Monday, August 24, 2015

Heaven, Hell and a Disoriented Faith

     Let us imagine we have died and are waiting to stand before the judgement seat of God... Try to imagine how it feels to look over your life - what you are happy about and what you regret... Now imagine being brought into a magnificent room within which there is a great white throne. Upon this throne is a breath-taking being who shines as if full of light...
     After a moment the one who sits on the throne begins to speak: 'My name is Lucifer and I am the angel of light. I have cast your God from his throne and banished Christ to the real of eternal death. It is I who hold the keys to this kingdom. I am the gatekeeper of paradise and it is for me to decide who shall enter and who shall be forsaken.' 
     Now imagine that this angel stretches out his vast arms and says, 'In my right hand I hold eternal life and in my left I hold death. For those who would bow down and acknowledge me as Lord, I shall grant them safe passage into paradise, but for those who refuse I will vanquish to death with their Christ.'
     After this the devil moves his arms so that each of his hands is placed before you and asks, 'What do you choose?'
     It is only as we experience Holy Saturday [the day between Christ's death on Good Friday and resurrection on Easter Sunday] that we can ask whether we would follow Christ regardless of heaven or hell, regardless of pain or pleasure, whether we would follow int he midst of the uncertainty that Holy Saturday brings to our lives. It is only here that we can ask if we have truly offered ourselves to God for no reason other than the desire to offer ourselves as a gift. Faith does not die here, rather it is forged here. 
                                                                            -Peter Rollins, How (Not) To Speak Of God

I picked up one of Peter Rollins' books, The Orthodox Heretic, about six months ago, and read the above story for the first time. Like many of the other tales in the book, it challenged and pushed my faith in an entirely new capacity. I have found myself frequently contemplating what faith truly means, what we are honestly desiring as Christians, what this Christian faith is actually about.

Because too often, it seems to be about what we can get, not what we give. Often the Christian faith gets boiled down to where you will go when you die.

I remember going to a Christian summer camp when I was sixteen. At the time I genuinely enjoyed my time and my faith grew, though I'm sure if I attended it now I would have strong disagreements with the theology preached. It's a beautiful thing that God can use almost anything for our growth. But anyways, the last day of the camp was "evangelism day." I clearly remember awkwardly walking around the college campus with other young teens, pamphlets in hand, the question "Do you know where you're going when you die?" emblazoned in white on the black cover. Approaching random strangers, we asked them this question. Depending upon their response, we would open a different tab of the pamphlet which led them to more questions, further answers, and eventually a place where, if their "faith" was not already "placed in God" they could pray a prayer and do so, thus assuring they would not burn in the fiery pits of hell upon death. I remember not being very fond of that part of the camp, though at the time my reasons for disliking this form of "evangelism" were not yet formed.

That's merely one example of the many, many pamphlets, "evangelism" trainings, and various other plans I have seen and learned about. All are designed to get people to one place: praying the Sinner's Prayer* to earn their get-out-of-hell-free card and can hangout in eternal bliss forever.

But to me, it all misses the true point of faith, which is not to simply avoid the suffering of fiery hell by any means possible. This mentality reduces faith in Christ to something deeply selfish, something that actually has very little to do with God at all.

What if being saved from hell or going to heaven were removed from the equation and faith was simply about knowing Jesus? What if being a Christian was just about Christ? What if serving others had to do with just seeking to look like Christ, rather than good works done in the hopes of earning more jewels in one's crown?

When Christians worry so much about where they'll go after death, the focus of faith is shifted. Like the long, long ago days when people thought the world revolved around the earth, rather than the sun. They thought the earth was the biggest, most important thing in the universe, because it was the most important thing to their understanding of the world. If heaven, eternal paradise, is the most important thing, they miss the point that the sun [Son] is actually the center, and without the glory of that brilliant light, nothing else can exist.

*Note that the "Sinner's Prayer" is not actually in scripture as a means of salvation.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Are We All Sinners If We Sin

Jesus, Jesus, there are those who say they love you
But they have treated me so damn mean
And I know you say 'forgive them for they know not what they do'
But sometimes I think they do
And I think about You
If all the heathens burn in hell, do their children burn as well?
What about the Muslims and the gays and the unwed mothers?
What about me and all my friends?
Are we all sinners if we sin?
Does it even matter in the end if we're unhappy?

These soft-sung words, these deep, crushing questions, have been circling my head for hours. And for days, weeks, months before. Each time I hear the song, lines from that stanza play again and again. 

"Are we all sinners if we sin?"

It's been on repeat...

I know all the answers, to Noah Gundersen's questions. The ones we've all asked, in some shape or form, if we're truly being honest. I grew up in church. I know the theological answer from a variety of doctrines, what various denominations think about "the Muslims and the gays and the unwed mothers." I know we're all sinners and we all sin. 

But that isn't the point of these questions, these questions opening a door into a soul that simply hurts. 

The question isn't one begging a theological answer about one's sinful nature. It's a plea to know, "Lord, how do you see me? Do you just see me as a sinner, just a soul who disappoints you with my sin? Can you see past my sin and love me whether my label is "Christian" or not? Because I know a lot of Christians who sin too. Do you love them more? Are we still sinners if we sin?" 

I know these questions. Begging...

God, sometimes, I wonder
am I more saint or sinner

And how, how can I know

when Your voice feels so far off? 
Am I saint, or sinner?
When Your voice isn't sounding, and, all I hear is silence
I beg, plead. Lord, am I a saint or a sinner?

Sometimes I can't breathe, my soul suffocating
in questions without answers

What do you see, in me?

Saint, or a sinner?
Do I delight or disappoint, 
You and others, with this life I'm trying to live?
Questions begging answers
can't rest until they're found
Saint or sinner?

So what do we do with these questions that often render answerless. Sure, the Bible has answers. It is full of things to tell us how we should feel and what we should do. But sometimes the Bible's answers don't feel like enough. Sometimes I'm tired of the Christian answers telling me if I would only pray more, read my Bible more, then the problems would go away. "Do more, and God will do more for you," is the (blatantly not Biblical) message that often is taught. And so I'm left in a pile of guilt and shame, because dammit I did all the right things! And God still didn't seem to come through. 

So what do we do. 

What do we do when we're walking through the valley of the shadow of death, and we are full of fear. When we feel alone, and the Lord's rod and staff are not only not-comforting, they don't even seem to be present. What do we do when that dark journey is full of fear, the pressing darkness of feeling utterly alone. When comfort has not come and you fear a table in the presence of your enemies because like Noah sings, they seem to know what they do and they have been so cruel. When goodness and love do not seem to follow. When we are walking and the valley is dark, and the shadow is heavy, and the promised comfort is nowhere to be felt. 

What do we do? 

Because who hasn't heard Psalm 23 (and John 3:16, and 1 Corinthians 13 in every wedding ever) and known that the answer is that God is with us and we shall not fear. That the words I used above fit into a very different narrative when David writes, and that there is no fear because of that rod and staff of comfort in the midst of the darkness. We all know the answers, so what do we do when the answers aren't enough and the darkness crushes and your soul weeps because you have never felt so alone? 

I've felt in and out of these moments of darkness and crushing fear for nearly two years, if I'm honest. 

Bar's too high
can't reach that high

How much more do You want me
to die?

When do I get to cry

"it's finished"
Have given enough to
once again feel
Your touch

When all I want

is to know You more
and this world around keeps
pushing me to the floor

Are my ways ever good

when only Your ways are God

Do I only reach higher

when I find myself lower
Cuz every damn day
I fall even shorter

I'm seeking perfection seated

on a throne
and today feels like I'm battling alone

I don't know how to answer all these questions. What to do when it feels as though we are battling alone. What to do when I know that God knows me deeply and loves me fully, that He is always for and never against me, that the love He has for me is so great He was nailed to a tree in the face of despise and mockery, so great He conquered death that I might live fully alive in Him...what to do when I know all these things, believe these things, and still sometimes feel so alone I can only sit on my floor hugging my knees sobbing until there is no breath in my lungs and I wake up with swollen eyes and a sore throat. What do I do when I still feel so alone I sleep on my couch for nights in a row because it somehow feels less lonely than my bed in an empty apartment. What do I do, when I know God loves me but it doesn't always feel like it. 

Are we still sinners if we sin? 

Does it even matter in the end if we're unhappy? 

So what do we do when the answers written in Christianese aren't enough anymore, when just handing me a Bible and an order to pray more doesn't suffice anymore? Because I prayed and I read and I still felt alone. My soul has longed for something deeper, some truth that permeated the valley of the shadow of death where I was dwelling in fear, to bring light into those spaces that felt hopeless and give me a more tangible reason to hope, a deeper presence of love than placating quotes typed up on pretty pictures to post on Instagram. 

And so I find myself in a place of beautiful tension. One where I can both make the choice to trust God even on the days when I cannot feel His touch. A place in which I am seeking to thirst for Him more and more each day by choosing to spend time with Him, to sit and listen and wonder. But also a place where I can question and doubt, where the darkness can come and I can press into it, because Jesus is in the darkness too, and I can learn to open myself up to feeling the comfort that never actually went away. And a place of tension where I can still ask, "are we all sinners if we sin?"