shorter catechism update

Four and a half years ago, I wrote this post and called it my own “shorter catechism.” A catechism is a teaching device based on questions and answers that Christians have long made use of. Back then, I wrote ten of my own questions and answers as a way to succinctly express some of the fundamentals of my (teenage) spirituality.

Since then, my faith has been deeply challenged and bruised. I couldn’t have known then the kind of mental discord and spiritual silence I would have to learn to live with. I’ve often felt far from God and I’ve often doubted his goodness and his existence. You could say that, in a small way, I’ve participated in the spiritual loneliness that Christ himself experienced, along with nearly every other biblical and historical saint.

And yet, God is good. I can say that honestly, if not as boldly as before. There are some hard things you have to believe in order to be a Christian. You have to wrap your mind around eternal destinies. You have believe in Adam and Eve. You have to submit to the idea of authority and hierarchy. Etc. It can hurt, at times.

And yet, I can’t tear myself away from the need for Theos or from the love of Christ on the cross. Those two stakes in the ground keep me standing.

Perhaps if I didn’t feel my need for salvation, it would be easier to live without articulated ideological commitments. In other words, I might be more easily swayed towards agnosticism if not for my deep-seated sense of spiritual and moral hunger, a hunger unsatisfied by my own disappointing efforts at intentional living. Some would call that psychological weakness. Maybe. But conviction of sin is like a light turned on in a dark room, and once that light goes on, everything else feels cowardly and self-deceptive.

Thus, everything I wrote four years ago is still true. I’m still a Christian, because Jesus is still the only one who can save me, and I still know that I need saving. Sometimes I’m growing, sometimes I’m barely holding on–may God have mercy on me. Yet God is greater, and God is good. My trembling grip on him is unfailingly overpowered by his unyielding embrace of me.

So, I’d like to repost that old “shorter catechism” as a testimony to the faithfulness of my Father in preserving my faith through this journey in the Beast’s territory. If you are a person who struggles to believe, I can relate. Reach out to me, and let’s talk about it.

Politics Of Symbols

You’ve got your politics of symbols, I’ve got my ideology,

but I’d like to know you laughing, unanalytically amused.

Remember how it was as kids? Before we knew how bad it was.

We’re wealthy children, grown up too slow.

Ever think what it would be like to be old?

 

You’ve got your social justice campaign, I’ve got my spirit-poverty,

but I wish you knew me boldly, unashamedly in love.

Just like you, I camp out, safe, behind my honesty and insight.

We’re spoiled little kids, ready to impress,

still terrified no one’s gonna call us back.

 

You’ve got your righteous indignation, I’ve got my hard-earned inner peace.

You’ve got your hardened skepticism, I’ve got my battle-won belief.

How strong is my faith in the choir loft?

How strong is your doubt in the fox-hole?

I’ll come downstairs,

if you come outside.

 

I Remember You And Suddenly

Sometimes late at night my roommate goes to bed.
Still awake above her, I’m warm, safe, and well-fed;
But fears shimmy up me from my belly to my head.

They pause there long enough to make my eyes wet,
Pressing repeat on bad ideas I’d rather forget.
In the quiet dark my balancing act is quietly upset.

But I remember you and suddenly I’m less likely to cry.

Sometimes in a room full of voices I cannot be heard.
Even with my organized thoughts, no one hears a word.
Everything I’m fearing, I guess, must be absurd.

Defeat shimmies down me from my chest to my pit.
In the middle of my body I can’t shake the weight of it,
But if it shoots out of my mouth, then I’m the hypocrite.

So I remember you and suddenly I’m less likely to yell.

At times I’ve lost my cool and given up the ghost.
Grief like television keeps my mind engrossed
And blank to the world outside, to what I owe the most.

A whirlpool of introspection drags me down into
Vague trepidation towards what comes out of the blue.
Cowardly doubt rains on me and starts to soak me through.

Yet I remember you and suddenly I’m less likely to drown.

The world outside threatens to kill, infect, or maim.
The world inside me is prone to more of the same.
My silent killers are tyrant gods like money, sex, fame.

Nothing cures what ails me like the memory of you.
“In remembrance of me” does what other gods don’t do:
Takes these dying insides and gives them life anew.

So I remember you and suddenly I’m less likely to die.
I remember you and suddenly I’m more alive.

prayers for the pilgrimage

Christians have long thought of the life of faith as a journey, a pilgrimage. “Walking with God” is one of the Bible’s most frequent metaphors for living in a relationship with him. This walk, the “ancient path” (Jeremiah 6:16), is difficult (Matthew 7:14) but blessed (Psalm 119:1). It is a walk in “newness of life,” opened to us by the death and resurrection of Christ (Romans 6:3-4).

This journey, like any other, includes a lot of ups and downs. At some of its stages, even putting one foot in front of the other (metaphorically speaking) feels like too much. Sometimes, the detours and byways look so tantalizingly easy and pleasant, and the road of carrying crosses (Luke 9:23) so steep and dark, that to make it through even one day without straying is a battle. Some days it takes everything we’ve got not to give up and turn back.

On those days, or during those seasons, the Word of God truly is the “lamp for our feet,” “the light for our path” that we so desperately need (Psalm 119:105). Seasoned travelers often know the scriptures that have brought them through life’s highs and lows in the past, the ones to which they have returned again and again for reassurance and guidance. These are the scriptures they have prayed so often that the phrases now spring up naturally in their prayers.

I’m at the beginning of my journey, but I know of a few prayers from the “guidebook” to which I repeatedly turn on those days when temptation, trouble, and doubt threaten so fiercely. Perhaps they can help you too.

Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Mark 9:24

In this story from Mark’s Gospel, a father of a mute, convulsive, demon-possessed boy brings his son to Jesus seeking healing, saying, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus replies by saying, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes,” to which the father gives the memorable answer above. The footnote in my Bible says that some manuscripts add that he cried out “with tears,” in his desperation. Jesus responds by healing the man’s son in front a large crowd, making the point of his power in spite of weak faith exceedingly clear.

“I believe, help my unbelief” is my prayer too. Jesus’ promise about faith the size of a mustard seed is a promise I must claim (Luke 13:18-19, Luke 17:5-6). I am like this father, desperate, hard pressed for faith but turning to Jesus because I know no one and nothing can help me like he can.

[A Canaanite woman] came and knelt before [Jesus], saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Matthew 15:25-27

In this story, a Canaanite woman pushes through the cultural barriers of race and sex, ignores the ignorance of Jesus’ disciples, and challenges even the apparent reluctance of Jesus himself in her insistence that Jesus heal her daughter. She does not entitle herself to Jesus’ mercy, accepting her status as really being like that of a dog begging for scraps. Instead, she bravely, relentlessly asserts that Jesus’ grace is wide enough even for her. Jesus labels her assertion “great faith.”

When my sin or circumstances make my life look like that of a dog looking for scraps, “Lord, even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” is my prayer. I will not give up on the grace that has not given up on me. Like this woman, crying out after Jesus, and like Jacob, “wrestling with God,” even when God wounds me, I must simply cling to him and claim the promise of his blessing, saying, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Genesis 32:25-28).

And [Jesus] said to them, “When you pray, say… ‘Give us each day our daily bread…’” Luke 11:2-3

“Give us each day our daily bread” is the line at the center of the Lord’s Prayer. It is not a prayer for a lifetime of bread, or even for tomorrow’s bread, but simply for the bread needed today. It is a prayer for grace one day at a time. “Father, give me today’s grace” is my prayer each morning, and I mean it the most when I know what kind of difficulty to expect from the day.

These prayers from the Bible, along with being expressions of what we need, are promises to us from God.

  • “I believe, help my unbelief” is a promise that his power is greater than our doubt.
  • “Even the dogs eat the scraps from your table” is a promise that his mercy is bigger than our mess.
  • “Give us each day our daily bread” is a promise that his grace is enough to get us through each day, one day at a time.

Praying these prayers simply means claiming his promises as our own.

Jesus goes before us on this pilgrimage. He opened the gate, he paved the way, he carried the cross. He will bring us to the finish.

He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. 1 Thessalonians 5:24

lessons from the psalms

Of any single book of the Bible, the book of Psalms is perhaps the most quoted, most sung, most prayed, and most memorized. This would be no surprise to its authors. The psalter (the book of “praises” in Hebrew) was the hymnal and book of common prayer for ancient Israel. From Moses straight through to the closing of the Old Testament canon, Israelite believers of all kinds cried out to God through the writing of the psalms.

The psalms contain the full range of the spiritual life of ancient Israel, from overwhelming joy to impassioned sorrow, bristling confidence to crippling insecurity, abandoned worship to withdrawn confusion. No one would call this people Stoic, unemotional, or detached – neither should it ever be said of Christians. The psalmists never thought of the God they worshiped as a distant, irrelevant old man in the sky: he was the center of their universe.

The honesty of the psalms is breathtaking. Sometimes I don’t understand the Bible. Sometimes I get disillusioned with church. Sometimes I feel afraid of God. Sometimes I wonder if everything I believe is just a myth, if I really am the self-deluded hypocrite my culture says I am. The psalms, thank God, give me the freedom and the precedent to present these very fears and doubts to God, and to do so with full disclosure. The psalmists’ heartbroken cries of “how long?” and “where are you?” surface again and again. God does not demand that I clean myself up before I come to him. I am poor and needy for mercy and he knows this. The blood of Jesus alone presents me as acceptable to God. As one redeemed and purchased by this blood, I can, I must, be honest and vulnerable before him. He beckons me to come as I am, simply entrusting myself to his grace – amazing.

The psalms do not deny the deep “valleys” of the believer’s life. Rather, they validate these valleys, these times when life feels dark and dangerous, these “dark nights of the soul.” Are you familiar with the “regions dark and deep,” whether spiritually, emotionally, or otherwise, of which the psalmist speaks in Psalm 88:6? Be comforted. God is familiar with your suffering; he chose to give it a voice in his book some three thousand years ago. He gives it a dignity which no other system of thought quite manages to do.

As amazing and satisfying as the honesty of the psalms is, however, there is something even more. What is truly incredible, and unusual, about these ancient prayers is that there is suffering – with hope. Doubt, with trust. A desperate feeling of abandonment with a resolute confidence in the promise of God’s presence. Over and over the psalmists say: “God, I do not understand what is happening. It looks as if you have abandoned us. I feel lonely, angry, hated, afraid – and yet I know who you are. I know the promises you have made to us. I know you have redeemed my life and I know you are good. Therefore I will praise you still.” That is what living faith looks like. Faith does not deny what it sees and feels or stifle its thoughts and emotions. It does just the opposite. Faith confronts what it sees with what it knows to be true, and decides to find rest in the promises of God.

When the fear and doubt come, which they surely do and surely will, I must also remind myself of the truth I know. I know how Jesus Christ changed my life. I know the testimonies of others. I know that his word alone speaks the words of life and the message of redemption. I remember what God has done for me and I remember what I know of him – and that is enough. I do not need all the answers, as much as I may want them. All I need is to cling to my God, my refuge and my strength. As many times as the cry of “how long” can be heard echoing through its chapters, the true chorus of the psalms is “hallelujah” – praise Yahweh.

If you are not familiar with the book of Psalms, dive in. Read them, pray them, mull them over. Some are not easy to understand, but all of them are wonderfully real. Come to God with empty hands, a broken heart, a guilty conscience; lay these before him and find rest.

Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Psalm 73:25-26

Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God. Psalm 43:5

Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the LORD has been good to you. Psalm 116:7