Monday, July 7, 2014

Living With Hope in the Shadow of Easter: A Rational Case for Continued Faith

I'm pretty surprised, to be honest. I always remembered you being smart back in school.” It wasn't quite the reaction I was expecting from a high school friend at our 10-year reunion, upon hearing about my decision to go to seminary and become a pastor. But I wasn't shocked by it, either. In a lot of people's minds, and especially among my fellow generation of New Jerseyians, faith in religion (especially of the organized varieties) is something that you grow out of when you start thinking for yourself in college. Christianity seems ridiculous, irrational, and immoral to many people nowadays. It's considered a remnant of pre-modern myths and the gullible ancients who believed in them. Many are convinced that belief in a creator god will fade away as we learn more and more about science and the way the world really works, apart from any involvement of the supernatural. Being “smart” means realizing that we don't need god anymore and letting go of all those old, constrictive superstitions.

I tend not to get rattled or offended by comments like this, nor do I think my friend intended it to be combative or condescending. I remember civilly continuing the discussion for a few minutes, trying to explain why I believe in God while struggling to be heard over the loud music and voices around us. As you could imagine, he remained skeptical, not only about the existence of the Christian God, but also about my reasons for choosing to set off on a career/life path in the Church. 

I occasionally wonder what conversations at my next reunion will be like. In addition to reminisces about high school, news about spouses and kids, comments on the food, or complaints about the poor beer selection at the open bar, what will I have to say about my spirituality? If friends ask about how my career plans turned out, will I tell them that I eventually lost faith and changed my mind about God? Will I tell them that the main reason for doing so were the outrageous claims of the New Testament about resurrection, claims that went against science and common sense? Will I confide with my closer friends that I look back at my years of faith in a supreme being with something verging on regret and pity for the delusional person I was? Or will I tell them that I fought through this period of doubt and came out on the other side with an even stronger faith and sense of purpose than before? Will I tell them that I don't feel like I need to make a choice between belief in the Christian God and my intellectual integrity? Even on the days when my doubts are most overwhelming, I continue to feel deep down that there are very good reasons for me to have faith, and to live in hope in the shadow of Easter.

After reading and thinking about dozens of arguments for and against the existence of a creator god and the Resurrection of Jesus, the intellectual plausibility of the Christian God continues to be one of those reasons. For years, the main weight of my evidential belief in God has rested on the historical arguments for the extraordinary life and Resurrection of Jesus. When it comes to ancient history, we can never have absolute certainty that an event took place. What we can do, however, is look at the facts and try to identify the most probable explanation for them. Across the board and irrespective of their religious beliefs, scholars have acknowledged three facts relevant to this topic as more or less indisputable:  that Jesus was crucified and died; that his disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them; and that Saul of Tarsus underwent a drastic transformation, from Church persecutor to fervent propagator of the faith. One could also add two facts possessing slightly less scholarly consensus (but which, in my mind, are equally well-established):  that James, the half-brother of Jesus, had a similar transformation to Paul's; and that Jesus' tomb was found empty by some of his female followers on that first Easter morning. 

Gary Habermas, whose academic career has focussed on the historicity of the Resurrection, asserts that a careful consideration of these rarely-disputed facts alone can establish the Resurrection as a historically probable event. His “minimal facts approach,” as he calls it, has played an integral role in my search to determine whether it is at all reasonable to believe that Jesus was raised and physically appeared to his disciples. (Although I've highlighted Habermas, the writings of my favorite scholar, NT Wright, on the subject have been crucial for me as well.) In spite of the strong case for it, of course, alternative explanations continue to abound:  claims of hallucinations and visions (perceived by both individuals and groups), lying disciples, the lies or delusions of Paul (despite the fact that he had everything to lose by becoming a leader of the Christian movement), the idea that a severely-beaten Jesus narrowly escaped death and somehow convinced his disciples that he had risen in glory, etc. Hours of ruminating on these and other explanations have led me to conclude that they lack logical and historical credibility. Only by importing assumptions about the non-existence of God or the impossibility of miracles can one refute that the Resurrection is the best explanation. 

Thus, non-Christian historians and philosophers must simply shrug their shoulders and say, “I have no idea what happened, but anything is more plausible than believing that God exists and raised someone from the dead. Besides, I don't think historical method can even inquire into a so-called miracle.” It strikes me, though, that the Christian faith has the potential to be supported or verified by historical method more than any other religious system. After all, Jesus' ministry, death, and resurrection appearances were publicly observable events. Regardless of one's opinions on miracles, the risen Christ was either physically seen by his disciples, his enemy Paul, and his skeptic brother, or he wasn't. I believe that the New Testament writings possess enough value as historical documents to establish that he probably was. That is, as long as you don't a priori assert the impossibility of a loving god who wished to usher in His renewed creation through the vindication of His Son.

Several weeks ago, I began to research the scientific and philosophical arguments for the existence of such a creator god as a supplement to my historical inquiries. I did so out of a desperate hope that it would bolster my wavering faith. I thought that if I only had enough rational reasons for belief, and if I only could be absolutely certain about it being the truth, perhaps my doubts could be permanently dispelled. Looking into subjects that I never would have researched otherwise, such as cosmogony, intelligent design, quantum theory, the human mind, and teleology, my faith has been enriched by the knowledge that trends in contemporary science can be decently argued to complement the concept of a creator god and an ultimate consciousness. At the very least, science does not preclude the possibility of a supreme being. 

But in all the hours of reading about these topics and solidifying the historical case for the Resurrection, and amidst the emotional turmoil that accompanied much of that time, I never reached my initial goal of attaining to an absolute intellectual certainty in the truth of Christianity. At a certain point, I had to admit that there will always be a chance that I am fooling myself by believing in God. My fervent attempts to place myself in a world that holds purpose and transcendent beauty could be a sort of grasping at existential straws, seeking out patterns and meaning where there are none to be found. Luckily, my grapplings with spirituality didn't end at those conclusions. Instead, along with the realization that rational certainty will probably always allude me came fresh perspectives on faith, doubt, and epistemology (the study of how we know things). Perhaps more importantly, I began to develop strategies and chart a path forward that I believe will allow me to live a life of hope rather than despair. 

(Note:  The issues associated with the Resurrection deserve a lot more attention, but this blog article would have gone on much longer if I had allowed myself to flesh out all the facts. For more arguments for the Resurrection and refutations of counter-explanations, I would highly recommend The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Gary Habermas and Mike Licona, The Resurrection of the Son of God by NT Wright, and a compact book by William Lane Craig called Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? For some of the scientific and philosophical topics, check out Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig, The Big Questions in Science and Religion by Keith Ward, and Science and Religion: An Introduction by Alister McGrath. All of these books are written by Christians. It is, of course, a good idea to read arguments from both sides, but these books are a good start for those who are curious. There are also dozens of public debates by these and other thinkers that can be accessed on YouTube.)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Holidays and Freedom

This 4th of July, millions of Americans will celebrate our independence from Britain by relaxing and having barbecues and fireworks. For me and my coworkers at Ringwood State Park, though, it's the busiest day of the year. Hundreds of people come to the park to swim, grill, and attend our annual re-enacted reading of the Declaration of Independence. We try to make it as interactive as we can, encouraging the crowds to boo when the King of England, colonial taxes, or other abuses are mentioned, and to cheer during the proclamations that the colonists were no longer willing to put up with English rule. After the reading, there are games and activities for kids and adults, along with the obligatory free watermelon. The whole event tends to rouse a lot of patriotic feelings in our visitors. 

National holidays, whether in the US or around the world, are more important than we often consider them to be. As much as I love a good cheeseburger and hotdog on the grill, holidays aren't just ideal opportunities to gorge on food. They're actually vital expressions of a country's identity. Holidays act as a main way for us to tell stories about ourselves as a people, about our history and values and the things that matter to us. The story of the 4th of July is probably more powerful than any other American holiday. It's a story of freedom, of deliverance from tyranny, of successfully standing up to fight for our rights. Celebrating these holidays, and especially re-enacting Revolutionary War battles and reading the Declaration of Independence aloud to a crowd, doesn't only tell us about our country's past. Holidays make a statement about who we are today, and who we would like to be in the future. 

I believe this principle holds true even for some ancient peoples, and particularly for 1st century Jews living in Palestine. They longed for freedom. For centuries, they had been ruled by various pagan powers, culminating in the despotic Romans and a “king,” Herod, who only served his own interests and those of his Roman overlords. They weren't even in control over their Temple, the center of their faith, which had recently been adorned with statues of eagles in spite of the strict biblical commandments against graven images. At face value, there seemed to be little chance for positive change. 

And yet, each year they continued to gather in Jerusalem for the major holidays. By celebrating holidays like Passover, Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles), and Shavuot (Pentecost), they recounted how God had saved them from slavery in Egypt, steadfastly guided their rebellious ancestors in the Wilderness, and given Moses the Law on Mount Sinai. They made those events alive again through the retelling of them, making certain that their children knew about the redeeming ways that God had acted within the history of the Jewish people. This was done not only for the sake of remembering these events and being grateful to God, but in order to renew their hope that God, perhaps through His chosen messiah, would rescue them once more. In addition to these holidays, Jews continued to keep the weekly sabbath and attempted to observe Jubilee years. Jubilees were designated once every fifty years, during which slaves and prisoners should be freed and debts be forgiven. It was, according to the book of Leviticus, a time when liberty should be proclaimed throughout all the land and to all its inhabitants. (25:10) By celebrating and observing these holy days, 1st century Jews were marking time as a people and praying for the time that God would decisively step into history, free them from the pagan Roman army, restore Jewish sovereignty over the promised land, and give them and the land the rest from warfare and oppression that they yearned for. 

When God finally did step into history, He did so not at the head of a powerful army ready to drive out the Romans, but as a Jewish man humbly riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. During the last week of his earthly life, Jesus showed another way to remember and re-enact the Passover. He revealed that the Jews indeed needed to be saved, but not from whatever pagan empire was ruling Palestine at the time. Rather, he taught that the true enemies of God's people were the forces of evil and death that lurked behind the cruelty of the Romans, and that also ruled within the hearts of men. 

In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus embodied the true fulfillment of all those Jewish holidays. He provided a New Exodus from those in slavery to the “Egypt” of sin and death. He declared a grand Jubilee through his ministry, proclaiming good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind. (Luke 4:18, based on Isaiah 61:1-2) He ensured that God's people would be given the Holy Spirit as a guide for the Wilderness of our lives, and in order to enable us to obey his Law of love. The story that the Bible tells about Jesus is every bit about freedom and independence as the 4th of July is. So, as you're barbecuing and enjoying the fireworks, try to think about what God may be calling you to ask for freedom from. Whether it's anger or jealousy, a bad temper or arrogance, worry or fear, have faith that God has provided us with a way to be independent from all of these things and more by sending His Son to Earth for our sake. 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Living With Doubt in the Shadow of Easter

The revolutionary nature and impact of Jesus' Resurrection, as well as the event that it  anticipates i.e. the Second Coming, were the primary reasons that I became a Christian. The truth of Christianity rises or falls on these events, as does my faith. So, what if the Resurrection never happened? What if God (if He exists at all) is never going to step in and complete His victory over sin and death? What if He will never transform our bodies or the cosmos? Is it possible (or probable) that I'm just fooling myself, and basing my life on a lie or a figment of the imaginations of Jesus' grieving disciples? 

For the last few months, I've spent a lot of time thinking and worrying about these questions. This shouldn't come as a surprise to any of you who know me well. When it comes to deciding what I believe about the existence and nature of God, I've never really taken the easy way out. Over the years, I've rejected complacency and refused to simply accept wholesale what I've been told by others. My main goal has been to search for the truth about reality rather than for comfort. No matter how emotionally reassuring or attractive an idea might be, I don't want to believe in something that's not true. If I'm to be honest with myself, I would need to apply this criterium even to my Resurrection-centered Christian faith.

Perhaps “re-apply” would be a more appropriate word here. I first became convinced of the veracity of the main doctrines of Christianity, particularly the Resurrection, more than two years ago. I did so after spending countless hours researching and evaluating the claims of the New Testament writers. Eventually, I found the arguments for the historicity of the Resurrection offered by scholar NT Wright surprisingly compelling. I was further persuaded by the way in which he wove the event and the resulting formation of the Church into the context of first century Palestine and Judaism. As incredible as it sounded to me at first, Jesus coming back from the dead and appearing to his disciples really seemed to be the best explanation for the data that we possess. 

This grand event and the vision of god that it implies didn't just make intellectual sense to me. The risen Christ grasped my heart as much as my head. I quickly came to love him, and sensed that I was a part of the amazing story to which the Resurrection provided a climax. I had deeply profound experiences of God in my life and believed that I could sense His presence in other people. In addition to the historicity of the Resurrection, then, there was also an element of “experiential evidence” involved in my decision to become and remain a Christian. 

One of the main effects of the Resurrection, the promise that Jesus will come back to Earth and fully usher in God's New Creation, is where Christian theology gets both incredibly compelling and difficult to swallow. According to the Bible, upon Jesus' return our bodies will be rebuilt and restored to us much like his own i.e. immortal and indestructible. The apostle Paul also seems to teach that the planet itself will become imperishable at that point. This would mean that a central fact of the physical world, that all life ends with death, will no longer apply. Many of the natural laws of biology, chemistry, and physics will be annulled when the Holy Spirit implements God's incorruptible version of reality. The practical issues here are myriad:  How will the transformation of our bodies come about, especially in the case of cremated remains? Will our cells no longer grow and die and be replaced? What will we eat, if anything? Will there be animals and plants in this New Creation, and if so, will they be immortal as well? How will the planet go on to exist for all eternity? Will suns continue to emit energy forever? (I'm sure that my scientifically-inclined friends could come up with even more questions along the same lines.) 

If God is the Creator, then He is in control of the way the universe operates. Just because the laws of science seem set in stone to us doesn't mean this must always be the case. If He wanted to, He could implement these changes to reality in accordance with His will. He could resolve the tensions latent in the questions above in ways that are inconceivable to our puny brains. But for me, a conviction that there is a supreme being that can and will do this has to be premised on the historicity of Jesus' rising from the dead, the miracle that guarantees that Jesus will have a Second Coming at all. So, is the evidence for the Resurrection and the God of Christianity really strong enough to hold a conviction that He will intervene in the state of the universe in such a drastic manner? I would have given a solid affirmative answer to this question for much of my time as a Christian. However, for several months I've been re-evaluating the likelihood of the Resurrection and the consequent Second Coming compared to the chances that life in this world will simply go on as it always has (until it simply ends altogether). 

There are several lines of thought running around in my head that have led me to this point. For one, when it comes to any sort of “experiential evidence” for the existence of this god, I've had a growing, nagging feeling that the term itself is a contradiction. In other words, because of the subjective nature of “what we feel to be true,” it shouldn't even count when weighing evidence. Paul claims that the presence of the Holy Spirit transforming Christians' lives is a down payment and a guarantee of the final Resurrection, when God's Spirit will suffuse all things. For now, though, it's almost impossible for us to see its effects in any concrete way. Perhaps we can look at Christians (including ourselves) and have a sense that they are alive in Christ rather than dead in their sins. But how is this anything other than subjective observation? 

After all, people hold firm convictions and feel transformed by gods and figures of other belief systems. Telling a Muslim about your loving relationship with Jesus your Savior, for example, won't do much good in convincing him that his admiration for his beloved Prophet Muhammad is misplaced. Explaining that you can feel the Holy Spirit of the triune god in your life will do little to invalidate his own experiences with Allah. We have to at least allow for the possibility that some of our perceived interactions with a supreme being may have psychological and emotional causes rather than divine. Sometimes, my mind takes this idea to its limit, asserting that belief in the supernatural and transcendent stem from a subconscious desire to form patterns of meaning and significance where there simply are none. It asserts that the phenomenon of faith is mankind's futile attempt to reject what is everywhere apparent:  that all living things die, that nothing is eternal, that there is no grand scheme or purpose behind existence. 

Fears that I'm fooling myself by even trying to hold onto faith, and that the only honest thing I can do as a rational person is accept these facts and live out my remaining years without expectations of an afterlife, have settled their way into my heart in the aftermath of my mother's recent death (a topic that is too painful and fresh to write about more extensively at this time). However, my struggle with faith isn't a matter of me being angry at God for causing or allowing this to happen. I realize that people sometimes just get sick and die. But in my sadness, all I seem able to see most of the time is the inevitability that everything will end. It's been very difficult to hold onto hope, and to have that hope allied with whatever credible arguments there are for faith in the risen Christ. 

On one end of a scale measuring evidence for and against the Christian God, then, I seem to have a wealth of empirical and scientific data that give me no reason to think that the universe will work in any other way than it does now. And on the other, I have historical and philosophical arguments that I'm struggling to even lift onto the scale because of my current state of mental and emotional weakness. All of those future changes to the laws of nature depend entirely on whether a man rose from the dead 2,000 years ago as depicted in the Bible. That's a lot riding on one unrepeatable, untestable event in ancient history. 

I'm afraid that my faith will buckle under the weight of these considerations and eventually crumble. I'm afraid that one day I will be forced by rationality to see God's plan for creation only as a pleasant story, something fun to read about and fascinating to study, but ultimately a fairy tale for wishful dreamers. These fears stem from the very things that brought me to belief in the first place. The concepts of Resurrection, Second Coming, and God's New Creation have become a two-edged sword threatening to unravel the faith they once built up. To echo the comments of Paul when addressing the idea that Jesus did not rise from the dead, “...and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” (1 Corinth. 15:17-19) Are Christians, including myself, to be pitied? Should we accept that we have been engaging in an act of cognitive dissonance and begin the difficult process of shedding off our delusions and committing ourselves to eating, drinking, and being merry? I'm not prepared to say that we should. In spite of all my intellectual and emotional struggles in believing in the risen Christ, I think there is still some hope to be found in the shadow of Easter.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Living With Faith in the Shadow of Easter

It was like a tidal wave, smashing down on all Creation. Instead of bringing death and destruction, though, the Bible claims that Jesus' Resurrection transformed and gave new life to everything it touched. For now, the victory achieved by Jesus through his crucifixion and Resurrection can be difficult for us to perceive, but upon his return, the ushering in of God's New Creation that was inaugurated by those events will be complete. 

Much of what we know about the world will change as a result, specifically its transitory nature. We will have bodies restored to us, both similar and dissimilar to the ones we have now, with the key difference that they will be like Jesus', impervious to sickness, injury, and death. To complement our new corporeality there will be a renewed Earth, no longer under its own slavery to decay. Although not addressed by the New Testament writers explicitly, it can safely be assumed that the effects of the Second Coming will even extend beyond our planet to the universe as a whole. All of this will be for God's glory, and to allow us to finally be faithful and loving stewards over His work. 

This vision of the future, comprised of life in a New Heavens and New Earth rather than a non-material eternity, can and should radically change our perception of God, as well as what it means to be His followers. I believe in a god who affirmed the goodness of His Creation rather than gave up on it; a god whose purpose in sending Jesus wasn't to secure our souls spots in Heaven to play harps on clouds, but to rescue and reclaim the physical world (including us) from eventual destruction; and who, instead of sending us into the world solely to do door-to-door evangelizing and save people from a Hell of eternal torment, desires that we declare Jesus' Kingship of Earth as much as of Heaven. He wants us to be agents of His New Creation, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, to attempt to bring bits of His glorious future into the present with the use of the gifts and resources He has given us. 

That god sent the tidal wave of the Resurrection to come crashing down over me two years ago. And it was the grandness of His aims and actions that He displayed on the first Easter morning that brought me to Him. Or, perhaps just as accurate a statement, it was several articles and sermons by Anglican scholar NT Wright that opened my eyes to these incredibly rich aspects of Christian theology. I quickly came to see them, not as heady theories or doctrines detached from everyday life, but as truths revealing a Lord that I could fully have faith in, devote my life to, and love. I felt myself being grasped and pulled in by the story the Bible was telling me; I believed deep down that I was living inside that story and that I could contribute to it in my own tiny way. 

For probably the first time, I was at peace not only with God, but with my perception of Him. Since Easter of 2012, my Resurrection-centered faith has deepened my relationship with the Lord, given me new motivations to go out into the world to do His work, and fostered a growing fascination for the Bible as an object of study. For me, everything hinges on Easter. 

Considering this fact, the question of whether the Resurrection actually happened naturally arises in my mind fairly frequently. It's a concern that is usually quickly assuaged by reminding myself of the theological and historical arguments that led me to be convinced of it in the first place, as well as by prayer and the emotional intuition that tells me it's true. But for the last several months, I've been afraid that the very teachings that brought me to belief, i.e. those regarding the enormity of what God has done and will do in and through Jesus, may ultimately lead me to a state of doubt. The form that these doubts have taken, as well as what I plan on doing about them, will be the topics of my next few posts. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Against Heaven and Against God: Romans 8 and the Persistence of Love

I'm my own worst enemy.” We've all heard people use this expression. Perhaps we've even said it ourselves. (I know I have, at least.) We all act against our own best interests sometimes, doing things that we know will be harmful to our mental or physical well-being or that of others. How often do we seek happiness and contentment in things that we know from experience will never really satisfy us? How many of our interpersonal relationships have we attempted to sabotage out of fear and insecurity, sometimes subconsciously? Even the “best” of us occasionally take advantage of the people who love us dearly. We turn away from God, or become angry with Him when our lives don't go the way we planned. On top of all this, we often feel the need to punish ourselves for the mistakes we've made. We put up a barrier against self-forgiveness and mercy, a wall so strong and high that it feels like God couldn't even break through it. 

In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul expresses his frustration at his moral failings very simply:  “For the good that I want to do, I do not do; but the evil I do not want to do, that I practice.” (7:19) This is not to say that we are incapable of doing anything good in the course of our lives. Nonetheless, I can sympathize with Paul here. Our flaws and weaknesses can sometimes make us feel like we are beyond the reach of God. It seems like a desperate, unsolvable situation. 

The Angel Michael and a demon
But what is impossible with man is possible with God. In the very next chapter of Romans, Paul outlines the glory we have with Christ as children of God and the awesome power of the Spirit that dwells within us. “If God is for us,” he asks, “who can be against us?” (8:31) His answer:  no one, since Jesus Christ, our risen Lord, intercedes for us with God the Father. And what about God's love? Surely, he can't love us all the time. How can he love us when we've made so many stupid mistakes, when we know we've failed Him and hurt other people? Paul's response is what makes the Gospel so incredibly beautiful. Nothing at all in His creation, Paul concludes, “can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (8:39) Not tribulation, distress, poverty, war. Not death, angels, things in the present, things to come. And not our mistakes, our regrets, our cruelty and resentment. As many times as we fall to a point where we think we'll never be able to be reconciled to God, He will be running to embrace us with His mercy. 

This is a love that makes no human sense. We can hardly forgive ourselves for the things we've done. Why would God, the ultimate source of Good, reach out to us? What did we do to deserve someone like Him in our lives? Nothing, really, and that's part of the point. He loves us in spite of our faults and sins, sending us His Son so that we can live with Him forever. God wants us to follow the example of Jesus' compassionate and self-sacrificial life, to be conformed to the image of His Son rather than give in to our desires and weaknesses. But when we inevitably stumble and fall, we should know somewhere deep inside us that God's forgiveness is always there for us. Our Father's back is never turned away from us in shame. He's waiting for us to shed our regret and self-directed anger, poised to throw his arms around us and welcome us back into the love that we were made for. The walls that we construct to keep out His mercy don't stand a chance against Him. 

Saturday, May 10, 2014

"Home:" A Story of Forgiveness

Suddenly, in the middle of attending a concert, my mind was barraged with dozens of memories. The dark auditorium, the many people standing around me, even some of the loud rock music, faded away as I went somewhere, and somewhen, else. I was experiencing it all over again:  the nervousness while telling her how I felt about her, our first kiss, her extremely frequent laughter (It was a unique laugh, an acquired taste for me but a sound that I came to love.), trips to Princeton for awesome chicken parm sandwiches on Nassau Street, and countless other great moments that we shared in the short six months we were together.

But I had to brace myself for what I knew would come next. The positive memories became darker, eclipsed by the mistakes I made in the last few months of our relationship. I felt again the guilt, the emotional numbness, the overwhelming regret as I discovered that there are some things that can't be undone. I remembered the times she cried, and the look of helplessness in her eyes because of the pain and confusion I had caused. For several years after I graduated from the College of New Jersey, I replayed these scenes over and over, partly to punish myself and partly in a futile attempt to figure out how things had gone so wrong. Eventually, I realized how little good that was doing and made my best effort to forget them. But now, the memories had come flooding back, and they were every bit as vivid as they were seven years ago.

It was the closest I've come to time travel. Instead of a DeLorean, though, it was the smell of her perfume that brought me back that night. Psychologists and brain researchers have long known that the sense of smell can trigger memories more strongly than any other sense. The physiological reason for this is that the olfactory nerve is located next to two areas of the brain associated with the making and retaining of memories:  the hippocampus and the amygdala, which is also part of the brain that registers how we experience emotion. Because it was so dark (and I thought it'd be weird to start randomly sniffing people), it was hard to tell where the smell was coming from. What I do know is that it remained for the duration of one song that the band The Dear Hunter was performing.

The smell of Steph's perfume forced me to relive both the good and the bad of our relationship. Set alongside the hopeful lyrics and music of the performance of "Home," though, the memories soon created a sensation other than the usual remorse and regret. I believe they became an instrument for carrying a simple message:  You are forgiven. Before that night, I had known this on a superficial level. It had taken years, but I had come to terms with how Steph and I ended and had decided to get on with my life. I knew that God was loving and figured that He had forgiven me. As convinced as I was of these ideas, they were realities in my head only. Part of me had continued to withhold true forgiveness from myself, hoping that in this way I could continue to be punished, if only a little. Part of me was afraid to let all of that regret go, as if to do so would mean hurting Steph all over again by forgetting about her. But I didn't have to forget, only to forgive. God had done this years before in His own heart, and had looked on sadly while I stubbornly refused to forgive what I had done, and rejected the offer of peace and comfort that He so badly wanted me to accept. That night at the concert, I was finally able to put it all behind me, and to know that it was okay to do so. 

When the song "Home" ended, the smell disappeared as suddenly as it had come. What remained was hope, and the conviction that life doesn't consist of a series of injuries we inflict on or receive from other people. At the root of life is love. No matter the size of our guilt or pain, life is bigger. Life offers forgiveness and the assurance that all is not lost. The only thing we have to do is accept the gift, and try to keep it at the center of our minds and our hearts.

Friday, April 18, 2014

What He Means for the World, and What He Means to Me: A Good Friday Revelation

“How do I get saved? How can I make it to Heaven when I die? What can God do for me?” When I was a teenager, I thought that answering these questions was what Christianity was all about. It was a fine position for me to take during most of my high school years. By the end of my first semester in college, though, this egocentric perspective on Christian spirituality became one of the main reasons I became disillusioned with the religion as a whole. I had encountered far too often the negative behaviors and personality traits that this view can engender in Christians if not tempered by humility and empathy for others. Perhaps more importantly, I was convinced that Christians were obliged to believe that a call to individual salvation was the main message of the Bible, and that God's “good news” was that we didn't have to go to Hell anymore if we didn't want to. I thought that this interpretation of the Bible and of God's purposes (as simplified as it is here) was the only viable one. 

The god of individual salvation described above seemed incredibly small to me; the sending of Jesus to ease god's wrath against his own creatures, nonsensical and morally reprehensible. I was only able to come to Christ when that superficial image of god was shattered and replaced by that of a loving Creator who refused to surrender us and the rest of His creation to the forces of sin and death. It was then that I realized that my shallow perception of Christianity was a result, not of the theology itself, but of my own presuppositions and misunderstandings of the nature of God and the atonement. 

From the beginning of my belief in Christianity two years ago, then, I treasured my new life in Jesus. However, it was important for me to place my salvation within the overall grand plan of God to rescue and restore all things through the life, death, resurrection, and second coming of His Son. In my first year as a Christian, this emphasis on Jesus' cosmic significance worked wonders in helping me to develop a sense of awe towards God and to deepen my understanding of how He might want me to work for His Kingdom. But in the process, an aspect of my faith that should have grown alongside my appreciation for God's Lordship fell a bit by the wayside. I became so wrapped up in what Jesus meant for the world, that I came close to forgetting about what he meant to me. 

It took the singing of a hymn at last year's Good Friday service to jog my memory. With my theology as centered around the Resurrection as it is, Good Friday takes backseat only to Easter morning in importance for my faith. It was my first Good Friday as a mature Christian. I was anticipating shedding a tear or two during that service out of gratitude for Jesus' sacrifice. When I turned the hymnal to the right page, though, I had no idea of the impact that “Beautiful Savior” would have on me. It's an old hymn, dating back to the 17th century by an unknown author. Its lyrics are stuffy here and there, its use of language higher than I would normally prefer. (Like most people, too many “thee”s and “thou”s tire me out.) 

By the second verse, I was choking back tears, and singing the rest of the hymn became an uphill battle. The last verse remained unsung, at least by me. And that was okay. I was already perfectly familiar with the content about Jesus' sovereignty and glory and honor. This was an important message for the service, but it wasn't the one God needed me to hear then. To some degree, I had lost sight of the amazing things that God had done for me since my conversion, of how much He had changed my life for the better. At that moment, I was profoundly grateful for the spiritual path that He had guided me on that led to His Son, and for the humbling prospect of living out the rest of my days as his disciple. I felt an enormous surge of love toward this Jesus, a man purer and more beautiful to me than anything in creation. I felt deeply cared for, safe, and enveloped in love. Having God in my life, I realized, was the best thing that's ever happened to me. 

It remains the time that I've felt the presence of God in my heart the strongest. I'm convinced, though, that it didn't happen just so that I could have a pleasant spiritual experience. I had been incredibly cautious not to domesticate God or center our relationship on what I could get out of Him. But God wanted to remind me that His love for me as an individual was every bit as all-encompassing as it was for the world. His plans to rescue and restore His creation were no less important to Him than saving and being in relationship with me. By maintaining a balance between His cosmic and personal Lordship, God was telling me, I could benefit from both in abundance during my faith walk with Him. God is the Lord, the Savior, the Father of all, the joy and peace of the world. But never again will I neglect Him as my Lord, my Savior, my Father, and my joy and peace. My life. My God.  

"Beautiful Savior"

Beautiful Savior,
King of Creation,
Son of God and Son of Man!
Truly I'd love Thee,
Truly I'd serve Thee,
Light of my soul, my Joy, my Crown.

Fair are the meadows,
Fair are the woodlands,
Robed in flowers of blooming spring;
Jesus is fairer,
Jesus is purer;
He makes our sorrowing spirit sing.

Fair is the sunshine,
Fair is the moonlight,
Bright the sparkling stars on high;
Jesus shines brighter,
Jesus shines purer,
Than all the angels in the sky.

Beautiful Savior,
Lord of the nations,
Son of God and Son of Man!
Glory and honor,
Praise, adoration,
Now and forevermore be Thine!