Theology is a bunch of big questions, but when it is good theology the big questions have small answers. The explaining of the small answers will fill up the big books that have lined shelves for centuries, but the answers remain small. They are small because good theology is made of answers that people understand right off. Some may feel compelled to debate what’s meant or how to practice these answers, but people get what’s necessary within the answers.
It’s when we get away from the level of plain understanding that we start to lose the import of good theology and move toward trying to be right.
Being right is a way of staying away from good theology, other people and life in God. It fits well with deciding political party affiliation, choosing a neighborhood in which to buy a house and designing the trajectory of our children’s education. It has little to do with life and life is what good theology is all about. Essentially, good theology is seeking to answer 3 issues. How do we treat the rest of created reality? How do we get close enough to know God? How do we live with other people? No priority in the asking of those questions because they show up at different moments on different days for different reasons. These are the questions that ask themselves as we live. Good theology is the small answers that let us at night.
There was a point in time when we were walked into good theology. It was Jesus. See! This is how you do it! Eventually, we moved from good theology into being right. We always know when we find good theology because it is usually found within a person and they are usually doing something that draws us toward being like them. We want what they have. We want to respond to circumstances in a similar way. We want to look toward the future in the manner they do.
This is because the person is living belief rather than knowing belief. It makes it easy to follow them. We can just start imitating them, but if we really want what they have we need to do one thing more. We have to see the bigger picture, the BIG idea they have. They reveal the big picture when you ask them a question like, “So, why did you just help that person that way?” The first response is either a simple statement like, “Because that’s what they needed,” or it is a look like, “Duh… what’s the question.” The bigger picture, the BIG idea floating within them is them seeing themselves as part of life. They’re not making a life. They have a place in life and God’s in it with them.
I feel like I meet these people all the time and I wonder what’s going to change within me so that I become one of them. And I pray that whatever it is… it’s happening.
I was stopped by a waitress the other day and asked how it was going. She doesn’t come to First Presbyterian, I just frequent her place and she serves me on a regular basis, so she knows me. “How’s it going at the church? Are people throwing things yet?” She was asking if people were taking aim at me as a pastor and getting in my face. I just told her the truth. “Oh, sure,” I said. “Really?! Already?! Are they throwing the heavy stuff, rocks and bricks?” “It’s a group of human beings,” I told her. “We all do the same things…”
She has an interesting perspective on church people and how life in a church works, don’t you think?
How we take care of each other will always be the tell-tale mark of believers. ” By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35) It’s never going to change. The first mark observed is not whether we’re good or know the Bible verse or sing in the choir or at church every time the doors are open. It will be how we care for each other.
On any given day I’ll get emails or notes or phone calls or visits where someone tells me what a bum I am or what a lousy job I’m doing as a pastor or they’ll tell me how glad they are that I’m here or how they have grown, changed, been relieved by a sermon or a comment or a visit or a prayer. It’s not that different from anyone else’s life, I think. Someone will come into your face and tell you what they think of you. It might make your day or make you feel bad. So, I should say that almost all of what I am told makes me feel great.
I think one reason that the weight is on that side is because so many, many people aren’t focused on me. They’re focused on what they’re building or studying and they’re feeling like God’s involved with them. They have a sense that at this church we are creating something that will bless and honor God and will call us into loving each other deeply. We are creating a community of faith where people
• are able to easily explore actually getting in touch with God’s Spirit
• know themselves better and know how they work best with others
• know the kinds of gifts or abilities God’s given them to work in the world
• find that children are learning how to pray for each other, how to sing together and how to care what’s going on in each other’s lives
• know that they can trust the Bible and that its telling them how God loves us
Whether it is the business end of budgets and calendars and processes or it’s the internally challenging aspects of insights or learning or trying new things, people are at work and seeking to serve God. All of it is spiritual and sometimes it’s just great to be around and sometimes it’s plain wondrous.
There are pastors in this world who hate their job. I just read about a pastor who took his life and I sat with another who got dumped by his church and I ate with another who is always looking for a place to go where he won’t see “anyone from the church.” I can appreciate the ache but I’m just not there myself.
I love every square inch of this place and what’s going on here. That’s why I was able to tell the waitress, “We all do the same things… but we’re headed in a better direction.” It’s not that we’re not human. It’s that we’re learning, growing and changing to become, once again, truly and fully human… the way God made us to be.
There’s only one way to live life and that is deeper. Not like somber, but richer, more richly engaged with what’s going on. That’s the path way of Robert Frost and the creek of Annie Dillard and the pond of Henry David Thoreau. It’s the observing of Sherlock Holmes. It’s the prayer life of Jesus… seems like that to me at least. It’s when you really can’t clarify where the simple experience anyone might have and the artistry of participation begins. It’s what God does constantly and the invitation that extended to any of us daily or even in any moment. It’s turning on the right side of the brain and becoming a part of and standing back from what’s before us.
Is there some part of life where we shouldn’t do this?
We leave tomorrow to be a part of my mother’s funeral. We’ll go to the same little church where my parents expressed their reverence and love in their last years. It’s this white, congregational, boxed pews, stiff little place that always held a community of warm welcome and lively love of people and God.
The service is planned as an expression of family – cousins, in-laws, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren have each honed moments that will be shared. Songs, instrumental pieces, poems, eulogies, Scriptures, hymns and prayers will each be raised to celebrate the deeper aspects of life and a life.
My accumulated fears all raise themselves in these moments, like rocks pushing up through the soil. Doing well, knowing what, accepting easily, participating calmly, disregarding appropriately, forgiving consistently… they’re all present and more, as if I am required to clamor over them to actually be there. But the truth is that no climbing, awkward or otherwise, is necessary. I can simply walk in and admit they are present and that admission is all that’s involved in moving past or over them. Confession is good for the soul because it is simply saying but also living what’s true.
It’s different from saying it to make it so, to move myself into a place I want to go or be. It’s admitting that I have all the limitations I do and not worrying that they are there. I’m not grabbing hold of the limitations. I’m just not acting like they have any more power than they actually do. They heighten anxiety but do not produce reality. That’s what demons and fears share in common. They produce a darkness that appears daunting but cannot withstand the merest glimmer of light.
And so we go to get face to face with death.
We admit it is there, but have no obligation to bow. It carries no relevant power.
On my desk is a candle. I use it as a prayer tool. As I light it each day I repeat a prayer. It reminds my soul of who I am and what I am about in this place. They are the same words every time but they hit me as if they are a new thought… every time. That’s probably because part of the prayer is my personal commitment. It’s just a candle flame, but it’s more.
I found a great source of Candles – Quickcandles.com. Not only do they live up to their name for being “fast” but they also deliver some of the best candles I’ve ever found. They burn almost down to nothing and I’ve had a couple do that. And they burn without any incense. It’s just a candle flame… but there’s something better.
There have been times when I’ve reached over to the candle on its stand during counseling sessions. I’ve held it before the person or couple I’m counseling and I’ve talked about blowing out the flame. I think of the flame as trust. It’s just a flame until it is blown out.
Trust is like a candle flame that gives light to all that are in the room. It provides guidance, assurance, strength of easy movement, comfort and even a gentle warmth. When we are in relationship we find that trust builds a security within us that says we can just move and not think through everything. We have an assurance that what we expect will be there will be there when we return or simply turn around.
I’ve lifted the candle up to teenagers who have been joyriding and can’t see what the big deal is. I’ve lifted the candle up to partners in businesses, to bosses and employees. I’ve lifted the candle up to husbands or wives. I’ve lifted the candle up to parents and to other pastors and to young adults and to elderly and to church leaders. I’ve lifted up the candle and blown it out in front of each of them.
It’s only a candle flame until it is gone and then it is this very large thing that will never be again. That’s trust isn’t it? It’s as fragile as a candle flame. For its size it can do amazingly good things, but when it is gone we don’t ever get it back and suddenly its true import, size and strength are felt. The flame that was there, once gone, is completely gone. To get flame again, one must start from the beginning and it isn’t like just pulling out our butane and relighting it. The flame that is added to the candle in our souls and called “trust” must be rekindled from scratch.
I’ve lifted the candle up to all sorts of people and every morning in my office I lift it up to myself and light it and say my simple prayer and something takes hold of my insides. And then it says, “All right now. Do it.”