Friday, June 11, 2010

What Faith Proclaims and the Challenges and Openness of Daily Life

Groaning Inwardly Eagerly Longing for the Revealing of the Sons of God

For some, the issue is less the truth claims of Scripture, including any "implausibility" of belief in a philosophical or theological sense than the significance of "the faith once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3) in providing the resources of living in the power of its claims in light of the complexity and the problems of daily life. Such problems, whether persisting family conflict, unemployment, ill-health, deep psychological anxiety and fear, addictions of one sort or another, loss of economic and social status, and the like are among the many perplexities which we all encounter in various ways at different points in our lives.

In raising these problems there is always the issue of how deeply one does trust God in Christ to be "all in all" in these matters. To draw upon biblical imagery, to what extent do we maintain a fundamental trust of grace breaking into our lives ever anew even amidst the seeming darkness, as a promised potentiality of hope in things unseen; a hope which calls us to our better selves in becoming fulfilled through the power of the living Christ delivered to us through the agency of the Holy Spirit.

In promising the peace that passes understanding, radical Christianity offers no easy panaceas in response to the personal and public problems of living faith out amidst the dilemmas of a broken world. The brute reality is that faith finds its bearing amidst the cross-bearing challenges of facing the problems head-on without self-pitying, sentimentality, cynicism, contempt of others, self-contempt, or self-justification. These attitudes and the like are very likely to not only flourish, but to define us at least for a time in the midst of what we may be facing, especially in times of deep stress or severe temptation unless a deeper sense of reality in making every thought captive for Christ emerges.

Clearly, a sense of escapism may be read into Christianity, sometimes justified, sometimes not, which, it should be added, could be attributed to any world view, secular or religious, which offers another perspective beyond the immediate to perceive the sometimes unbearable given in a more comprehensive vein. Christianity, then, cannot be legitimately critiqued because of its claim to envision reality beyond the given, without rejecting other "myths" that promise something comparable. Such may include even a deeply cynical philosophy or world view which at some level transcends the facts of the matter, but which provides the allure of a salvo even if it is that of nurturing a wound as an escapist antidote to a failed sense of self-actualization, a cultural myth of great power embodied in the American Dream.

What then does Christianity offer that other perspectives, religious or secular lack? I cannot even begin to answer this in a way that might be viewed as even plausibly convincing to one who may not be persuaded in which even God in Christ can but knock at the door, which requires some assent, however feeble for God as revealed in Christ to enter into one's reality, however so elusively. Moreover, anything I could possibly say could be viewed as utterly ludicrous or hopelessly lacking sensitivity even among those in the Christian camp who have experienced loss or pain of a very deep nature; a loss that can shake the very foundations of one's faith. I can only speak from what I know, as well as my weaknesses and my own sense of apprehensions against similar loss; and not merely I, but from the cumulative testimony of followers of Christ through a 2000 year period.

Among much else to what we do testify is to a hope--a hope and an expectation that occasionally rises to the level of a sense of lived certainty that in Christ we find our true identity in contrast to any other constructed reality in the very midst of the problems that perplex us which and have our names written on them so deeply. There is a transcendence here, but only by way of entering into the pain rather than escaping from it in which the pain itself is absorbed into the healing, offering us the hope of becoming, in the words of Catholic priest Henry Nouwen, wounded healers even as we may remain tempted to hold on to the pain. In the longing imagery of the Apostle Paul:

"I consider that the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility not willingly, but because of him who subjected it in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage from decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, [which is the very] redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were save. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it in patience" (Romans 8:18-25).

Neither for Paul nor for us does the reformation of self through Christ come cheaply, nor without at times, a great deal of struggle; for autonomous self identity continues to press into us in very powerful, persistent, and subtle ways, promising the allure of a pathway it can never deliver (Genesis 3:1-7), but which we nonetheless crave. Thus we are engaged in spiritual warfare, a perspective sometimes viewed as melodramatic, but I don't think so. I know that I for one crave security, comfort, certainty, autonomy, respect, self-fulfillment, and love within a well carved out safe zone to which I often take to the point of idolatry even if I do not always recognize it as such. That is, I seek my own internalization of the American dream, an illusion that often leads to delusion, if not desperation, despair, and adulation. I know how idolatrous this myth is, in no small measure because when any of these "safety zones" are threatened in me I can get quite agitated or fall into a fatalistic funk in which "the old man" rises to the surface once again in which the waiting for God in Christ to intervene can seem interminable with many failings of body, mind, and spirit along the way.

Yet, even in the worst of it, I do not simply give up, but keep pressing into Christ, in no small measure because I am absolutely convinced, as the hymn writer puts it, 'all other ground is sinking sand." This, at a very deep level I "know" to be true even though I could not remotely prove it or even seem plausibly convincing to someone not similarly persuaded. Moreover, for someone, whether Christian or non-Christian, who has experienced pain or loss at a much more profound level of depth beyond what I have undergone, I do not remotely propose to be persuasive at the experiential level. There are haunting questions within as well as without the Christian revelations and we but continue to see darkly, even as we do proclaim to see Jesus, the one and only. At this point, I can only resonate with the very words of the Apostle Paul that:

"The spirit helps us in our weaknesses. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts [God] knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes with the saints [those called to the faith; as saints and sinners] according to the will of God" (Romans 8:26-27).

It is in this very groaning of the Spirit, and therefore of God for us, in striving with our own groaning for new creation amidst the pain and longing of the old that we do find hope; in a groaning that goes on as long as creation itself remains in a state of eager waiting; where we as those walking in faith of Christ, are called to die daily in order to be reborn daily in a "new man" reality in the midst, to draw on biblical language, of mortality in its eager longing to put on immortality in order not to be naked, but to be more fully clothed in new creation. In the words of devotional writer Oswald Chambers,

"If you will give God your right to yourself, He will make a holy experiment out of you--and His experiments always succeed" in which emerges "the inner creativity that flows from being totally surrendered to Christ" (My Utmost for His Highest, June 13).

No doubt, Chambers points to an ideal than to the lived reality itself, at least as experienced in our mortality, though to a promise in the indwelling of eternity even in our present experience pulled by the lure of putting on immortality in our desire to be further clothed. In the meantime, we hunger, we thirst, we cry out, we long, we hope, we pray, we bond as the body of Christ amidst the sometimes unimaginable trouble we often face with the hope, nonetheless, that the peace of Christ has overcome the world. Come Lord, Jesus, come!

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