Monday, March 29, 2010

Sez Who?

1. Questions

A few days ago one of the guys in my small group from church shared something that got all our attention:

“Lately I’ve been asking God a question – I don’t mean to sound like a heretic here but these are my actual words: ‘What would it look like, God, if you actually loved me?’

“The answer… well, you know that song in Fiddler on the Roof, ‘Do You Love Me?’ Tevye asks his wife that, and she’s amazed: all these years I’ve been cooking and cleaning for you, raising children with you, and you have to ask, do I love you?

“It’s been like that. We have food and water and shelter and money and health and relationships and all these other good things. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that those things are an answer to my question. His love shows up all around us, every day. We are so incredibly blessed.”

Being on sabbatical and of a pensive bent to start with, I have been asking similar questions. Oh, they are kind of scary questions, and I am reluctant to say them aloud. After all, they sound like accusations, the kind of thing I have no right to ask. I’d prefer to put on a happy face, to be the wise and serene sage instead of the angst-ridden, ungrateful adolescent. But it’s better to express these things than to push them away or stuff them down.

And I think I have reason to believe that God likes it when we ask these questions of him: it allows him to give us the great gift of an answer. Oh, he doesn't tend to answer the "why" questions very much. But he gives us answers all the same - if we are so bold as to ask and patient and humble enough to listen.

I find myself longing for consolation from the one whose perspective I can trust the most.

2. Does My Life Matter?

As befits that angsty adolescence I sometimes am, I have some questions about death, and some about love. (A teacher friend once told me those are really the only topics her teens ever write poetry about). And a lot of them seem to flow from this one: Do I matter? Does my life matter?

Everybody thinks it’s tragic when a mother or father with young children dies: those little ones depend on them! But nobody depends on me. I have no dependents. Some people’s obituaries are full of lists of survivors: children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nephews and nieces and more. But if things go as expected, Megan and I will be the end of the line for our family. Will anybody remember me when I’m gone? If I weren’t here would anybody miss me? Does my life matter? Will I leave anything enduring behind?

I want to be spiritual enough to put aside selfish ambition and vain conceit and say, as Paul could, that to live is Christ and to die is gain, that I’d rather depart and be with Christ anyway. But I don’t know that I’m there yet.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not depressed or thinking about throwing away this gift of life. I’m just thinking about how fleeting life can be and wondering what to make of it.

3. Sand and Waves

My friend S. sent me a picture from our trip to Indonesia a few years back - see above. It was taken at dusk one night when several of us went for a sunset walk along the beach. At first I thought about how nice it was to walk along the beach, and how I'd like to do that again, especially in a place as warm and pleasant. But then, my mind took an uncomfortable turn. It went to the cheesy Christian poem, “Footprints in the Sand.”

I realized that one of my objections to the metaphor is that it implies that the impact of one’s life might be just a row of footprints, swiftly washed away by the incoming waves. Is there nothing eternal about my life; is it just an ephemeral walk on the beach? Oh, I know, we could do worse than sand and sunset and gentle waves. But pleasure is not enough. I want something more.

4. What Wins the Debate?

Last week I spent a couple of days volunteering as a community judge for a speech and debate tournament. It was held in downtown Denver. They always need volunteer judges. I’d never done anything like that but both of the families I know who belong to hosting organization thought I’d enjoy the experience. I did, immensely!

After watching a debate or two I noticed that some of the competitors tended to lean on strong, clear statements that, while they made an emotional impression, didn’t always hold up under cross-examination and were fairly easily refuted by the other side (if the other side was not intimidated by the skills of their opponent).

In many cases they quoted lawyers or journalists or scientists without making it clear that the people they were quoting really had the experience or authority to support their statements. Sometimes, the debaters just said, “according to [name],” without making it clear who that person might be or what entity they might represent. As a judge, I had to take such evidence with a grain of salt.

To win the debate, you couldn’t just be the best or most forceful speaker, you had to make the strongest case, you had to martial the most compelling evidence - on the best authority.

It gradually dawned on me that this is true in my own life as well as in the world of debate. My accuser may tell me terrible things about myself and my worth… may present an abundance of evidence, all of it crystal clear, forcefully stated, and damning, to support the case that my life doesn’t matter or that I’m too screwed up to be of use to anyone. But where do those accusations come from? Are the sources credible? Do they hold up under cross examination? Or, strong as they sound, do they fall apart in contrast with the defending side which may make only simple, solid claims, but makes them on good authority, e.g., the authority of a brilliant designer, omniscient and omnipotent sustainer, merciful redeemer, etc.?

Psalm 103

1 Praise the LORD, O my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.

2 Praise the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits-

3 who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,

4 who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,

5 who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.

8 The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.

9 He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;

10 he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.

11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;

12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

13 As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;

14 for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.

15 As for man, his days are like grass,
he flourishes like a flower of the field;

16 the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.

17 But from everlasting to everlasting
the LORD's love is with those who fear him,
and his righteousness with their children's children-

18 with those who keep his covenant
and remember to obey his precepts.

19 The LORD has established his throne in heaven,
and his kingdom rules over all.

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