Sunday, August 28, 2005

God's Goodness and his Love

About three years ago, I was in a position where I was forced to ask myself whether God really was as good as his press agents had made him out to be.

Those who know me well, know what I'm talking about. At the time, I was the foster father to a 2-year-old boy who had suffered severe neglect at the hands of his parents and was developmentally delayed in every area but size. Our son had been with us since January that year, and as August rolled to a close, it was painfully obvious that he was headed back to his parents, who, even the social worker agreed, hadn't shown the least sign of changing.

At the time, I raged against God. Jesus warned that if anyone destroyed a child, it would be better for that person never to have been born — yet here God was, allowing a helpless child to be thrown back to the wolves, just as the boy was starting to benefit from being with us.

It was the age-old question. If God is so good, then why wasn't he doing anything? What's the point of following him if he's just going to lead you into a pit and leave you there?

Even a cursory view of the Bible shows that these aren't new questions. The psalmists regularly upbraided God for his indifference to their situation. King David complained that evil men had surrounded him, mocking both him and God, and yet still God did nothing. And yet the Bible repeatedly claims that God is good, full of love, and that his mercies endure forever.

The Apostle Paul, when he's writing his epistle to the Roman church, appeals to Nature as evidence of God's goodness: The rain, he points out, falls upon the just and the unjust, because God is patient and merciful with all people.

I've always wondered if Paul couldn't have picked a better example. If the rain falls on people without regard for their individual status before God, it's also true that drought hits them equally hard. The virtuous suffer just as much as the wicked when there's nothing to drink and the crops shrivel up in the ground. If anything, they suffer more, since times of drought and hardship are when the corrupt are at their most powerful. If anything, rainfall seems to argue for God's indifference. Maybe God knows every time a sparrow falls to the ground, but it's not as though he did anything to save the sparrow's life, is it?

If God is merciful to the unjust, why can’t he be a little kinder to their victims? A man as evil as Adolf Hitler knew what it was like to be in love, to enjoy a good meal, and to see the first flower of spring — even as Hitler and his agents were systematically denying those pleasures to six million Jews. Men as full of hate as Osama bin Laden have known the joy of holding their own newborn babies, but there are many victims of al Qaeda's terror who never got to see their children born.

Sometimes it seems that God's not just indifferent, he's actively cruel. Terrorists blow up children; industries dump toxins into the air and water, and refuse to clean them up; dedicated employees find their pension funds pilfered by wealthy and unscrupulous CEOs; the rich get richer while everyone else gets poorer and we're told this is sound economics and good for the country; senior citizens have to choose between buying heart medicine and food, and property taxes just went up again. All this happens, and God just sits by.

We can say it's life that's unfair, not God, but that feels like a cheat, a way to let God off the hook. If he's so full of the milk of kindness, then why doesn't he actually do something about it? Millions of children die every year from unsafe drinking water, and the best he can do is have an ineffable purpose we can't grasp? Good theology means nothing to a beggar whose only child lies cold and unmoving in her arms.

Meaningless suffering, particularly the pointless suffering of children, is the most unanswerable argument against God's goodness that I have ever encountered. As Philip Yancey discovered when he wrote "Disappointment with God," the raw emotional honesty born of needless pain puts the lie to our glorious statements that it all serves a purpose. Our arguments falter, our words feel empty, and if we have any wisdom at all in us, we shut up.

We shut up, because God is good. And the beauty of God's goodness isn't found in clever arguments or deep theological responses. God's goodness is found in his suffering, and he is revealed when we get close enough to suffer with one another.

It's in the Cross.

The Cross is the lynchpin of human existence. On the Cross, Christ became the embodiment of sin. On the Cross, Christ revealed the full measure of righteousness. When we suffer because of our sins, Christ suffers with us and bears the greater burden. When we suffer for the sake of righteousness, then we join in his suffering and can look forward to the same victory that he claimed once the suffering has ended. And when we suffer through no fault of our own but simply because life is unfair, then we can know that Christ endured those things too, and we can take comfort that he understands.

So if the Cross is the fullest expression of God's love, and if it suffuses all human history with meaning, what does that mean? It means that the whole of human history, from the day God breathed life into Adam down to the advent of the New Jerusalem (and far, far beyond that) is also an expression of God's love.

It's only been in the last few years that I've really started to gain a mature understanding of God's love. I can't speak for anyone else, but for the longest time, I don't think I loved God as much as I was just in love with him. For comparison, look at the relationship I now have with my wife.

When we started dating, and when we first married, we had periods marked by a giddy, heady feeling of euphoria. She was sensitive, charming, well-mannered and considerate. She laughed at my jokes, shared my interest in science fiction and fantasy, and held the same religious convictions as me. All I could think about was how much I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. We were in love.

Since we married almost seven years ago, there have been times I've wanted to scream. She's nagged me, criticized the way I fold the laundry, delivered withering critiques of projects I was proud of, and blown up at me for not being able to read her mind. Once, when I had got up early and done a number of things just for her, she left me in tears within an hour by complaining about how I had done each of those things without once stopping to thank me for doing them in the first place.

The sun and the moon still set on her, the stars above still circle her, and I'm still amazed that she wants to spend the rest of her life with me, but our relationship has matured. There have been times for each of us when it would have been easier to walk out, but we stayed. That's not being "in love" -- that is love, and it's much more satisfying.

One of the more captivating illustrations I've found for describing God's love is a cold mountain river. It's wild, and uncontainable, and it's rushing with irresistible force down the rapids. We're caught in the stream, buffeted and bruised, cold and unable to grip anything. The air is crisp and cool as we're swept along, sometimes falling beneath the surface for a moment before we burst out, gasping for breath.

Losing ourselves in God's love means surrendering ourselves to the current, and letting it carry us over the waterfall, trusting that when the river dashes us against the rocks, we'll come to life more than ever before.

Losing ourselves in God's love means living in the Cross, because that was where God most fully stepped into history. Christ's whole ministry was a preamble to the Cross; the church's whole history has been an epilogue to the Resurrection.

And living in the Cross, of course, means living outside the demands of law. That's tougher to accomplish than we like to think, because while we properly understand the relevance of the Cross to ceremonial and sacrificial law, we miss its relevance to moral law. We see the Cross as putting the finishing touch on our behavior; as though once we have made our best efforts and tried our hardest, God's grace kicks in makes our efforts complete. The only problem is, that's not grace. It's law, and law never heals, it only kills.

Ask a divorcee. Chances are, they'll be able to tell you about the times they fell into this trap. "If I had only been a better wife, he wouldn't have left me" or "If I had been a more attentive husband, she wouldn't have felt neglected." If I hadn't spent so many hours at work, if I hadn't been home so much, if I hadn't forgotten to fix the roof. Parents do the same thing. "If I had been a better parent, my child wouldn't be gay." "If I hadn't been so strict, he would love me more." If, if, if.

You can also see the flip side, where Christians, without thinking, point to God's kindness or blessing as their reward for obedience or due discipline. "Oh, it's all by the grace of God it worked out this way. We just followed the scriptural principles on how to raise our children, on how to keep our marriage vibrant, and on how to balance work and home life. Without the Lord, it would have been a disaster." (Notice the statement of pride? Although they're claiming to give God credit, they're also stressing how much they did to earn God's favor — and they're also reinforcing the guilt feelings of everyone whose life hasn't worked out so nicely.)

The truth is, you can do your best job and still fail, or do a rotten job and have everything work out just fine. Influence still exists, but Christ died to free us from the law. The law, if we were under it, would result in utter failure for all of us, since none of us is capable of following the law and to break the least part is to be guilty of breaking it all. By living under the law, we subject ourselves to a burden that steals our joy, keeps us from experiencing Christ's love, and leaves us miserable and alone.

Living in the Cross means letting go of our self-imposed performance expectations and allowing ourselves to act out of love rather than obligation. When James tells us that faith without works is dead, he means not that we do things because God still expects us to perform good deeds, but that our faith will express itself in tangible ways as we love those around us. Being involved in a soup kitchen because "Christians care about the poor" is the first kind of act; it's law. Being involved in a soup kitchen to help the people there because they need the help springs from a different source, and is an act of love. Same action, different heart.

The other hard part about living in the Cross -- and really, it's the same hard part, just seen from a different perspective -- is learning to love.

Honestly, I have no idea how to do that. It's hard — nearly impossible, really — to get close to someone whose behavior is odious. Yet Christ not only did it with the Samaritan prostitute he met at the well, he did it with virtually everyone he met. A collaborator with the Romans was one of his disciples, and so was a reactionary who wanted to kill all the Romans and their collaborators. Jesus didn't get grossed out by lepers or offended by people who committed adultery. When a Roman centurion came to request a healing, Jesus didn't bat an eye at delivering a miracle for him, even though the man was a trained killer.

Jesus didn't love people because he could understand them, because he wanted them to believe, or because he felt obligated. He loved people because they were people. I don't know how he did it, to be honest.

But on those rare occasions where we pull it off, where we love the way that he did, where we share their pain instead of merely feeling it, where we open our lives to "sinners" without fear that they will pull us away from God, where we really and completely die to ourselves, to this world and even to what our churches expect of us — when we do that, people see God.
And they know that he is good.

Copyright @copy; 2005 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, August 26, 2005

A Story worth Reading

It's long and not as polished as the latest bestseller, but it's better than anything I've seen in a Christian bookstore. It's about a college student's friendship with a student who did drugs and earned money as a porn star.

Read the story here.

It's best summed up in the author's own words: "Perhaps the beauty of God is not only found in the neatly packaged salvation stories. Perhaps the beauty of God is instead found in the depth and ugliness of our lives."

Friday, August 12, 2005

In Search of Community

Somebody once said, "With God and books, no man need ever lack for companionship." Nice thought. Ten bucks says they didn't believe it either.

Don't you ever get tired of being lonely? Maybe I'm feeling this way because it's quarter past four in the morning and I can't sleep because of my insomnia, but I'm weary to the bone of it. I'm tired of the pretense required for relationships. I don't want people to accept me because they think I'm clever, witty, intelligent, sincere, or because I have an uplifting disposition and cheery smile. I want to be accepted for who and what I am, even the parts of me that are unpleasant.

Why is it so difficult to have an honest relationship with another human being? Is God the only person who can look at our quirks and not be so disturbed that he limits the relationship to a hearty handshake every Sunday, with a vague promise that he'll invite us over to his place for dinner sometime?

What relationships we do have often are shallow and exist for a reason other than for their own sake. We have friendships with the parents of our children's playmates, with the people who suffer with us at work, with people we think can help us, and with people we adopt as special projects. We argue politics, we discuss religion, we analyze the latest movies and salivate together over the upcoming football season. There is nothing real or substantial about any of these relationships: no understanding, no passion, no commitment — and in our hearts we know it.

The church claims to be inviting and it even offers unconditional love, but in my experience it usually doesn't mean it. You're welcome at church if you vote Republican, dress smart, support middle-class values, believe the right things, and don't rock the boat. Don't even bother attending if you're gay, lesbian, voted for Kerry last year, or doodle on the bulletin while the choir sings "Nearer my God to Thee."

God didn't intend for us to be drones that act, talk and think like everyone else. He gave us each gifts, abilities, insights and a personality that adds something unique to the mix. Put us together right, and you should have a dynamic community where everybody's needs are met, where the community at large benefits, and where people flock to join God's kingdom every day. Unfortunately, being put together properly means having a relationship, and relationships aren't easy.

Not long ago, I belonged to a church in New Jersey that prided itself on the depth of the relationships among its members. To the church's credit, it was truly unique in my experience in its commitment to building community. Through a concatenation of events not worth getting into here, the church self-destructed in 2002 after a year under a new, manipulative pastor.

How many of the relationships forged in that church survived its destruction? I can't speak for the other refugees, but most of ours didn't last. I could rattle off a list of people we used to associate with on a regular basis from that church. My wife and I ate dinner at their homes; we went on double dates with them; we invited them to our wedding, our housewarming, and to our first daughter's baby dedication. No longer.

It's as if, once we stopped going to the same church and no longer saw each other every week, all the things we had had in common suddenly dried up. Now when we bump into one another at the supermarket, we stare at one another in awkward silence and fumble for something to say. If we're lucky, we've seen three of those families once in the past year. Our social calendar is empty and we're left to navigate parenthood and marriage on our own.

In fact, my wife and I have managed to maintain a few relationships with refugees from our old church, but that's because we have an excuse to. Every week we attend a Bible study one of them hosts, where three other former refugees attend. Take away that study, and the whole support structure for our continued familiarity goes with it.

I want to believe that it's possible to have relationships that are real and honest, but I've seen little enough evidence that they're anything less than miraculous. It takes time to build that trust, and only a moment to shatter it. Loving another person, letting them see the face that hides behind the mask, means opening ourselves up to pain, and it can hurt just as much when the person stays as when they leave.

We pass most of our lives so utterly alone, even as we protest how much relationships matter, and how much we want to be with other people. I'm tired of being alone. I want to belong, and too often, I find myself standing alone.

Copyright © 2005 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Masks: A Monologue

A barren stage, with a single chair or stool. On this stool sits ANNE, a woman in her mid- to late 30s, alone, wearing a plain, featureless mask.

ANNE. I imagine you'd like to know why I'm wearing a mask. It's really quite simple: It's better that way for both of us. I don't have to let you see more of me than is safe, and you don't have to know more about me than you feel comfortable with. As long as I wear this mask, you'll see what you want to. You'll accept me, and I can feel as though I belong.

Oh, I know it sounds odd, but it's true. If you knew who I really am -- if you knew for just one minute that I'm -- If you knew that I was a .... That I'm ... If you knew the truth about me, you would want nothing to do with me. It wouldn't matter that we've known each other for years or that our children play together. It wouldn't matter that we believe the same things about God, about politics, or that we root for the same baseball team. If I took off this mask, you would see me for who I am, and I would be alone again.

I know from experience how cruel that rejection can be. I had a friend, Elizabeth. We had been friends for five years, and had no secrets from each other, except one. One evening, when I was lonely and in pain, and I needed someone to understand me, I took off my mask and I let her see my true face. That was two years ago. I haven’t heard from her since.

So I've made my mask as lifelike and acceptable as possible. I've married, and I've had children. My mask lets people feel comfortable around me, and I feel safe, even though the dishonesty cuts me like a knife and there are times I wish it would all end.

The truth is, I've been wearing masks for almost as long as I can remember. I started wearing them in school, when I was a child, because I dreaded being tormented by my classmates. When I reached college, I saw how supposedly tolerant people treated those who wore no masks at all, so I clutched mine tight and never let anyone see the face I hid underneath. I wear one mask at work to help my career, I wear another with friends, and still another with the parents of my children's schoolmates . I have masks for every occasion, for every purpose, and for everyone I meet.

And most importantly, I have a mask that I wear here, at church.

I know a few of you are thinking how wrong I am, that this is one place I should feel comfortable to take off my mask and let people see me for who I really am. I might actually believe that if I thought that you do.

But you don't. I'm looking right now, and all I see ... all I see, is a sea of masks.

Copyright © 2005 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Waiting to Fly

Once there was a man who could fly.

How Daedalos happened to gain this unusual ability, no one really knows. Some say he was a wizard, and having trapped the four winds in a leather sack, refused to release them until Aeolus gave him wings. Other people insist he was a wise man, not a wizard, and had made the wings himself after studying birds. Daedalos himself never said which it was, but if he did kidnap the winds, they evidently forgave him, because his ability to fly soon became legendary throughout the city.

It started one morning down by the Acropolis when an Athenian going about his business nearly tripped over another who was standing stock-still, his neck tilted backward and his eyes staring in disbelief at the sky. Soon a crowd had formed, dozens of necks straining and twisting, and the entire city was watching Daedalos chase a falcon through the air.

No one wanted to learn how he did it, but it soon became a popular pastime to watch him as he flew. When the air was relaxed and cool, Daedalos would glide gently along wherever the breeze took him. In the fall, when a heavenly roar echoed through the sky, Daedalos would throw himself into the air. As long as the weather held, the city would echo with his laughter. The wind would drive him one place and another, casting him down toward the streets before hurtling him upward once more; one moment dancing in wild and reckless swoops, the next wrestling like friends in a passionate embrace.

"When you fly, it's as though you're free of everything that ties you down on this earth," he once said. "You no longer worry about which path to take, or feel concerned about the petty details that seem so important the rest of the time. The wind can be savage, but you know it'll never hurt you, not really. Sometimes you can’t shake the dread of where it might blow you, but at the same time, you're inexpressibly free."

One day, the wind carried Daedalos out to sea. It wasn't until Athens started to recede from view that he began to feel the first pangs of concern. Concern became fear as the land dwindled to a speck, and when it vanished from sight, he turned to panic. He beat the air with his wings as hard as he could, but to no avail. The land stayed hidden, and beneath him rolled the unending waves of the Aegean Sea.

It wasn't until he had reached Crete that the wind finally died down. It slowed and stilled, and it gently deposited him on the ground, and then it was gone.

With no way off the island, Daedalos put his time on Crete to the best use he could. He worked a while for the palace, erecting a maze to conceal and to contain one of the king's more monstrous secrets. With the wealth he earned that way, he bought himself a home, where he began to teach those who would listen what he knew of the wind and its ways.

But most of all, he waited. By night he dreamed of flying over the sea, unencumbered by earthly concerns, going wherever the wind would take him. By day, he watched his students master what he taught them, then make wings of their own and join the seagulls in flight. He heard tantalizing stories of storms, of breezes, or of squalls that blew for others, but if he caught them at all, their strength never lasted. Daedalos would sail into the air for the briefest moment, and then the breeze would carry him to the ground and leave him there with a soft moan.

One night, when Daedalos had been on Crete for so long that he almost believed his stories of flying were nothing more than idle fantasy, he heard the soft rustle of the leaves on the trees. At first he ignored it, but the motion became more insistent, and at last he went outside.

All around him, trees were swaying. From the shore he heard the crash of the waves upon the rocks. Overhead, the clouds rolled and tumbled as they flew past, throwing the ground into light and darkness as they hid and uncovered the moon.

"At last," he whispered.

His fingers trembling with fear, Daedalos picked up the wings he had worn years before when the wind had brought him here. His aged limbs shook as he climbed the ladder to the roof of his home, and then he stood there for a moment, basking in the glory as the air swept over him, blowing his gray hair and clearing away the dust in a rush of motion.

"At last," he said again, and he lifted his arms to his sides. His wings filled with air, and with a mighty laugh, he threw himself from the top of his house.

He was free at last.

Copyright © 2005 by David Learn. Used with permission.