Monday, October 11, 2010

Exercising My Brain

This morning, I picked up a book.  I haven't really been taking time to read as much as I should, and so I expect some sore brain muscles in the coming days.  It might not have been so bad if I had picked up a light-hearted book about personal faith and doing church; however, I picked up a doozy.  Not in a bad way, mind you, but a book that is real "meat" for the brain and for the faith.

It's entitled "The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism" by Timothy Keller. 

I've finished four chapters in half a day's reading, and holy smokes, I'm ready for more.  The book is fantastic.  I think for the next several days, I'll post some of Keller's thoughts and add my reflections.

Thought for today, page 57:

Belief that you are accepted by God by sheer grace is profoundly humbling.  The people who are fanatics, then, are so not because they are too committed to the gospel but because they are not committed to it enough.

Think of people you consider fanatical.  They're overbearing, self-righteous, opinionated, insensitive, and harsh.  Why?  It's not because they are too Christian but because they are not Christian enough.  They are fanatically zealous and courageous, but they are not fanatically humble, sensitive, loving, empathetic, forgiving, or understanding--as Christ was.  Because they think of Christianity as a self-improvement program, they emulate the Jesus of the whips in the temple, but not the Jesus who said, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone" (John 8:7).  What strikes us as overly fanatical is actually a failure to be fully committed to Christ and his gospel.

Wrap your brain around that one for a minute or two.

I've run across more than one or two fanatics in my time.  The experience hasn't necessarily been a good one.  Keller hits it right on the head.

One of my first funerals was for a 19 year old gal who was killed in an automobile accident.  There were over 700 people who packed into the church not three months after I had been ordained and installed as a pastor.  To those 700 people, I was called to speak a word of hope, a word of resurrection, especially since many were grieving and wondering "Why?".

I acknowledged their pain and frustration.  I acknowledged their hurt.  I acknowledged that many were asking, "Why?".  I told them flat out, "There are no good answers.  I can't tell you right now why this happened.  But I can tell you two things:

1. God did not abandon this young woman.  God was with her, and she is now with God.  And just as God did not abandon her, He is not abandoning any of you who grieve on this day.  He is present with you offering you comfort as you grieve.  (Romans 8:18-30)

2. In the midst of tragedy, we are called to hold onto hope.  It's a hard thing, but this is the good news of Jesus' resurrection.  When all seemed lost; when all seemed darkest for the disciples; God acted and raised Jesus from the dead.  God's action showed that death did not have the last say, evil did not have the last say, God does.  In some way, shape, or form, God will have the last word on this too.  We must have hope.

I know the family was appreciative of such sentiments.  They even took out an ad in the local paper to thank me for the kindness of those words.

However, some jerk-water fanatic had to have his say.  I received a letter in the mail several days after the funeral chiding me that I should not have cast any doubt by saying it was O.K. to question God.  I should have told everyone there they needed to be ready because you never knew when death was coming--and if you weren't prepared, you would burn in the fires of hell.


Talk about embodying the very traits Keller writes about, "overbearing, self-righteous, opinionated, insensitive, and harsh."

I wanted so badly to respond.  There was a return address and everything.  I struggled.  I wanted to jump down this guys throat.  Obviously by my calling him a "Jackass" I still haven't fully gotten over it.  But what would it have accomplished?  Not a darn thing.  I know the type.  He would have been convinced I was persecuting him for his faith--just like Jesus said would happen.

I know for a fact this guy hadn't sat down with this gal's parents and looked into their eyes to see the shock, the anguish, the pain and agony they felt.  This guy couldn't have cared less about their feelings.  He wanted to feel superior to everyone because he was ready.  He wanted a reinforcement of his own beliefs instead of the comfort faith gives to those who are grieving.

Honestly, if there was an unchurched person in that room who heard a message of--get your act together or rot in hell because what happened to her could happen to you, do you think that person would darken the door of your church?  And yet, if that same person heard the words of compassion--that God understands your grief, God mourns with you, and God will make everything right, what would be the response?

Which has a deeper understanding of faith?

Fanatics seem to abound in the Bible Belt.  I personally don't like dealing with them, but I force myself to remember they are brothers and sisters in Christ as well.  I force myself to listen to their arguments and even to act with compassion toward them.  If I don't, then I become self-righteous myself, thinking I know how it should be done.  I show myself to be a fanatic, in a very different fashion.  That's not good either.  I have to remember to be humble as well.

I remember all too clearly having to adjust my line of thinking in this manner.  It was during my seminary training when I took Clinical Pastoral Education--CPE for short.  I was required to work as a chaplain in a hospital, and of course, in such an environment, I ran across all kinds of folks--from fundamentalists to atheists.  It was challenging.

I remember clearly visiting a fanatic.  She had been in and out of the hospital numerous times with difficulties in her lungs.  Once before, I visited with her, and she simply asked for a prayer that she could accept God's will.  She firmly believed her illness was caused by God; she didn't know why, but she believed she needed to accept it.  On that first visit, I simply prayed with her and left.

The next go round was a little different.  We actually had a visit.  She again focused on God's will.  She deeply and truly believed this illness was caused by him.  She figured she needed to accept it, and she couldn't be angry about it, or cry about it, or be upset in any form or fashion.  It was God's will after all.  She needed to be happy.

Now, yours truly is not a believer that God intentionally sends illness or cancer or tragedy upon anyone.  These things simply occur and are a result of the imperfection of this life.  There's really no escaping them.  Yet, you cannot necessarily convince a fanatic to come over to this point of view.  Believe me, I've tried.

I tried with this woman as she sat in her hospital bed.  I tried to help her come over to my point of view, but it just didn't work.  Luckily, I had talked to her in a manner that didn't offend her, because suddenly in my brain, a light bulb went off.  I have to chalk it up to the Spirit who intervened at that moment.

As she continued to say that she needed to accept her illness and be happy with it, I finally raised an objection that even she couldn't argue with.  "Ma'am," I said.  " Do you believe that Jesus knew God's will?"

"Of course," she replied.

"And didn't Jesus cry?  I mean, in the Garden of Gethsemane, didn't Jesus cry about having to die on the cross?  Didn't he ask God to remove the cup?  Even though he knew he would be raised from the dead, he still cried about it and wasn't happy with it."

You could see the words sinking in.

"And, ma'am, if Jesus was the Son of God, and he cried about having to suffer, don't you think it's O.K. for you to cry and not be happy, even if it is God's will?"

Breakthrough.  Not only for her, but for me as well.  She learned to cry, and I truly believe it helped her healing process.  It wasn't long after that she walked out of that hospital almost completely healthy.  I learned to meet someone where they were at and not where I wanted them to be.  I learned to have and show compassion to someone I disagreed with. 

I try to remember such things as I try to follow in the footsteps of The Man.  It's hard sometimes, and many times, I misstep.  But, it keeps me humble, and I hope it keeps me from becoming a fanatic.

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