This blog is dedicated to the musings of integrating faith, learning, and social engagement. You’ll find ideas presented here that demonstrate an active faith seeking understanding through all matters pertaining to life and death. Feel free to stop by when you can and share a comment if something captures your attention or stirs your imagination. Perhaps you’ll even be encouraged here from time to time by finding compelling evidence that life indeed matters. We have all been given a remarkable gift from our Creator – the miraculous breath of life itself. May we extend good favor toward the One who made us in His image by living out an authentic faith as we care for our planet and the people throughout the world who journey with us.
On a beautiful Sunday afternoon recently, my daughter Netsanet issued this simple command:
“Let go, Dad.”
No, she didn’t scream it at me. It was more of a quiet resolve as if to say “I’ve got this now.” For weeks, Netsa had been asking me to take off the training wheels on her new pink bicycle her mother had bought for her. So it came as no surprise that at the first sign of spring, as my boys were quick to zip around the neighborhood on their bikes, Netsa was right along behind them, peddling as fast as she could, and managing somehow to keep up, despite the awkward bobbling constraints of her training wheels.
My special pleading goes like this: Netsa is only five. She is my “little girl.” The way I figured it, she has plenty of time to learn how to ride a bike. Most of my boys didn’t even have a desire to learn to ride until they were six or seven. In fact, it was just a few months ago when my youngest son Nate (then 8) rode through our yard for the first time without any assistance or encouragement. No – I reasoned that Netsa’s bicycle training was going to take a while. Daddy knows best you know.
By now, after teaching my three boys to ride, I have the training down to a system. Not to brag or anything, but I know what I’m doing when it comes to training a child how to ride a bike (at least my children). Well, at least I thought I did…until that Sunday afternoon.
You see, training a child takes time. You have to know how each one learns best. And if you learn how to ride a bike at my house, you have to know the landscape of my yard. There’s a trick to it – and it requires some instruction (by me). I also developed over time a patented “ghost grip” that requires some stealthy use of the hands to hold surreptitiously to the back of a child’s bicycle seat while running slightly behind them as they peddle along. They have to get their balance, and that takes time. And then there is the whole braking issue – not intuitive. Once you get your bike going with some semblance of balance, you then have to learn how to use your brakes. No – don’t drag your toes on the ground – that’ll never do if you need to stop quickly. And did I mention the lesson where we discuss how to make a sharp turn without capsizing your ride? There’s a trick to that too.
All of this to say that my plans for Netsa’s bicycle training were to begin this summer at the earliest. We had plenty of time…enough for me to ponder how I would chart my lesson plans in chalk on our driveway when I determined that the time was right for Netsa to learn. But in all fairness, that Sunday afternoon was gorgeous, and I had a few minutes to spare. And so I reasoned that there would be no harm in getting an early start on Netsa’s lessons for the summer, as my wife Angelia nodded approvingly from her chair in the sun.
As I removed Netsa’s training wheels and lowered her seat a bit, Netsa eagerly stood right next to me, ready to learn the fine art of bike riding. Yes, I thought to myself, this is a fine day to start Lesson Number One of the Dr. Gibson School of Bike Riding for this sweet girl.
We took just a few minutes to learn about getting on the bike – and of course, how to push off with peddles properly positioned to maximize your take off, using your dominate foot. To get started, I held firmly onto the seat and handlebars, while we went together very slowly through my yard and down the gentle hill beside my house.
“Want to do it again, Netsa?” I asked.
“Yes! Let’s try it in the driveway!” she replied.
I laughed. “Well darling, the yard is much safer for you” I said. “You don’t want to fall on the concrete, do you?” Silly girl.
“But Dad, that is where my brothers ride. Come on, let’s do it.”
I thought to myself – Netsa may need to learn the lesson of a skinned knee to understand the danger ahead. Yes, I’ve seen this all before.
And so, after walking her bright pink bike back to the front of our house, I positioned Netsa where she could take off easily and steer straight up our short driveway. I was quite certain there would be an abrupt end to Lesson One, once she realized how scary it would be to fall off her bike and hit the hard concrete without the support of her training wheels.
At first, I had my firm “ghost” grip on her seat to make sure she wouldn’t fall. But then, as we took off, Netsa could feel me holding her back. She wanted to go faster – to be free and experience the wind and control under her own hand. That’s when she dropped the bomb on me.
She whispered quickly, “Let go, Dad.”
And that is when it happened…
I let go and Netsa rode a complete loop around the driveway by herself as Angelia and I watched in wonder. While Netsa’s face lit up with glee as she giggled at her accomplishments, Angelia and I burst out in great applause. She did it! All by herself! The very first time! Let this girl ride and be free to explore and learn on her own. Yes, there will be bruises and scrapes and wrecks – maybe a little blood – but there will also be imagination and adventure and sheer joy. You go girl!
Later in the day, those two words hit me hard.
Terse but heavy words. I can’t stop thinking about them. What other areas of my life might I be holding on too tightly? Is it time for me to “let go” of something else? Moreover, how do you even know when it is time to let go? Do you need certainty before you take a risk? No, that doesn’t make sense. Netsa simply asked me to do it – “Let go.”
I’ve never been one for empty Christian platitudes, especially the classic “let go and let God.” I always thought it was odd (perhaps dangerous) to presume that we have the power to “let God” do anything. Surely God does whatever He pleases (Psalm 115:3). And the letting go part – well, that’s just something that takes much discernment and faith to do. I like things under my control, neatly bound, and systematic – risk adverse. You know, a portfolio balanced, diversified, with minimal risk, right? No surprises for me please.
Some of you say, “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” I know that! It is just that sometimes “letting go” is too hard and painful. And sometimes determining when to “let go” is just plain confusing.
In reflecting over the past few days, I want to share with you how the problem of “letting go” might be related to our understanding of grief. [Ok, as an undertaker, admittedly I may draw too many connections to grief. But perhaps this connection is valid.] Follow with me a bit.
In studying about grief and loss over the past few years, I have learned that “grief experts” (if there is such a thing) have changed their minds on how best to navigate the grief journey. For many years, the Grief Work Hypothesis (as old as Freud himself), suggested that when you face grief, you must work your way through it. You must work to put grief behind you – reinvest your emotional energy in something more productive. This eventually developed into the idea that we must go through the “normal stages” of grief in order to get “closure.”
Today you may be surprised to know that much has changed in grief theory since the early days of this “Grief Work” instruction. Today, our understanding of grief is much more nuanced. We are now told that there are no fixed “stages” one must pass through. “Closure” is rarely if ever fully realized; instead, it is more accurate to say that we eventually learn over time to integrate our losses into our lives. “Buck up” messages like “you need to be strong and put this behind you” have finally given way to the better idea that we need to experience our grief in all of its fullness – and however you want to do it is ok, because you are the only real expert of your own grief.
Our contemporary conceptualizations of grief have lead interestingly to the idea of “continuing bonds.” I really love this idea. Yes, instead of “cutting ties” and trying to simply “move on” we are now encouraged to continue the bonds we had with the object of our grief. But even still – this is not a one-size-fits-all solution either. Grief is not typically a sickness or pathology where we can easily prescribe some quick treatment to get our resolution – whether it be pills, counseling, or whatever. Grief is much more personal and transitory – it is existential. You know when you have grief. When you experience what it is like to be torn apart from something you love, it is indeed painful…and deeply personal. I have learned that there is not much someone can do for you other than being with you and walking beside you as you go.
Clinicians and practitioners today suggest that despite the pain of grief, sometimes it is helpful to continue the bonds with what we have lost. Contrary to the Grief Work Hypothesis, perhaps we should visit the cemetery more often – keep photos around of our lost loved ones – remember birthdays – or even take a few moments now and again for a “grief burst” of tears. Yes, even “grief bursts” can be healthy for us.
Good so far, right?
Well, what I struggle with is that while continuing bonds is often a good idea for emotional well-being, at the same time, not every bond we have is worth keeping. Surely sometimes it is better to cut ties – to move forward – to reallocate the vested energy into something else. Sometimes we are just plain stuck and need to move forward. So how do we discern those times? How do we know when it is right to cut our ties – to indeed “let go?”
I’m sorry I don’t have the answer for that. As you now know given the bicycle episode with my daughter, I am hesitant to let go – even of the easy stuff. I’m guessing this means that I need work at discerning when to continue a bond or to cut a tie in other contexts as well. Admittedly, I have much to learn still. Yet, surely it takes a measure of faith, wisdom, and maturity (and a little luck too) in order to navigate a healthy course at certain times in life – when to hold on and when to let go.
We all know that if you love, you will grieve. And there will be times you need to continue the bonds with whatever, or whomever you have lost – yes, to endure the pain for however long is necessary (maybe forever). Other times, you will need to let go. No, not to get “closure” as if you can simply forget memories – but perhaps you can, even should, divest wasted or negative energy and reinvest into something healthier for yourself and those who walk with you in life.
Now to the bottom line of this long ramble…
No matter how many times I watch it, I always laugh at the minstrel in the Monty Python movie who sings the song “Brave Sir Robin Ran Away.” In the film, as the minstrel and his merry men ride through the kingdom together, the minstrel mockingly sings about the “bravery” of Sir Robin:
“When danger rears its ugly head, he bravely turned his tail and fled.”
The truth is that my little girl is much braver than Sir Robin. She is not too afraid to have her “kneecaps split” as the song goes. Danger is calculated in some measure perhaps, but it is mostly an intuitive move. “Let go, Dad.” Netsa was plainly telling me: Let me ride. It is time to leave the safe yard for the unknown adventures that await me in the neighborhood.
And Netsa is, of course, correct. Sometimes it is time to leave the safety of the empire – whatever that empire may be. Sometimes we should leave our fears (and losses) behind. Sometimes we need to break free from the tyranny of criticism or authoritarianism or whatever conspires to suppress our progress, remove our hope, and create fear in us.
Sometimes we need to leave the safety of the empire.
I think Walter Brueggemann* is right: sometimes by letting go, we create space for playfulness and trembling, imagination and pondering. Letting go gives movement to our ongoing struggle with transformation and development.
Do you need to let go of something and move on to another adventure? If so, let me pray for us:
God, please help us to know when to “let go” and may we humbly ask you to provide us grace in large measure to sustain us as we take our next steps – as we risk new roads ahead.
* See Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination (2001) and Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks (2014).
We’ve almost made it. Despite the cacophony of voices and activities that vied for our time through the holidays, Christmas is almost here. For me, amid the hustle and bustle, it is helpful to have something to center upon as we reach the crescendo of Christmas Day. Here is my simple reflection for this year. I entitled it, “Best Christmas Ever!” Well, it is one way to share the story.
Do you have a favorite Christmas memory? Let me tell you mine.
Long ago (yes, in a land far, far away) a very special baby boy was born. He sure looked the same as any baby; he cried the same, and even smelled the same as babies often do. Some say the very day this Child was born, the whole world suddenly changed forever in an instant. That’s actually not quite right. The truth is that the world had been waiting for this Child for a very long time. The real story of the Child actually began long before he was even born. You see, this story is as old as time itself.
Here’s how it happened: Once there was a great God who created the whole universe. We really don’t know how He did it, or perhaps even why, but nonetheless, we know that on one peculiar speck of His vast universe, He made a particularly beautiful place. We simply call it “our world.” Surely you have seen, heard, felt, smelled, and even tasted some of the beauty of our world. It is easy to find. If you look for it, you’ll see beauty all around us.
But then, bad news came. Over time, this beautiful world became filled with darkness. In fact, darkness seeped into every corner of the world. I don’t have to tell you that our world is cursed with darkness all around us; I’m sure you’ve seen it for yourself. Sadly, our world is a beautiful, yet broken place.
Sadly, our world is a beautiful, yet broken place.
But listen to this: The great God who created the entire universe, really loves our little planet very much. I know it is hard to believe and impossible to fully explain, but God does not want our world to be broken. So here is what He did: He decided long ago, that at just the right time, and in just the right place, He would send His only Son to our world to heal and put things right again.
Think about this – the very Son of God coming to be with us to establish a glorious and everlasting Kingdom like the world has never known! This has been God’s grand plan since the beginning. It sure sounds like a wonderful plan, doesn’t it?
And yet, for reasons I cannot explain, countless years passed in our world, and God’s Son never came. As time marched on, it honestly seemed like God had changed His mind. But thankfully, He had not.
Legend tells us that a great and powerful angel arrived at the appointed time, in a seemingly obscure location, and told an unsuspecting young girl that she would have a baby who would be the One who fulfilled the long awaited plan of God. Can you imagine what this girl must have thought? After all of these years, her little baby would be the One to heal the world and to rule and protect all things. The angel explained that the Child would do mighty deeds in his life, and he would give the world just what it needed – the mercy of God Himself. The Child would grow up and shine light upon darkness and be the guide into everlasting peace.
Now here’s where the story takes a surprising turn. You see, this Child grew up and did miraculous things only the Son of God could do, just as the angel explained. But then, he did something totally unexpected: He left the world that he came to save!
OK, do not panic. He didn’t abandon us. In fact, he promised he would return. But get this: Before he left, he gave us some very important instructions about what we need to be doing. Yes, that’s right. Apparently, we have been given something important to do in his Kingdom. Can you believe that? The Son of God wants us (yes, you and I!) to participate in his work – to be people who shine light upon darkness and to guide our world into peace. And, better yet, we were even promised that God’s powerful Spirit would be our faithful guide.
So here’s something worthy to center upon this Christmas: Realize that you are part of this great story of history. Your life really does matter, and so does mine. And as we work together, to be about the joyful work of God and share the story of His great mercy and love with others, we participate in a grand chorus heralded throughout the ages. As the words of a beautiful song explain:
We are called to live His song.
To live His song, to be His music.*
Continuing with my current series, “Grab & Go”, I’m thinking a lot today about the power and promise of hope. Today was my daughter’s first day of kindergarten. Yes – a big deal in our house. Five years ago, her birth family in Ethiopia named her “Netsanet” because it carries a great significance among this special people group. In Amharic, Netsanet literally means “freedom”…and for her birth family, the name carries with it the weight of endless possibilities, including the opportunity for a real education. In a word, “Netsanet” means hope.
As Netsanet and I stood in line outside the elementary school this morning, waiting for her name to be called and to receive her welcome instructions before entering the building, I caught a glimpse of the American Flag – Old Glory herself – waving valiantly and appearing aflame in the reflection of the school’s front door windows. It was as if God was reminding me of the great freedom we experience in this country – the very freedom that permits my daughter to give movement to her dreams. The power and promise of hope swelled in me and became so palpable that I could taste it. The hope that was infused into my little girl since birth was being materialized right before my very eyes.
In the classic teenage movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ben Stein plays the straight-faced monotone economics teacher who calls the roll each day at the start of class – “Bueller…Bueller…Bueller…Bueller…Bueller” – completely undeterred until someone finally answers and tells him: “Um, he’s sick. My best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who’s going with the girl who saw Ferris pass out at 31 Flavors last night. I guess it’s pretty serious.”
We laugh at such ridiculous stories, but there is indeed something significant about the calling out of your personal name in the open air. When we hear someone announce our personal name – we turn instinctively to see who it is who knows us well enough to say our name aloud.
In what Frederick Buechner calls one of the greatest moments in Old Testament history, Moses, a stranger in a strange land, hears his name called – not once, but twice.
As the story goes, a bush in the wilderness of Mt. Horeb bursts into flame, and within the mysterious fire, Moses’ name is called out by God Himself. “Moses, Moses!”
Moses, “the stranger and exile, stood there with the muck of the sheep on his shoes, guilty as hell of a man’s murder and listened and answered” (74).
“Here I am,” Moses said.
Then God instructs him, “remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). Buechner comments: “that scrubby patch of upland wilderness that the sheep had mucked up, that patch of no-man’s-land that Moses had fled to for no motive holier than to save his own skin, was holy, the voice said, because it was as aflame with God as the bush was aflame with fire” (74).
If the ground that Moses stood on was holy, then the little patches of ground where churches stand are holy too. The whole earth is holy because God makes himself known on it, which means that in that sense a church is no holier than any other place. God is not more in a church than he is anywhere else. But what makes a church holy in a special way is that we ourselves are more present in it. What I mean is that if we come to a church right, we come to it more fully and nakedly ourselves, come with more of our humanness showing, than we are apt to come to most places. We come like Moses with muck on our shoes – footsore and travel-stained with the dust of our lives upon us, our failures, our deceits, our hypocrisies (75).
And just as Moses received clear instructions from God, many of us who order our lives by faith, have responded to the same voice of instruction – “GO! BE! LIVE! LOVE!”
Yet, Buechner asks:
Is it madness to believe such a thing? That is a serious question. Is it madness to believe in God at all, let alone in a God who speaks to us through such obscure and fleeting moments as these and then asks us to believe that these moments are windows into the truest meaning of mystery of the cosmos itself? It is a kind of madness indeed (76).
Maybe Buechner is right. Maybe a life of faith is a bit crazy, but then again…
All communities of faith are erected on the belief that however you choose to explain Moses’ story of his burning bush experience, it is somehow true. Something extraordinary took place then and the countless church communities throughout time bear witness to this ancient proposition. And if we are attentive enough, we may even still experience the reverberations of that awesome event.
When it came time to walk my daughter into the lobby of her school, there was a real sense of holiness to the moment – the hallowed grounds where her first steps of kindergarten were taking place. We held hands just for a few moments until the teachers of her group called out again, “Netsa, are you ready?”
“Yes I am,” my brave one responded as she let go of my hand.
Watching attentively as the group of “kinders” walked down the long hallway to continue their new journey together, I felt the power and promise of hope swell in me again. Surely this was the same hope that birthed the very etymology of Netsa’s name. Perhaps this was the same hope, full of power and promise, that gave Moses the confidence and strength he needed to continue his journey as well.
I think it is hope that lies at our hearts and hope that finally brings us all here. Hope that in spite of all the devastating evidence to the contrary, the ground we stand on is holy ground because Christ walked here and walks here still. Hope that we are known, each one of us, by name, and that out of the burning moments of our lives he will call us by our name to the lives he would have us live and the selves he would have us become. Hope that into the secret grief and pain and bewilderment of each of us and of our world he will come at last to heal and to save (81).
Grab & Go This: May God break through our stone hearts in whatever miraculous way necessary and call out our name. And may we heed His instructions to be the person He created us to be: To Go – To Be – To Live – To Love.
A post about “church” is definitely in order on a dreary overcast Sunday afternoon. If you haven’t been tracking with me, I’ve recently been working through some big ideas of Frederick Buechner’s Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons. I’m calling this series – “Grab & Go.” Being one of my favorite spiritual writers, I am enjoying sharing with friends some of Buechner’s keen insights in bite-sized “Grab & Go” pieces. One example comes from his sermon, simply titled, “The Church.” Do you have time for a five-minute snack today?
In this sermon, Buechner recalls how the disciples often receive bad press because they never seem to have gotten Jesus’ points very well. Even when they did understand Jesus, they never seem to live out his teachings very well. Surely we can identify with the disciples’ struggles to understand and live out a life of faith, which is Buechner’s point. We are all, simply put, human beings.
We are all, simply put, human beings.
Let’s not move past this point too quickly: we are all human beings. Buechner reminds us that “Jesus made his church out of human beings with more or less the same mixture in them of cowardice and guts, or intelligence and stupidity, of selfishness and generosity, of openness of heart and sheer cussedness as you would be apt to find in any of us” (147). For better or worse, the original church, the historical church, and the church of today and tomorrow, is made out of the same substance: human beings. This is surely a point worth remembering. And, of course, we mustn’t forget that even after Jesus made his first church, the folks “seem to have gone right on being human beings…they kept on being as human as they’d always been with most of the same strengths and most of the same weaknesses” (147-148).
Something I need to keep remembering is that it was, after all, Jesus who started this whole idea of church – not the disciples. It was Jesus who called them out, one by one.
They didn’t come together the way like-minded people come together to make a club. They didn’t come together the way a group of men might come together to form a baseball team or the way a group of women might come together to lobby for higher teachers’ salaries. They came together because Jesus called them to come together (148).
Is this why we still gather together in buildings all around us today? Is Jesus still calling us? In all fairness, I have a lot of stuff to do. I find myself honestly deliberating at times whether or not if “church” is just one more obligation among many others. Yet, I am reminded that Jesus is forever calling people to see, taste, and feel the extraordinary within the ordinariness of everyday life. He called this “The Kingdom of God.” It is closer than we think, and it is not contained in a single building; it is, in fact, within us. Buechner explains:
Life even at its most monotonous and backbreaking and heart-numbing has the Kingdom buried in it the way a field has treasure buried in it…If we only had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand, we would know that the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to be born both within ourselves and within the world (149).
So maybe there is room for church today. Maybe there is something different about “the church” that compels people of faith to come together regularly. Maybe there remains a possibility to experience human flourishing like Jesus described – to be truly alive to ourselves and to be truly loving to God and others.
Buechner strips away our outdated pretensions. Loving God is not about having all the right answers or being “biblical.” Instead, it “means watching for (God) in the beauty and sadness and gladness and mystery of your own life and life around you.”
Loving others is not about mere sentimentality either. Buechner suggests:
Loving each other doesn’t mean loving each other in some sentimental, unrealistic, greeting-card kind of way but the way families love each other and drive each other crazy, yet all the time know deep down in their hearts that they belong to each other and need each other and can’t imagine what life would be without each other (150).
As people of faith, we love God and others because Jesus has inaugurated his Kingdom within us. He still beckons us even today to love and to live. And, “if the church is doing things like that, then it is being what Jesus told it to be. If it is not doing things like that – no matter how many other good and useful things it may be doing instead – then it is not being what Jesus told it to be” (151).
Perhaps it is a bit crazy to believe that Jesus still calls us to be the church to one another. Honestly, for many of us, church has not always demonstrated the “hands, feet, and heart” of our Lord. Our experiences testify to the ugly underbelly of humanness. For many, when we think of church, we think of other more unsatisfying and unsavory things. Nevertheless, Buechner reminds us:
The church buildings and budgets came later. The forms of church government, the priests and pastors, Baptists and Protestants. The Sunday services with everybody in their best clothes, the Sunday schools and choirs all came later. So did the Bible study groups and the rummage sales (152).
In my experience, it seems like we often get this so backward. We are often too consumed with nickels and noses – with governance and programming – with worship styles and latest trends. Who is right and who is wrong; who is in and who is out? Who among us is truly “biblical” and who is not? To this end, Buechner advises:
Maybe the best thing that could happen to the church would be for some great tidal wave of history to wash all that away – the church buildings tumbling, the church money all lost, the church bulletins blowing through the air like dead leaves, the differences between preachers and congregations all lost too. Then all we would have left would be each other and Christ, which was all there was in the first place…Heal the sick and be healed. Raise the dead and be raised. Everything that matters comes out of doing those things. Doing those things is what the church is, and when it doesn’t do those things, it doesn’t matter much what else it does (153).
“Grab and Go” This: Are you ready to reboot the way you think about and live within the church? I know I am.
Do I dare propose that we can “Grab & Go” the profundity of Frederick Buechner in small bite-size blog posts? This may sound like sacrilege to some, oxymoronic to others – like “reasonable attorney fees” or “the same difference” or even an “unbiased opinion.” Some familiar with the great depths of Buechner’s thinking may simply assert: “It.Can’t.Be.Done.” It would be too much like drinking from an erupting fire hydrant. The only way to really appreciate Buechner is to meditate on his spiritual wisdom from a sacred religious retreat (or perhaps in solitude on a private beach in the Caribbean).
However, I personally believe that the teachings of Buechner offer a particular kind of “integrated spirituality” that is not only conducive for small doses of indulgence, but truly ideal for a constant companion to walk with you as you go about your day. So let’s jump right in to Buechner’s “Message in the Stars” and see what you think. Maybe his message will encourage you as it has me.
In the first sermon I want to share, Buechner is troubled by the issue of God’s existence. He explains:
If God really exists, why in heaven’s name does God not prove that he exists instead of leaving us here in our terrible uncertainty? Why does he not show his face so that a despairing world can have hope? At one time or another, everyone asks such a question. In some objectifiably verifiable and convincing way, we want God himself to demonstrate his own existence (16).
This is what we all want, right?
To this end, Buechner imagined a compelling solution that would satisfy the basic desires of the Creature to his or her Creator. God could simply arrange the stars in the night sky to spell out a clear verdict: “I REALLY EXIST.”
Surely if God would do this for us there would be a tremendous upsurge in hope across the world – especially if God would occasionally change His message to be read in the indigenous languages of all people groups of the world. Does God exist? Just look to the sky each and every night and the clear testimony He has left us. Maybe God would even indulge us with bursts of color and a variety of celestial music to complement the seasons. Surely this clear messaging in the sky would satisfy even the deepest metaphysical speculations. Right?
Think with me just a minute. Can you imagine how the preachers and theologians would all feel? Finally vindicated for their craft once and for all, they would revel in the fact that they had been right all along. Churches would surely overflow into football stadiums and perhaps even all wars would cease across the globe. Buechner contends: “God’s supplying the world with this kind of objective proof of his existence would be extraordinary” (18).
Upon further reflection…
Buechner’s optimism takes an unexpected turn.
What if, after a period of time, some plain “garden-variety child with perhaps a wad of bubble gum in his cheek” had the crazy courage to ask a reasonable question? What if the child simply one day turned to his mom or dad and asked: “So what if God exists? What difference does that make?”
So what? What difference does it make?
And in a twinkling of an eye, the message in the sky would no longer matter like it once did. Buechner laments that it is not objective proof of God’s existence that we really want. Instead, “whether we use religious language for it or not” – we really want the experience of God’s presence. We want to know that He is here – right now – among us. We want Him to know our names and to love us unconditionally. “That is the miracle that we are really after. And that is also, I think, the miracle that we really get” (19).
Apparently, a mere mental assent to the fact of God’s existence – even if displayed spectacularly across the evening sky – would not truly satisfy and fill the human soul. While we are down here on planet earth “knee-deep in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of the world,” we truly desire to know experientially the Person of God. We ultimately desire His presence – the Holy Mystery – to make sense of “the humdrum, helter-skelter events of each day.”
Buechner argues that even though our days are often full of frustration and struggle, “it is precisely into the nonsense of our days that God speaks to us words of great significance.” Though not written in the sky in shiny lights, God chooses to speak to the depths of our very souls with words like “be brave…be merciful…feed my lambs.”
Here is how Buechner put it:
“These words that God speaks to us in our own lives are the real miracles. They are not miracles that create faith as we might think that a message written in the stars would create faith, but they are miracles that it takes faith to see – faith in the sense of openness, faith in the sense of willingness to wait, to watch, to listen, for the incredible presence of God here in the world among us” (21).
“Grab & Go” This: does your soul crave the presence of God? Knowing of His intimate presence among us is immeasurably more satisfying than even a visual message scattered across the remote sky.
Into His presence we sing this very day.
I confess that “Grab & Go” is not the most flattering of phrases that describes the enlightened human practices of the twenty-first century Western world. Yet, for many of us, it is a necessary tool for basic day-to-day survival – a way to navigate through the noisy blather and frenetic pace of daily life.
Here’s how it works: No time for breakfast? No worries – just grab a protein bar from the pantry, a juice box from the frig, and go, go, go. If you have 60 seconds, a K-Cup brews a good cup of coffee that’s hard to beat.
And who can forget dinnertime’s ballpark nachos with the inimitable liquid cheese? They’re surprisingly satisfying when you are on the go.My dear Mother has learned how to work within the genius of the “Grab & Go” philosophy too. My vibrant family of six is regularly enticed to her kitchen by the promised “Just Come, Eat, and Leave.” Yes, that’s my Mother… and l love her. The “Grab & Go” may not be the leisurely Sunday afternoon meal of days gone by that we all miss now and then, but it suits us just fine for now in this season of life.
Of course, the “Grab & Go” is not so much about food, or any particular object for that matter. I use it as a multi-purpose tool for life, ideal for hyper-speed questers, and evidenced by sundry rituals, such as the virtual Facebook fix, the daily Twitter newsfeed, and the timely Text update heralding such pearls of poetic wisdom as “I’m on my way” – “I just left” – and “C U soon.” And honestly, though I truly love the mystic serenity of leisurely strolls, quiet-times, and the stillness of personal reflection, the normal warp and woof of my routines requires the pragmatics of the “Grab & Go.” The logic holds that since I seem to be always on my way to do something else, I may as well “Grab & Go” something along the way – something to keep my bearings and sanity in check. Just a little nourishment “as I go.” Is this a healthy way to live a life of faith?
Admittedly, I am a bit embarrassed by how our up-tempo rhythm of life sounds much like Disney’s maddening scurry of Lewis Carroll’s beloved White Rabbit – “no time to say hello, goodbye, I’m late, I’m late, I’m late.” But I’m not here to cast judgment on our daily syncopated rituals, or even to suggest that we have found a sustainable philosophy for the long-term. I just know that I need my family, my friends, and my God to come along beside me even when… no, especially when… my life’s voyage must navigate through an angry sea of “very important dates.”
Recently, I celebrated my 20th anniversary with my wife Angelia. In honor of our special day, we traded in our “Grab & Go” for a few glorious days on the tranquil beaches of Jamaica – “a thin place” between heaven and earth if there ever was such a place. And so thus an idea emerged…
Among the “no worries mon” concoctions prepared for our daily leisure, such as the Jamaican Smile, the Purple Rain, the Ziggy Marley, and the Jam Duppy, I had the great pleasure to drink in unhurriedly Frederick Buechner’s fabulous “Secrets in the Dark” – a collection of sermons and speeches over his storied 40-year career. As I sipped (and chewed) on the wonderful ideas of Buechner, I was inspired to do a new series of blogs in “Life Matters” for my “Grab & Go” compadres. Can we just walk together for a while? I’ll come along beside you as you go.
For the uninitiated to the mind of Frederick Buechner, you need to know something of his fine craft to appreciate my next few blog posts. Buechner explains his approach in the introduction of his book. From the vantage point of all the many different lecterns he has spoken from over the past forty years, Buechner suggests that there is a part in each of us that sometimes thinks that the whole religious enterprise is for the birds. As such, Buechner believes that we all from time to time ask the ultimate question – “Can it really be true?” What I hope you love about Buechner – what makes him stand out to me as a true spiritual giant of our age – is his honest and humble approach to addressing the big questions of life. In his words: “every time I have ever preached I have tried to speak to that question – not just to proclaim the Yes in its glory, but one way or another to acknowledge and do justice to the possibility of the No” (xvi).
I hope some of you can find encouragement from the gems I’ll share in my next few posts from the mind of Buechner. Feel free to just grab what you like and go. And if you are like me, you may even be surprised at how long these ideas will stay with you throughout the day…hopefully even longer than ballpark liquid cheese.
Buechner F 2006. Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Ok- though it has been a while since my last blog, I have been busy in my current research on grief and bereavement studies, practical theology, and pastoral care. Today’s entry, however, reflects a topic that has been on my mind for the past several years.
Many conservative Christians desire to take the Bible “seriously” – to embrace what is considered to be a “high view of Scripture.” Biblicism is an appropriate word to describe how some conservative Christians (including fundamentalists and evangelicals) have mutated a “high view” of the Bible into something unhealthy for the church today.
The current essay is divided into three parts. Part one will provide a basic definition of Biblicism. Part two will explain the problems of Biblicism. Part three will attempt to offer a better way to approach the Bible for the spiritual nourishment of mature people of faith. Are you being bamboozled by Biblicism? Let’s take a closer look.
Part I: Definition
The origin of Biblicism is predicated upon the Bible’s own internal testimony of its divine inspiration.
2 Timothy 3:16-17
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
The passage of 2 Timothy 3 is a good place to start for a person of faith who holds a high view of the Bible; most Christians will not argue about the Bible’s view of its own inspiration. What is relevant here, however, is how Biblicism launches out of this normative Christian belief into something unhealthy for people of faith and even epidemic for today’s church.
If you are unfamiliar with the term Biblicism, I’ll develop a definition in two parts. Here is part one:
Biblicism is a fundamental commitment to the supremacy of biblical authority.
Good so far…the Bible says it, and that settles it. Right?
Biblicists feel confident that they have accurately identified what the Bible is (i.e. the revealed and inspired written Word of God). Whatever the Bible says about a given subject, it must be accurate. The logic is plain enough: what the Bible says, God says. Therefore, it is incumbent upon people of faith in God to look to “the Good Book” so they can know what the will of God is. Biblicists believe that when you read the Bible, it is fundamentally clear and precise. As such, one is not encouraged or required to look beyond the 66 books of the ancient text.
- Want to know God’s will for dating? Look to the Bible.
- Want to know God’s will for eating and dieting? Look to the Bible.
- Want to know God’s will for marriage? Look to the Bible.
- Want to know God’s will for finances? Look to the Bible.
- Want to know God’s will for women’s roles in church and society? Look to the Bible.
- Want to know God’s will for politics? Look to the Bible.
You get the point. The message is clear: to navigate the many important questions of life, you must look to the Bible for clear instruction. And when you do, the Bible will provide you with clear “biblical” answers. In short, a Biblicist believes that the Bible does much more than provide the parameters for basic Christian orthodox beliefs. In fact, the Bible is an instruction manual for living in the twenty-first century (or whatever century for that matter).
Now, to develop the second part of my definition of Biblicism, you need to know the two chief Biblicist assumptions.
- First: A Biblicist believes that there is one clear “biblical” teaching on any given subject.
- Second: A Biblicist believes that he/she can know and understand precisely what that truth is on any given subject.
The Bible does not just contain truth, it is truth, the fullness of God’s revelation to humankind. Yet, most importantly for the Biblicist, he/she believes that one can know precisely what that full truth is. As if forgetting that our human minds are fallen and have affected our ability to interpret the Bible (and everything else for that matter), Biblicists contend that you just have to read the Bible to understand it…it’s that simple. Well, some Biblicists assert that a basic understanding of Greek and Hebrew is necessary to unlock the many interpretive mysteries of the text. Nevertheless, the second assumption is the same: if you happen to know the original languages of the Bible, you can understand precisely what it is the Bible is affirming on any given subject.
The second part of the definition of Biblicism is based upon this second premise. Here is my full definition:
Biblicism is a fundamental commitment to the supremacy of biblical authority and to the belief that one can interpret precisely what biblical authority bears witness to on any given subject.
Christian Smith provides perhaps a better definition in his seminal work, The Bible Made Impossible. He suggests that Biblicism is a belief that the Bible is “an instruction manual containing universally applicable divine oracles concerning every possible subject it seems to address” (2012:98).
Part II: Problems
I contend that Biblicism fails on at least two accounts. It is both untenable (i.e. it does not work out in practice) and it is naïve. First, let’s look at why Biblicism is untenable. If the Bible is indeed a Holy Handbook of divine oracles, why can’t sincere Christians read it and come to a common agreement about its subjects? This should be self-evident; however, the Biblicist framework is embraced by literally millions of Christians across many denominations young and old alike. It is helpful therefore to go a little deeper and unpack the basic principles of Biblicist thinking.
Biblicism is Untenable
To see why Biblicism does not work, but nevertheless remains a popular way to approach the Bible, it is necessary to distinguish between its first and second principles. As a first and foundational principle, the basic sentiment behind the Biblicist position is quite admirable indeed – to give due respect and proper consideration to the Holy Book of the historic Christian faith.
Theologians over the centuries have developed key words to help us understand just how important the Bible is. Words like inerrant (describing the belief that the Bible is free from all errors in its original writings), infallible (describing the belief that what the Bible teaches is true and useful), and authoritative (describing the belief that the Bible is the ultimate authority for faith and practice) are the generally accepted terms for “Bible-Believing” Christians. Christians historically have assented to the belief that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible, and authoritative word of God. There is no derision for this basic principle about the Bible. Most Christians, including those of the Biblicist variety, embrace this orthodox view of the Bible. But here’s the real rub: Biblicists go beyond this first and most basic presupposition about the Bible. They develop a unique nuance that is problematic.
What makes a Biblicist and Biblicist is when one teases out an interpretation of God’s Word about a secondary concern (i.e. an otherwise disputable matter or matter of indifference) with bold apodictic claims of air-tight certainty. Simply put, problems arise when one steps beyond the bounds of basic historic Christian orthodoxy. It is not that one is unable to have an opinion about a debatable subject that marks a Biblicist; it is that a Biblicist holds his/her personal interpretation of a debatable issue (e.g. women’s roles in church and society) on the same level with basic historic Christian dogma that has defined the church for the past two-thousand years.
Many people throughout history and across the globe today assent to the Bible’s unique position as God’s holy inspired special revelation; however, an interesting breakdown occurs when people begin discussing and acting upon what it is they believe the Bible to be saying about a debatable subject. Oftentimes, there is a disconnect between what the Bible says, and what we say the Bible says (think about the church’s rejection of Galileo or the “biblical” South’s justification of slavery to name just two). Regrettably, sometimes the church just gets it wrong.
To contend that the Bible is inspired and useful for teaching is one thing, but to explain precisely what it is you think that the Bible “really” says about a debatable subject is an entirely different task. Biblicists blur this important distinction and tend to believe that if they simply make an appeal to biblical authority, their interpretation of what the Bible says gets the final word. Though Biblicists appeal to “biblical authority,” in practice, it is their own interpretation of the Bible that is the final authority.
Let me give you an example of how Biblicism fails:
- Two Christians in a conversation (let’s call them Bob and Joe) agree that 2 Timothy 3 is true. “Surely the Bible is the inspired Word of God,” Bob says, as Joe warmly agrees by the nodding of his head.
But watch what happens after the very next step is taken. What we often uncover is not uniformity, but interpretive diversity – a pluralism of beliefs.
- Christian Joe then turns to Christian Bob and says, “It is a good thing that the Bible is true, because it clearly teaches X” (fill-in-the-blank with whatever debatable secondary concern you can think of, such as Calvinism, Young-Earth Creationism, Complementarianism, Annihilationism, etc.).
Note that when we state our “clear reading of Scripture” on a secondary biblical issue, we often find that those around us, the very ones who agreed with our first principle of biblical authority, are no longer standing with us. In fact, they are looking at us as if we are crazy.
- “Surely,” Christian Bob exclaims, “the Bible does NOT teach X or anything of the sort; the Bible actually and quite simply teaches Y.”
- Then Christian Joe responds aghast! “Bob, how can you say the Bible teaches Y when you know full well that it really teaches X? Perhaps you, good sir, do not really believe in Scriptural authority after all.”
You see, to claim a belief in biblical authority does not produce uniformity. Instead it often demonstrates what is known as “interpretive pluralism.” There are many competing views of what the Bible “clearly teaches.” Is one view more “biblical” than the other? Who gets to decide? Biblicists find it particularly problematic that people come to different opinions of what the Bible teaches. This interpretive pluralism is a major problem for Biblicists and is strong evidence for why Biblicism does not work as an approach to the Bible.
Biblicism is also Naïve
Unfortunately, Biblicism is not only untenable, it is also epistemologically naïve. Biblicists believe fundamentally that Biblical authority somehow trumps all other sources of knowledge. Here’s how this plays out…
Some Biblicists may give lip-service to the idea that God has revealed Himself in both the “book of nature” and the “book of the Bible” – but in the final analysis, Biblicists more often than not will capitulate to their own interpretations of God’s Word over any other source of authority. Ironically, Biblicists mistakenly think that they must choose the Bible over and above the knowledge gained from a particular field of study or discipline, because that type of knowledge is colored by “the limitations of human reason.”
Of course, Biblicists make the same mistake. When their interpretation of the Bible contradicts an idea someone has in a non-biblical field of study (e.g. “the earth is round”), Biblicists forget that they too are faced with their own “limitations of human reason” as they read and study the Bible for themselves. Biblicists are guilty of what is called “epistemological naivety” – as if their interpretations of sacred Scripture are somehow free from possible error.
Nevertheless, despite being untenable and epistemological naïve, for a Biblicist, to say that one is “biblical” is a real badge of honor. As such, Biblicists make it their life quest to discover the “biblical model” for whatever is in question. The chief concern for a Biblicist faith becomes “biblical precision” – a presupposition that the Bible is divinely formulaic. The underlying assumption is that the Bible contains everything you need to know if you study it correctly (yes, pepper in a little Greek and Hebrew when needed). Further, in this sort of a recipe fashion, Biblicists take great pride in thinking they know what the ingredients of a biblical model is for whatever subject they are trying to “serve up.” Obviously, for a Biblicist, the Bible quite rightly has a secure place of ultimate preeminence for all faith and life. So…is there a better way to nourish a mature faith in Christ? This is the topic of part three of this essay.
Part III: A Better Way
Biblicism, in my estimation, is unhealthy for a maturing life of faith. The issue I have with Biblicism is not its high respect for the Bible, but its overly rationalistic approach to the ancient text. As I explained in the first two parts of the essay, Biblicism fails because it is untenable and it is guilty of epistemological naivety (and sometimes plain old fashioned arrogance).
Unfortunately, in our attempts to help nurture a “high view of Scripture,” we can unwittingly sow the seeds of Biblicism. Let me explain from my background how easy it is for Biblicism to surface in a budding life of faith. If you were born in the Bible-Belt in the twentieth century, raised in a Protestant church through Sunday School, Training Union, and Vacation Bible School, you may recall an old childhood song about the Bible.
Yes, that’s the book for me
I stand alone on the Word of God
Of course, I still love this old song. It fueled a passion in me as a young boy for Bible study and compelled me to learn how to connect my new faith with my daily life – what many call developing a “Christian worldview.” At the same time, if one is not careful in standing “alone on the Word of God,” he/she may believe that a positivistic view of Scripture is the only way to go. The quest can digress into a never-ending task of deciding who is right and who is wrong about the Bible, and a never-ending task of defining who is in or who is out of your group with the “right” answers. This “bounded-set” type of thinking can easily lead one to be obsessed with trendy buzz-words that shape a false confidence in one’s own sacred canopy. The quest for uniformity in biblical interpretation is maddening and not the way to go for a healthy maturing faith in my estimation.
Biblicists tend to think that Bible discovery is like a well-paved “straight and narrow” roadway. There is one correct view of the Bible (i.e. only one true Christian worldview), and the Biblicist is convinced that he/she has it. Unfortunately, Biblicists unwittingly turn what they hope to be a high view of the Bible into an unhealthy view of the Bible as a Holy Handbook filled with divine oracles about everything in life. For a Biblicist, understanding the “true” meaning of Scripture is as easy as the open road.
Here is how you can know that you have been bamboozled by Biblicism. Has the Bible really yielded “clear” and “straight” answers for everything important in your life? Consider how the following examples have not led to unified answers among Christians from your own experience.
- What does Christian Dating/Marriage look like?
- What is Christian Parenting?
- What is a Christian view of Eating/Dieting?
- What is the Biblical way of Handling Stress?
- What does the Bible have to do with Scientific Facts?
- What is Christian Leadership?
- What is the Christian view of Retirement Planning?
- What does Christian Politics look like?
Furthermore, has the Bible really yielded “clear” and “straight” roads of theological precision? Consider the following examples.
- What should Christian growth look like?
- What is the right mode of Baptist?
- What is the biblical model of church governance?
- What does the Bible really teach about hell?
- What is the clear biblical teaching about divorce and remarriage?
- What is the right view of women in ministry?
- What is the accurate teaching about the doctrine of the rapture?
- What does biblical authority say about the millennium?
- What did the atonement of Jesus really accomplish?
- What does the Bible clearly teach about eternal security?
- What is the one true Christian view of war?
- What is the clear biblical teaching about predestination and free-will?
- What does the Bible say is the real purpose of the church?
An honest and sobering critique of Biblicism suggests that many of us have been bamboozled. Frankly, the clear open road of the Bible has come to a dead end. Not only is Biblicism epistemologically naïve, it domesticates the Bible – forcing God’s Word to be what it is not – a divine instruction manual for the betterment of your life.
A Better Way Forward
Fortunately, there is a better, more healthy way forward for a maturing person of faith – one that embraces biblical mystery and recognizes that the pathway of Bible discovery may not always be so smooth and precise. A better way forward is not an anti-foundational relativism that suggests that there is no place for reason and truth in a life of faith. Instead, a better way forward will be marked by the often rough terrain of post-foundationalism, or more plainly, as a faith-based critical realism.
We can know something, but we actually know in part. We can see something, but we actually see in part. The better way forward is framed by a broad “mere Christianity” and encourages open interdisciplinary dialogue. A better way forward is iterative and humbly recognizes that sometimes our biblical views are simply wrong and must be changed.
Is there a name for this better way forward? Some may like referring to it as a “Christ-centered narrative approach.” This approach recognizes that the Bible is much more story than it is a divine and didactic instruction book for life. Put positively, biblical authority is located in the grand story of Christ in the Bible. A Christ-centered narrative approach points to how Jesus, who also held a high view of Scripture, taught others how everything in the ancient Scriptures pointed to himself. In this way, biblical authority is mediated not through our exclusive, subjective, and formulaic interpretations of the Bible, but rather through the historical witness of Christ in Scripture. The point of a “Christ-centered” narrative approach to the Bible is that there is a more honest and humble way forward for people of faith who believe that the Bible is God’s inspired Word.
I do not mean to suggest that a “Christ-centered” approach is anything new or novel – or that it is the only “true way” to read and understand the Bible. It is interesting to note, however, that even before the early church had a full Bible as we do today, the church embraced what they referred to as “the rule of faith.” That is, the early church recognized the centrality of Jesus and therefore placed the narrative of His birth, life, death, resurrection and return as the essential Good News of the Christian message. Today, we can see this same thinking in other “Christocentric” confessions, such as the beloved 2000 Baptist Faith and Message statement about Scripture:
- “All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.”
Personally, I have found a Christ-centered narrative approach to the Bible to be more satisfying, more honest to my ability to understand the text fully, and even more respectful to the rich diversity and mystery inherent in God’s Holy Word. Moreover, I am less likely to be judgmental about one’s opinion about a particular biblical teaching, and also more open to how God may be supplementing, affirming, and even correcting my biblical knowledge with the great discoveries and progress that is made in other fields of study.
Perhaps it might be helpful to end this blog by contrasting a Biblicist view of the Bible with a better way forward – a way that admittedly does not provide nice and tidy answers to all of our questions, but nevertheless draws us closer to the ways of Christ and His centrality for all of life – another way to simply profess that indeed Jesus is Lord.
|A Biblicist Approach||A Christ-Centered Approach|
|There is one clear meaning of the Bible.||The Bible is multi-vocal.|
|The Bible is primarily a Holy Handbook of divine oracles and universal laws to help us manage life.||The Bible is primarily a divine historical narrative about God’s on-going restoration of all creation through the Person of Jesus Christ.|
|Is Exclusive: Depends upon systematic theology to define what is right and wrong.||Is Inclusive: Encourages systematic theology and interdisciplinary dialogue to learn multi-dimensional nuances of Christian truth.|
|Epistemology is based upon modern rationalism and foundational premises.||Epistemology is based upon critical realism and post-foundational premises.|
|Chief Quest: Find the right biblical model in order to support a particular interpretation or system of thought.||Chief Quest: Move people of faith together toward Christ within a framework of generous Christian orthodoxy.|
Instead of being bamboozled by the weird rigidity of Biblicism, I hope you’ll prefer to walk in the simple wisdom of Psalms:
“Your Word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105).
***My basic argument of this blog entry is greatly indebted to the following:
- Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture, 2012.
- John Franke, Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth, 2009.
- Stanley Grenz and John Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context, 2000.
- Merold Westphal, Whose Community? Which Interpretation?, 2009.
- Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master”, 2012.