Why Do We Pray? 4 – To Create Community?

Posted: March 9th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Why Do We Pray? 4 – To Create Community?

If we are not primarily seeking to change God or change ourselves when we engage in Christian prayer, perhaps we pray to establish common ground amongst ourselves and form a community? This facet is probably less visible or recognized in low church evangelical settings of individual “spontaneous” prayer, but traditionally Christians have recited prayers and creeds together in worship. Moreover, individual prayer has also revolved around set prayers at particular intervals during the day.

Praying as the church does, in fact, serve to bind us together. Set prayers help create and maintain a common ground of practice and expressed belief. That’s pretty evident and is hardly unique to Christianity. It flowed into Christian practice directly from Judaism. In Daniel and elsewhere in the OT, we see the practice of a set rhythm of prayer. We know that first century Jews prayed the Psalms together at set intervals and had other prayers they prayed. When Jesus’ followers asked him for a prayer, he gave them one to recite together. We see the Church and apostles in Acts continuing the rhythm of set prayers.

And we see the same practice in other religions. Muslims engage in communal prayer five times daily. Buddhist and Hindu worshipers will gather and chant together in prayer. The act helps shape your identity as a member of particular community of worship. And it can identify you to others. We share these prayers and practices. That recognition creates an almost instant connection or bond.

I don’t deny that the practice of communal prayer, corporately and individually, can help create community. It’s an effect of our Christian practice of prayer, but I hesitate to call this effect the purpose. Again, if that were true, there would be little to distinguish Christian prayer from that of some of the other religions. Moreover, there are many ways to mark a group as a community of shared belief and practice. If this were the purpose of prayer, then it’s just one such practice among many, and of no lesser or greater importance.

But that’s not the sense I get from the New Testament or the writings of the Church. Prayer is seen as vital and of the utmost importance. Why? That’s the question I think we must answer.


Ancient Texts 1a – What do you trust?

Posted: December 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 1a – What do you trust?

I realized today that I left an important thought out of my discussion of oral cultures this morning — the cultural bias of trust. In an oral culture, texts tend to be distrusted. That was particularly true in the ancient world where all texts were written by hand. How do you know that a text really comes from whom it says it comes? Even if it did, how do you know that it hasn’t been altered? By contrast, verbal communication, especially in the form of oral tradition, tended to be trusted. You knew who was giving you the tradition and you had a basis on which you could decide whether or not you trusted that person and thus whether or not you trusted what they said.

If you look, you can actually see that dynamic at play in the NT texts, especially in Paul’s letters where he is typically trying to address problems and needs the Church to accept his communication in absentia. He makes a point of greeting and saying things that indicate his personal knowledge of people in the Church. He often describes who is with him as he was writing the text. He will sometimes commend the one carrying his communication (and who will present it to the Church). He will write a greeting in his own hand at times. While those serve multiple purposes, one thing Paul is doing is trying to overcome the automatic cultural distrust of texts.

By contrast, in a literate cultural we are biased to trust texts over oral communication. When we can reference something in a publication, it gives greater weight to our argument. Printed texts are not necessarily easy to modify. (We can see that dynamic changing with electronic communication, but there remains a cultural bias toward the written form.) It’s an unconscious bias that permeates our evaluation of the things we can or can’t trust.

I will note that the idea that an oral tradition — even one that can be traced continuously back to the first or second century — can’t be trusted unless it can be confirmed in a text is one that could only arise within the context of a literate culture. As such, it can be eliminated as a technique used in the ancient world. Instead, the bias would have worked the other way. The oral tradition would have had to attest to the reliability of a text before the text would be trusted.

If you don’t grasp the way in which that underlying bias works, you’ll probably make the wrong assumptions when examining ancient Christian writings.


Reflections on Resurrection 1

Posted: October 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Throughout this blog and in my comments elsewhere, I often focus on resurrection. In many ways, it is the Christian teaching of resurrection which drew me deeper into this faith and it is certainly one of the linchpins that keeps me in it. I can say with certainty that if I did not believe in Christ’s Resurrection and that it was the first fruit of our own resurrection, then Christianity would hold no interest for me. As Paul writes, if Christ is not risen then we are of all men the most pitiable.

However, there seems to be a great deal of confusion today, even among Christians, about Resurrection. Since it dawns on me that it is not possible to really understand some of the things I write without understanding what is wrapped up in that one word, I thought it might be wise to write a short series outlining my perspective on the subject. I’ll write, as I normally do, from a personal perspective. If you’re more interested in a comprehensive academic treatment of Christ’s Resurrection, I would recommend N.T. Wright’s big book, The Resurrection of the Son of God. That sort of exhaustive treatment is not my goal.

When pressed, I normally describe my background and childhood formation as pluralistic. In order to understand what is behind some of the things I plan to write in this series, I think I need to explain what I mean when I use that term. First, I need to say that my childhood was not shaped within the context of a single non-Christian religion nor was it particularly non-theistic or atheistic — though there were certainly aspects of a number of different religions and non-theistic or loosely theistic influences. However, my childhood, whatever else it may have been, was not anti-Christian at all.

In fact, while I’m not sure anyone growing up in the American South in the 70s could avoid exposure to Christianity, my experience of it was, while pretty varied, largely positive. I was baptized in a Baptist Church at a pretty young age. At different times I attended both Episcopal and Catholic schools. (I also attended a bunch of different public schools, a nonsectarian private school, and was even home-schooled for a few months in Mississippi when my mother discovered the local schools were still segregated.) Over the course of my childhood, I also experienced a wide array of other Christian traditions and denominations. Ironically, though not raised strictly Christian, I probably encountered more of the diversity which constitutes Christianity in America than most of my peers.

I could, if I wanted, frame a relatively typical Baptist conversion narrative. I don’t do so because that does not truthfully capture the reality of my experience. Yes, my encounters with and scattered experiences within a Christian context were authentic (whatever that means), but they were hardly my only spiritual influence. Moreover, my rejection of what I understood about and experienced from Christianity as a sixteen year old teen parent was just as authentic as any of my earlier experience. These were markers on my journey of conversion, but I don’t consider myself to have finally converted to Christian faith and practice until my early thirties when I unexpectedly reached a point where that label described something central to my identity.

Christianity, though, was just one aspect out of many in my formation. My family and thus our extended circle of family friends includes many involved in the scientific and academic community. Although, of the many things I’ve been or practiced, I never felt any pull toward atheism or even classical enlightenment-style deism, that perspective and manner of approaching life and reality has certainly been a part of my formation. I don’t find it threatening. I also do not find it antithetical to belief. I do find that this part of who I am is the part that’s mostly likely to make the determination that a particular religion (or one of the many different Christian Gods proclaimed today) is not worth believing or practicing, and its deity not worth worshiping.

The other most significant and formative spiritual perspective from my childhood was Hinduism. Why Hinduism? The simplest answer is that we had Indian friends and my mother was at least dabbling in it. It was just part of the air I breathed as a child, as present to me as was Christianity. Now, it’s important to recognize that the term itself is a broad label encompassing virtually any religious practice rooted in the perspective found in the ancient Vedic texts. It’s not really a single religion in the sense of a single set of beliefs and practices, though there are a number of consistent underlying perspectives on the nature of reality. Rather, there are many gurus, past and present, who teach different things.

I never really followed a guru. I’m not sure why, exactly. I just didn’t. I did spend some of my late preteen and early teen years actively practicing transcendental meditation, which does have a particular guru, but I never formally engaged it. I just practiced privately using a book as a guide. Beyond that, I explored various published writings including, of course, the Bhagavad Gita.

Hinduism, however, was not the only other part of my childhood spiritual formation. I don’t remember ever hearing the term New Age in the seventies. However, many of the things lumped under that heading in the bookstore today were part of my experience. My parents ran a small press bookstore in Houston for a few years and that gave me easy access to books on numerology, runes, palmistry, astrology, tarot, and many related topics. Even before then, I remember sitting with my mother when I was as young as six or seven as she brought out her tarot deck and did readings. I also clearly remember participating in a past life regression workshop my parents hosted for a friend when I was eleven or twelve. I was captivated by the modern myths of Atlantis. I also recall some interaction with Wiccan and neopagan systems of belief. (In my twenties I also had a number of Wiccan friends.)

After being rejected by and in turn rejecting the Christian aspect of my formation, I tended to operate from a basic Hindu perspective of reality, but I explored a number of different options. I read a fair amount of the Qur’an at one point, but Islam never held any appeal to me. We had had some Jewish family friends growing up and there were aspects of modern Judaism that did appeal to me, but it’s not a direction in which I was particularly drawn. I did explore Buddhism and Taoism, but at the time they didn’t really appeal to me either. (Ironically, I find some elements of both more compelling now after being significantly shaped by Christian faith and practice than I did at the time. If I was going to be anything else other than Christian today, it would probably be one of those two.) I looked a bit at Wicca and neopaganism, but they were just too modern for me, if that makes sense. I have a deep sense of history. You may have noticed that in some of my writings.

For most of my twenties, I settled into a sort of lackadaisical Hindu belief and practice. I didn’t seek a guru. I didn’t actually attend anything. But those were the beliefs about reality I privately held and, to the extent I practiced anything, I practiced Hindu meditation. I also continued to privately practice tarot, but I abandoned most of the other practices in which I had dabbled over the course of my childhood.

Why does this matter for this series? It’s really pretty simple. When we discuss Resurrection and the nature of the human being, a lot of people today — including many Christians — seem to believe something more like the other perspectives in my spiritual formation than anything identifiably Christian. And it seems to me that many people don’t even realize that’s the case. Now, I’m hardly anything approaching a guru when it comes to Hinduism or any other religion. In fact, after the last fifteen years during which I have consciously and deliberately embraced and explored Christian belief and practice, I’m pretty certain I know more about Christianity than I do any other belief system. I absorbed a lot from those other systems and explored them all to some extent, but never with the commitment or to the depth that I have Christianity. Nevertheless, I am conscious of these other perspectives on reality and see their influence (or the influence of some of their cousins) in American Christianity in ways that many, perhaps, do not. And it seems to me that the central point of dissonance lies in the all-important Christian proclamation of resurrection.

I’ll continue this series next week, but if anyone is reading this over the weekend and is willing to share, what thoughts come to your mind when you hear resurrection?


Jesus Creed 14 – A Society of Mustard Seeds

Posted: September 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jesus Creed 14 – A Society of Mustard Seeds

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The reading for this chapter is: Matthew 13:31-32.

Jesus thinks paradoxes best explain the kingdom.

Is there any better way to capture Jesus’ parables? What are they if not paradoxes? And the particular parable under discussion in this chapter is even more the paradox than many. N.T. Wright has noted that Jesus did things and when questions or challenges were posed him as a result, sometimes he refused to answer and other times he told a story that forced his listeners to work out the meaning of his actions themselves.

But instead of defining ‘kingdom’ as paradise, Jesus defines it with a paradox. If you want to see what the kingdom is like, look at a mustard seed. This surprises everyone because it asks everyone to think of ‘kingdom’ in a new way. We should look at what they were already thinking — and be honest enough to admit that what they were thinking is what we are thinking — before we look at what Jesus means by a mustard seed.

When we think ‘KINGDOM’, do we really think mustard seed? That’s not the impression I get, whatever people say. The following expresses it well.

Why does a mustard seed attract comparison to the kingdom of God? Because for Jesus the kingdom is about the ordinariness of loving God and loving others. The kingdom is as common as sparrows, as earthy as backyard bushes, as routine as breakfast coffee, and as normal as aging. He hallows the ordinary act of love, making it extraordinary. Instead of finding it in the majestic, Jesus sees God’s kingdom in the mundane. The kingdom of God is the transforming presence of God in ordinary humans who live out the Jesus Creed.

Jesus inaugurates the Kingdom of God, but it doesn’t look like any sort of kingdom that people expected. Paul saw that Kingdom growing and spreading and the word he most commonly used to describe it was ecclesia, a word that did not have a strictly or even primarily religious meaning before it was adopted by Christians. (At least, that seems to be the general consensus.) We translate it Church, of course, in English.

The mustard-seed paradox of Jesus surprises in many ways. The first surprise is that Jesus finds the presence of his kingdom at work in the most unlikely of persons. … Time and time again Jesus chooses odd people to follow him, and then he holds them up as examples of what the kingdom is all about.

As one of those unlikely persons, I certainly empathize with this. Think about it. Don’t you see it again and again in the gospels?

Our natural tendency is to search for the perfect, for the powerful, for the pure, and so prepare for paradise. But Jesus’ kingdom is about tiny mustard seeds, not big coconuts; it is about the ordinary act of loving God and loving others with a sacred love that transforms.

Love God. Love others. The two cannot be separated. And it’s work and requires discipline and a willingness to change. Moreover, we have to love others even though they disappoint us and hurt us. But if we say we love God and hate our brother, we are liars. John said that, though I’ve noticed we don’t much like to read what he says.

Jesus’ Parable of the Mustard Seed tells us that the mustard seed, though small when it is planted, becomes a large bush. It grows. So also the kingdom of Jesus: it spreads like seeds, one at a time, from person to person.

And I suppose that captures the essence of my discomfort with “programs” of evangelism. I see that they ‘work’ with some people, whatever that means. At the same time, I see how thoroughly I could have decimated any of them if someone had naively attempted to convert me using one of them. It wasn’t any ‘program‘ that reached me. There were a number of individuals over time who acted out of love toward me. Over time that softened my dismissal and rejection of Christianity. I doubt anything else could have ever reached me.

In the world of Jesus, there are only two ways the kingdom can be established: either wait patiently and peacefully for God’s time or force the rule of God with violence.

That’s certainly a true observation. Which did Jesus choose? Can there be any doubt at all? What does that say about us?

Jesus has a thing for paradox. The thing is that it works.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 11

Posted: June 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

31.  The passions lying hidden in the soul provide the demons with the means of arousing impassioned droughts in us. Then, fighting the intellect through these thoughts, they force it to give its assent to sin. When it has been overcome, they lead it to sin in the mind; and when this has been done they induce it, captive as it is, to commit the sin in action. Having thus desolated the soul by means of these thoughts, the demons then retreat, taking the thoughts with them, and only the specter or idol of sin remains in the intellect. Referring to this our Lord says, ‘When you see the abominable idol of desolation standing in the holy place (let him who reads understand) . . .’ (Matt. 24:15). For man’s intellect is a holy place and a temple of God in which the demons, having desolated the soul by means of impassioned thoughts, set up the idol of sin. That these things have already taken place in history no one, I think who has read Josephus will doubt; though some say that they will also come to pass in the time of the Antichrist.

The first part of this text illustrates the way the demons can use our own passions against us. When we are ruled by our passions, we are enslaved and in bondage, not free. Christ brings freedom, but true freedom requires that we be healed and our passions mastered. And that’s a process that requires time and our active participation.

Then St. Maximos does something that I often find the Fathers doing. He applies and interprets a quote from the Holy Scriptures in a way I had never considered, but which makes perfect sense when I read it. (Or at least which makes sense after I read it five or six times and reflect on it.) And then, in the same train of thought, he makes a historical reference I do understand, but would never have connected to his previous thought.

I find I enjoy the extra work reading texts like these requires on my part. And even when I don’t fully understand (which is more often true than not), I find meditating on the words of the Fathers of the Church leaves me with a deepened and richer faith.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 6 – Resurrection

Posted: June 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Now that I’ve discussed death and the abode of the death, it seems appropriate to interject the Christian belief in resurrection, certainly one of the most central tenets of our faith. (If you missed my post on Rob Bell’s Resurrection video, now’s a good time to pause and check it out.) Resurrection means and has always meant a physical, earthly life with a body that is in some sense continuous with our present body. There seems to be a lot of confusion on that point today. As far as I can tell, prior to Christ’s resurrection, the idea of any sort of resurrection was unique to the Jewish people. And their belief was far from universal even among themselves and markedly different in a number of key ways from what became the Christian confession in light of Jesus’ resurrection.

I’ve practiced a number of non-Christian religions and explored many more than I’ve actually practiced. I’ve also studied a bit of ancient history. I’m not aware of any religion outside Judaism and Christianity whose beliefs include resurrection. Resurrection is certainly a central part of the view of reality that drew me deeper into Christian faith and which keeps me in it. There are a few facets of the Christian confession which I know with certainty if I ceased to believe they were true, I would abandon this faith and move on to something else instead. Resurrection is one of those key facets. I’m frankly shocked that Resurrection seems more like an afterthought or something peripheral to many Christians today. It’s not. It’s right at the very center of our faith. Without resurrection nothing about Christianity is appealing or even makes sense.

In Christ’s Resurrection, which is the first fruit of our own future resurrection, death was destroyed. Humanity was in bondage to death and God had to rescue us from the vice of its relentless grip. Moreover, death was the ultimate tool that Satan and the Powers used to enslave us. And in and through that dark power, sin swirled around and within us. One of the many images used by the Christian Fathers was the image of a baited trap. Death thought it had swallowed a man in Jesus of  Nazareth and discovered too late that it had swallowed God. Sheol/Hades was burst open from the inside and death was destroyed. The icon of the harrowing of Hades speaks louder than words. The abode of the dead now stands empty with its gates burst asunder.

It was only a part of the story and purpose of the Incarnation, but in his death and resurrection Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, healed the wound of death in the nature of mankind. It is no longer our nature to die! We see that in the language of the Church. In the NT, those who have died are said to have fallen asleep in the Lord. God has accomplished all that he needed to accomplish in order to rescue us. Jesus has joined our nature with God’s and flowing from him are rivers of healing water. We are no longer subject to death and we live within the reality of the forgiveness of sins.

But God will not force himself on us. Jesus has truly done it all and offers us the power of grace, which is to say himself, in and through the Spirit for our healing. It’s in and through the mystery of the Incarnation that God can join himself with each of us. But in order to be healed, we must cooperate and participate with the Great Physician. We have to want God. Or at the least, we have to want to want God. (Sometimes that’s the best we are able to do. Not to worry, God came to us in the Incarnation and he will keep coming to us wherever we stand.) And thus we live in this interim period where the fullness of the work of Christ remains veiled.

Christianity has relatively little to say about what happens to us when we die or our “life after death.” Off-hand, I can think of only three places where it’s mentioned in the NT with virtually no detail offered. Our faith, however, has a great deal to say about resurrection, new creation, and re-creation. I like Bishop N.T. Wright’s phrase “life after life after death.” The Christian story is that we do not die. God sustains us somehow until that time when all humanity is resurrected as Christ is resurrected.

In light of that reality, perhaps it’s clear why I chose to place the post on Resurrection at this spot in the series. Sheol/Hades are no more. So where “hell” in Scripture is used to translate either of those words, it must in some sense be understood as referring to an aspect of reality that ended with the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The enormity of just that one piece of Christ’s work is overwhelming to me.

Truly we can now shout, “Death, where is thy sting?


Fallen

Posted: May 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

When I heard that Jennifer Knapp was releasing a new CD, I placed an order for it. As part of my order, I got a copy of her EP Evolving. I’ve been enjoying it for several days now. I’ve particularly enjoyed the song Fallen and, as music often does for me, it spurred the reflections that led to this post. I don’t tend to dwell too much on what a particular song or poem might have meant to the artist who wrote it. As a rule, unless they choose to explain it, I tend to assume that most of the guesses I might make are wrong. So when art evokes a reaction from me, I don’t project my response onto the artist. The song itself is hauntingly beautiful. Take a few moments to listen to it. I’ll continue with my thoughts following the song.

I was captivated immediately by the haunting opening (and repeated) chorus of the song.

Even though they say we have fallen
Doesn’t mean that I won’t do it twice
Given every second chance
I’d choose again to be with you tonight

The last line was the first to echo in my mind. I thought of my wife. Perhaps it’s because our 20th anniversary is fast approaching, but I thought of our early passionate intertwining — almost a physical force pushing and pulling us together, even if we seemed at the time to outside eyes the most unlikely of couples. And it has been a tumultuous twenty years with perhaps more challenges than some married couples face. But without hesitation, I would choose every bit of it again. I feel the enduring intensity of the line: I’d choose again to be with you tonight. There is no night where I would ever choose otherwise.

Moreover, that’s not a relative or a hierarchical choice. It’s an all-encompassing, absolute choice. If God demanded that I choose between my wife and him, my choice is clear; I would choose my wife.

However, it seems to me that people frame questions like that poorly. The problem is not fundamentally in how you answer the question even if it does seem to me that any other answer  would be morally questionable.  The deeper problem is that a God who would demand such a choice is simply not worth worshiping. I ask different questions than it seems a lot of modern Christians ask. For instance, here the obvious question to me is more direct; why would anyone choose to worship a God like that?

Sometimes people point to Abraham and Isaac, but if they are trying to prove the above, they miss the whole point of that story. Abraham knew God and knew that he wouldn’t take Isaac. He was so convinced that God was good and faithful that he even believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead if that’s where everything led. Abraham knew and trusted God more and better than I do. And in that trust, we see one of the great foreshadowings of the Resurrection.

We worship a God who loved all human beings to the uttermost, even to death on a cross. It’s other human beings who demand that we choose one love over another, never God. Love is non-hierarchical. I say that because I have heard Christians attempt to teach a hierarchy of love. Love God first. Love your wife second. Love your kids third. And then other loves in various lower hierarchies. Such systems may be many things, but they are not love. People even interpret Jesus’ modified Shema Yisrael as though it was his version of the First and Second Law of Robotics. (If you’re not an Asimov fan and miss the reference, I’m sorry. I’ll pray for you.) No, when Jesus amends the Shema, he is saying this is how you love God. You love your neighbor as yourself. That is what the Incarnation means.

I love my wife with all that I am. I totally love every one of my children — without limit. And I at least desire to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. (I’m less convinced that I actually do love God, because I know how poorly I love other human beings. But I long to love him.) Those statements are not contradictory. Love is at least transfinite if not absolutely infinite. Love doesn’t run out. It’s not a finite resource. In fact, according to 1 John 4:3, love is the essence of the uncreated who fills and sustains all creation. We will find the end of love when we find the end of God.

My take on the questions that seem to plague others thus becomes relatively simple. I am not willing to try to foist on others a God I would never worship myself. For me that’s really the end of the discussion. I will read and study perspectives and interpretations and context simply because I enjoy such intellectual pursuits.  But that’s all they are to me. I’m never confused about that.

But then the middle two lines began bubbling in that sea I call a mind as I started to reflect on the relational experiences and choices of my whole life.

Doesn’t mean that I won’t do it twice
Given every second chance

I have experienced much in my life and I have made many choices. I have experienced pain and trauma both at the hands of others and as a result of my own actions and decisions. I began to reflect on what “every second chance” might mean in the context and setting of my life.

I have many flaws and broken places and I have been prone to making poor choices and decisions over the course of my life. Even so, it’s not hard to pinpoint the single “worst” (whatever that might mean) decision of my life. The particular dark synergy of everything between us in my relationship with my second wife nearly destroyed me. At least, it came closer than anything else I’ve ever experienced — and that’s saying quite a bit. I owe my father, a close friend, and my partner and love for the past twenty-two years all that I am today. I wasn’t easy on any of them, but they still loved me enough to put the shattered pieces back together again.

So, at first glance, that choice and that relationship seems to be one that, given every second chance, I wouldn’t in fact do twice.  But things are never that simple. Without my choice to enter that relationship, I would not have my older son, my other son (in all but blood) who is the same age, my daughter-in-law, or my granddaughter. But the thread runs deeper than that. It’s unlikely, absent that relationship, that I would have moved to Austin or ever started working for my current employer. And not only does that mean I would not have my present career, but more importantly I would not have met the woman who has been my wife, partner, and friend for more than two decades now. And thus I also would not have my younger son, my younger daughter, or the particular friends I have made here over the years.

And that is far too steep a price to pay simply in order to avoid pain, however intense or shattering the suffering might have been.

Our choices and experiences, good and bad, cannot be disentangled. We are not islands. We live in a complex web of relationships and lives. There is no point in our lives where we can separate our experience then from the person we are now. Change the experience and you inevitably change the person. Moreover, you change the entire network of relationships surrounding the person.

I can go farther back in time. My choices and actions that initially led to me becoming a young teen father and husband were certainly less than ideal. (I have to specify ‘young teen’ since I was still a teenager for my second child and marriage.) I certainly made my own later life more painful and more difficult with those choices. Yet, I can’t say I truly regret those choices and actions. If I had been ‘wiser’, not only would my oldest daughter not have been conceived, but I would have likely taken a scholarship to a college somewhere and missed every subsequent relationship in my life.

But I can go farther back into things I experienced growing up, but largely did not choose. I suppose I had an interesting childhood in the same sense as the ancient Chinese curse. But remove those experiences and I would not have become the teen who made the choices that I made. It’s an intricate, yet delicate web of growth, experience, and relationship. And there’s nothing that, even given every second chance, I can honestly say I would remove or change. I regret the places where I hurt people, and there are too many of those. But I don’t really want to go back and change anything. I just want to do better going forward.

I’ve never been a very good fit in the American evangelical culture not just because I’m twice divorced, but because I’ve simply refused to adopt the stereotypical, expected ‘repentant‘ attitude. I may recognize that I’ve made poor choices more than once (not that I needed Christianity to reveal that fact to me), but I’m not ‘sorry‘ about my kids or life and I never will be. I know that a lot of people don’t know how to deal with me because I don’t fit any of their easy boxes. They have various categories for people and I don’t even superficially conform to those categories. Some can drop their neat little divisions and simply accept me for who I am. Others keep their distance instead because I make them uncomfortable. My wife sometimes thinks I don’t see the various reactions. And it is true that I’m less socially aware than many people are. But I’m more aware than I tend to show.

When I read the places in the gospels where Jesus most directly addresses marriage, I always want to note that he is mostly speaking against the way the various Pharisaical camps had used divorce as a weapon to punish and hurt the weak or benefit the powerful. Even so, within that context I don’t disagree that Jesus strongly implies the existence of an ideal against which he is contrasting and judging their abuse. I don’t really argue with that point on which so many seem to focus an inordinate amount of attention. (I will point out that it’s actually a multiplicity of ideals. Jesus and Paul both say, after all, that it’s a higher calling of some to remain unmarried and childless in devotion and service to God. That statement was at least as shocking in their ancient context as it would be to conservative evangelicals today.)

But Jesus embodied a God who has never shied away from the reality of human relationships in favor of some ideal. Even in the foreshadowing of the Old Testament, we see a good God who loves mankind. We see a God who again and again shows up saying, “Well, that’s not what I had in mind for you, but since that’s where you’ve gotten yourself, here’s where we’ll go from here.” The human relationships we form are an inextricable part of our reality. And I don’t think God judges them as incidental, secondary, or occupying some lower rung on a hierarchical ladder of love. I think he honors them for what they are in the midst of all their messiness.

In truth, if we believe Jesus, then love and worship of God cannot be separated from love of other human beings. That is, after all, what Jesus taught when he had the audacity to amend the Shema Yisrael. When I think of God, I always see Jesus sitting at the well with the Samaritan woman telling her, without judgment or condemnation, “You’ve told the truth. You have no husband. You’ve had five husbands and the man you are with now is not your husband.” It’s as if he’s telling her, I see where you are, I’m willing to join you where you are, and we’ll go from there.

Perhaps that story is so poignant to me because it illustrates the point at which I began to truly see the reality of Jesus instead of a caricature. That time came when my wife and I were planning our wedding. For a wide variety of reasons — none having to do with faith — we decided to see if we could get married in a beautiful, nearby Lutheran church. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect and I’m not sure my wife did either. Neither of us had any connection to any Lutheran church nor were we practicing Christians of any sort. My wife was more or less a lapsed Roman Catholic and I was more anti-Christian than not. (There are a lot of reasons for both and neither are particularly relevant here.)

While I’m not sure what either of us expected, what we encountered was love. I don’t think for a moment that the Lutheran pastor had any illusions about our degree of Christian faith, though he never pressed us on it. And especially given that I had my older five year old son, we were in the middle of a custody case, and my son had already bonded to my then fiance as the mother he had deserved to have, I don’t believe the pastor had any illusions about the platonic nature of our relationship either.

We began to get to know him in pre-marital counseling and though I did not yet know that particular gospel story, I found myself in the place of the Samaritan woman. The pastor didn’t use those words, but it’s as if he said to me, “Yes, you’ve had two wives and the woman you’re with now is not your wife. That’s where you are. Let’s move on from there.” And he didn’t stop with proforma marriage counseling and a wedding. He remained genuinely interested in our lives and struggles. He gave my wife a part-time job at one point that was also flexible enough to meet the demands the custody case placed on us. He needed a secretary and she was available and skilled, but that practical act always meant a lot to me. There had to have been at least some people more devoted to his church to whom he could have given the job.

We were never exactly regular attendees at that church, but we did go more often than we had originally intended. (That’s not saying much since I’m not sure we really intended to attend at all once the wedding was over.) And when our son was born, we had him baptized by that pastor. That Lutheran pastor never really did anything dramatic or showy. But he did live the sort of love we see in the gospels. He chose acceptance over rejection. He chose love over any particular set of rules. And by doing that, he led me to question whether or not I might have been wrong in my judgment of Christians and Christianity. I doubt he had or has any idea of the impact his actions had on me. But the truth is that I’m not sure I see how I would have moved from where I was to anything like Christian faith without his small, but consistent acts of love.

The theological point I take from all of this is that it’s not my job to somehow ‘fix‘ the web of human relationships surrounding and supporting another person. My wife and I have and may again in the future find ourselves in a place where we need to do what we can to help someone who is being abused. So I’m not at all saying that we should stay aloof or apart from others. That’s not love. However, it’s up to God, not us, to ultimately sort things out. Our role is to acknowledge where people are and not turn away from it. Lies flow from darkness, not from the light. We should never pretend that things are other than what they are. But having done so, we are to love. It’s as simple and as difficult as that.

I’m not sure that you can err by loving too much or too freely. But if you can, I would rather err on that side than by not loving enough. I don’t think I’m very good at love, at least not the sort of love that Jesus commands. But if there’s one thing I want to do better, that’s probably it.