

as ol' Wilbur would say "God is more concerned about what is being done IN you than what is being done TO you"

And as this may be a Wilbur cliche (speaking of cliches) ... it's true. And me, I'm so excited to hear all the growth that has gone on in your hearts (that is, your family's, as well as yours). I see it in your blogs at least, and with your wife whenever I get a chance to chat... I trust wholly that joshua and daniel are being refined in sweet ways.

Perhaps all of that seems trivial, but I want you to know that you are an example to me and my "authentic journey" ... I'm not going to gunk it up with popular hopes ... I just want God ... I mean, trials, broken relationships, CRAZY TURNS OF EVENTS ... has the Spirit left me. NOPE! WHOO! Hate to cut it short but its time for Inductive Bible Study!!