Sunday, December 19, 2010

Apathetic About Apathy

The other day I was telling a friend about my "spiritual journey," which was really just a roadmap of heartache at the hands of the church and the people in it. It was also a chronicle of my wide-eyed belief turned cynical-brand of belief. Telling the story in a condensed version, it made me sound rather fickle and wishy-washy, as if I'm easily swayed and change my opinions according to the latest bad experience or theological fad. "I'm a Republican! No, I'm a Democrat! No, I'm Independent!" "Young earth! Old earth! Theistic Evolution!" "I'm Arminian! No, I'm Calvinist! No, I'm both!" "Complementarianism! No, egalitarianism!" Etc. Etc.

When you see the world all in black and white for so many years, learning to distinguish the gray areas is a rather earth-shaking exercise. I'd like to think of it as a process of maturity-- learning to nuance and think through issues with more complexity. So if I'm changing my mind, it's only because I've finally allowed myself the freedom to think through an issue from more than one viewpoint. Nine times out of ten, I realize my previously held belief was inaccurate or incomplete at best. I'm embarrassed of much of what I believed before and even more ashamed at how it made me behave.

I feel like I'm at a crossroads in my faith. So much has happened to me that my rational mind can't reconcile it with evangelical faith as I've known it. But I don't think the answer lies in just some other form of church (as my visit to the Episcopal Church this morning confirmed). I have never known this level of apathy before. Before, being apathetic used to elicit a small voice of concern in my brain ("You really should care about this!"). Now I'm even apathetic about my level of apathy.

Maybe it's a phase. Maybe when life takes a break from kicking the crap out of me, I won't feel this way. But I find myself despising, deriding, and mocking much of what used to elicit feelings of conviction and devotion. I have no illusions that I can "work myself up" to feel a certain way, but at the very least, I would think these aspects of faith, church, and life wouldn't create such a strong aversion in me. But they do. Quite a lot. And I don't know what to do about it.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Illness, Dysfunction, and/or Sin-- Getting Help and Owning Up

I've blogged about depression and mental illness before and made mention of it in comments and so forth. I've struggled to know what role the Holy Spirit plays in a person with depression. Answers remain elusive in this murky topic, but I have a few thoughts to share borne out of the last several months of my life.

Mental illness in Christians is so difficult to understand and treat because there seems to be (at least) three sources of causation that overlap and intertwine: illness, dysfunction, and sin. They may manifest themselves in strikingly similar ways in terms of feelings and behaviors, but they are very different issues. Consequentially, each area has to be dealt with in a different way. Trouble is, it is difficult, if not impossible, to differentiate where one ends and another begins.

First, there is illness. Depression and other mental illnesses are often just that-- illnesses with a physiological basis to them. There may be no other explanation other than chemical or biological, but stressful events in life will most certainly aggravate it. Medicine is a usually a good option for treating the illness, although it takes time and sometimes lots of trial and error to find the medications that will help. Of course, no medicine is a cure-all. Its job is to help the person feel well enough to function and to think clearly. Sometimes a person is on meds and feels better, but then they feel surprised when they continue to struggle.

That leads to the next area-- dysfunction. An abnormality or impairment in function. A deviation of a norm. Dysfunction, as I understand it, means all the negative and unhealthy behaviors, habits, coping mechanisms, and so forth which one has learned throughout their life. We are all dysfunctional in some sense; we all choose to cope with things in unhealthy ways. It begins in our childhood-- we learn it from our parents and family, our teachers, our peers. We see, and we model. As we get older, we learn our own modes of coping, and we develop our own habits. Our way of dealing with life becomes our own "normal," even if it is unhealthy. The reason I differentiate dysfunction from sin is because it is not necessarily a violation of God's commands. It's generally just a poor way of doing something, but it can be changed and unlearned through therapy, counseling, and/or a conscious decision to alter behavior. For instance, take communication. A family who doesn't know how to communicate with each other in a crisis but rather sweeps the issues under the rug has a dysfunction in their communication. It's not necessarily a sin (although it can be), but it's not necessarily healthy either. Dysfunctions are sometimes hard to identify, because to the dysfunctional person, it IS normal. It is safe. It is all they know. But when a person realizes they have some dysfunctions that are impairing their daily life and relationships, they can begin to make progress to a more healthy way of dealing with the stress of life. Depression, then, can stem from dysfunctional habits and behavior; conversely, dysfunction can exacerbate an illness and prevent a person from getting the help they need.

Finally, there's plain old sin. Willfully choosing to do the wrong thing, or willfully choosing not to do the right thing. Lots of people want to call depression a sin-- a person should just be able to "choose" to feel better and "choose" to be joyful. On the other side of the token, a lot of people with depression want to blame all their bad behavior on the illness and not take responsibility for the sin in their lives. And, to complicate matters further, part of the reason they can't take responsibility is because of their dysfunctional way of living and coping. We are all sinners, so we know that on some level, sin and its consequences are coming into play in a person with a mental illness. It may not be the cause, but sin has to be (continually) identified and addressed along with the illness and the dysfunction. That's true even of a person who doesn't have a mental illness. That's just part of being a Christian-- identify, confess, and repent, in sins both big and small. Daily. Hourly, even.

So how does one sort through this mess? The Holy Spirit has got to step up to the plate on this one. But a person also has a responsibility to be self-aware. If someone knows they have an illness but refuses to get help, or if they are confronted with their dysfunction and refuse to make positive changes, then one could argue that their illness and dysfunction have led them to sin. But since part of mental illness involves a skewed view of reality, a person not only needs self-awareness, they also need wise counsel around them who can help them make good decisions for themselves. If they are not able to get help when they desperately need it, then family, friends, pastors, counselors, doctors, or somebody has to step in. If a person has gotten help but continues to wallow in their old patterns because it feels safe, or if they begin to place blame or make excuses, then it is not fair to lay the blame solely on illness. The best thing solution then is to own up and take responsibility for themselves in all three areas.

Again, none of this is cut-and-dry. It's like a big soup pot of issues floating around together, but they all get served up in the same bowl. But we all have a responsibility to repent of the things we can change (sin), address the issues we can improve (dysfunction), and get help for the things that are out of our control (illness).

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Where in the World is the Holy Spirit?

Doctrines about Jesus and God the Father are fairly consistent from one evangelical church to the next, but let's admit it, doctrines about the Holy Spirit are all over the map. I've attended cessationist churches, and I've attended charismatic churches, and they have sizable differences in what they expect the Holy Spirit to do in the church and in the heart of the believer. But no matter whether you believe the Holy Spirit still gives believers spiritual gifts such as prophecy, tongues, and so forth (which I do, although the idea is often abused), most evangelicals are in agreement that it is the Holy Spirit's job to comfort, counsel, and convict:

"And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever— 17the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.... [He] will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you." John 14:16-17, 26

"When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment..." John 16:8

He is also our Intercessor:

"In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. 27And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will." Romans 8:26-27

From these scriptures and others, these are the things I've believed about the Holy Spirit:

1. He lives inside of every believer, and He won't ever leave. This was Jesus' gift to believers when He left. He Himself would not be physically present, but He would send His Spirit.

2. He will bring conviction of sin. More than just our God-given conscience, which I think is part of every human's cognitive and psychosocial make-up, the Holy Spirit will prompt a person to repent of sinful behavior.

3. We can learn to ignore Him. Of course, believers can harden themselves to the prompting of the Holy Spirit and learn to disregard Him. Hence we are warned not to quench the Spirit (1 Thess. 5:19).

4. He brings comfort. He will bring peace that passes all understanding.

5. He teaches us. When we read scripture, it is the Holy Spirit who enlightens our minds for understanding, which is why unbelievers don't get a whole lot out of the Bible.

6. He intercedes for us. This is one promise I cling to tenaciously-- that when my heart is crying out to God but can't seem to summon up any useful words, the Holy Spirit is stepping in on my behalf.

Believing all this, I've really been struggling with the feeling that the Holy Spirit is not doing His job.

In regards to His role as Comforter, I've certainly sensed that supernatural peace during difficult times in my life, such as when my Dad died. But I've hit some of the lowest points of my life during these last 9 months, and I've thought, "That whole comfort thing would be nice, Mr. Holy Spirit, sir. Any time. Any time at all."

I've also wondered why He doesn't always seem to reveal truth or convict sin, even when it's desperately needed and sought after. As I've mentioned in other posts, my husband struggles with severe depression and mental illness, and one thing he and I both pray for is wisdom, discernment, and a firm grip on reality. One facet of his mental illness is that he often blocks out and forgets things and has no recollection of doing or saying things he has done and said. Why would the Holy Spirit not bring clarity when my husband prays for it? I realize that not every prayer for healing is answered with healing, but when the illness is so intertwined with a person's emotions and spirit, how can the Spirit not step in and reveal truth? How can the Spirit allow a person to continue on in sin unknowingly when that person is praying and asking for truth and conviction of hidden sin?

All of this was brought home to me this week when my son's principal called me. Apparently my son had defaced another child's book; however, no one had actually seen him do it. The evidence was purely circumstantial. When confronted about whether or not he had done it, my son didn't say yes or no-- he said, "I don't remember if I did it." Aaahh! After two hours of grilling, talking, and listening to him--in which we talked about how God sees everything we do and how He will help us know the right thing to do-- my son still didn't know whether he needed to confess or not. Now, my son believes in Jesus and has the Holy Spirit in him. I can understand an adult being hardened to the promptings of conviction but not an 8-year-old child who generally defends his innocence and confesses his guilt fairly easily. So how could he simply not remember? Why wouldn't the Holy Spirit reveal truth to his heart? I'm terrified that he has the beginnings of the same mental illness as his father.

Or maybe I just don't understand what the Holy Spirit is really supposed to do...?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Ragman... the Rest of the Story

I know it's been one depressing post after another, but since this blog is an outlet for my angst, frustration, and discouragement... well, here comes another one.

I was really looking forward to Easter, the greatest day of the Christian year. The one day where we really should drink champagne for breakfast and party late into the night-- He is risen, death is conquered, we have hope! Of course, I wasn't expecting hors d'oeuvres at church or anything, but I was hoping to have a time of celebration and unmitigated joy.

What we got was one rather depressing, emotional show. And I was part of it, so I don't feel bad criticizing it. We emphasized Christ's suffering and gave the resurrection only passing note. We presented a dramatized version of "The Ragman" (if you are not familiar with it, you can read one version here). Now, I will say that story is helpful in understanding just what it means for Christ to take our sins upon himself and to be a substitutionary sacrifice. But the story is misleading in many ways. First, it makes it seem as if Jesus' healing is physical, tangible, and instantaneous. The woman stops crying, the girl stops bleeding, the man gets a new arm and goes to work. Forgiveness of sin and the regeneration of one's spirit is instantaneous, but nowhere does the gospel promise immediate healing of all your ailments and troubles. Just because we are healed and whole in our spirit does not mean we will be healed and whole physically, emotionally, or mentally.

The second problem is that it seems to insinuate that after Jesus heals you, you launch out on a new life that will be free from those old problems and pain. No more tears, no more suffering, no more tribulation--hasn't he taken that all upon Himself? What a misleading thing to tell a person about Christ. What will they cling to when 2, 5, 15, 50 years down the road their world falls completely apart? When their body decays, their marriage fails, they lose their job and their house, a child rebels, and so forth? Where is the Rag Man then, to take on their pain and exchange it for joy?

The crucifixion and the resurrection was a one-time, once-for-all event, but the gospel is something we need continuously, every day, every minute, with every breath. In this moment, His grace is sufficient for me. In this moment, my sins need cleansing and my mind renewing. In this moment, He may not heal me or take away my tears, but because I believe the gospel, I have hope that He is somehow working out all these things for His glory, my good, and for the future redemption of all creation.

So I propose we add "The Rest of the Story" to the Rag Man. Perhaps the woman continues to cry because of unexplained depression that won't go away, but the Rag Man comes and sits with her while she weeps. Perhaps the little girl, whose bandaged head has been healed, now gets shuffled from foster home to foster home, and sometime in her teens the Rag Man comes back to visit her. She remembers him from her childhood and decides to get to know him better. The man who regains his arm has a hard time finding a job, and after a few years working in a factory, he is diagnosed with cancer. The Rag Man comes and sits with him in the hospital room until he breathes his last. I don't know. I'm just too cynical to get the warm fuzzies with the original story. Give me a glimpse of the hope I can have in the midst of my pain. Show me a slice of real life, of real struggles that we cry out for Jesus to heal but He doesn't seem to.

This is the hope of Easter--Jesus is King and His Kingdom is here and is coming. "Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow."

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

When Obedience Isn't Enough

Lately I find myself saying things like, "I've done everything I can... I'm trying my best... I don't know what else to do... nothing I do seems to be good enough... why can't I make this work?..."

I know I can't work for my salvation, but it seems I still operate under the assumption that if I work hard enough and do my best that the rest of my life should work out in the way I want it to. When it doesn't, I assume I haven't worked hard enough, or done well enough, or been obedient enough. But as my brother reminded me this weekend, this is further evidence of my utter need of the gospel. That no matter what I do, my best efforts cannot redeem situations or people. Yes, God calls us all to obedience, and the choices I make and the effort I put forth will have consequences. But I should never put my trust in my good effort as the ultimate determining factor of positive outcomes. There is no formula to a happy or blessed life. If I do A and B, there is no guarantee that it will lead to C, even if I really, really want it to, and even if conventional Christian advice tells me it will. I often hear the gospel preached as, "Trust in Jesus to save you from your sins... and now that you've done that, get your act together." Of course, willful sinning will have consequences, and the obedient Christian will avoid certain types of consequences. But some of the most devout Christians have endured some of the worst circumstances, in spite of, and even because of, their obedience. Jesus said we will have trouble in this life. Why am I surprised by it when it comes?

I am and remain a sinful person. I am no longer dead in my sins, but until this world is made new, my sin and other people's sin will continue to mar and scar my life. I need the gospel, even when I'm at my most obedient and faithful. Because even then, my efforts aren't enough, and my life may not turn out the way I had hoped and planned.

Not the labor of my hands

Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;

Could my zeal no respite know,

Could my tears forever flow,

All for sin could not atone;

Thou must save, and Thou alone.

Nothing in my hand I bring,

Simply to the cross I cling;

Naked, come to Thee for dress;

Helpless look to Thee for grace;

Foul, I to the fountain fly;

Wash me, Savior, or I die.

~Augustus Toplady, "Rock of Ages"

Friday, March 5, 2010

Is It God... or Indigestion?

"I feel the Lord is leading me to..."

"God spoke to me..."

"I feel this stirring in my heart to..."

"I really felt like God was telling me to..."

I used to talk this way. It was a dressed-up way to describe how I "felt" after a certain time of searching the scriptures and prayer. But after making some choices based on what I thought "God would want" that turned out to be poor decisions, I stopped pretending that it was really God calling the shots. Now I cringe when I hear other Christians talk like this, as if they had audible conversations with God all the time and could discern His "will for their lives" with ease.

But how do we know when God is really "speaking" to us or "leading" us in a certain direction? Surely not on feeling alone. There is something to be said for the peace the Spirit is supposed to give us. But sometimes we have to make decisions with unease in our hearts, because none of the options available to us are pleasant ones.

Surely we should rely on godly counsel from close friends, family, and advisors. But even they are not infallible and can give bad counsel, especially if they dispense judgment preceded with one of the above statements.

Let's face it, sometimes we're just not going to know what to do, and it's pointless to sit around waiting until we "feel the Lord leading us" in a certain direction. It may never happen-- because He never promises it will. He promises to never leave us nor forsake us, but He never promises a beam of light from heaven pointing out the road up ahead or a big celestial sign saying, "Turn here. Do this."

The next time someone says to me, "I feel the Lord is leading me to do xyz," I'm sorely tempted to say, "Are you sure it's not just indigestion?"

***P.S. I just finished reading this post and thought I should add that I don't think we should discredit feelings entirely. I've made that mistake as well. Feelings can be fickle, but God created us to have feelings for a reason. Even though they can be tainted, twisted, and inaccurate, they can also be pointing us in the right direction. There is something to be said for a "gut feeling." More on this another time...

Friday, February 26, 2010

What Happens When We Take the Bible "Literally"?

Every church I've been to in the Evangelical tradition claims that they make the Bible the authority on deciding matters of faith and godliness; indeed, on every matter in life. Sola scriptura and all that. But as N.T. Wright so brilliantly points out, when a church claims that the Bible is the ultimate authority, they often mean something else entirely:
"First, there is an implied, and quite unwarranted, positivism: we imagine that we are ‘reading the text, straight’, and that if somebody disagrees with us it must be because they, unlike we ourselves, are secretly using ‘presuppositions’ of this or that sort. This is simply naïve, and actually astonishingly arrogant and dangerous. It fuels the second point, which is that evangelicals often use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ when they mean the authority of evangelical, or Protestant, theology, since the assumption is made that we (evangelicals, or Protestants) are the ones who know and believe what the Bible is saying. And, though there is more than a grain of truth in such claims, they are by no means the whole truth, and to imagine that they are is to move from theology to ideology. If we are not careful, the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ can, by such routes, come to mean simply ‘the authority of evangelical tradition, as opposed to Catholic or rationalist ones.’"
We say we take the Bible as our authority, but we really mean we take our interpretation of the Bible as our authority, all the while thinking, as Wright says, we are "reading the text, straight."

That in and of itself can lead to lots of problems, but the problems are further complicated when a church (or group or person) claims to take the Bible "literally." Any good Bible scholar will tell you that you need to take the time, place, and cultural contexts into consideration when examining the Biblical text and how it might apply to us today. Yet in our zealousness for "the Word" and its "authority," we sometimes try to make ancient words fit our modern world in ways that are not only clumsy but harmful.

I came across a blog the other day from a woman who has left the so-called "Quiverfull" movement-- the idea that the man is the ruler of the house and the family, that the woman's job is to have babies and as many as possible, and--here's the kicker-- that this is the only way to obediently serve God in our roles as men and women. There's more to the philosophy than that, and different families apply it differently, but patriarchy with absolute female submission and no birth control are the distinguishing features as I understand it. (This philosophy is not all that foreign to me, as it closely resembles the philosophy my husband and I subscribed to when we first got married. Somewhere along the way we discovered it was a disastrous way to run a marriage, and we're still dealing with the fall-out in counseling years later.)

What struck me about this woman's story was she was so sure she and her husband were following the Bible, that even though her husband abused her and the children, she stoically carried on for years, all in the name of obedience. It took her oldest daughter's attempt at suicide to finally decide there was something wrong with the "Biblical" way they were living. It's easy from our outside perspective to say, "Well, obviously, God didn't mean to submit to abuse." But, if we are to take a completely literal, take-the-text-as-it-is approach, we'd have to come to the same conclusion she did-- she would have to submit to his authority regardless of what he does. We would have to take the stance that the only Biblically-allowable reason for divorce would be marital unfaithfulness in its strictest sense. To put it bluntly, women who get the crap beat out of them (whether physically or emotionally) and divorce their husbands would be sinning, if we take the Bible literally.

I found another case of "literal-Bible-reading-gone-bad" on another blog, which told of a recent death of one child and hospitalization of another, caused by their parents disciplining (i.e. beating) them. They were following a "Christian" parenting method that advocates beating your child into submission with plastic tubing. Horrendous, you say? What about a literal interpretation of Proverbs 13:24, 22:15, and 23:13-14? "Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death." These parents took that literally and beat their child to physical death. Mortifying, you say? But is that not what a literal interpretation of the Biblical text gives us?

Our initial reaction may be, "Yes, those are extreme examples, but those folks were misapplying the Bible. That's not what those verses mean..." Ah, but there's the trouble. Our interpretation of those verses do not lead us to the same conclusions as their interpretations did. But they are making the Bible their "ultimate authority," just as we claim to do.

"But we have to take the whole context of the Bible," we say. "We can take it literally within its place in all of scripture." Think of the abused woman, though. What comfort or direction would she get from 1 Peter 3:5-6? Sarah sucked it up and dealt with it, honey, so you can too! (Not to say that Abraham beat Sarah, but he certainly abused her by lying about her not being his wife, thus making her vulnerable to sexual abuse.)

Let's be honest-- we arrive at many of our positions not from literal reading of the text, but from inferring things from the text, from the nature of God, and from the actions of Jesus during His time on earth. For example, the Bible says husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the church. It does not say that women only have to submit when their husbands are loving. It just says submit. But we would not (I hope) counsel a woman getting beat up by her husband to submit to him and take the beatings night after night (although I know, sadly, that this IS the counsel many women get from churches). We have no specific, literal verse to back us up on counseling this woman to leave. We just point to the loving nature of God who despises violence against the innocent and who created marriage to be mutual submission, and we go with our gut feeling knowing that abuse like that is just plain wrong.

I use these examples because they are a little more clear-cut, but the principle applies to other areas of Bible reading. We post-Enlightenment Western types are big into being literal. (What does it mean? Well, what does it say? It means what it says, of course!) Then we like to pick and choose which parts we are going to take literally and which we are going to consider symbolism and allegory. (Side note-- ever find it funny that so many Christians take Genesis and Revelation literally while chalking most of Jesus' own words up to allegory?) We lose sight of the fact that the Bible is an ancient document written in a completely different time. While God may have designed it to be instrumental in the life of the believer and the Church, the Bible is not our ultimate authority. God is our ultimate authority. We can't read the Bible and extricate our understanding and application of it from the work of the Holy Spirit and the counsel and wisdom of the Church universal and historical.

We're going to get it wrong part of the time, no doubt about it. But I'm starting to think we ought to be done with this "taking the Bible literally" nonsense.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Frustrated Rant from a Tired Christian

I had made plans to jump back into blogging with a great, insightful, and possibly even witty post about Protestants observing Lent-- those who see it as works salvation versus those who see it as a valuable spiritual discipline, etc. (And of course, those of us, like me, who first saw it as legalism, but then later thought it might be a really cool, spiritual thing to do, but didn't want to observe it too rigidly lest I be considered merely jumping on the latest Protestant "back to orthodoxy" bandwagon... ) As it turns out, my spiritual discipline muscle is incredibly weak, and Ash Wednesday came and went with few thoughts and little action. So it was all a mute point, really. I know I ought to be exercising some sort of spiritual discipline more regularly than I currently am doing. In my defense, I did look for an Ash Wednesday service to get me "in the mood" for being spiritual for the next 40 days, but I had worship team practice at my own church (which, as you might have guessed, does not observe Lent).

Yes, I know, I know, one doesn't need to wait until the church calendar reaches a certain day to make a concerted effort towards prayer, fasting, and charity. I guess I was kind of hoping something symbolic would help jump-start my wimpy, puttering faith. I need more than a spiritual cup of coffee-- I need the Christian equivalent of crack. I'm so discouraged. I hate going to church, but I like seeing our friends. I hate listening to sermons, but I can't kick the nagging feeling of guilt that our family needs to sit there, for some reason or another. I might bring up a side point in Sunday School class on occasion, but I've lost the drive to debate theology even on a friendly level. In short, I'm just showing up and going through the motions. The songs don't mean much to me. The sermons, if I can pay attention long enough, usually frustrate me. Does this make me a bad Christian? I don't know. I suppose I don't really care.

No... that's not true. I do care; otherwise I wouldn't bother blogging about it. I want a solution. I want to go to church and like it! I want to sing to God and MEAN it! I want to pray and actually be engaged mentally. I want to read the Bible and believe it. And, most of all, I want to stop thinking cynical, pessimistic thoughts about my fellow Christians. When someone expresses a joyous, heartfelt trust in God, I want to be able to say "Amen!" rather than have the strong desire to smack them upside the head for being naive and platitudinous.

No answers here. Just needed to vent.