Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A New Explanation

A week or so ago I watched Ragamuffin, a movie about Rich Mullins, a Christian singer-songwriter who died in a car crash in the mid-90's. I am not generally a fan of the Christian music industry, and I knew very little about Mullins going in - other than that he was an outsider. He broke the rules and did things his own way (especially eschewing wealth) not worrying about who he might offend.

It's not a typical "Christian" movie - which is a very good thing. There were some clunky acting moments, but the guy they got to play Mullins was phenomenal, and he's in every scene, so that helps. It's also a movie that doesn't wrap things up in a nice bow. There's no soft sell for belief, but a real, honest depiction of someone struggling to make sense of faith in the world. Heck, it ends with a car crash and no resolution!

I found it to be honest and ring true, especially the quote that begins the film,

In the 48 years since I was first ambushed by Jesus, in literally thousands of hours of prayers, meditation, silence and solitude over those years, I am now utterly convinced that on Judgment Day the Lord Jesus is going to ask each of us one question and only one question, “Did you believe that I loved you?

It sort of perfectly encapsulated a post I've been working on for most of the summer.

I grew up in the midst of evangelicalism, so it's been a bit of a lifelong pursuit to figure out exactly how to define Christianity, salvation - to discover a way to define the basics of life following Christ in ways that people will understand and will also satisfy my own conscience. I guess it's been a struggle because we so often confuse things, complicate things, overburdening the gospel in ways that make it unattractive and inaccessible.

I think many of us have now easily moved beyond the old tropes of "say a prayer you really mean and you can go to heaven when you die." We're well beyond the dominance of a logical, orderly system of belief that will be content to live there. At the same time, we've not really hit on something else so simple. We can talk about "living like Jesus" all we want, but that's not an easily definable, understandable, or even agreeable notion across the board.

We're never going to find something everyone agrees on (that's why we've got 3,000 separate Christian denominations out there), but I think we can do better. That quote above goes a long way.

Salvation is an important concept for Christians, because it was important to Jesus, to his Hebrew ancestors, and to his Christian followers. Salvation - being saved - was the center of faith practice. We can go through all the permutations of being saved from what, to what, by whom, how, but in the end, I think just leaving the concept sort of vague makes sense. People might not understand or care to parse all the technical language, but most people recognize (even if they won't admit) there's something in their life they wish wasn't there. Most all of us (and I'd argue "all of us," but we'll save that argument for another day) recognize something in our lives bigger and more powerful than us. We need help.

I think the best way to talk about salvation is to say it comes when you internalize the reality that you are really and truly loved, that you're lovable and worthy of love outside any thing you do or say or are. Salvation comes in knowing love.

That's easier said than done, of course. Knowing and knowing are two different things, right? To really feel that sense of love, acceptance, peace inside is sort of like an impossible fantasy. I can't say I can provide the road map or even great advice - I think most of the time I'm just as much on the journey as anyone else. I do believe with my whole heart, though, that salvation is real and it's possible. I know in my head that I am loved, that all of us is loved, even if I'm never quite sure I know it in my heart.

The quote from the movie comes from a preacher and author, Brennan Manning. He's a great writer to read. He talks about this stuff all the time (the same people who did Ragamuffin are doing a movie about his life, too). He gets at this in the longer version of the quote above:

In the 48 years since I was first ambushed by Jesus, in a little chapel in the Allegheny Mountains of Western Pennsylvania, and in literally thousands of hours of prayers, meditation, silence and solitude over those years, I am now utterly convinced that on Judgment Day the Lord Jesus is going to ask each of us one question and only one question,

“Did you believe that I loved you? That I desired you? That I waited for you day after day? That I longed to hear the sound of your voice?”

The real believers there will answer, “Yes, Jesus, I believed in your love and I tried to shape my life as a response to it.”

But many of us who are so faithful in our ministry, in our practice, in our churchgoing, are gonna have to reply, “Well frankly, no, sir. I mean I never really believed it. I mean I heard a lot of wonderful sermons and teachings about it. In fact, I gave quite a few myself. But I always thought that was just a way of speaking, a kindly lie, some Christian’s pious pat on the back to cheer me on.”

And there’s the difference between the real believers and the nominal Christians that are found in our churches across the land.

No one can measure like a believer the depth and the intensity of God’s love, but at the same time no one can measure like a believer the effectiveness of our gloom, pessimism, low self-esteem, self-hatred and despair that block God’s way to us.

Do you see why it is so important to lay hold of this basic truth of our faith? Because you’re only going to be as big as your own concept of God.

Remember the famous line of the French philosopher, Blaise Pascal? “God made man in His own image, and man returned the compliment.” We often make God in our own image and he winds up to be as fussy, rude, narrow-minded, legalistic, judgmental, unforgiving, and unloving as we are.

In the past couple three years I’ve preached the Gospel… (all over the world) … and honest to God, the God of so many Christians I meet is a God who is too small for me, because he is not the God of the Word, he is not the God revealed by and in Jesus Christ who this moment comes right to your seat and says,

“I have a word for you.

I know your whole life story. I know every skeleton in your closet. I know every moment of sin, shame, dishonesty and degraded love that has darkened your past. Right now, I know your shallow faith, your feeble prayer life, your inconsistent discipleship.

And my word is this:

I dare you to trust that I love you just as you are and not as you should be, because you’re never gonna be as you should be.”

Now that sits a little hard for people in my holiness tradition, because we do talk about becoming what we're intended to be. The whole point of sanctification is that we're made whole in Christ through the power of God's Holy Spirit. We've gotten in a lot of trouble in the past talking about sanctification as perfection - because John Wesley, the guy who sort of founded this theological movement, called it "Christian perfection," but even that was a misleading name.

He talked about it as perfection of love - not that we get everything right, but that we make everything right. We're going to screw up and make bad choices, but it's how we respond to those choices - do we double down and keep right on stubbornly hurting ourselves and others, or do we come with humility to fix what we've put wrong. It's a complicated concept, too, one that we continue to argue about hundreds of years later (and one that only seems to get more difficult).

But I do believe in transformation - that somehow, the love of God can make us different. I don't know if it fits all the criteria and academic longings of the theologians, but I do know love changes things. That's precisely how I'd like to define it: if salvation means understanding our inherent loveableness, then sanctification means seeing and understanding the same thing in absolutely everyone else.

We've often talked about it as an orderly process, at the very least one that happens simultaneously. Certainly you must be impacted by love to be changed, but I think the relationship may be less tangible and far more amorphous.

We are constantly doubting our worthiness for love, through our actions, the response we get from others, the mess going on inside our heads, and just the mixed up science of brain chemistry. Life in this world is complicated and it's tough to live in a state of confidence, even if that confidence is in the love of God. At the same time, I hope, we're at least occasionally, if not frequently, exposed to moments of genuine love - times and experiences where we get it, we know we're loved unconditionally - whether it comes from someone else, an emotion, or just the benevolent grace of the universe (that some people might call the working of God).

Those moments can breed compassion - they can help us see even the most vile, offensive, hateful other as a human being not unlike ourselves. Those moments, too, may be fleeting. This isn't the dull weight you feel in your stomach when those horrible guilt-inducing starving child commercials come on the TV - you're supposed to feel that way then - but those moments of total understanding when you should be angry. I'm talking about at least patience, grace when you have every right to be upset. It's feeling a love for someone who doesn't deserve it simply because they're alive.

Now those second experiences may be rare, I don't know. What I do know is they come directly from our own experiences of love. We can relate to others because we relate to being wrong, the enemy, the unworthy, the villain. That's the easy part. Recognizing and expressing that such a villain can and should be loved, even doing the loving, is far more difficult. That's the kind of calling, life that we holiness nutsos are determined to pursue.

I've come to realize, though, these states of being where salvation and sanctification make sense - those times when we really internalize our lovableness and, in turn, those moments where we can truly love the unlovable, well, they come and go. We don't always exist in those states. That's semi-blasphemous for a Nazarene minister to say, but it's definitely what I've observed.

I guess what I'm saying in all this is, so what?

Who's told us we have to be perfect? We might have told ourselves this, of course, but no one else did. I get that we should be growing - we should certainly be more like Jesus today than we were two years ago, but we don't actually have to be Jesus. In faith we believe that's down the line somewhere, but not until after some serious divine intervention. Holiness people believe we can be in right relationship with God here and now - we can be the kind of people we'll be in "heaven" (whatever that means to you) here and now - but what if that relationship, that sanctified state of being, is simply someone who's learning? What if it just means we're working to accept and live into our status as beloved and working to treat others the same way. What if this moving back and forth between success and seeming failure is really all success?

Because if we beat ourselves up about not being good enough, not acting out the sanctified life we're supposed to have, we're just going to wind up back at the beginning of Brennan Manning's quote - where we don't really, deep down, believe God loves us. Trying too hard to be sanctified might just keep us from living in the joy of salvation.

So when people ask what it means to be a Christian, I think I'm just gonna say: "learning to believe you're worth loving," and let God take care of the rest.

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