Monday, October 29, 2012

Nika Asks me about Mary

I once read that a father can undo a world of damage done during the day with a good last few minutes at bedtime. As a dad who makes more than his fair share of mistakes, I jumped on this like a get out of jail free card from Monopoly. In addition to using the Jedi mind trick on the kids making them forget bad daddy from earlier (this isn't the daddy that yelled at you), we have some genuinely interesting conversations about God and life.

Tonight I was laying with Nika. Nika recently decided her mother and I do not need a full night's sleep and that the only way for my precious 4 year-old to deal with her “bad dreams” is to wake us up and either sleep in our bed or enlist one of us to return to hers with her.

She shared how she needs someone because she is scared when she wakes up and sees things in the night. We make her feel safe. I asked her, “Do you know who watches you every night while you sleep?” She shook her head no. “God watches you, and your brother and sister and all of us and keeps us safe.”

She looked a little confused and asked, “I thought he slept at night like all of us.”

“No, honey. God is not like us. He does not sleep and nothing is hidden from him. He never stops watching you.”

She thought about this for a moment. “What about Jesus? Does he sleep?”

“Well he did when he was here, but now that he has gone back to the Father he is like the Father and always aware. He is God and he never stops watching.”

She chewed on that and I started to run my next answer about the Trinity as it looked like we were headed that way. She threw me a curve ball.

“What about Mary?” She just smiled at me with the expectant look and gleam in her eyes that said handle that smart guy.

A few non words leaked out of my mouth as I mulled over how to approach this question. I am a Protestant that has many Catholic friends and if my daughter was already fostering an appreciation for Mary I didn't want to undermine that. At the same time, I didn't want her to get confused about Mary's role and place in the Christian belief system. Preparing myself for a deep and carefully navigated discussion with my daughter I took a deep breath and said, “Mary huh?”

Without missing a beat she replied, “Yes. Mary. With the lamb. The little lamb. Does she sleep?”

She giggled and laughed at how funny she is. I just let out a sigh of relief and assured her that neither Mary nor her lamb were watching her while she slept.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

What is True vs. What we are for or against

After hours of engaging the student body of a major US university on the issue of abortion and the value of human life, a young man who had previously been coming after me pretty hard held back and waited to talk alone. His demeanor had noticeably changed and he asked just one question. “Why are you a Christian?”

The answer I offered him is the only answer I can think of that makes any sense. “Because I believe it is the truth.”

I understand the emotional issues discussed in Brian McLaren's piece at The Huffington Post (Why We're Leaving the Church: A Report from the Nones) on why young people are leaving the church. This phenomenon is a preoccupation for me and my friends working in Christian apologetics. Students, parents, and friends frequently share their struggles regarding their faith and so many times – not always to be certain but more often than not – the pressures of pluralism play a major role. In this context, they don't like the idea that people they enjoy, people they trust and love, people they like more than the Christians in their lives are portrayed as enemies of the church in general or - even worse - enemies of God.  If Christianity as widely practiced appears to put us at odds with others we like then there must be something wrong with it. 

As a former “other” talked about in the McLaren article, I was on the receiving end of a fair amount of dislike from the Christian community. In my wayward days, the overwhelming majority of Christians in my life made it clear that (1) they disapproved of me and (2) wrote me off for a bad guy to be kept at a distance. They very rarely felt the need to dissuade me from the path to hell – presuming they believed such a path was truly real - and most often seemed comforted that I wouldn't be messing up their heaven. There were exceptions but they were just that – exceptions.

I thought it was all nonsense anyway, so I didn't spend much time fretting over it. I gave as good as I got in the disapproval department, a point that is routinely glossed over by those wringing their hands about how horribly Christians talk about the “others.” The “others” are often neck deep in the ugliness. Yet - no matter how profane and vitriolic their attacks become - they are innocents naturally responding to judgement from Christians. What else could they do except cuss and swear and make abundant use of ad hominem attacks on every forum available to them regardless of the age of the audience or the appropriateness of the attacks given the context of the event? They feel judged so they are deemed perpetually innocent by our hand wringing brothers and sisters.

Ultimately, I changed my mind because evidence persuaded me that Christianity is true. Not because I became convinced that we can all work together without having to change each other. Certainly not because I decided the differences between us were unimportant.  It was the simple recognition that what I observed to be true about the world fit most comfortable in a theistic and particularly a Christian worldview.  I recognized this without any concern for whether or not I had good feelings about the people that claim to represent that worldview.  In fact, I still didn't like Christians for quite some time after I became one.

After a recent event in Hamilton, New Zealand three young people stayed back to talk.  A young woman asked, "I assume coming from outside the faith there was a period of adjustment where you felt weird?"  I told her absolutely and her friend asked me how long it took me to get past feeling like an outsider.  My answer?   I have never stopped feeling like an outsider to some degree or another. My belief in the truth of Christianity neither translated into an all consuming comfort with church culture nor any desire on my part to become something I wasn't to please others. But so what? I understand the reasons why I am a Christian and grasp the concept that those reasons are not dependent on the behavior of any group of people or that group's acceptance of other people. It simply is not a proper criteria by which to judge the truth of the Christian claims. It is a proper criteria to judge the individual Christians or church bodies, but it fails to address the truth of the Christian worldview at all.

My own church has never taught us to hate anyone, though our pastor does clearly state that behaviors like premarital sex, adultery, dishonesty, homosexual sex, greed, and yes the hatred of other people are all categorized sinful according to biblical teaching. As a result, people who have been unfaithful to their spouses, are sexually promiscuous, or identify themselves as homosexuals expressed to me that they feel disliked or judged by those messages. I explain that we must be able to separate evaluation of action from personal hatred. Truly hateful attacks should not be accepted by anyone and deserve broad  ecumenical condemnation. However, simply identifying a behavior as biblically sinful is only hate speech to the radically sensitive who are desperate not just for tolerance but for universal acceptance and approval.  As has been pointed out numerous times before, in order to tolerate one another we must first disagree.  

Students excited about Mr. McLaren's message shared how they hoped that we could build our collective faith on what we are for rather than what we are against. I propose that we build our collective faith on what is true and not stress so much about how we feel from moment to moment. Emotions are unstable things.  C.S. Lewis once talked about marriage saying the love feelings can come and go but it is the commitment that binds the couple. The commitment makes it possible to endure dry seasons and fall in love all over again or remember the love that brought you together. In the same way, a commitment to truth can carry you through confusing emotionally trying spiritual struggles especially those set off by the ever confusing way that people of all sorts relate to one another.

Certainly we are emotional beings, but when my heart waivers the total love of the Lord our God with all my mind is still sufficient. What happens when we fail to emphasize the importance of truth and the intellectual rigor of apologetics arguments like the minimal facts of the resurrection of Jesus, the cosmological arguments for the existence of God, the moral arguments for the existence of God, arguments from consciousness, and textual criticism affirming the reliability of the scriptures? Do we instead encourage a faith built on deemphasizing what is particular about Christian faith for the sake of getting along? If so, we cultivate an environment that also deemphasizes the idea that the particulars of the Christian faith are important at all. If that is the case, then there is no longer any reason to remain a Christian.

To put it simply, if it isn't true then it doesn't matter. If it is true, then how I feel about that fact is less important than what that truth means to us all.