As I was working out this morning, I had to smile because the word I was living in the middle of wasn’t the word I thought I was in the middle of. What I mean is this: About two years ago, in a quiet session of writing and prayer, six words came to me…no seven, and the first of those words was “possibility.” I’ve been reflecting on that word for awhile now, and I knew that the second word, “questions” was coming at some point, though I hadn’t really thought about it being quite yet.
But I am definitely in the period of questions.
Even as I start to type, I hesitate. Isn’t a guy like me, fifty-two years old, having thought and thought and though my whole life, a teacher of the Bible in both formal and informal settings, a man whose life has been lived under the wing of Christ and his Church for almost forty years, supposed to be over his questions by now? Obviously, if you know me, you know that’s not going to be the case. But sometimes, admittedly, I wish the questions would leave me alone, so I could whistle along the path certain of what I believe like most folks. But what does God want from us along these lines? Obedience, sure. Faith, sure. Love, to be very sure.
So given that, then what? The study of the Bible, sure. But now we come to the questions. As we encounter language, ancient language, translated language, meditated by streams of thinkers East and West over thousands of years, we have no choice but to make sense of what we hear, see, and experience. ”Interpret” is the word that comes to mind; in postmodern parlance, we “tell stories.” I grew up being told there was only one correct answer to Biblical interpretation on any given question. I have counseled adults who are genuinely grieving over what I consider to be small matters, and I honor their grief, their passion for what they value, but my story and my reading and my experience leads me to passion over different matters, matters many no doubt consider trivial. Fair enough. But these days, my faith journey requires that I pick up my cross and carry it, and the questions are carved into that cross.
But before the questions, there are the things I bank on. God is love. His concern for, compassion for, knowledge of, and respect for his creation must exceed my love for my children by the nth power, but I don’t believe it is so “other” that His love for us looks radically, unrecognizably different. What is love? Working for the good of the other, in adoration, in respect, in joy, in obedience, because somehow, they are worthy of nothing less. Thomas Merton articulated that for me years ago, and it remains my understanding. God is also holy. This is a harder thing to grasp. To be holy is truly “other”, and here there is great room for error. The great Shema declares that God is One, but often holiness and love are pitched against each other. To encounter the holiness of God is to be judged sinner and damned. (Think Isaiah 6, when Isaiah realizes his a man of unclean lips. Enter the presence of God, I once said, and your unholiness will be revealed.) To encounter the love of God is be given mercy and saved. (Think Isaiah 6 again, and the angel with the live coal that somehow freely atones for the sin Isaiah was worried about.)
Holiness and love. The character of God. And there’s more to bank on, things I am fairly certain of. I say it that way because its part of my faith that I need to keep a certain humility going about what I’m sure of. It keeps me from being offensive off the top. (I know some don’t care about that. ”Be offensive. Jesus was offensive!”) Yeah, well…there’s a time and a place for everything, but in the beginning of conversations with strangers and readers, I’m pretty sure being offensive is a conversation-stopper. Anyway, enough about the “meta-conversation”…More to bank on, that’s right. The love of Christ, the centrality of the cross to human experience, the reality of the resurrection. But even as I type those words, the questions are like pinballs inside me.
Truth is, I’m not a terribly orthodox sort of believer. I am not a narrower. You should see my mind-maps. I keep mapping out the information streaming in at us through the various branches of knowledge, thinking over the implications of brain studies, psychology (including the fairly new discipline of “positive psychology”–thriving…), philosophy (what’s after postmodernism), social sciences and politics (why are the poor poor, and once they’re not poor, what do they do then? How best does a country create energy, opportunity, and safety-nets?), and the list could go on and on. Technology, globalization, race relations, women’s issues, sexual issues…yes, there are principles to live by, and the wisdom of the ages gives us these…but still, so many questions….
I wonder how many of us are sitting in the pews these days wondering what I’m wondering…I haven’t read Rob Bell’s book Love Wins yet, but I watched the trailer he made to promote the book, and I know he’s at least wondering some of the same things. Destiny is one of the big ones…
Back to the play…emphasis on the word “play”…