the blessing of wrestling

This morning I was having breakfast with a few dear friends at Chick-fil-a.

Have you ever heard a more delicious beginning to a story?

We were sitting there communing over spicy chicken biscuits, frosted coffee (it’s ice cream you can have for breakfast!), and other delicious cuisine when we began discussing something that we mutually decided that we didn’t fully understand.  Apparently we must’ve not been too quiet because a man came up to our table and began to “explain” the topic that we had been wrestling with together.  He was speaking very confidently and using large hand gestures to reinforce his point.

In that moment, we did what people do when someone gives them unwanted explanation.  We waited until he was finished and nodded saying “that’s interesting, thanks.”  As he began to walk away, he looked back and said, “I’m a minister to men.”  I guess what he probably didn’t realize was that the four guys he was talking to are also identified as ministers by church title.  Of course, all followers of Jesus are called to be ministers to others.  Stating that he was a minister as he was walking away seemed to be his way of expressing that he was some sort of authority on the matter.  It was frustrating to me, but I couldn’t really understand why in the moment.

Whether or not this man was correct in his explanation is beside the point.  I guess I was bothered because sometimes we, especially those of us who are referred to as ministers, pastors, or teachers, can try and explain away the mystery of God.

Growing up in church is different than growing up outside the church and coming to faith later.  For me, growing up in church was an exercise in knowing about God.  I believed that I could know everything about God.  I believed that there was someone out there in the world who knew more about God than anyone else, some sort of super Christian or God’s right hand man.  In a way I believed that God delighted in people knowing his stats much like how I can recite the names and numbers of obscure former Tennessee Titans players.  I looked at my dad and thought, “He probably knows more about God than most anyone else, after all, he has a couple degrees in the Bible.  He carries around a Bible with an ancient language in it.”  I looked at my youth minister and thought, “He must know a lot about God, he teaches us twice a week!”

So going to a Bible college myself to study the Bible seemed like a great way to fill my brain with knowledge about God.  Surely that was pleasing to God.  A few years in to my studies in college, I had a harsh, semi-painful realization.  More study of the Bible was not answering all my questions, it was providing more difficult questions that were not as easy to answer.  There is a difference between knowing about God and knowing God.

Looking back, I can identify this as a period of some faith “deconstruction.”  Deconstruction is a word that I had never heard used as a healthy thing regarding faith.  Wouldn’t you want your faith to be constantly constructing!?  Always building taller and taller so that it may reach new heights?  I think this period of deconstruction is natural and happens to all of us in one way or another.  Luckily for me, I did then and still do find myself in communities that are affirming of my questions.

Think about all the times people asked questions of Jesus.  Time and time again people come to Jesus asking questions.  These questions have all kinds of motives, some seeking, some to trap him, and some rhetorical.  Time and time again, Jesus does not answer these questions with a concrete answer that removes the mystery, but instead Jesus answers with another question, tells a story, or remains silent.  Jesus was not a cookie cutter, fill-in-the-blank teacher.  Jesus was a teacher who asked probing questions with which His followers wrestled.

As a community of Christ followers, we must give both ourselves and each other space to have questions and not have answers.  Naturally this is terrifying because we are an anxious people who need to know everything all the time.  That’s why Google is a thing, right?  So we can just Google anything that we don’t know.  And even more than in other realms of our life, our churches can seem like groups of people with whom we are uncomfortable expressing doubt or posing a tough question.  Here’s the thing about that: people will wrestle with doubt and questions regardless, but will they do that in the context of a people who believe that God is big enough for our questions, or will they have to leave our faith communities to ask their questions? 

We cannot place God in a box.  I am a minister who works in a church, and guess what?  I don’t have all the answers.  I went and got that degree in “Theology and Ministry” and guess what?  I am right there wrestling with everyone else.

So let’s try something.  And I’ll try and do this as well.  Next time someone expresses a question or doubt, let’s not be so quick to answer.  Life following God is a mystery.  Let’s spend some time in awe of the mystery of the Almighty God.  I think we will find that there is a blessing in wrestling with God.

-Michael

 

 

 

 

AN ASIDE:

What is it with Chick-fil-a and people trying to explain deep mysteries of God with lackingly short and easy quips?  I once overheard a man at Chick-fil-a attempt to explain the Holy Trinity to a 12-year-old using the metaphor of a buffalo sauce packet.  Don’t get me wrong, I love buffalo sauce, but I think even buffalo sauce in all of its splendor pales in comparison to the Holy Trinity.

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The Pledge and Playing it Safe

Before I start, I just want to say that writing this is not easy. I’m well aware that many friends, family, or fellow Christians may disagree with me, but I also know that I am not always called to be agreeable. And I write this because I believe it to be truthful in my life. If I do end up posting what I write, I pray that God will do what He wills with it. God always seems to do that.

A teacher in school once told our class, “Never begin a speech or a paper with a definition.” BUT these teachers always said, there’s exceptions to every rule, and when we were a big-time author we could break the rules. I’m not a big-time author, but I do have my own, free-to-use blog that my mom may read, so I’m just going to break the rules anyways…

Merriam Webster defines allegiance as “devotion or loyalty to a person, group, or cause.” Now growing up in the U.S., the first thing I think of relating to allegiance is the “Pledge of Allegiance.” We all know it by heart. We grew up reciting it every morning in our schools. In elementary school, does anyone actually know what they’re saying? I remember thinking there was a word in the pledge that was “witchit.” I did not know what it meant, but we said it every day, so it had to mean something. As it turns out, that is actually two words “which it.” The whole thing goes like this:

I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

I don’t know why it seemed so long in school. Maybe because it was the morning? I am not much of a morning person. Or maybe it was because time seems to pass faster now? Who knows. Anyway, that’s what we said, every single day. Then when I was old enough to go to Church Camp, we said it there every morning as we raised the flag. This just seemed to me like part of life in this country, and I didn’t think another thing about it.

Well at least I didn’t think about it for a while. I graduated a year and a half ago from a school named after a preacher of the American Restoration movement, David Lipscomb. In learning about his life and his work, it struck me how he was unwavering in his stance that his citizenship was in the Kingdom of God, not in this country. Lipscomb did not take part in elections, and he also was a strong voice for nonviolence. Growing up in Christian circles, I had never heard this idea. Perhaps I thought that a good American was a Christian, and a good Christian was a “patriotic” person. For many older people with more life experience than my generation, some may view this country as a shining light of freedom in a world of darkness.

I have a hard time rectifying this vision of the U.S. as a beacon of hope with God’s vision of the Church. In Matthew 5, Jesus is preaching to the people.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”  -Matthew 5:14-16

This tells me that God’s light of the world is His people: the Church. God is calling His people to do good deeds to bring glory to the Father. We are God’s people. Many of us know of other Christians in other countries, and they are no less part of the Kingdom of God than anyone who lives in this country. So we, God’s people, are to be a light, I get that. What else is required of us? Jesus goes on his sermon, and he teaches on taking care of the poor, prayer, fasting, and finding our treasures in heaven. Then he says this:

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”  -Matthew 6:24

This is a painful teaching. Of course Jesus is talking about money here, but He is also talking about many other things that may become a master of our life. This teaching refers to power, sex, relationships, sports, and yes, the powers and authorities of the world. Occasionally, our country and God may have similar interests, but that is certainly not something that is consistent. God wants all of us, 100%, to be devoted to Him. Jesus’ message does not really attract those who only want a hobby.

This complete devotion that Jesus is requiring brings me back to the idea of allegiance. If we are completely devoted to following Christ, then our allegiance belongs to the Kingdom of God. I don’t believe myself capable of having multiple allegiances. At some point, we will make decisions that show where our devotion is, and I do not feel called to pledge my allegiance to a flag or a country. Believe me, this is not something that I really want to share on the internet. This idea has been banging around in my head for a few years now. I can no longer pledge allegiance to the flag and our country with a clean conscience.

This is not something I have decided based on the current political landscape or the many athletes who have taken a knee during the national anthem.  Throughout Scripture, God is calling upon His people to serve Him only.  All kids raised in church have to memorize the 10 Commandments.  Commandment #1: “You shall have no other gods before me.”  Commandment #2: “You shall not make for yourself and image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God am a jealous God.”  So maybe you don’t see standing, placing your hand over your heart, and pledging your devotion to a man-made object and human construct as idol worship?  OK, but its at least similar, right?

Then I look at a story from the book of Daniel about these three guys Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago.  Here these guys are living in a foreign empire and the king has a giant golden statue of himself made (a sign of empirical supremacy).  He decrees that everyone must bow down to this statue or be thrown into a furnace and burned alive.  So the time comes and everyone is gathered together in one place.  The instruments are played and everyone starts to bow, everyone except these three guys.  Can you imagine the looks even from other God-fearing people?  Can you imagine the whispering from their friends?  “Just bow and get it over with! It doesn’t mean anything! Just play it safe and do what you’ve gotta do!

Maybe you’ve heard, “Just play it safe and do what you’ve gotta do” before.  Maybe it was something at work that you just had to do to keep your job.  Maybe it was going along with the racist joking of a group of people because you were in the minority and didn’t want to be “that guy.”  There’s many times in our lives where we feel this pressure to play it safe and conform, and we are even advised by our friends and family to do so!  But I have been trying to think of a time where Jesus advised playing it safe, and I’m struggling to think of a time.

So anyways, the King has these three guys brought in and, to paraphrase, says, “I’m dead serious, I will throw you into the furnace if you don’t start playing along.”  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago, go on and tell this King that they believe God can deliver them from any harm, OH AND ALSO, and here’s the kicker for me, they say “But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold that you have set up.” *mic drop*

So now they’ve really done it!  The King is ticked!  He has the furnace made 7 times hotter than normal, ties them up and tosses them in there.  Then he looks in and sees 4 people in there, even though he only put 3 in… and the new one “looks like a son of the gods.”  They aren’t getting burnt up and their bindings are gone.  So the King has them brought out, and then goes on to praise God and decrees that “the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save in this way.”

Not only did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago stand up for their convictions, but God used that to change the heart of the most powerful person in the world.  When we give a little, God multiplies it!

So all that to say, we are not called to play it safe or be agreeable.  We are not called to give our devotion to any earthly government or symbol of that government.  We are called to give 100% of our allegiance to the Almighty God, the only God who can save.

And I’ve had this post sitting in my drafts for 8 months, playing it safe, but today God gave me courage.  And let’s be honest here, I don’t have a wide readership.  And I stand at no risk to face imprisonment or any formal punishment because our country doesn’t do that, so how big of a risk am I really taking here?  But we can only be faithful with the platforms that we have been given.  We aren’t given the luxury of choosing what to care about. God tends to put stuff on our heart that won’t go away until we do something about it.

Also, I do not tell you this to start a movement. I simply tell you this because I had to. Maybe what I have written will make you think, and maybe you’ll read this and disregard it completely, that’s fine. I appreciate you hanging with me till the end.