Saturday, July 15, 2006

Southern Baptism

I go to a Southern Baptist church. There is something self-deprecating in even admitting to that, where I work. I teach at a state college. If I said I was a Wiccan, I would probably get more interest in my faith. My colleagues change the subject if I bring up my faith or even my church involvement. It's actually kind of funny; it's tempting to do it just to make them uncomfortable or see their reaction. Since I have no fear of losing my position--they need me desperately, as people with my credentials are hard to find--I don't shy from doing it.

I have only attended a Southern Baptist church for less than three years. Before that, it was a Presbyterian Church of America congregation, which I preferred in terms of worship but decided to leave for complicated family reasons. I miss the mini-liturgy of the PCA. Before that it was more fundamentalist fellowships, and that is a story in itself. Being an ex-fundamentalist is like being a recovering alcoholic. Maybe I never really was a fundamentalist, but I played one in real life, so all that makes me is a hypocrite, which I still probably am.

Southern Baptism is the primary religion of the Southeast and it has spread far and wide. My pastor and my particular church are good people, but I have many issues with the Southern Baptist Convention. That makes me a true Baptist, because we are people who take issue. We should be people of the book, but I think we are more likely to just disagree.

My main issue with the Southern Baptist is that they really do think they are the chosen of the chosen. There may be Methodists and Presbyterians in heaven, but it's not because they were right about what they were believing. They were just right enough to get there. The old joke about Peter touring heaven and saying, "SHHHH. We have to be quiet around the Baptists; they think they are the only ones here" is too close to truth.

By thinking they are special, they are pretty oblivious to what's going on in the greater evangelical Christian world. Especially the persecuted church; is there some doctrine about not believing in persecution if you're Southern Baptist? I never hear it. Persecution must have ended in 300s AD. And worst of all, Southern Baptists don't know anything about history. I doubt one in one hundred knows much about the history of Baptists in Europe, England, and U.S. We just are. Worse, some of them think it was started by Jesus before His death. No, that was the real church, not these little subdivisions of it. Ironically, Baptists have a lot to be proud of in their history, but we don't even know to be proud.

Finally, my issue with Baptists is the "heaven is all that matters" theology. Life is a sacrament, all of it, here and there. Being happy with this life doesn't mean the afterlife is of no importance. There is a reason we are here and weren't taken home at conversion. We do have some level of responsibility for this planet. To their credit, Southern Baptists are generous and contributed massively to the hurricane relief. But I think they feel constrained in their giving; it should all be for evangelism, or it's worthless. Thankfully, God doesn't see it that way. As such, I think the "heaven is all that matters" theology has made us too strategic; help means conversions.

Jesus died for us knowing that not all people would be converted. That doesn't seem like the maximum return on his investment, but that's not what service and sacrifice and sacrament are about.

Confronting Job IV

Tomorrow is my last day of teaching the book of Job to my tiny Sunday School class in a not-so-tiny Southern Baptist church. I hope I have an audience, because it's a good lesson. It has meant a lot to me. The lesson is supposed to cover the last five chapters of Job, which is easy to do if you ignore the poetry and cut to the chase, but I am in awe of these metaphors and word pictures. If I hadn't been a Bible-believing Christian before I read this, I would have to become one. I don't see a human mind from 4,000 or more years ago coming up with this on its own.

So can we extract any lessons from these chapters? The first lesson we extract is that Job really didn't. He doesn't show a bulleted PowerPoint slide of "take home points" here. He gets it, but what he really gets is that he doesn't get it. He understands his place in the universe, that it is not only unwise and bad philosophy to criticize God, but sinful as well, and that he was doing so in all his beautifully written rantings about the wicked. We could understand if he moaned about how bad he felt, but why keep criticizing God about how He judges the world? And that's exactly the summary of God's challenges. "You're just not in the position to do what you're doing, Job." Job can't judge, he can't control, he can't explain how nature works, he wasn't around helping out with creation. Accept it.

Consequently, Job doesn't get an answer about why he suffered. We are left to ponder the same for ourselves, I think. We can't point to cause-effect, not really. Medical science likes us to, but people who never drink get schirrosis of the liver; people who never smoke die of lung cancer. People who weigh 300 pounds have healthy cholesterol; thin vegetarians are told to take statin drugs. No easy answers on the whys of suffering, just that God allows it and we are to learn or grow from it in some way that may or may not be clear at the time.

It strikes me how much imagination one must have to exercise faith. Why anyone would see those as two separate realms of the mind is beyond me. It takes oceans of imagination to deal with a God who is isn't tit for tat in His dealings with us, to consider all the angles here.

If there is another lesson, it is how distinct Biblical revelation is from all other religions. No karma. No "god in the box" paganism where we can control the deities with the right incantations and rituals. No "god in the tree" pantheism, where the gods live in the nature or nature is some sort of offspring or body excretion of the gods (God asks Job, "From whose womb does the ice and snow come?" I think that's a direct reference to the paganism of his three friends, who really don't seem to have any sense of the biblical God. )

And God comes to Job. Ah, the sweetness of these words. We cannot go to Him, so He comes to us. Maybe in a whirlwind, maybe in a still small voice, maybe through the actions of others, and most likely through the word, but He comes to us. Job didn't figure it out for himself, and God didn't send him a telegram. God came in person.

Job's repentance is not related to his restoration. It is often assumed that it is, but not really. Job is still suffering when he repents, he is still suffering when he prays for his friends. As far as Job is concerned, he doesn't connect those to a hope of the boils clearing up or getting his property back. He just does it. God was right, all along; Job did serve God for nothing but to please God alone. God wins the challenge, not that there was ever any doubt.

Finally, the lesson of Job is to accept your place in the universe. We spend so much time striving against who and where we are. That is not what a hero is; that is what a celebrity is. Celebrities spend all their time being someone other than who they are. Man is the pinnacle of creation; he is also the creature most corrupting of it. Man is incredibly stupid for all his knowledge. I have never been happy with myself or my lot in life, not really. It seemed wrong to be satisfied with one's life. I have plans, to start a business, get a doctorate, be a college president, to run for office, to do enough for three lifetimes. Wanting position for its own sake is pretty vain, Job teaches us, because we are not the one in charge, and having position is a way of convincing ourselves we are. Position and power are fine if given, but evil if pursued with a vengeance. I am reading Bonhoeffer, and his willingness to throw away his education and possible power for what was right for the church in Germany cuts me to the heart.

Confronting Job IV

Tomorrow is my last day of teaching the book of Job to my tiny Sunday School class in a not-so-tiny Southern Baptist church. I hope I have an audience, because it's a good lesson. It has meant a lot to me. The lesson is supposed to cover the last five chapters of Job, which is easy to do if you ignore the poetry and cut to the chase, but I am in awe of these metaphors and word pictures. If I hadn't been a Bible-believing Christian before I read this, I would have to become one. I don't see a human mind from 4,000 or more years ago coming up with this on its own.

So can we extract any lessons from these chapters? The first lesson we extract is that Job really didn't. He doesn't show a bulleted PowerPoint slide of "take home points" here. He gets it, but what he really gets is that he doesn't get it. He understands his place in the universe, that it is not only unwise and bad philosophy to criticize God, but sinful as well, and that he was doing so in all his beautifully written rantings about the wicked. We could understand if he moaned about how bad he felt, but why keep criticizing God about how He judges the world? And that's exactly the summary of God's challenges. "You're just not in the position to do what you're doing, Job." Job can't judge, he can't control, he can't explain how nature works, he wasn't around helping out with creation. Accept it.

Consequently, Job doesn't get an answer about why he suffered. We are left to ponder the same for ourselves, I think. We can't point to cause-effect, not really. Medical science likes us to, but people who never drink get schirrosis of the liver; people who never smoke die of lung cancer. People who weigh 300 pounds have healthy cholesterol; thin vegetarians are told to take statin drugs. No easy answers on the whys of suffering, just that God allows it and we are to learn or grow from it in some way that may or may not be clear at the time.

It strikes me how much imagination one must have to exercise faith. Why anyone would see those as two separate realms of the mind is beyond me. It takes oceans of imagination to deal with a God who is isn't tit for tat in His dealings with us, to consider all the angles here.

If there is another lesson, it is how distinct Biblical revelation is from all other religions. No karma. No "god in the box" paganism where we can control the deities with the right incantations and rituals. No "god in the tree" pantheism, where the gods live in the nature or nature is some sort of offspring or body excretion of the gods (God asks Job, "From whose womb does the ice and snow come?" I think that's a direct reference to the paganism of his three friends, who really don't seem to have any sense of the biblical God. )

And God comes to Job. Ah, the sweetness of these words. We cannot go to Him, so He comes to us. Maybe in a whirlwind, maybe in a still small voice, maybe through the actions of others, and most likely through the word, but He comes to us. Job didn't figure it out for himself, and God didn't send him a telegram. God came in person.

Job's repentance is not related to his restoration. It is often assumed that it is, but not really. Job is still suffering when he repents, he is still suffering when he prays for his friends. As far as Job is concerned, he doesn't connect those to a hope of the boils clearing up or getting his property back. He just does it. God was right, all along; Job did serve God for nothing but to please God alone. God wins the challenge, not that there was ever any doubt.

Finally, the lesson of Job is to accept your place in the universe. We spend so much time striving against who and where we are. That is not what a hero is; that is what a celebrity is. Celebrities spend all their time being someone other than who they are. Man is the pinnacle of creation; he is also the creature most corrupting of it. Man is incredibly stupid for all his knowledge. I have never been happy with myself or my lot in life, not really. It seemed wrong to be satisfied with one's life. I have plans, to start a business, get a doctorate, be a college president, to run for office, to do enough for three lifetimes. Wanting position for its own sake is pretty vain, Job teaches us, because we are not the one in charge, and having position is a way of convincing ourselves we are. Position and power are fine if given, but evil if pursued with a vengeance. I am reading Bonhoeffer, and his willingness to throw away his education and possible power for what was right for the church in Germany cuts me to the heart.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Confronting Job III

Why do we portray Jesus, visually and verbally, the way we do? With so little regard for the realities of the texts of the gospels?

I wonder if other Christians struggle with getting rid of that white tunicked, blue-sashed, ethereal, sad-eyed, straight-haired, gently-gesturing Jesus who seems to block my way on the journey to know the real Jesus?

It’s all wrong, and I’m trying to get past it. Perhaps the mushy Jesus is a victim of one of the primary doctrines of Jesus’ life on earth, one that we misinterpret, leading us to come up with a Jesus who wasn’t totally in charge of His mission.

I speak of the suffering of Jesus. Evangelical Protestants don’t really focus on the suffering of Jesus, but the New Testament does. The writer of Hebrews states: "Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested" (Heb. 2:18). Right after the glory and approval of Christ’s baptism, we see Him cast out, driven into the desert to be tempted or, more likely, hounded by Satan and His own humanity. We have a hard time reconciling a Jesus who is human and who suffered and yet was in control the whole time He was here, who was orchestrating the Passion week and before and after, who was orchestrating the forty days in the desert.

Suffering has been a subject of reflection for me recently because I’m teaching the book of Job, and Job really doesn’t make any sense ripped from the context of the Messiah-driven Old Testament and cross-based New Testament. Yes, one can read it as a dramatic or literary form and benefit, but the Christian hits a brick wall, I think, without looking at it from this side of the cross.

Job and Jesus do not have a great deal in common, really, except for the fact of their suffering. Job did not have the benefit of a savior who had suffered to whom he could look. So he had to ask the same questions we would, hold onto his own integrity (as perhaps we could), lift his complaint to a dead sky, endure the karma-based rantings of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, and then listen to the more reasonable but still coldly correct theology of Elihu who sees the sovereignty of grace but not grace’s love and intimacy.

I’m teaching Elihu’s section tomorrow. He is right, in so many ways. He presents a world not based on cycles of punishment or retribution but the plan of the personal, just, holy, powerful, all-knowing Almighty. His words are a forerunner to the LORD’s speech, but they are not the LORD’s speech, because God can speak for Himself (which Elihu isn’t quite sure about; he thinks both God and Job really, really need him). I know a lot of Elihus; shoot, I’ve been Elihu.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth.” Amen and amen. God tells us to think, consider, believe, and obey in many forms, but never to “feel.” That’s not because emotions are unimportant or have no place. It’s because God knows that we will have the emotions without being told, and that no amount of telling us to have “good” emotions will work; the emotions have to come from somewhere, what we think and believe and do. How is this relevant? Elihu doesn’t realize it, but he is leaving out the emotions, the heart. He has little empathy for Job; only anger, it seems. We can have the almost right doctrine, but only the truly right doctrine, the doctrine that includes the mysteries of the incarnation and the cross, can take care of the heart as well as the mind.

Somehow, and this is the one question I would ask Jesus if I could, somehow, being human and suffering taught Jesus Christ something. The New Testament says much more about Jesus’ suffering as a human being (and before the passion) than we study or acknowledge; maybe we do think suffering translates to powerlessness, or maybe we can’t get used to the idea that He learned from suffering. How could God learn?

And if it taught Him something, what about us? Thinking that suffering is only about our spiritual benefit is somewhat limited, because we expect that benefit to be immediate; as soon as the trial is over, we’ll get it, we’ll understand, and we can go on happy and confident we won’t have to go through anything like that again since we learned our lesson, we gained another peg on the maturity scale. Yes, suffering does bring spiritual benefit to ourselves, but in a much larger, long-term, behind-the-scenes way than we can imagine before and during and even after the trial, if indeed the trial ever ends.

When the book of Job is over, we know a few things. Job was not being punished. Job didn’t say, “I’ll stop doing that sin now, I’ve learned my lesson.” Elihu was not commended although the other three were reprimanded (perhaps as much for their lack of empathy as their doctrine). God is big enough to take our questions and complaints, but He doesn’t share His glory with another and He has given us plenty of evidence that He’s in control and we’re not. Job never knew the cosmic drama behind his suffering. We don’t get neat answers to Job’s suffering or a bulleted list of what doctrines/life lessons he was supposed to learn.

Suffering is a mystery that the God who uses suffering went through Himself. Job lets us see somebody actually suffering. We see the contrast of a man who undergoes the worst and the speculations of those who have not. It is only after the suffering, usually much later, that a person has earned the right or the ability to discuss it in clear terms, terms that put abstractions into flesh. I do not feel I have earned the ability or right to talk about suffering, not really, although some may think I have. I could point to trials of life, but they pale besides losing a child or being stricken with a life-altering disease. We are better off to feel that way, I think, to be conservative about making pronouncements about suffering, and to only sit by the afflicted loved one for a week or longer without words.

Perhaps that is why the shortest verse in the Bible tells us that Jesus wept at the death of a friend and the uncomprehending grief of his friend’s sister. This man bears little resemblance to that figure of the clean robe and vacant expression, and he looks much like the father who sits outside the ICU, waiting for the half-hour visit with his injured child, or the elderly man who accepts visitors at his wife’s funeral, or the Old Testament saint who sits in a dirty tunic outside the city, covered with sores.

Franky Planner Quotes, Take 1

I am going to start a regular feature here where I comment upon the daily quotations that the Franklin Covey people put in their planners.  ...