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.
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.
- 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 the end, “life makes sense.”
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 clichés 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)