Theory Thursday: Creeds and Beliefs

 https://youtu.be/H-61MaWETiU

 I’m talking about my beliefs, my creed, so to speak. In the “re-boot” post, I talked about how my theological beliefs had settled down a bit since the last period of blog activity (2012-2013), but I didn’t go into much detail, and may have been a bit a bit vague or confusing.

First, let me get the question of orthodoxy out of the way. I affirm the Apostle’s Creed every Sunday in church, and I mean every word.

I believe that Jesus was so much more than just an example for us … but that we cannot ignore his example. And in many ways, I spent most of my life ignoring his example.

Jesus taught peace, yet I found a way to justify every single war the U.S. had ever gotten into. 

Jesus crossed social boundaries and embraced the poor, the outcasts of society, and those believed to be sinners, yet I found a way to stay safe in my own middle-class moral superiority. I let myself believe that we’d somehow all started from the same place.

Jesus always spoke up to the powerful for the sake of those who were weaker, poorer, considered sinners, or socially ‘underneath.’

Yet time and again, I’d side with the powerful, the privileged,  because I’m one of them … white,  male,  heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied Christian.

America wss quite literally made for my kind. 

And I know I won’t ever understand how it is to be black or gay or trans or  female … But at least I can be aware of that. At least I can listen. 

At least I can try to follow the Jesus of the Gospels.

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Theory Thursday: Creed

No, I’m not going to talk about the amazing film directed by Ryan Coogler and starring Michael B. Jordan, although I could go on and on about how good it is, though not as well as Sally Jane Black did in her review. And thankfully, I’m not talking about the very earnest early 2000’s rock band, either. I’m talking about the most ancient of Christian statements of belief, one that may go as far back as the apostles themselves.

I’ve been worshiping in Methodist churches for the last several months, and every week we recite the Apostles’ Creed together. Every week, I affirm the Apostles’ Creed, and I mean every word:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth;

And in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord;
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;
the third day he rose from the dead;
he ascended into heaven,
and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

That’s something the Methodist churches have given me that the Baptist churches didn’t: a concise, communally-pronounced, statement of the fundamentals of belief. A creed.We all affirm that together, as one. It’s a given. It’s short, and basically lines out the very core minimum of Christianity.

Baptists don’t have a creed, and don’t want one. In theory, Baptists are characterized by their doctrinal freedom, but in my experience, there’s not much room for agreeing to disagree about anything theological. Some church communities can demand at least the appearance of assent to a wide range of doctrines up to and including which translation to use, extremely specific beliefs about the End Times, the form of baptism, requirements to take communion, and so on.

Challenging the often unspoken assumptions and narratives can lead to real pushback and hurt feelings, even though nobody is being rude or intentionally making personal attacks or trying to hurt anyone else. I’ve been in enough Sunday school classes in enough Baptist churches to know you either are in agreement, you go along to get along, or you create a lot of tension.

Why? Group unity requires some meaningful marker of identity. If we are Christians, we have to believe certain things. The Apostles’ Creed keeps that list short and lean and essential. It draws a hard line and says, “We believe this. Beyond this, we can agree to disagree.” But lacking such a clear line leads to ambiguity about how much unity of doctrine is really required to be a good (Baptist/Methodist/Evangelical/Christian/Whatever).

In my experience, the Apostle’s Creed takes a lot of the fire out of doctrinal disagreements. I’ve felt very free to speak my mind, and even when nobody else in the room agreed with me, there wasn’t the same tension and pressure felt. I honestly believe it’s at least partially because we recite that most ancient of Christian creeds together each week.

Why? Again, I think it’s because we could be sure that we shared the same core grounding, the same essential creed. We could say it, together, and all mean it, and share unity through it. And that took the anxiety out of our differences.

The Danger of Being Right, Part 1

One of the worst temptations I’ve ever had to fight was the temptation of being right.  Let me explain.

 

When I’m right, when I really, truly believe I’m right, I am without doubt.

When I am without doubt, I stop asking questions.

When I stop asking questions, I start telling other people the answers.

When I start telling other people the answers, I argue with the ones that disagree with me.

When I argue with the ones that disagree with me, I really want to win the argument.

When I really want to win the argument (for Jesus!) I pull no punches.

When I pull no punches, I hurt people and bring shame to the cause of Christ.

 

And that’s why it’s dangerous to be right.

Chick-Fil-A day?  A great day for “freedom of speech,” but a bad day to be gay in America, and a terrible day for anyone who actually wants to bring gay people into the Church.  You want uglier examples?  The Crusades.  Slavery.  Manifest Destiny.  Guantanamo Bay.

Show me one place where Jesus or the apostles operated like this.  Well, Paul did, but back then, they called him Saul.  But one encounter on the road to Damascus changed all that.  When we’re right, and we really know it, we’ll roll over anybody who stands in our way, and we’ll do it in the name of Jesus.

Because if we’re right, and they’re not just like us, they’re wrong.  And if they’re wrong, then we have to defeat them.   And if we have to defeat them, we need to take the gloves off.  And when we take the gloves off, we hurt people and bring shame to the cause of Christ, whether it’s Guantanamo Bay, Chick-Fil-A, or arguing on Facebook.

Doubt is our friend.  Not doubt of Jesus’s resurrection, or God’s love and grace, but doubt of ourselves, doubt of our own rightness, our own righteousness.  After all, didn’t the prophet Isaiah say our righteousness is nothing but filthy rags?

And We Drown in the Wake of Our Power (Musical Monday)

I first heard this song in 1988, at age 13, and it fired my imagination like few songs had ever done.  The first verse talks of a people defeated and enslaved, but not broken.  Even as they suffer “for someone else’s selfish gain” they sing songs to their God.  The second is darker, more metaphorical, with its talk of “chambers made for sleeping forever.”  It was not until I was somewhat older than I understood what that meant (“waiting for the train labeled with the golden star” should have clued me in, but I was thirteen).

Though I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t get the historical references (the Jews’ enslavement by the Pharoahs of Egypt and the Holocaust, respectively) at first, the sentiment and imagery struck me to my heart.  This was the universal cry of outrage at human cruelty: “Man hurts man, time and time again, and we drown in the wake of our power. Somebody tell me why?”  But more than that, it was the hope that comes from faith.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the album, and especially the song, “Lead Me On” jump-started my dream of writing.  Though at thirteen, I was hardly writing prose, I began to compose narratives, imagine characters, and inhabit the themes.  I suppose I would be writing if I had never heard “Lead Me On,” but I think I would be a very different writer, a very different person.

I know that when I say “Amy Grant,” most people don’t think “imagery-rich brief musical histories of the persecution of the Jewish people, framed in hope and faith, crying out in outrage and empathy for their suffering, and those of others who have suffered persecution.”  But 1988’s Lead Me On was a unique album from Grant, far different than any that has come before or since.  She talks about loneliness (“If You Have to Go Away”), temptation to infidelity (“Faithless Heart,” “Shadows”), and outrage at hypocrisy and judgment, including her own (“What About the Love?”).

The album’s center is a sweet, melancholy cover of Jimmy Webb’s “If these Walls Could Speak,” a song that is as intimate as a solitary return to a childhood home. Grant returns to the subject of violence and oppression with “Wait for the Healing,” which is not as striking as “Lead Me On,” but still far more complex and raw than her other work.  She ends with “Say Once More,” a ballad that carries the listener out of the wilderness of doubt and pain into a place of rest in love.  But even that rest is not perfectly certain.  “Tell me that time won’t erase,” she sings, “the way that my heart sees your face.”

Wrestling Angels

I’m writing this blog primarily about religious matters.  I’ve tried blogging about my faith a couple of times before, but I always fell away from it (the blogging, not the faith).  I think there were two problems:

First, I was trying to tell people what I think the “answers” are.  I don’t have answers.  Honestly, we don’t get many “answers” this side of Heaven, and anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.

Second, I wasn’t ever really, deeply honest.  I don’t think it is possible to be fully honest when giving out “answers,” because the truth is, whatever seems right now may seem wrongheaded and petty in a couple of years.  When your business is talking answers, you either lie,  constantly contradict yourself, or become so arrogant that you refuse to change your mind.  None of those is worth the bandwidth.

The only honest path is to admit to the questions, to embrace the questions, and to genuinely study the questions.  Doubt can be a kind of worship.  Doubt is a kind of humility.  Doubt is saying to God, “I don’t understand you, I know I can’t prove you, but I still choose to worship you.”

That’s why I’ve called this attempt “Wrestling with the Angel.”  The title comes from Genesis 32:24-28, when Jacob wrestled with an angel (or possibly a pre-incarnate Christ) throughout the night, refusing to let go until the angel blessed him, even though the angel tore his hip out of joint.

It was here that he lost the name Jacob, the deceiver who stole his brother’s birthright, and became Israel, the one who struggles with God.

And I think that is one of our duties as Christians: to struggle with God, to wrestle the angels, to dive headlong into our doubts and fears.  To hold on until He blesses us, and gives us a new name.