Wednesday, March 07, 2012
Wednesday, February 01, 2012
Thursday, January 26, 2012
Thursday, January 12, 2012
To put it bluntly, the last four months since I left my job and moved here have been among the worst of my entire life. In fact, I can only think of one other time in my life that things seemed worse than this. I have spent the last four months feeling like nothing so much as a prisoner of my circumstances. The truth is, right now, I have trouble seeing how it's possible to be anything else. All my former talk to the contrary now seems to me like a load of pretentious, self-deluded, spiritualized garbage.
Shortly after I moving here I got sick. Actually, it was a month to the day I had left my job and thus given up my health insurance. This was a scenario I had known was possible, and even feared on some level, but hadn't seriously entertained. I went to the doctor and paid out of pocket to be treated. I took the medicine I was prescribed and seemed to get better. But then, just as I was finishing the medicine, I caught a cold, and at the tail end of that I ended up with another sinus infection.
Of course I didn't want to believe it. But the symptoms were too clear (and too miserable) to ignore. So back to the clinic I went, to spend more money out of pocket. This time they put me on a different, supposedly stronger medication. Even before I had finished the course of medication, it became apparent that I wasn't getting better. I ended up on antibiotics a third time and didn't get better then either. By then I'd been sick for a month.
On top of that, I was working two part time jobs, neither of which I really liked much. As a result of the time and energy consumed by the two jobs, I wasn't really able to participate in the life of the community I came to join either, a nice bit of bitter irony. I was discouraged, angry, exhausted, and overwhelmed.
To make a long story short, I ended up leaving one of the two jobs in the hope that the extra time to rest would help me get better. It didn't. Fearing possible pneumonia, I ended up going back to the doctor two more times, being put on antibiotics two more times, and I still didn't get better. Finally I was put on allergy medicine, which seemed to help some but didn't really make me better. I continued to feel lousy and exhausted all the time.
Finally, I was able to take a vacation and go home over the week between Christmas and New Years. I was still feeling fairly lousy, but at least I was able to rest and enjoy spending time with my parents. My mom also paid for me to see her chiropractor, who gave me some supplements to treat my sinus problems. Leaving my parents on New Year's Day and returning to the miserable life I've been living here, was one of the saddest things I've ever done. I cried a lot that day and even the next.
After arriving back here, I began to treat my illness with an aggressive combination of home remedies and continued taking the supplements given by my mom's chiropractor. Over the course of a week, this seemed to help a lot. Then, a few days ago, with the help of friends, I had an appointment at a naturopath clinic. They put me on a restricted diet and gave me some more supplements to take. As of today, I am feeling much better, almost normal in fact. That is definitely something to be thankful for, but the story doesn't end there.
The whole time I was sick, I thought that if I could just get better, everything would seem fine, that I would be happy again. Now I'm feeling much healthier, but instead of being happy, I feel depressed. I made a big move and it was supposed to be a new start in life. Instead, it just feels like the same life I thought I was leaving behind, except worse. I'm working a job that I don't enjoy, the same kind of work as the job I left, except for far less money and with no health insurance. I'm living in someone else's house because I can't afford to live on my own. I'm nearly broke. I miss my family. I don't see a way forward.
A friend tells me that I lack faith that God is working in my life. That’s probably true. It’s hard to believe when life is so relentlessly painful and you don’t see a way out. God and His purposes seem like distant abstractions compared to the financial burdens I face, a job that makes me anxious and stressed all day, and my inability to see any way through these struggles. I'm tired of everything feeling like a continual painful uphill struggle towards nothing. I don't know what the answer is, but I feel like something needs to change, and soon.
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Recently, I have done something insane, at least according to common wisdom. I have resigned my decent paying, secure, stable job with no guarantee of another one. I have done this at a time when the economy is bad and many people cannot find work of any kind. The reason for this is that I am moving in order to live in community with friends and to participate in starting a church with them. This is more than just something that I really want to do. It is an attempt to find and fulfill my life’s purpose and calling.
I have believed since the age of twenty-one that God called me to ministry of some kind. I have primarily felt that this calling was of an intellectual nature; that I was called to understand the culture I live in and how the Christian faith relates to that culture, and to help others understand that too. I pursued education to that end. Somehow, though, the opportunity to pursue that intellectual calling never seemed to come to fruition in the way I imagined it would, which is to say, through paying work.
As a result, I realized at some point that I would have to pursue this calling through unpaid work if it was ever to be fulfilled. This has been the story of my entire adult life, working jobs to pay the bills while seeking my true vocation outside the world of paid work. In that sense, what I am doing now is nothing different. The difference is that never before have I clearly allowed my sense of vocation to shape my actions and choices over and above the necessity of making a living in the everyday world. Prior to this, my reality has always been primarily defined by the need to have a job so I could pay the bills. This, of course, is conventional wisdom.
On top of that, despite my sense that I was called to ministry, I did not see myself as the sort of person who would be good at starting a church. It was, in fact, something I had no interest in doing whatsoever, and something I was sure I would be bad at. Yet the circumstances of my life lead me down this path and drew me into this group of people, and I formed relationships that I did not want to let go of. So I began to think about participating in starting this church. But that would mean having to move fifty miles from where I currently live, and that would make it too far for me to commute to my current job.
For a long time, I still believed I could not commit to quitting my current job and moving without first having another job to go to. Over the course of a year, however, the job did not materialize. I began to give up hope. Finally, after much struggling and soul-searching, and with the wisdom and guidance of others, I came to believe that this is what I should do.
So here I am, by all conventional accounts doing something that is incredibly foolish, leaving behind the safety and security of a stable paying job in order to pursue a calling that some people believe cannot even exist. It is simultaneously the most empowering thing I’ve ever done and the most frightening. Some days lately, like today, I wonder if I made the wrong choice. I think I must be insane. I have no idea what will happen in the months to come. But I have to believe that if God is real and he called me to this, that He will make it possible. And believing it means living like it’s true.
This, I think, is what St. Paul means when he says in his second letter to the church in Corinth, that we Christians walk by faith and not by sight. To walk by faith rather than by sight does not mean that we stick our heads in the sand and pretend like the realities of life in this world don’t exist. It means, rather, that though we are aware of those realities we don’t allow them to be the final word in defining our existence. We live as if life is more than necessity and mere survival. We are not prisoners of our circumstances.
Saturday, March 19, 2011
For those unfamiliar with the doctrine of universalism, it is basically the belief that, in the end, all people will be saved, no matter how they have lived or what they have believed in this life. It is a rejection of the doctrine of hell as a place of eternal conscious torment for those who have not embraced Christ as savior in this life and who have rejected living by God's revealed moral standards. In the end, somehow, God will save every person and all will enjoy the blessedness of life in the kingdom of heaven. Even if universalism is not heretical, it is a belief that has not been widely embraced in the history of the church.
It is easy to see the appeal of universalism. The doctrine of hell is nothing if not unpleasant. The thought of people enduring suffering without end is deeply disturbing to many people; it also raises a host of moral questions, which often seem to have no easy answers. How could a loving God sentence people to be tortured for all eternity? What about those who never hear about Jesus? What about those who have devoted their lives to doing good but who do not embrace Christian beliefs? What about all the jerks who claim to be Christians? The list of objections and questions could no doubt go on. My purpose here today, however, is not to try to answer all of these questions and objections, one way or the other.
I would like to take a slightly different tack on the issue than any I have heard so far. My approach to the issue comes from two different sources. One is my own concern about our reasons for accepting or rejecting any particular aspect of Christian belief. The other is from the writings of Dorothy Sayers.In a recent conversation with a friend concerning this issue and Bell's new book, I expressed a concern that many people seem to be rejecting the doctrine of hell based on the notion that because a belief offends us or makes us uncomfortable, therefore it should be discarded or changed. I noted that there often seems to be a mindset in our times that automatically says, "I have trouble with X, therefore X is wrong or should be rejected by all people of good faith," rather than one that begins with accepting the possibility that even when I have trouble with something, that doesn't mean it can't be (or shouldn't be) true. This view reduces the scope of acceptable beliefs and reality to that which makes sense to my own limited understanding of things. This, despite its obvious initial appeal, is ultimately a view of life and reality that I find rather small and constricting.
In her essay "The Greatest Drama Ever Staged," written over 50 years ago, Dorothy Sayers argues that,
Sayers goes on to note that "Possibly we might prefer not to take this tale too seriously -- there are disquieting points about it." She then goes on to observe that in downplaying or dismissing the traditional dogmas of the church that, "We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him 'meek and mild,' and recommended Him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies."
Though Sayers never directly addresses the doctrine of hell, her observations still ring true and seem relevant to me in our own times. Though the issue now has less to do with dogma being perceived as dull, and more to do with it being perceived as offensive, the general gist of Sayers point remains, I believe, salient. Those who are eager to do away with the doctrine of hell assure us that one of the reasons many people, especially younger people, cannot accept the Christian faith, is because the doctrine of hell is simply too, to use Sayers term, "disquieting" to them. But isn't it possible that in abandoning this doctrine, we are simply attempting to fit God into a narrative that makes life comfortable for us by demanding that God fit into our own limited understanding of reality and that reduces God to the equivalent of a house pet?
The Nobel Prize winning poet Czelaw Milosz observed that in contradistinction to the traditional Marxist observation that religion was like opium used to make people more at ease with their earthly situation, that in our time "we are witnessing a transformation. A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death -- the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged."
The doctrine of hell, it seems to me, offers an assurance that our choices ultimately matter. What we do in this life has consequences that extend into eternity. Or as Milosz observed "All religions recognize that our deeds are imperishable . . ." The idea that our choices really matter is also a part of what makes good drama compelling. It is the belief that in choosing this path instead of that one or this action instead of that one, the character's life and the lives of those around him or her are affected and move towards certain destinations and that some destinations are preferable to others. If all choices lead to the same outcome, however, or no particular outcome is really preferable to any others, then no choice really matters and any action the character takes is ultimately meaningless. There is no drama. This, it seems to me, is at least a risk for those who embrace universalism. If, in the end, everyone will be saved no matter they have done or believed, then why does it matter what anyone does or believes? Life is robbed of its drama.
The Christian faith, by contrast, is one that has always called its adherents out of our own narrow perceptions and preferences. Instead, it has called us to lay aside those things and enter into a drama that is far larger than ourselves and our limited comprehension of reality. I recognize that this observation does not answer every difficulty raised by the doctrine of hell. I wonder, however, if at the very least, we can begin by admitting that God and reality are much larger than the limited scope of our personal preferences and understandings and that we might have to accept some things that initially seem offensive or that don’t make sense to us in order to enter into and participate in the larger reality that Jesus invites us into. Otherwise, it seems to me, we risk being left with nothing but the small and constricting world of our own choices and preferences, a world without drama, in which nothing we do ultimately matters.
*For those concerned, I am aware that Bell has explicitly stated that he is not promoting universalism. Though the controversy over Bell's book is one of the sources of inspiration for this post, I still think the issues I have addressed here are relevant apart from that specific controversy.
Saturday, November 08, 2008
In recent years, there has been a movement of many evangelicals, especially younger ones, towards the political left. I suspect that there are a number of reasons for this move, some of them better than others. One of the reasons, which seems to me to be a good one, is that many Christians have grown tired of the over-politicized Christianity of what is called "The Religious Right," and the narrowness, ugliness, and shrillness sometimes associated with it. Many of us have grown tired of seeing God's name too closely associated with a particular political party or agenda, and the often angry, defensive spirit that seems to accompany that association. We have been concerned about the way in which this politicized Christianity has been a turn off for many that has prevented them from seeing Jesus and which has made it more difficult for many Christians to love their neighbors, whoever they may be.
This brings me to the point of this article, however, which is the fact that a swing to the political left is not really a move away from a politicized Christianity. It is simply exchanging one set of issues or agendas for another, and then aligning our Christianity with them. The shape of the container remains the same, only the contents have changed. I fail to see how this is an improvement.
With the election of President Obama, there is much talk in the air of "change." While, on one level, I can understand the hope and excitement this has generated, I am, for the most part, extremely skeptical about this talk and wonder what it really means at a substantial level. I am particularly concerned about the life issues and the extremely liberal position Obama takes on abortion, which I view as fundamental to many other issues. If the weakest, most helpless and innocent among us are are not protected, and perhaps the most fundamental human relationship of dependence among us is viewed as essentially expendable, then on what basis can we argue for human obligations towards anyone else? This is just one example of how a swing to the political left among Christians does not seem to me to be an improvement over a too close association with the political right.
My point here, is that despite all the talk of "change," a swing to the political left, does not really strike me as a substantial change in any way. It still leaves us just as vulnerable to the dangers of a politicized Christianity, perhaps even more so, because there is the dangerous illusion that, having moved away from the politicized Christianity of the past we have somehow escaped it, when in fact all we have done is trade one task-master for another. Furthermore, as the abortion issue illustrates, it still leaves us just as vulnerable, again, maybe more so, to the dehumanizing forces at work in late modern Western culture. It can also become just as much of a constricting legalism and a possible hindrance to loving our neighbors as the Religious Right did.
What do you think?