Monthly Archives: April 2010

Feeling Over Knowing

Recently, my wife and I visited a church in the Nashville area.  Everyone was very nice, welcoming and sincere – I say that because I have a complaint to make, and certainly don’t mean to malign anyone there.  During the worship service, we were singing a song that I had never heard.  It was building up to the climax of a passionate chorus and the first line of that chorus read “All I need is to feel Your love”.

In that moment I had inadvertently stumbled upon a portion of the complaint I have with evangelical Christianity.  I have become more and more convinced that the ‘currents’ of evangelical Christianity are hostile (mostly unintentionally/unknowingly, sometimes intentionally) to intellectual discussion, and obsessed with feeling and experience over any other aspect of ‘understanding’.  That statement may sound harsh, and to my evangelical peers, I can only say that I’m sorry if it does, please hear me out.

I understand the evangelical case against many mainline denominations.  I grew up Presbyterian, and as I began to read the Bible for myself, I questioned why certain topics and passages were ignored.  As a 15-year-old, I saw no real passion or vibrancy in the faith of those around me.  Instead, I saw a group of people adhering to a particular Protestant tradition – and many were not recognizable as Christians when I saw them during the week.  Something inside me knew instinctively that if a Creator existed, then He wasn’t limited to the ‘safe’ and ‘docile’ presentation of Him that I witnessed at that particular church.  In my teens I was introduced to evangelical churches, and discovered Christians who were passionate about their faith, and who wanted to impact those around them.  I was fascinated with Scripture, and being around others so passionate about their faith was a breath of fresh air.  It wasn’t until years later that I began to discern some issues.

Around 13 years ago, a conversation with a co-worker revealed to me just how ill-equipped I was to discuss hard issues – life, death, suffering, justice, purpose – with those who didn’t hold the same faith.  I began to see that there wasn’t really much of an effort in many of the evangelical churches I’d attended to understand the world around them.  No one seemed to be asking “how did we get to where we are?”, and “How do we answer the questions posed by a postmodern world?”  Oh, don’t get me wrong, those churches were asking “How can we make Christianity appeal to those who don’t believe?”  Some call it “seeker-sensitive” – but that’s just one of many frustrating examples of a language ghetto that is encouraged.  Absolutely no effort was being made to understand the mix of philosophies that had led Western culture to where it now sits.  As a result, many evangelical churches have accepted premises that find their roots in worldviews hostile to Christian thought.  We’re encouraged to share our faith, but without any foundation in apologetics.  And when we encounter someone who questions back, we’re given a trite response of encouragement, as if the sole failure is on the part of the ‘hearer’.

My Presbyterian heritage was fairly rich when it came to thought and teaching, though it was sorely lacking in many other respects.  But my complaint with evangelicalism is that anything smacking of tradition is dismissed as legalism and intellectual debate is dismissed as “the pride of man”.  There is such an emphasis on feeling and experience – both of which are an integral part of a much larger whole – but I fear it’s an over-emphasis.  Evangelical leaders lament the ‘consumer’ nature of many congregants, but their whole system lends itself to “what can I experience?” – since that’s all that appears to matter.  So, no, I’m sorry, I need much more than to just “feel” His love.  I need to understand how what Christianity teaches is relevant to my life – from the big, epic questions down to how I love my wife and sons, how I perform at my job, and how I take care of my property.  I need to stop chasing experience from weekly pep-rally service to service.  That kind of ‘consumerism’ only breeds an inability to understand or esteem anything other than the pursuit of the next ‘fix’.  That mindset, in my opinion, has dumbed-down religious discussion among evangelical Christians, it has robbed them of a critical tool in applying Christian teaching to daily life, and it has driven others away from Christianity as a whole.

More on this in the future….

Disappearing

EmptyCanoe What exactly is disappearing?  Time.  In one of the great ironies of life, you simply never realize how much time you waste as a kid until you’re an adult, or as a single person until you’re married, or as a married person until you have kids.  A closely related cruel irony of life is that my interests seem to grow in an inverse proportion to the time which I have to indulge them.

We’re at that point in life where we simply have to accept that certain things we want aren’t going to happen” – a good friend of mine said that the other day, and he’s right.  This isn’t about depressed defeatism.  Actually, it’s about focus, tenacity, clarity & purpose.  While I may wax nostalgic about the seemingly endless hours I had available when I was 23, I have so much more now – where it counts – than I did then.  I’ve lived long enough to be fooled by my desires, and that has given me discernment.  I’ve had enough successes to know I can hold out for what matters, and enough failures (far more, it seems!) to stir the pot of healthy discontent.  I’ve experienced enough heart ache to know that hearts mend when they’re planted in the right place.  I’ve seen enough of the reward of deep friendships to know that relationships trump ‘tasks’ and ambitions, period.

But – among all the things I’ve learned – there is one thing I simply do NOT do well: taking a break.  I’ve neglected the important ritual of at least one family vacation each year with my wife and kids.  We’ve taken trips, don’t get me wrong, but something gets in the way all too often.  I’m even worse about personal time by myself – to unplug, take a walk, think, pray, stare at the clouds.   Somehow I’ve missed the importance of the discipline of vacation.  That’s right, I said discipline.  More often than not, I’ve avoided vacation simply because we’ve not been disciplined in managing our time or money in order to afford it.  It’s fallen too low on the list of priorities – below the dinners at Olive Garden & the mind-numbing “I’m exhausted after work and mistakenly think a night of TV-vegging will relax my mind”.  Not having a regular habit of solitude and vacation has robbed me, I believe, of the critical perspective of the benefits involved.  I too easily forget how rested (oddly enough) I can feel after a vigorous canoe trip; I quickly forget the clarity and focus that comes as a result of spending several days in a new place with my wife.  Instead, I’ve gravitated towards the dangerous icon of the “reluctant martyr”.  “Gotta suck it up and keep  moving forward”; “{insert name, job, or church here} can’t afford for me to be away right now”; “I’m too busy to relax.”

The last few months have changed all that.  A perfect storm of both family-related and work-related hardships quickly proved that I can’t expect to be resilient and bounce back from tough schedules (physically and mentally) if I’m not going to give my body, my mind and my family what they need.  I used to be good at burying it, but I think the birth of my second son tipped the scales towards the “don’t even think you can hide this anymore” direction.  The discipline of vacation and solitude in my life has finally begun moving towards its proper place.  I need the time personally, to think, dream, clear my mind from daily demands & distractions and come back with clarity of purpose and focus.  My wife and I need the time to break out of the typical mold of the daily grind.  We need the weekend getaways & the nights reading at the coffee shop.  Our kids need the focused time with us, and we – as a family – need the week-long excursions to see old friends & family, & to explore new places.

In a couple of weeks, I will begin practicing what I preach when I disappear into the woods of Tennessee and Kentucky with a close friend and a canoe loaded with camping gear…

At a Loss…

I’ve been quiet recently, as my thoughts have been tangled up in some of the ‘proverbial’ big questions of life and its inevitable hardships.

I’ve often puzzled at the spoken and unspoken attitudes about suffering which I’ve encountered in many evangelical church settings.  You’d think that we’re all destined for “upward and onward” in life – as if things would always get progressively better and brighter.  I don’t buy it – it simply doesn’t fit with real human experience (not to mention Biblical teaching).  There’s an underlying impression from so many in those circles that hardship must be because you’re not doing something right or often enough, or there’s a secret sin in your life.  To which I can only respond by saying “read the book of Job”.  Guess what?  Life sucks sometimes, and for no obvious reason.

Relationships are powerful.  The things that you say and do – they hold tremendous power.  We all have moments that our brains seem all too willing to replay – a ‘pivotal’ moment in life where nothing was ever the same afterwards.  A book I’ve been reading recently has the dubious honor of bringing to mind one of those moments from years ago – one I’ve long preferred to keep buried.  A phone conversation with my father when I was 15, being told “You’re the man of the house, now.”  Forgiveness is also powerful.  It frees you from the trap you’ve set for yourself (no one else is going to fall into it, that’s for sure).  But, as I’ve learned all to well in the last 21 years, forgiveness is only the beginning.  It removes the hooks that would otherwise drag your heart into darkness, but it doesn’t, on its own, rectify things.  By itself, it doesn’t restore what has been stolen; it gives you a fighting chance. Two decades later, I’m still trying to take hold of that fighting chance as best as I can, though I confess that lately it’s been a difficult road.  Broken families are deep wounds, and I’ve apparently struck another vein in the mine of my heart.  But it’s not my own loss that I’ve been pondering only….

A man whom I dearly love, respect and whom I have looked up to as a big brother since I was 12 is suffering from terminal cancer, and has not been given long to live.  While my family and I have found immeasurable comfort in our shared faith, and in the reality of Heaven, we are not spared the grief of loss (however temporary in the grand scheme of things), nor the challenges it brings to my sister (whose husband is the man I’m referring to) and her three children.  I have not wept in years like the night I sat at his bedside and poured my heart out, wanting him to know how loved he is, and to have hope for the new life ahead of him.  I can see the concern in his eyes for his wife and children, and as a father myself, I can empathize.  In the days ahead, they will need me, and I, them.  My nephew is not much younger than I was when my family’s world was turned upside down.

It’s fitting I’ve been reading Kierkegaard lately.  Much like Job, we all want to ask “Why?!” in the midst of suffering – but it’s astonishing how unimportant that question becomes once  redemption arrives.  As Edward Mooney writes, “The reception of a life beyond dust and ashes throws the need for an answer aside."  While I, as Christian, believe in a day of ultimate redemption, I also believe in the tens of thousands of days in between.  We can be a part of those “little redemptions” in other’s lives.  Crying with those who are hurting, giving generously to those who need, teaching those who are unskilled – none of which can happen if we let our own losses paralyze us.  And none of which can happen if we subscribe to the self-help, decorate-my-life-with-my-God-bracelet mindset that denies or avoids real suffering, and hides from the deep questions it provokes in all of us.