Sunday, July 24, 2005

Wasting your life

"I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked."
-- C.S. Lewis

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your hometown
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun

And you run and you run to catch up with the sun, but it’s sinking
And racing around to come up behind you again
The sun is the same in the relative way, but you’re older
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death

Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over, thought I’d something more to say.
-- Pink Floyd

And Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man's years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them, in drumming of fingers and kicking of heels, in whistling tunes that he does not like, or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which, once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off.
-- C.S. Lewis

Friday, July 22, 2005

Wisdom from a "Big, Fat Idiot"

Thank God for Rush Limbaugh.

I say this with a trace of irony, but I also say it with a lot of honesty. Thank God for Rush Limbaugh. He may be more entertainer than serious commentator, and he may not know what he's talking about half the time, but when he gets something right, he's dead-on.

Limbaugh was quoted a couple weeks ago in a story carried on Yahoo! news about the rise of the Religious Left. Given voice by groups like Sojourners and in publications like "The Wittenburg Door," the Religious Left is challenging the notion that to be a Christian means to be conservative, to vote Republican, or to support administrative policies like war in Iraq or tax breaks for the wealthy.

Limbaugh's comment: "The religious left in this country hates and despises the God of Christianity and Catholicism and whatever else. They despise it because they fear it and it's a threat, because that God has moral absolutes, that God has right and wrong, that God doesn't deal in nuance."

My first reaction, I admit, was to roll my eyes and call Limbaugh an idiot. I really couldn't figure out why he was being quoted. His fast and loose treatment of facts, combined with his infuriating Aren't-I-so-smart? style, makes him about as lampoonable as Michael Moore, and about as difficult to take seriously. Aside from the odd memorable sound bite, he's a lousy spokesman for reasoned conservatism.

Hate and despise God? That's ridiculous. I've been a Christian for seventeen years now, and I've grown more liberal the longer I've been a believer. Among the liberal causes I support are protecting our civil rights from governmental intrusion; tough hate-crime legislation; affordable housing; food, clothing and shelter for the homeless; civil unions for same-sex couples; education and self-improvement for those in prison; and an end to capital punishment. These are all liberal causes, and the positions I've adopted on them stem from my faith, which has been growing deeper, not shallower, over the years.

But you know something? Rush is dead-on. God has instilled moral absolutes into the world, and he doesn't deal in nuance. My effete liberalism offends him, it makes me an object of his wrath, and that absolutism is not something I feel comfortable with.

I read once that Jesus never intended anyone to feel righteous, and neither did Paul. The difference is that Paul's epistles include lists of sins, and that lets us feel superior to people who commit the sins that we don't. So conservatives in the church can rail against our libertine society, and feel good; and liberals can blast society for failing to feed the hungry, and feel good; and both groups completely miss the point that Paul's lists are actually fairly inclusive descriptions of human behavior and meant to remind us all of our own sins.

The issue at hand isn't whether I would perform an abortion or take part in a gay marriage, nor even whether I approve of those things. Nor is it whether Rush Limbaugh or someone else subscribes to the Bush administration's belief that giving tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans instead of to the people who stand to benefit the most with a little extra cash, counts as favoring the rich over the poor.

The issue is that I'm a sinner, and I do a poor job of upholding the standard of righteousness I profess to believe in.

I believe the dispossessed of society hold a special place in the economy of God, and I can show passage after passage of Scripture that bears this out. I can delineate with great fervor some of the injustices committed in my city, where affordable housing has been ripped up to install luxury high-rises; where homegrown businesses have been uprooted to make way for more upscale developments. I call this an injustice, I call it exploiting the poor, and I believe God sees it that way too. I've also done next to nothing about it.

I believe that people who presume to call themselves by God's name, as we do when we call ourselves Christians, have an obligation to love as he did, and that at a minimum, we should care for the people who live next door to us. Ask me the names of my neighbors. No, on second thought, please don't. I'd rather be spared the embarrassment.

I believe that we should pray for peace and lament when war comes, even if it is necessary; that we should pray for the persecuted church in the Middle East and elsewhere; and that we should pray for people who are imprisoned within their own hatred. That, at least, I do.

I believe a lot of things, but deliver on very few of those beliefs. It's nice to think that that's OK with God, that he'll wink at my failure to do anything meaningful with my life and say, "Oh, you meant well," and that he won't leave all my failures exposed for everyone to see.

I want God to be impressed. Everyone else is. I was a foster father three years ago. I was a missionary eleven years ago. I've led Bible studies and church ministries, tutored prison inmates and visited a sick neighbor in the hospital. Sadly, that's not enough. When all my sins are placed on the scales, weighted against the meager good I've done, even the heaviest feather won't be enough to tilt the scales in my favor.

And, like Rush said, that offends me. God's not going to bother too much over the nuance of why I stole a cheeseburger from McDonald's seventeen years ago, or why I haven't bothered to actually get to know the families across and down the street from me, or why I don't get out there and actually use the vision, the abilities and the means he's given me to make a difference in the world. He's not going to fret over how tired I was, or how I didn't know any better. And he's certainly not going to care that I thought my liberal views were better thought-out and more biblical than the conservative views that come from the Religious Right.

What I think he will care about is that about two weeks after I rolled my eyes at Rush, I realized he had a point. He'll remember that I started to think about all the ways I've failed to do anything meaningful with what I've learned and seen, and that I realized (once again) that I was being just as smug and self-righteous as I like to think Rush is, and repented.

And hopefully, it'll mark the beginning of a new period of grace in my life, when I learned to love a little better and looked a little more like his son, whom I claim to be following.

Thanks, Rush.

Copyright © 2005 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Whatever happened to stories?

What I miss most about Christianity is its stories.

Back when I was a teenager, and then just after I became a Christian, I loved to read the Bible. It had great stories, like the one where Joseph gets thrown into a pit and sold into slavery by his brothers. Then, just when he's the number-two guy in Egypt and thinks he's put his past behind him, his brothers show up unexpectedly and he almost decides to get even, but he breaks down in tears and just can't do it. Then there was the story of David, whose family was so ashamed of him they made him take care of the sheep, but he became such a great king that there are two whole books of the Old Testament about him and all the other kings got compared to him, and usually pretty badly. Those were great stories.

Somewhere along the line, the book of Genesis became a science textbook about origins, the book of Revelation became a cryptic account of the events leading up to Doomsday, and everything in-between became raw material in lessons in clean living, how-to manuals for spiritual growth, and textbooks on building sound doctrine. I don't read the Bible anymore. I study it instead.

I'm a poorer man for it. Once, when my daughter was feeling sick on a camping trip and none of her storybooks were handy, I started reading her the gospel of John from start to finish. I was amazed to discover that it wasn't disjointed like I had come to believe. It was a weirdly cool story with mystical-seeming themes about Christ's identity that moved and flowed through the text when I read it. Reading it that way taught me far more than I had ever learned through the analyze-it-to-death approach I learned in my college Christian fellowship years ago.

I miss reading good stories with a faith angle. Here's the plot of almost every book you'll find in the fiction section of your local religious bookstore: Someone had a problem; but then they became a Christian, prayed, or stood fast and quoted lots of Bible verses; and God took their problems away. They found love, they found happiness, they solved a crime, or their territory expanded, and everything was happy-happy.

Lord knows, we used to have some good stories, from "Lord of the Rings" and "The Chronicles of Narnia" to "Crime and Punishment" and "Les Misérables," with other stories like "A Christmas Carol" thrown in for good measure. (Of course, we find ways to drag them down. I've known Christians who believe that Tolkien and C.S. Lewis weren't "real" Christians, and I heard a few years ago about some church presenting "A Christian Christmas Carol," as though James 2:14 isn't as central to the gospel as John 3:16, and if Ebenezer Scrooge doesn't say the sinner's prayer, the evening's been a complete waste.)

I love stories that have never gone out of print, or that have survived for hundreds of years and have been published in dozens of languages all over the world. The Tom Clancys and John Grishams of the world may show a well-turned phrase or two, and their books may be a quick, easy read, but great literature survives because it meets our ancient need to tell stories that help us to understand ourselves and our relationships with one another, with God and the rest of his creation.

Stories that do those things survive the years and move across cultures because we all recognize some truth in them: the palpable aura of guilt that hangs on Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov, who had considered himself above the common burden of morality; or the self-sacrificing spirit that drives the life of a reformed Jean Valjean.

The Greek farmer Aesop used stories to teach homilies to little children. Jesus used them to teach profound truths to children and adults alike. He told parables about outwardly decent people who couldn't stand to see a brother welcomed home after disgracing himself and the family. He told stories about business managers who cheated their masters in order to make friends and guarantee their own futures, and stories about people with bad theology being better off than people who thought they had God figured out. He talked about kings being kept from their kingdoms, tenants who wouldn't make good on the lease, and fathers feeding snakes to their children.

It must have been infuriating to talk with Jesus when he got off on a storytelling kick. Ask him a simple question about who your neighbor is, and suddenly he's talking about people being beat half to death on the road to Jericho. Ask him why his disciples didn't wash their hands before eating, and before you know it, he's talking about people fasting during a wedding and pouring new wine into old wineskins.

In Mark 4:12, Jesus said that he spoke in parables so that people wouldn't understand what he was saying. That seems kind of odd, at first glance. It certainly doesn't seem like a good way to get tenure in the New Jersey public school system, at any rate.

On the other hand, we still remember and talk about Jesus' stories two thousand years later and all over the world. That's a lot better than I can say about the sermons my pastor preached last month, whatever they were.

Unlike sermons, which tie everything together with all the excitement and personal involvement of a board presentation, stories are open-ended and leave lots of room for discussion afterward. They stir the soul, and leave you plenty of room to draw your own conclusions and debate them with other people. What's there to discuss about a Sunday morning sermon? You can take it or leave it, but unless the preacher was in poor form, the sermon said what it said. It's no wonder that the world views Christianity as a narrow, dogmatic religion with no room for discussion.

I wonder what it would be like to attend a church where the services, from time to time, consisted of plays — good plays, mind you — performed by a drama ministry; where the pastor sometimes took a break from preaching just to read a Bible story from start to finish; and we all lost ourselves for a while in a good story.

If that ever happens, it'd be a tale worth the telling.

Copyright 2005 by David Learn. Used with permission.