Unforseen Flexibility: September 15, 2016
Last Saturday my family slept in tents in a field with many other Cub Scout families. I lasted until about 4:30 when I poked Mark and said, “I’m leaving.” “Take the dog,” he said, turning over.
Grady and I walked home and I got a blissful 90 minutes (in a row!) of sleep before getting ready for my four-hour shift as church host. It is a blessing to live in a neighborhood where I feel safe walking—even without the restless dog—in the middle of a beautiful night.
I wasn’t excited about field camping (I am more of a backpacker, myself), but I had looked forward to it. I was pleased that Jack’s Cub Scout pack was hosting a family campout. I am enthusiastic about his scouting career. But not excited.
In my preview to this post I wrote, “I'm tired of people saying that they are excited about things. Someone in a meeting will say, "I'm excited about this new program." Really? Excited? Excited is my three-year-old contemplating her birthday party. It hurts your ears. Excited seems rather dramatic to describe a Sunday School series or a webpage change. Mark and I pondered some options. I'm interested in what you could offer. Can the same word describe your faith walk, your spiritual path, your search for Presence? Are you excited about that?”
Words in italics above are some of the ones Mark and I pondered—many of you suggested the same. Bill offered, “More like open to learning, searching, maybe intentional or dutiful. I guess it would be good if I could get fired up.....” Love this. Because fired up is much closer to the true emotion of excited. How about eager? Another possibility, if you can stomach slang, is psyched. These get at both the optimism and the anticipation inherent in excitement.
Carolyn remarked, “Excitement is short-term. One example: when your favorite football team scores a touchdown in the last minute to win the game.” Yes, and this is the second reason I like Bill’s answer so much. A word to describe a spiritual path (or an on-going program, for that matter), would convey learning, searching, intentionality, probably change—something over the long term.
Here’s the word that really speaks to me: hopeful. I can use it to talk about a new program--“I’m hopeful that this will involve many new people…” and I can say that I’m hopeful about my spiritual path. It conveys optimism, anticipation *and*, theologically, a sense of possibility beyond our own imaginings or abilities.
In honest Bible study or theological inquiry, the goal is not to confirm what you already believe. Theology is not about confirmation. It is discovery. It’s pretty sweet when the discovery does confirm my belief. But it’s transformational when it broadens my belief, and that is the joy of discovery. Discovery, like knowledge, creates wonder, as I said in last month’s post.
So I’ve been digging in to Hope recently. And Hope has taken me to some unexpected places already.
In Christianity, hope is attached at the hip to resurrection; as in, because we believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, we have hope in the decisive victory over Death. There is hope in God’s ultimate goodness; that Love has/is/will triumph.
Sidenote: since I’m airing vocabulary pet-peeves, let me remind you that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead (as though with his American, independent, bootstraps). Jesus was raised from the dead as part of the eternal, Triune God; thus underscoring the impossibility of God existing in just one ‘person’ of the Trinity.
I admit to a pretty low Christology—which is a fancy way of saying that for me the historic person of Jesus has been more important than the claim of his resurrection and divinity. But in the past two years or so I’ve become more and more enamored with the Triune God and Jesus’ place within that three-fold dance of love.
I’m currently reading N.T. Wright’sSurprised by Hope, in which he explores issues of heaven, hell, purgatory and historical accounts of resurrection. It is challenging me to rethink resurrection, and how early Christian scholarship on these matters can shed light on current efforts to “bring God’s kingdom to bear on the real and painful world in which we live.” I’m not 100% on board, but the exploration is invigorating, and has led me to another book I will soon begin, Jürgen Moltmann’sTheology of Hope. So, perhaps more on the subject of hope in posts to come.
I’m also reading Brian Greene’s marvelous The Elegant Universe, which tackles the formidable challenge of introducing quantum mechanics and superstring theory to an armchair scientist like me. Hear this:
"The meta-lesson of both relativity and quantum mechanics is that when we deeply probe the fundamental workings of the universe we may come upon aspects that are vastly different from our expectations. The boldness of asking deep questions may require unforeseen flexibility if we are to accept the answers." --Brian Greene
You might just want to read that again.
So what keeps us from asking deep theological questions?
Maybe it’s exhaustion. I’m just barely hanging on here, my ‘normal’ a precarious balancing act of family, work, self-care and larger community—don’t throw in theological ambivalence, too. I got no flexibility left. Kum ba yah, for God’s sake.
Or how about fear? Sometimes reality is scary enough without theology butting in and messing everything up even further. Fear not. Over and over in the scriptures we are admonished not to fear. But that doesn’t mean we won’t get hurt.
How about this beautiful piece of honesty from Catherine: “I don't get excited about spiritual paths etc. I feel dread, as I'm pulled kicking and screaming where I didn't know I needed to go.”
In Julian Barnes’s compelling memoir on mortality, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, he quotes a women who says, “If you conquer fear, you conquer death.” To which Barnes remarks, “though you don’t, of course, end up not dead.” Barnes is an avowed, though mild, atheist. In fact, one of the best lines in the book is this: “The fury of the resurrected atheist; that would be something worth seeing.”
But I digress.
When did theology ever promise safety? Even if your Protestantism won’t quite allow you to accept saints, consider the faithfulness of Martin Luther King, Jr., or Jesus for that matter. “Resurrection was never a way of settling down and becoming respectable; the Pharisees could have told you that,” says Wright.
The children in C.S. Lewis’sThe Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when learning about Aslan the Lion, ask their host, “Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy. Mr. Beaver replies, “Safe…Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
We strive to live in a safe theological neighborhood, where we can walk alone in the night, with or without dogs, but in fact the fundamental workings of the universe may be vastly different from our expectations. Hope offers us the flexibility to accept the unforeseen, and possibly contradictory, answers.
Surprise bonus: A poem by my wonderful cousin, the Catherine quoted above, who offered it with the observation, "There is a reason angels usually say, Fear not first." Thank you for sharing it, Catherine.
The Contrary Beating of Wings--by Catherine Moirai
Enough, already, of pink-cheeked angels, of sweet
dimpled cherubs and roses and ribbons! I tell
you a cloud of locusts would be as true. Don't forget
these creatures come with swords, they come hot as hell,
sizzling like a serpent's bite! And you -- you want
an angel in your life? Don't worry, Gabriel
will blow that horn, and life as you have known
it will end: he will send you from the house, she will
fire you, you'll get pregnant or go to prison;
you'll have to leave home; you'll have to change your name.
Angels practice tough love. And did anyone warn
you, they also cheat? They'll pull your leg and leave you lame;
they'll eat your dinner and make laughter of your pain.
They are more than two-faced. I tell you this is true.
Be careful, very careful. Don't ask to entertain
angels, unless you really know what is good for you.