Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Links and Devotional

I started David Marshall’s True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture, and, while there certainly were some provocative or interesting passages in there that I want to highlight, I’m going to take a break today from blogging about Marshall’s work and instead share some items that I found in my reading, both on the Internet and also in print:

1. David Nilsen of the blog, The Screaming Kettle, was listing the guest posts on his blog for this year, as well as quoting a passage from each one of them. There were two posts there that stood out to me. One was by David’s sister, Shan, and it was entitled A Spectator Along God’s Highway. The other was by Dan McMonagle, and it was entitled Church Transition or Weird Dream.

a. Apparently, I’ve read and recommended Shan’s work before. Some time back, Rachel Held Evans recommended Shan’s excellent post, Why can’t church be more like the smoking section?, and I recommended that to others. The post that David recommended in his list of guest posts was Shan’s very first guest post on his blog, “A Spectator Along God’s Highway”. That post really spoke to me. The passage that I most appreciated was the following:

“I had believed earnestly during times of prayer and meditation and bible reading that many things were the ‘still small voice of the spirit’ leading me to believe or feel or do things only to later understand those either could not have been god or god was not kind. Either way, that left me in serious trouble. Either I can not hear/discern/know the spirit’s voice (and couldn’t, even in times of the truest obedience and faith I’ve had) or what god says is cold hearted and critical with no view to truly help me grow. I don’t want to believe the fault is god’s (or the word ‘god’ doesn’t really mean what I think it means), so that just leaves me to blame; basically I’m screwed. I’m just a broken down gypsy with no ride home — I want to get there from here, but I can’t walk fast enough and I have no wheels.”

That passage resonated with me because I have long struggled with how to identify the voice of God. Some Christians or spiritual people tell me that God’s voice is comforting and reassuring; others tell me that God’s voice is corrective and convicting. It gets complicated when conservative Christians say that the comforting and reassuring voice is really Satan speaking sweet nothings into our ear, and when the “corrective and convicting” voice is a mere put-down that makes me feel inadequate and does not help me to grow. I also identify with Shan’s metaphor of being a broken down gypsy with no ride home, for, in a number of areas (spirituality, career, blogging, relationships), there is a place where I would like to go, and I do not know how to get there. I don’t know how to get to the place where I am finally good enough and can feel at peace. I feel like I’m wandering in the wilderness, and I have no idea how to get to the Promised Land!

I liked what one of the commenters under Shan’s post, Robin, had to say:

“After 9 years of enforced proximity in the bus, I was tired of buses and freeways and the hustle and bustle and abuse of the ‘Christian’ life. I made a beeline for the forest. And there, for perhaps the first time in my life – I feel like I truly encountered God. I’d spent a life-time hearing about Him, but the noise of all the people trying to tell me who He was and what He wanted from me, often completely hindered my ability to hear from HIM! I’ve spent the last 6 years in the woods, and it has been wonderful. Hard, painful and incredibly demanding at times, but blessed and amazing at the same time. And, like Elijah and the Israelites, God was faithful in providing for my every need. I was happy in the forest and had no interest in returning to the highway ever again. Occasionally I would visit friends who invited me for a ride on their bus, but one ride was always enough to re-damage my soul, and left me with no desire to return.”

I identified with Robin’s comment because, for me, it does get tiring trying to appease other people’s beliefs as to how I should live the “Christian” life. I like solitude. Maybe I can hear from God in that solitary and quiet place. At the same time, unfortunately, I am also the sort of person who would like to be told what to do and to believe. Then, I could pat myself on the back when I do those things. Otherwise, I don’t know if I’m doing well or badly. So, in my opinion, there are advantages and disadvantages to spiritual freedom and spiritual slavery.

b. Dan McMonagle says the following in his post:

“In our church hunt, there were two churches we considered – a church plant from the same denomination about 10 miles away, and an older, more conservative church with about 120 members just a few blocks from home. We would have preferred the laidback, casual atmosphere of the denomination we were used to, but Valerie was also leading a small youth group of mostly un-churched girls, and she didn’t want to drop them. The older church had a youth group that we could merge with, so we visited them first. We also tried to visit the more casual church, but God had other plans. The Sunday we drove there, I didn’t bring a map and we couldn’t find the junior high where the church met (pre-GPS). After we stopped three different people and none of them knew where the school was, we figured we weren’t supposed to be there. So, we headed back to the conservative church a block from our home. And naturally, the pastor’s sermon was on point for where we were, and so we gave in: ‘Ok, Lord, if this is where You want us, we’re in.’”

I’ve heard stories about experiences that were similar to this. Looking back, I can think of times when I have yearned for some message that could uplift me, and I walk into a random church hoping to find that message, only to walk out of the church at the end of the service feeling disappointed. But there have also been times when the opposite has occurred: I actually do feel uplifted when I walk into a random church and hear a message.

What I liked about that passage from Dan’s post, though, was that it reinforced to me how I could spiritually grow in all sorts of houses of worship: mainline Protestant, evangelical Christian, Catholic, Unitarian-Universalist, Reform Jewish, Conservative Jewish, etc. (Not that Dan is saying that people should venture outside of Christianity, but that is the lesson that I’m getting from his post, even if that was not his original intent.) I tend to assume nowadays that a conservative evangelical church could offer nothing that I’d want, but that’s not necessarily true. Obviously, there are some places that I’d prefer to avoid: churches that emphasize getting doctrine exactly right, churches that obsess over Calvinism, churches that emphasize “accountability”, etc. But I think that there are a variety of settings in which I can learn about living a good, spiritual life with a healthy mindset.

2. I appreciated something that I read in Our Daily Bread last night: “Don’t worship God to gain his benefits—-you already have them”.

When I lived in New York City, I’d listen to Dennis Kiszonas’ radio program, Grace for Today. It was very dispensationalist in its orientation, and its message was that today is a time in which we are saved solely by grace through faith, which is looking to God to justify us. I remember its Thanksgiving program one year, and Kiszonas was saying that we can be thankful because we are saved by grace, and God has already given us spiritual blessings: we are assured of a place in the good afterlife, we have God’s love and favor, etc. Consequently, Kiszonas said, when someone cuts us off in traffic, we don’t have to get all upset about it, for we are saved by grace.

That was an outlook that I yearned for—-an attitude of hope, one that believed that God was for me rather than against me. My experience in the Christian religion and my reading of the Bible often taught me the opposite: that God approved of me if I obeyed, that I was a mistake because I was introverted and God wanted me to be an extrovert who reached out to people and witnessed, that I could only be saved if my faith produced good works, etc. I wanted to feel God’s love and grace.

Nowadays, I’m not sure of what I believe. Will I enter the good afterlife? I hope so. I no longer fret about going to hell, but, come to think of it, I’m not persuaded that Christianity has a corner on knowing the truth about what the afterlife will be like. Do I enjoy God’s approval? I hope. I just assume that I have it. But I’m not persuaded of that with every fiber of my being.

1 comment:

  1. On my wordpress blog, Dan McMonagle wrote:

    Thanks, James. This is Dan McMonagle commenting back — I am glad the post hit home with you as well (it’s so nice when someone hears what you’re saying and says “amen!”)

    While you’re right that I wouldn’t necessarily suggest people venture outside Christianity for their source of life and peace, I do agree that we can all glean from people with different types of faith, whether it’s Catholic vs. Protestant, traditional vs. modern, or even Christian vs. Jewish or Buddhist or even atheists. I believe the ultimate source of truth is found in Jesus, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have some sort of common ground with people that don’t believe in him.

    By the way, I can completely relate to you on the issue of being an introvert and feeling my works weren’t good enough. I’ve always struggled with the works vs. faith thing — in my head, I know I’m saved by grace through faith, but my emotions/personality tends to judge myself on the works that I’m doing. If I could encourage you in anything, it’d be that God will work through you using the gifts/talents you have, not the gifts/talents that you don’t. I’m horrible at traditional “witnessing” to people, but I’ve gotten better at not feeling guilty about that and instead focusing on giving glory to God through what I can do (typically related to music and writing.)

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