Note: The Nitty Gritty has undertaken a minor formatting change. Instead of the week number of the blog posting in the upper right-hand corner, you'll see the letter's number, in the order it was sent. This should make the fact that I've already sent the first 26 letters, but plan on posting the last 4 across the month of June while I take a break from letters to work on my book, less confusing.
April 24, 2018
I hope this letter finds you as happy as I remember you. As part of this year’s Project Gratitude, you’ve been on my list since it first started taking shape in late 2017. I want to thank you for taking me on as a helper back when you were working the farm. You were a joy to work for, or just be around, for that matter. If The Force consisted of positive energy, you’d be a Jedi Master.
I was scratching my head when I first learned that after moving to the outskirts of Marietta you were still driving about 40 miles each way to attend a little church in Pittsburgh, TX. But you invited me along on a Wednesday night, and then it all made sense— I was hooked. The full hearts that gathered there, at least in that particular season, were dialed in to the Spirit in a way I’d never seen and won’t forget. It was a blessing to be there.
At the time it made me question what was wrong with the little Baptist church down the street where God seemed to make one hour last for five on some Sunday mornings. By comparison, the atmosphere was like sitting at the bottom of a dry well and staring up at a cloudless sky while waiting and praying for rain that wouldn’t come.* At the little church in Pittsburgh, we seemed to splash through the water together as the well overflowed. Not to mention the ice cream – that homemade ice cream potluck was a different kind of awesome.
Thank you for taking me along for that experience, and for being the most vibrant, joy-filled, Christ-centered mentor I had in my youth.
*PS. When drafting this, I got carried away talking about the church-related things. I’ve read and thought a lot (maybe too much) about the subject over the past several years. I’ll include it as bonus material when your letter goes up at OneFaceInTheCrowd.com in case you’re interested.
Bonus Material [AKA, where I got carried away]
*At the time I told myself that maybe as “the body of Christ” different churches function as different parts of the anatomy. Some more structured and analytical (the brain) and others more service-oriented (hands) or emotionally-driven (the heart.) I think my fascination with the church began there, from the experiences offered by different denominations and non-denominations that claim to understand God and teach from the same book, but are still so drastically different.
Several years ago, reading Christianity’s Dangerous Idea by Alister McGrath [that's a link to his letter.] The most significant takeaway for me was how much mainstream views and interpretations of scripture have changed over the last few centuries, let alone the 2000 years since Jesus. In light of our God being "the same yesterday, today, and forever," realization of the fluidity of Christian thought and legalism turned my black and white world decidedly gray.
An attempt to get a better handle on objective truth can be dangerous. I considered ideas that aren't sold at a Lifeway store, and that gave me some faith-related issues to work out “in fear and trembling.” The conclusion I reached is that if there’s any eternal hope to be had for the human race— past, present, or yet to come— the grace of God must be sufficient to cover misbelief— even unbelief. In hindsight, the idea that my own ability to hear and believe certain stories are true will reserve a place in eternal paradise for my afterlife avatar seems to give luck and myself as much credit for my salvation as the ultimate sacrifice I'm allegedly required to believe in to qualify.
I've never tasted despair so acutely as when I came to doubt the ideology upon which my sense of purpose was constructed. That would have been painful enough on its own, but even worse was the inability to share what I felt with 99.9% of the people closest to me without alienating myself, making them anxious for my eternal destiny, or dragging them down the rabbit hole with me before they were ready to deal with the psychological fallout. I like the way philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich touched on the inner turmoil that doubt brings when it takes one to the edge of faith to peer into the abyss of meaninglessness:
The courage to take the anxiety of meaninglessness upon oneself is the boundary line up to which the courage to be can go. Beyond it is mere non-being. Within it all forms of courage are re-established in the power of the God above the God of theism. The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.
— Paul Tillich, “The Courage to Be”Tillich also describes God, the God above the God of theism, as "the ground of being." When people completely lose all sense of hope and purpose, they essentially lose the "courage to be," often ending their own lives. I might have taken a figurative peek down the barrel of the gun, but I never stuck it in my mouth. Like many generations and cultures before us, to maintain hope and meaning in my life, I personally needed a re-tailored belief system that didn't conflict with my new understanding of reality. For me, that understanding seems to look more like a journey than a destination.
In light of the diversity of Christian thought and practice, how much the general consensus has changed over the course of recent history, and how literally, culturally, contextually, and linguistically removed we are from scripture’s original meaning and intent, I determined that “right belief" is virtually impossible, even if the Bible happens to be the most accurate source of divine truth ever assembled by mankind. So life is either far more hopeless than I once thought, because nobody knows the truth, or the grace of God is far more encompassing than I once believed. I cling to faith in the latter, since hope and purpose follow close behind oxygen, water, and calories on the spectrum of human necessities.
After moving across the water to Vashon Island a few months ago, we visited a few different churches, but haven’t settled. My wife prefers structure and expository teaching over freewheeling, as-the-spirit-leads-you type services. I’m her opposite— emotionally driven worship brings to the surface an essential part of who I am that usually stays buried in critical thinking, and maybe some scar tissue. It seems almost impossible to find a church with both of those elements. The more moving the worship, the more a church usually smacks of crooked DayStar prosperity gospel and 700 Club snake oil. The more structured and Bible-focused the teaching, the dryer the entire experience. I'm confident that an interesting sociology dissertation could be assembled around those facts.
We recently visited an Episcopal church, which is about as high-church as possible without going Catholic, Rastafarian, or, perhaps, the International Church of Cannabis. There was a lot of ceremonial scripture-moaning that, to me, isn’t worth the suffrage for the sake of thoughtful 12 minute homilies. I’ve always preferred trance-inducing 7-11 songs (7 words, 11 times) over trying to make two-syllable words last 10 seconds each while staying on key. But the homily delivered that day made me think, ironically, about the consequences of overthinking things.
Father Joseph spoke of fascination and how, when we’re fascinated with something, we always stand apart from it, at a safe distance, to view it objectively from different angles. For that reason, it’s impossible to be fascinated with something and consumed by it at the same time. The cynic in me thought it was a really nice way for him to say “don't think, just join a cult.” But it also helped me realize where I’ve been for the last 5 or so years— fascinated . . .with the church, Christianity, their contradictions, how they became what they are and influenced who I am. I've been so fascinated that its been impossible to be fully integrated. One can't bite the bullet and "buy-in" completely while still reading labels or sifting through conflicting reviews on Amazon.
But why couldn't a church be formed around our fascination with a God we'll never completely understand? It would be more honest and less arrogant than Biblical literalism. Different cultures, to different degrees, have been creating shrouds of theism to hang on our limited understanding of reality as beacons of hope in our own image since the beginning of civilization. My kind of church would acknowledge a God beyond the one we mortals have put in a box— or in books. It would be an emergent collective that embraces the mystery of the God behind even the mental idols we have constructed.
My kind of church would emphasize the example Jesus gave when he took the Pharisees to task for going through the motions and using doctrine as a tool to wield power and extract wealth from others. It would emphasize peace and showing grace as much as receiving the ultimate gift. I'm ready for communion with friends who can read and discuss the ideas of Marcus J. Borg and Walter Brueggemann and still be friends. I'm over G-rated country clubs with plush seats, mortgages, bowling lanes, full-time paid figureheads, and self-assured dogma. Process theology makes more sense in light of the fact that we will never understand God completely . . . Maybe I'm becoming a Quaker, and just don't know it yet? So goes the Journey!
When serious people of good faith disagree, they've got to go back into the narratives and come at it again. One of the problems in the church is that people are not willing to do that. People have arrived at a place where they think they have got the answer.