Friday, January 25, 2008

With the Eyes of an Unbeliever

"When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." Sherlock Holmes' famous quote came to mind today. I certainly can't say I've eliminated all impossibilities, but another option came to mind.

The greatest difficulty of my journey of questions lies in the fact that I still believe the core doctrine to be true. I question much of the nonsense we have built up around it, but I do still believe the essentials of it. And as much as it galls me to admit it, it is in fact a very functional way of life for millions of people, and its principles have built the foundations for many of the best things in the world today, from human rights to hospitals to the preservation of human life. I can't deny the good it has done, or the comfort that it is to so many people.

This evening I remembered, though, King Agrippa and his vaguely surprised-sounding "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian." (Funny, isn't it, how the new versions all change that wording?) What of the person who believes it all to be true, but is not chosen? Who has intellectual faith, but not faith of the heart?

What if, for example, someone was brought up in a Christian home and never had the option of being anything but a Christian, at least if they still wanted to call their life their own. Imagine that someone grew up and knew all the words, believed all the words, could teach all the words in a three-point outline, and had no reason to believe the words were not true. Imagine that she read and learned and studied, and could find any verse, any proof text, for virtually any question that any Christian presented to her.

I had a vibrant and emotional faith as a teenager, and poured out its overflow onto the people around me. People knew I was a Christian and respected my beliefs, and I was the positive impact on their lives that I desired to be, for the most part. But I wonder now how much of that had to do with being a Christian, and how much of that had to do with being a teenager with all of the emotional ups and downs that comes with it. So much information, so much knowledge, and so much emotional energy, where else would it go but up, when everything in my life was directing it that way?

College was much the same, but reality was sinking in a little by then. I had more questions, but was learning more of the pseudo-logical doublespeak Christians use to get around the difficulties of faith. Anything unavoidably illogical, we pause and frown and rub our chins thoughtfully and say, "Yes, that is very difficult." And then we smile and gallop gaily away, full of pride that our faith allows us to accept such difficult things. When Nancy died, some of the questions hit me squarely between the eyes, but I was too busy finding a husband to think about anything that bothersome.

By the time I was 24 and trying to start a family, my heart's desires had come to three sharp points: To have a deep and real relationship with the Lord, with my heart AND mind. To bear children. And to have the love and desire for my husband that (I thought) God had promised. I got one out of three, and possibly a little more than I bargained for on that one, since one of my children may well be a child forever in many ways. But the other two prayers, while equally sincerely offered, were ignored. And you know, those would have been damn good prayers to answer if God wanted me to follow him and serve him with my husband in our church.

I left the worship team when Peter was a year old, supposedly because he needed me to care for him more full-time with his emerging autism, but I had actually left for a year earlier, not sure exactly what year it was. I was exhausted with the politics and the personal bullshit, and I was tired of trying to be involved in worship that I so rarely felt myself. I loved the music and the camaraderie, but my heart was rarely engaged, and this made me tired. Around that same time, I stopped teaching at ladies' Bible study in spite of an obvious gift for it, because I felt hypocritical trying to talk about a relationship toward God that was not one I strongly felt. I knew it was there intellectually, but it was hard to drum up the emotional counterpart to the thoughts.

And now, here I am, years down the road with that prayer still unanswered. I still can quote chapter and verse on just about anything, and the accompanying doctrine. I can still play the piano just as I always could. I can even still write music -- I sat down at the piano last week and a tune emerged along with ideas for lyrics. I can still come to church and shake hands and encourage people and look happy.

But the only time I have read my Bible in the last three years was for the church challenge to read it all in three months -- I decided to read it with the eyes of an unbeliever, just to see how it would look. It looked very scary, which is another story for another day.

Prayer left me a little more slowly than the Bible study did, but it eventually did as well. I have tossed up a few desperate "if you're listening" prayers for children who are lost, but all too often if he hears, he doesn't act, and those prayers are harder. I believe that my last authentic prayer occurred last January when Sharon, a Wiccan friend, died of cancer. I took a walk in the bitter cold, and stared up at the misty sky full of stars, and I said, "Well, God, you've got her now. What are you going to do with her?" Since I already knew the answer, I didn't feel any need to keep praying.

The music has always been one of the things that hung me up as far as questioning my faith retrospectively. How could I write anything that honored the Lord so much, that led people to worship, without it being a result of the Spirit? This was a real question, and this was always one of the things that gave me hope that I might someday find my way back to faith -- it was one of the evidences that my faith had at one point been real, and had borne real fruits.

Then I remembered Mozart. (Enough said, don't you think?)

That fruit, though. Remember the parable, about the seeds that fall all over the place and do what seeds naturally do under those circumstances? Remember the one that fell on the good ground but was choked up by weeds and died? Did you ever wonder about that seed? We always get hung up on the one that is planted in the shallow earth and then dies, because we want to know why people get saved and get all on fire for the Lord, and then a year later they're off being unbelievers again. It's a good parable for getting around that pesky verse about nobody being able to take us out of his hand -- voila, they were never really there! Shallow earth! Fake sheep! Phew, that had me worried.

But what about that one in the weeds? How tall did it get, do you wonder? Was it just a little sprout? Or was it maybe a tall and lovely tree? Did it go through autumns and winters and springs and summers, growing and bending in the breeze, bearing fruit, real fruit, and providing shade to those around it? Was it held up as an example of what a tree should be? And then did the ivy creep in, tangling in the roots and picking at the bark, blocking its light and stealing its nutrients? Did the tough vines wrap around the tree's branches, pulling and breaking them so that the leaves and the fruit died? Did the trunk finally snap and fall, cracking branches off its neighbors on the way down?

And was it the tree's fault? Was the tree like the Pharaoh of Moses' day, who served only as a warning to others? I remember the sickening realization that the Israelites were not the victims in the early chapters of Exodus -- Pharaoh was, and his son and all the sons of Egypt. We delight in the interplay between Moses and Pharaoh, the staging and the pageantry and the rhythm of the language as the Israelites' fate swings between freedom and death. But did you ever stop to think of how many times Pharaoh said they could go, only to have changed his mind by morning? We move past the words "God hardened his heart" in a hurry, rushing ahead to the next plague (can you say all ten in order for Bible Trivial Pursuit?) and we never stop to say "He did WHAT?!"

GOD hardened Pharaoh's heart? WHY? Just to make a good tale to tell around the Jewish firesides for centuries? And how did Pharaoh feel about it? When he awoke that morning and screamed his throat raw with the loss of his son, did he wonder what irresistible force had caused him to deny the Israelites their request after nine horrible plagues had destroyed his kingdom? Was Pharaoh really so bad, or did there just need to be ten for the story? The Israelites got away, and I have no problem with that. But Egypt was destroyed, crops gone, the river ruined, the economy destroyed, and broken mothers laying their sons into the ravaged ground. Why do we lay the blame at Pharaoh's feet when the text says something entirely different?

I have thought so many times of Pharaoh and his hard heart. There is no question that my heart is hard, but more and more I wonder if "hardened" is a more accurate description than the simpler but less descriptive "hard". If God has hardened my heart in the face of years of desperate and earnest prayers, how much of that is my fault? And what for? Am I simply to serve as an object lesson, another wounded soldier to point to and say "That is why you should never take pride because if she could fall, so could you"? Will my grief come in threes, or sevens or tens, to make a good tale? Will my brokenness make a good Flannelgraph?

What if I am that tree, that broken weed-choked tree whose reach for the light ends in the mud? Was my faith genuine? Or was I simply an incident in a parable? Was that music inspired? Or was I simply a talented tool in the hands of a God who wanted his people to worship, a modern mimicry of the brilliantly talented and brilliantly wicked Mozart? God can use anyone for his purposes, we always say. Any situation can be used to his glory. And what of those people, those unfortunates who were used to further his kingdom but never asked to be part of it? What of those who know, but are not called to believe?

When I read the true and living Word of God through the eyes of an unbeliever, what if those were the only eyes I had with which to read?

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