The Lens of Faith, Part Three (The End)

This is the third of three posts – read post one and post two for context.

image While faith must be grounded in reason and is not just wishful thinking, there is also a certain amount of choice involved.  People must reach conclusions of their own regarding what is or is not too big of a leap of faith.  I want to believe what is true, not just what makes me feel good.  If I simply wanted to believe something to make me feel good I would not subscribe to Christianity.  I follow Jesus because I believe He is the real deal.  Some beliefs I hold more strongly than others.  For example, it is central to my belief in Jesus that He is not simply a good teacher but is God incarnate, a member of the Trinity.  It is also central to my belief in Him that He lived a perfect, sinless life and died on the cross as payment for the sins of all humanity.  I believe those things strongly because I believe they are clearly laid-out in Scripture and a coherent picture of Jesus drawn from Scripture must, I believe, include those things.  Other beliefs about God and what He does on Earth are less well-defined and more up for debate and interpretation.

For example – the Bible says:

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” – James 1.17 (NIV)

That seems straightforward-ish, but how do I identify what a gift is and what a coincidence is?  Is every good thing that happens a gift?  What about things that may be good but I interpret them as bad?  These are the kinds of decisions we have to make – how are we going to view the world?  Because I tend to view the world as a critical thinker I am very slow to attribute something to the work of God unless I feel like I have a really good reason to do so.  But is there any harm in attributing something to God when He didn’t do it?

For example – the person who thanks God for the good parking space – what harm is there in that?  What does it matter if someone wants to believe God orchestrated events so they could walk twenty less feet to go into the mall and buy crap they don’t need?  I think it can be harmful or counterproductive in a couple ways. 

First, I would argue the harm is not in that particular instance – and perhaps that little incident would “grow” their faith or make them think more about God – but I think that sort of stuff breeds a dangerous kind of credulity that makes the person vulnerable.  If someone simply claims God is responsible for various things but doesn’t put much thought into which things, how likely are they to simply believe someone who comes along and says “God told me you need to give me this” or “This is a movement of the Spirit and you should be involved?”  If you have no filter or method or criteria for determining what you think God does and does not do when it comes to things in your own life (like parking spaces) then how much more likely are you to simply accept what someone else says?  If no amount of thinking or evidence or reason can be applied, and everything is simply “faith,” then I think you are entering dangerous territory.

image A second way I think thanking God for the parking space could be harmful is the fact that it may encourage a kind of solipsistic faith.  What I mean by that is a faith that thinks mostly about the self and how God makes your life better.  It is the kind of faith that misses the point of the gospel and turns Jesus dying on the cross for our sins to inaugurate the coming of God’s Kingdom to earth into Jesus dying on the cross so we can have nice things and go to heaven when we die.  This kind of viewpoint on faith can give rise to the kind of person who prays for God to “deliver” them from the struggle of having to rent instead of buy, while they rack up credit card bills buying crap they don’t need and say they can’t afford to give money to charity or the church.  It can lead to the kind of vapid faith that so many outside Christendom find hollow and so many (not enough) within find revolting at best

So what am I to do when I look at the circumstance I find myself in?  I’m pursuing a career path that fell into my lap, that’s not what I originally wanted to pursue.  If I had been left to my own devices and this teaching thing not come along, my family would almost certainly be in a worse place. 

I’ve decided this is an example of God providing for me and giving me a gift.  Why this and not a parking space?  I can’t exactly list the reasons.  But this feels more important to me than a parking space.  And I think I will be better for the gospel and my family will be better for it with this new path.  Am I 100% positive God brought me this new career and directed me away from the corporate world?  No, but I think He did.  And I don’t think by praising God for it I am falling into the trap I’ve described.  Yes, it’s possible this was just coincidence and not a result of God’s providence; but if I can’t thank God for this, I can’t thank Him for anything. 

So I suppose to one extent this is part of what “faith” means for me: being willing to thank God for something even if I have to exercise some faith in believing He brought it to me rather than me being brilliant or lucky.  It’s a pretty meager definition of faith by the standards of some, but it’s where I am at the moment.  In truth, everything I have

I think I need to perhaps be a bit less judgmental of people who have a less skeptical mindset than I do.  Some people rail against athletes who thank God for their success, or people who thank Jesus for winning an award.  Critics think it’s stupid of the person to think the God of the Universe would care who wins the Superbowl or who wins the MVP award.  To them it smacks of the egotistical, “me-focused” faith I described earlier.  I can see that, but I think understood the way I am talking about here it doesn’t have to be ridiculous.  If you believe God provided you with the talent you used to win the game, why would it be inappropriate to thank Him when image you win?  It’s not the same as saying He made you win the Superbowl – but it’s recognizing you have been blessed with opportunities and gifts and whatever else that others don’t have.  Two people making the same statement – “thank God” – can be communicating very different sentiments and thought processes.  I think one person making the statement could be making an admirable, humble statement and someone else making it could be saying something incredibly stupid and self-centered.

I still think it’s dangerous to place your faith on shaky ground or to look at the world from an “I believe everything I hear even if there’s no evidence presented” point of view – but for me to look down on others with that mindset is prideful and I don’t think very Christ-like. 

While it is less likely I will be fooled by errant theology or charlatans, it is also less likely I will notice the ways God lavishes His love upon me.  It is likely I will not notice and be thankful for the true blessings in my life.  I still can’t bring myself to thank God for giving me a green light or a good parking space – but I feel safe thanking Him for growing up where I did, for my natural abilities, my career, my home, my friends, and my family.  I suppose it could have all been dumb luck, but I don’t think it was.


The Lens of Faith, Part Two

In my previous post I set the stage for this post, so if you haven’t read it (and you want to understand what’s going on here), you should read it.

My faith has come a long way over the years and it is still evolving.  The relationship between “faith” and what I call my skepticism or critical thinking isn’t always clear-cut.  (As an aside – I would encourage you to read this article on the nature of faith by Greg Koukl – it helps you understand what I mean when I use the word.)  Sometimes I don’t know how to interpret the things that come my way.

image I don’t believe faith is just wishful thinking – it should have some foundation in fact.  If I have no good reason to place my faith in something or someone, I don’t do it.  I find no nobility in believing something in spite of evidence or in the face of no evidence.  When someone tells me something that they believe, I want to hear why they believe it.  But when I think through the various events of my life, or different things that happen, I’m not always sure what to believe. 

The whole thing that prompted these two posts is my current job situation.  At the beginning of 2008 I decided to no longer pursue ministry as my full-time career.  At first my goal was to find a job in some kind of HR position.  I thought I didn’t want to be a teacher.  I applied to dozens of jobs – probably around a hundred – in the HR field.  For months, beginning in late 2007, I applied to all manner of companies, from Google to Safeway to places I’d never heard of.  At first I only applied to jobs I liked the description of but later I became less discriminating.  I had one interview for a job with a NASA contractor in Mountain View but was the “runner-up” for the position.  I received a phone call during the last week of January asking if I wanted to take a long-term sub position at Washington High School beginning the next week.  Having previously decided I did not want to enter teaching as a career, I figured this would at least be consistent work while I looked for an HR position.

This “sub” job changed the course of my job search.  Upon my arrival a few days after the call, I was informed that I would in fact be the teacher.  On my first day I told them I wasn’t really planning on becoming a teacher so I’d let them know if I wanted to commit to the whole semester.  After three days with the students, I knew teaching was the right career for me.  I enrolled in a teacher credential program, threw myself into the job, and had a great (and exhausting) semester.  I’d found the right career.  Or perhaps more accurately, the right career found me.

Last week I was listening to the zillionth news report on our economic woes, on the tens of thousands of layoffs, and realized something.  If I’d gotten into the HR field I would likely have already received a pink slip.  As a newbie in that field I would probably be among the first to go when the cuts came – and they are coming.  Right now our financial situation isn’t spectacular – Janelle is student teaching (making no money) and I’m subbing and tutoring to make money.  We’ve taken out gobs of student loans (thankfully that is our only debt) to pay for our credential programs, and we will be trying to find teaching jobs in a district that is facing millions of dollars of cuts next year – but we are in a far better place than we would have been if I were an HR mook somewhere.  How did I get this job and get put on this path I didn’t even know I wanted to be on?

While I was searching for an HR job I ran into one of the women from the office at Washington and let her know I was available to sub.  A week later I received that phone call about the opening.  There are two ways I could view this situation.

First, I could consider it a fortuitous coincidence.  Yes, it is possible that things just worked out this way.  Another possibility exists, though, if I am willing to have an open enough mind to entertain it.

This is the kind of situation that might cause a person to say “I wanted an HR job, but God had other plans for me.”  I could look at this situation as dumb luck, or I could take it as God providing for me and my family.  Viewing the world through my lens of skepticism this is coincidence, but through the spectacles of faith this is an example of God’s love and provision for my family and me.

If I choose to believe this is God providing for me, does this mean I’m the same as the person who thanks God for their awesome parking space?  Maybe, maybe not.

I’ll explain what I think the difference is in my third and final post.


The Lens of Faith, Part One

image I often refer to a class I had as a senior in high school as a pivotal point in my spiritual journey.  I’d been raised to believe in God and put my faith in Jesus at a young age.  My parents split up when I was in elementary school and after that we stopped going to church.  I started going again in high school (to a new church called Crossroads) and it started to impact my schedule and my life.  During high school I started to assert myself more as a “Christian” and it impacted some of what I did and when I was available to hang out with my friends, none of whom were Christian.  My friends were all pretty good guys so we never really got into any sort of trouble; they weren’t upset because I wouldn’t go get drunk with them because they didn’t do that sort of thing.  Still, my increasing religiosity did not go unnoticed.  It raised the curiosity of some of my friends and the ire of others.

During one art class, which consisted of about six of my friends and I sitting around painting models and talking, we had “discussions” about all kinds of things.  Once we had an argument about whether or not all the ants in the world, if they organized under the leadership of a single hive-mind, could kill humanity.  More often, however, the discussion would center around my faith or the Bible or what I said I believed.  More often than not it became more of an argument than a discussion.  There are a few reasons for that (among them being the fact that we were all high school students) but high on the list was the fact that I was being challenged in ways I’d never been challenged before.  I grew up believing in God and while I had doubts from time to time they were never serious or particularly complex.  My friends were smart, however, and they asked a number of questions I had no real good answer for.  Rather than admit I didn’t know (that would mean I was wrong!) I’d argue and get defensive and it was generally unfruitful.

These discussions helped to further the natural teenage process of figuring out who you are (a process that continues to this day, though for a while I thought I’d figured it all out).  I had my parent’s faith, not my own – and it was time for me to start sorting out what I believed and why for myself.  For the first time I genuinely considered the possibility that there was no such thing as God.  I genuinely thought I might be wrong, that my faith in God and trust in Jesus was unfounded.  This prompted me to go on a search for the truth and attempt to develop my own convictions. 

I read books by Christians, Atheists, Agnostics, Pluralists – anything I could get my hands on.  I read arguments for the reliability of the Bible and those against.  I read books telling me why the Earth is 6,000 years old and that evolution is a Satanic lie, and books telling me only crazy people contest the validity of Darwin’s theory.  I emerged from this period of time with a stronger commitment to follow Jesus and more conviction that the Christian worldview did the best job of explaining the world.

I think most people who know me now would describe me as a critical thinker.  This was the time period where I think I developed that mindset.  I’d like to think I’ve always been that way but I think I’ve just always been prideful.  But starting in high school and for a period of a few years I really didn’t know what I believed.  I wasn’t sure if I was just unwilling to admit that God was a lie and I’d been believing a fairy tale my whole life.  As I did my research and thinking, I developed a more skeptical (at the very least, a less credulous) mindset.  I’m sure my friends who consider belief in God unwarranted might take issue with my description of myself as a skeptic, but that’s still how I try to think.  Just about the only thing that bugs me more than someone making unfounded assertions or using faulty logic is someone who does those things and tries to argue that they’re right.  Listening to someone argue who wouldn’t know logic if it hit them in the face (all the while claiming to be logical) infuriates me.  It probably has something to do with my pride problem.  I generally think skepticism is a better path to tread than being too credulous.  We shouldn’t believe something just because we hear it, or because someone we trust told it to us.  Everyone should be a critical thinker.  Anyway, my point is this: I think I became so skeptical that it became impossible for me to see God doing anything in my life or the lives of others.

When people would say “thank God I didn’t get into that accident” I would think (but not say to them) “that’s stupid.”  When people would thank God for getting a job or a raise or whatever else, I chalked it up to sloppy thinking and superstition.  Just about everything has an alternate explanation; I viewed attributing something to God or supernatural means as just unnecessary and believed it bred a kind of simple-minded superstition so it should be avoided.  I think I reached the point where I was practically a Deist.  To this day I am more skeptical than your average person, and I probably don’t see God acting in the world as much as He does, but my viewpoint has continued to evolve over the years, which is what this post (and the next) are about.  Still, for a long time I viewed the world only through the lens of skepticism.  I had faith, but I didn’t look at the world through it.  It was something I had and something I did, but I did my best to explain things without and and in the end discarded any “spectacles of faith” that I might have used to look at the world.

My next post will about about looking at the world through the lens of faith while still being a critical thinker.


Read This

If you consider yourself a Christian, I really think you need to read this.  I enjoyed it and think I could stand to take the message to heart.


Some Thomas Merton

I’m reading through a book right now with selections and excerpts from various Christian writers throughout history.  It’s meant to help me focus my mind on God and be a better follower of Jesus.  One thing I always enjoy when I read the writings of others is that many of the struggles I face have been faced by people for centuries.  When I read St. Augustine writing about his struggle with the fact that part of him wants to fully devote himself to God but the other part wants to hang on – it’s comforting (for lack of a better term).  It’s also good to see that even many of these people who would be considered giants of the faith (or who have been declared Saints by the Roman Catholic Church) experience the kind of struggles that I have yet still have amazing insights into what it means to follow God.

image I don’t have anything particularly stirring to say but I did want to share a couple of quotes from Thomas Merton.  He’s a writer I’ve only marginally delved into but I have greatly enjoyed what I’ve read. From what I understand some of his writing and exploration had to do with what Christians could learn from some of the Eastern traditions.  He got some flak for that from some, of course, but from what I can tell he wasn’t trying to copy their theology but rather wanted to engage those from others traditions and learn more about them and learn from them.  Here are some of his thoughts with regard to meditation, the soul, and the search so many of us are on to find ways to get our spirituality and our life to match up.  Each quote is a distinct one, they aren’t all next to each other like this in the book, I just picked a few that stuck out to me:

“There is a “movement” to meditation, expressing the basic “paschal” rhythm of the Christian life, the passage from death to life in Christ.  Sometimes prayer, meditation, and contemplation are “death” – a kind of descent into our own nothingness, a recognition of helplessness, frustration, infidelity, confusion, ignorance.  Note how common this theme is in the Psalms (see Pss. 39, 56)…”

“We do not want to be beginners.  But let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything else but beginners.”

Very often the inertia and repugnance which characterize the so-called ‘spiritual life’ of many Christians could perhaps be cured by a simple respect for the concrete realities of everyday life, for nature, for the body, for one’s work, one’s friends, one’s surroundings…”

A false supernaturalism which imagines that ‘the supernatural’ is a kind of realm of abstract essences (as Plato imagined) that is totally apart from and opposed to the concrete world of nature offers no real support to a genuine life of meditation and prayer.  Meditation has no point unless it is firmly rooted in life.”

- Thomas Merton, excerpts from Contemplative Prayer


The Cost of Non-Discipleship

image "The disciple of Jesus is not the deluxe or heavy-duty model of the Christian - especially padded, textured, streamlined, and empowered for the fast lane on the straight and narrow way.  He stands on the pages of the New Testament as the first level of basic transportation in the Kingdom of God.

"Nondiscipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God's overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil.  In short, it costs exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring (John 10:10).  The cross-shaped yoke of Christ is after all an instrument of liberation and power to those who live in it with him and learn the meekness and lowliness of heart that brings rest to the soul....  The correct perspective is to see following Christ not only as the necessity it is, but as the fulfillment of the highest human possibilities and as life on the highest plane."

   - Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines


Voting Recap

image Go vote tomorrow!  If you disagree with my votes, go cancel me out!  I didn’t really go into depth on anything other than the Props on here.  That was enough controversy.  I think Obama will be our next President; I certainly know he’ll win California. 

Click here to read a post that captures a lot of my feelings on the Presidential election this year.  I didn’t get there quite the same way as the author but our feelings regarding this year’s Presidential election are pretty much the same:

I’m not looking forward to Tuesday.  I’ll make a choice, but I’ll be walking home praying for God to have mercy on the United States.

As a reminder, here are my votes on the Propositions.  I include them not to tell you to vote my way, but to remind you that there’s a lot more to vote on this year other than President and it will have as big or bigger of an impact on your life.  Below is a list of the Propositions and my votes for them.  Click the Prop number for a link to my post about it.  From there you can follow another link to research it more for yourself.

Prop 1A: No

Prop 2: Yes

Prop 3: No

Prop 4: Yes

Prop 5: No

Prop 6: No

Prop 7: No

Prop 8: No

Prop 9: No (I didn’t do a post on this with all the hullabaloo about 8, but I did research it myself and came to this decision.  Yes.  Hullabaloo.)

Prop 10: No

Prop 11: Yes

Prop 12: Yes

Now go vote!


Pray at the Golden Bull for Money

image Some of you may be aware of stories in the Bible that center around God’s people turning away from Him and worshipping idols instead.  One of the more famous idols is that of a Golden Calf (read here for the story).

I know I’ve been hard on “Christians” (I use the quotes because that’s sort of how I’ve been phrasing it) here lately and I don’t want to pile on.  I am going to be more positive soon, I swear.  But I came across this and almost couldn’t believe it.

Apparently last week a bunch of Christians got together to pray at the big gold bull on Wall Street to ask God to save our economy.  There are so many things jacked up about this I won’t bother to delineate them.  I’d think this was some kind of big joke mocking Christians but sadly it seems true.

They even brought a freaking shofar, man.  Argh.

Go check out the pics, a video, and the perspective of someone who is not a Christian here.   Be warned, there is some profanity there, if that offends you.  But if you’re looking to be offended I think there are some better candidates in that link.


Stop whining and climb down from your cross

"Make no mistake: if you are really going to try to meet all the demands made on the natural self, it will not have enough left over to live on. The more you obey your conscience, the more your conscience will demand of you.  And your natural self, which is thus being starved and hampered and worried at every turn, will get angrier and angrier.

“In the end, you will either give up trying to be good, or else become one of those people who, as they say, "live for others" but always in a discontented, grumbling way - always wondering why others do not notice more and always making a martyr of yourself.  And once you have become that you will be a far greater pest to anyone who has to live with you than you would have been if you had remained frankly selfish.

"In a battle, or in mountain climbing, there is often one thing which it takes a lot of pluck to do; but it is also, in the long run, the safest thing to do.  If you funk it, you will find yourself, hours later, in far worse danger.  The cowardly thing is also the most dangerous thing.

“It is like that here.  The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self - all your wishes and precautions - to Christ.  But it is far easier than what we are trying to do instead.  For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call "ourselves," to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be "good."  We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way - centered on money or pleasure or ambition - and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly.

And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do."

                                             - C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

The first portion of this passage, referring to being a “pest,” unfortunately reminds me of myself.  In high school and the beginning of college I was the leader of the Setup Team at Crossroads.  I’d get up early on Sunday mornings and work with a few other guys (for a while only Jesse) to get everything set up for the church services.  This often meant I could not stay up or out on Saturday nights as much as I wanted to.  And boy did I let my friends hear about it.

image I never realized how much I whined about it until my friend Michael brought it to my attention.  I don’t remember exactly what he said but I remember being a bit shamed when he would come to help and I as the “leader” of the team would be whining about how other people weren’t helping.  Later, when Michael led the Setup team for a different ministry venture I was the overall leader for, one of his rules was: “Do not whine about other people not helping.  Help cheerfully, or don’t help at all.”  I know he did not intend it as any sort of message to me, but I also knew he made that rule after learning from the misery of working with a whiner such as myself.

I was whining because I was serving for the wrong reasons.  I was trying to do what I was supposed to do, to do a good thing, and still hope I had some time and energy leftover to do what I really wanted.  In reality what I needed was to let God change my heart and let the Gospel inspire my service.  Instead I was serving because it was “the right thing to do” and I appreciated the pats on the back it got me.

Good thing I’m not like that anymore, ever, with anything.