Baa, baa, blah, blah, blah
There are times when I feel like a black sheep…or more like a black sheep wrestler. You could call me Mutton Chops.
I feel this way not because I am a self gratifying, wild living, fast and furious rebel – but because I struggle with what I believe. I have an ongoing conflict between my heart and my head, my experience and my tradition. It is a struggle that has produced more questions than answers in my faith. It is a battle that at times makes me feel very different, even very alone in my faith.
Yes, I have faith – but I also have doubts.
I also have convictions – but I also wonder why and if they are the right ones.
There are even huge sections of scripture that I struggle to understand and spiritual things that I find very hard to believe.
The black sheep feelings come because I often feel like I have no forum to openly explore. Often, the very act of questioning is perceived as a lack of faith. Wondering about long held convictions is seen as godlessness. There are things I want to blog on, but fear the backlash – questions I want to ask, but fearful of the repercussions they might generate. In essence, I often feel like rather than being a place where I can work out my salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12), the church can be a place of confinement, where my exploration is limited by boundaries that we just do not cross. There are questions we just do not ask.
There’s no room to wrestle.
For the past couple of weeks The History Channel has been airing their mini-series, “The Bible”. It is bringing to life the stories of both the Old and New Testaments, and for many people, it is bringing up some very deep hard questions. An old friend from high-school posted on Facebook this week asking the question, “Ho w could people worship a God who orders his followers to do some of these things?” There are lots of those directives in scripture that are just hard to understand:
The genocide of the Amalekites (men, women, children, animals) in 1 Samuel 15.
The destruction of the Midianites and the enslavement (possible sexual enslavement) of their young girls.
The sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11.
The application of the death penalty for everything from homosexuality, to dishonoring your parents, from sorcery to losing your virginity.
And there are many, MANY more.
These things are HARD. Yet the response is often to flippantly write them off as God being God, his ways are higher than ours, and after all, who are we to question God? Either that or we write them off as Old Testament revelations that have been superseded by the revelation of God in the person of Jesus. Can’t we at least understand how that may seem contradictory – that the God who never changes was like this but is now like this? (Even now some of you are reading my questions as my answers)
If we are being completely honest we have to admit that at times the Bible seems contradictory, at times God seems to be more wrath than love, and at times the Bible seems out of touch with modern society. At the very least, I would hope that we can at least agree that at times the Bible can be hard to understand and a real stumbling block to many people who want to believe in the goodness of God. And if we can agree to that – then maybe we can allow people to ask those questions, to struggle with those concepts without calling into question their faith.
And think about what we do – we use things like historical cultural relevance and New Testament revelation to write off parts of scripture that we don’t want to apply to us, but refuse to extend that same grace to people struggling to make sense of the world they live in. For instance, in my church (The Church of the Nazarene), we ordain and support (at least in theory) women in pastoral leadership. We do this despite Paul’s very literal and blatant directives to NOT do this. (1 Timothy 2:11-12, 1 Timothy 3:1-13, Titus 1:6-9)
He also writes that women should be silent in church, not cut their hair, and pray with their heads covered. (1 Corinthians 11:5-6)
But we write those things off – saying that they were either only specific to the church he was writing to and/or culturally relevant in his era. I have no problem with that application, but I struggle to understand why it is good and right to do it for this topic because it supports what believe, but not to allow the application of this same filter to topics that we historically do not support.
Bring up homosexuality and the historical context of Paul’s teachings – and look out – WWIII is underway. It is, after all, an abomination of the worst kind. You just can’t have that conversation without people making assumptions about who you are and what you believe. Again, people read questions as answers.
It applies to evolution and creation theories, to absolute truth, to the authority of scripture, to – well to a multitude of topics. There are countless tough questions that scripture just does not give cut and dry answers for but that tradition demands we accept a common answer to. There are scriptures that we cling to, and scriptures we reject. There are passages we read culture into, and passages that we refute the importance of cultural relevancy. And yet, there are some topics we do not broach, some questions we do not ask, and some conversations that we just do not have.
My problem with all of this is not the questioning, it is the lack of wrestling room within the church. Often, when a tough question is posed the church declares that the person posing it refutes the authority of scripture and defensive walls go up. When a person expresses serious doubts about what they have been taught to believe because what they see and experience are in conflict with the application of the scripture as dictated by the church they are called faithless and more walls go up. As wall after wall is erected, the “wrassling” room disappears.
You apparently are allowed to work out your salvation with fear and trembling only as long as the trembling doesn’t shake things up too much. Take away the room to wrestle with these things, view faith, theology, and tradition as static, and you soon find people bashing their heads against the walls that confine them. Do that enough and 1 of 2 things happen. Either people conform, or they quit fighting it and go the other way. No wonder people are leaving the church in droves – their heads are hurting! Worse than that, we launch attacks over the walls we built. We label people heretics and false prophets. We question their faith to the point of even questioning their salvation. Listen…
I can believe in the authority of scripture, yet struggle to understand its application.
I can wonder if truth is deeper than details and not be heretical.
I can believe God is love and yet wonder where that love is sometimes.
I can have incredible amounts of faith, and equal amounts of doubt at the same time.
Doubt is not the absence of faith, and faith does not put an end to questioning. Instead, the two work in cooperation, stretching us, challenging us, taking us places that we never dreamed possible. Real faith withstands the hard questions. Doubt can lead to deeper seeking and intimate encounters with Christ (see Thomas). Together they can open doors and create gateways instead of erecting barriers.
We (the church) do it because we just want to defend what we believe, we want to defend God, and because we want to proclaim our own “rightness”. We think that we have it figured out and are just helping the lost and blind find the right way. It seems to me that Jesus encountered some people like this in his journeys – religious leaders who proclaimed that they knew how to best read, interpret, and apply scripture and that their interpretations applied to everyone. I also seem to remember that Jesus’ anger and rebuke is saved, not for the ungodly, but for these religious men. He told them repeatedly, “you have believed this, but i tell you THIS…” They must have been shocked, appalled, offended by the notion that they had been challenged.
I bet they wanted to kill him.
I’ve been reading Rob Bell’s newest book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. I know, I know, he’s a gay loving heretic – so write this off if you must – but he writes about this struggle between conviction and humility, between faith and doubt:
“…conviction and humility, like faith and doubt, are not opposites; they’re dance partners. It’s possible to hold your faith with open hands, living with great conviction and yet at the same time humbly admitting that your knowledge and perspective will always be limited.”
He sees this struggle as a dance of sorts. I don’t think it is always that beautiful. I think sometimes the conflict within us gets downright messy. I think sometimes it leads to severe brokenness and pain as we what we have learned comes into conflict with what we are learning and when what we know is challenged by what we don’t. I can only speak for myself, but every time I have engaged in this spiritual struggle, I end up all the better for it. Luckily for me, I have found people of faith who are open to my struggles, who speak wisdom and truth while also practicing patience and tolerance. The struggle often leads to breaking me down – but good things can come from brokenness.
Brokenness and struggle breeds humility, tolerance, peace, and ultimately, the growth of God’s love in my heart. Trust me, I am not “there” yet, but I know who I was and see who I am becoming through these struggles. I like who I am becoming.
The dance imagery is beautiful, but this black sheep often needs less of a dance floor and more of a wrestling ring. My hope is that the church can blow out the walls for people like me. That they can pad the floors with patience and rope off the ring with grace. That they can allow the Holy Spirit to ref the match while they cheer for those of us working out our salvation with fear and trembling. Give us space, not constraints. Make everything open for questioning and trust that God is big enough to take it. Let people wrestle with him and be forever changed by those encounters (ala Jacob) Let’s tear down some walls and erect some wrestling rings. Can you smell what I’m cooking? (see what I did there)
Do you think they make tights for wrestling black sheep? I would look awesome in them…