Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Beauty of Gray

At my old church we put out a monthly magazine instead of the more traditional weekly bulletins. It was an incredible idea and the creative team at IBC does a fantastic job each month creating this information piece called "Chatter". A few years back I wrote an article for Chatter. The article is basically about my journey with God up to this point in my life. For those of you in Texas reading this, feel free to skip this post.

Since I'm in Dayton now, working at making the dream of starting a church a reality, I think it's appropriate to post this article for those wanting to know a little more about me. The evolution of our faith can sometimes be a disheartening process. But, as I've allowed Jesus to become more and more at home in my heart, I've learned that this process is also what strengthens our faith the most. Many of us are tempted to run from our faith struggles or our doubt. For me, embracing the beauty of gray and letting go of the black and white has lead to an incredible expansion of my faith. Maybe it can for you as well.

The Beauty of Gray
By Brian Ward

Over the last decade I’ve been on a journey of sorts. This journey hasn’t taken me to distant or exotic lands, but instead through a maze of Christian “stuff.” And for most of this journey, I’ve been just plain worn out. That’s what trudging through a bunch of thoughts and theories, ideas and interpretations, and volumes of systematic theology will do to a person. It can be downright unhealthy. Unfortunately, I took all this “stuff” and turned it into something far more important than it needed to be. I wanted my study of theology to lead to a deep and satisfying love for God, but instead it turned into a nearly impenetrable fortress of beliefs that led to loneliness and isolation.

So, I’ve decided to call it quits. Game over. Goodnight!

OK, not really…but I am changing my ways. I’ve recently found myself reinvigorated on this journey. This refreshing has been fueled by the freeing understanding that I no longer must be “right” all the time. The only promise or guarantee I make now is that I’m not going to figure it all out.

Here’s how it all began.

Soon after I made the decision to follow Christ as a teen, I quickly started to build my walls of defense to protect my Christianity. Just about everybody in my life, including my immediate family, were non-Christian. So I found myself having to defend my beliefs all the time. In addition, my early Christian years ran parallel to a pre-existing battle in America between liberal and conservative denominations. Philosophical and theological lines were being drawn faster than a Baptist church could boycott Disney. Those were the days when many Christians wouldn’t bat an eye at images of starving African children, but would rally by the thousands to keep the Ten Commandments posted in government buildings. I was one of those people.

Throughout my years at a small Christian college, Dispensationalism, Calvinism, and all sorts of other “isms” found fertile soil in my soul. Learning about God and developing convictions about issues is not a bad thing. But those first few years of college is when I really started to blur the lines between essential and non-essential Christian belief. Then I decided to go to seminary. The graduate institution I chose was renowned in the world of evangelicalism. Now, I thought my seminary years would serve as the ultimate fortress-building experience. But something really strange and annoying happened. My carefully crafted barricades started to crumble. The more I learned, the more I became aware of how much I didn’t understand. It was terribly uncomfortable for someone who prided himself on knowing a lot of stuff.

But I didn’t go down without a fight. I was so determined to keep my fortress of knowledge standing that I became abrasive and exclusive about my theological viewpoints. In the end, this just led to dissatisfaction and despair, and even worse, separation from a multitude of my Jesus-loving brothers and sisters. You see, my conservative evangelical fortress was fantastic at keeping my beautiful boxed-up theology safe, but it did an even better job at keeping God on the outside my life. Soon I would realize that I had taken tools, thoughts, and ideas and elevated them to idol status.

It’s been said a million times that worshipping anything other than God never pays off. Even if it’s stuff that is meant to help you learn about God. No, I didn’t worship little jewelry pieces shaped like a cow or cute little figurines that fit nicely on shelves. Instead, I bent my knee before facts and charts and commentaries. I jumped head first into western culture’s obsession with information and consumed the black and white world of modernity. In doing so, I managed to totally miss the beauty of gray. Gray was bad. Knowledge and facts were good. I thought the more knowledge you had, the better Christian you were. For me, what seemed like a noble desire to know God turned into an empty and lonely religion of systems and diagrams devoid of a living, breathing and active relationship with the very mysterious God of the universe. And inside, I was longing for relationship and intimacy with Jesus and the variety of folks that belong to Him.

At this time I went through what I would describe as a christian depression. I couldn’t read anymore books, didn’t pray very much, and really struggled with digging into God’s Word. I was being forced to engage the emptiness of hitting rock bottom in my spiritual life. Looking back now, I can totally see how God was working to knock down all the useless walls I had built. He used colleagues to challenge me and brought His Word to me in a new and exciting way. I went way outside of my comfort zone and read books that I thought were nothing short of heresy just a few years before. Slowly but surely, the eyes of my soul were being opened to the possibility that God could not always be confined to categories and systems. He was proving Himself to be big and incomprehensible. Strangely, I found my “new” God to be far more comforting and fulfilling than the one I came to know from theology books.

Recently I read a passage out of 1 Corinthians which served as the final nail in the coffin of my days as an exclusive evangelical. I’m sure I’ve read this particular passage before, but this time I read it from The Message translation. The words jumped off the page and straight into my heart. Eugene Peterson translates 4:1 as saying, “We are guides into God’s most sublime secrets, not security guards posted to protect them.” The original word that Peterson translates as “secrets” is musterion, which is most commonly translated “mystery.” I thought about the differences between a guide and a security guard. Guides are often those individuals that are incredibly passionate and inviting, longing to share the joy they have of their subject. Whereas security guards are intimidating and much more focused on keeping people out. I belonged to Jesus, but I was guarding my brand of Christianity, not sharing his truth and love.

So, I began to remove my barriers and refocus on Christ, and I realized I wasn’t alone in this journey. Many people struggle with building walls and losing sight of the One who has freed us. Perhaps the Church, in fact, struggles with it, too. As the missio dei, or the Mission of God, spreads through nations and tribes all over the world, isn’t it becoming increasingly more important for us to see ourselves as part of this movement instead of separated by non-essential doctrinal issues? Maybe it’s time to tear down our walls, erase our lines, and offer a God-relationship that is universally available and knows no geographical, genealogical or cultural barriers. I, for one, am done with hoarding Jesus for myself and drawing theological boundaries that divide rather than unite.

I’ll always be a fan of knowledge, and I believe we need to use our brains to think and figure and hypothesize. We need to celebrate the cognitive ability that God has gracefully given us. But that is not all there is for those that belong to Jesus. My journey has taken me through nausea and fatigue, confusion, and back to the nausea thing again. I’m not ditching all that I’ve learned. But I’m not going to pout when someone doesn’t think the Left Behind books are 100% accurate. I certainly don’t think that all of the thoughts and theories that I turned into idols are wrong. Knowing God more deeply, searching the scriptures, and studying theology are all valid and honorable tasks. Certainly we should all get into the business of knowing what we believe, why we believe, and in Whom we believe. But for the first time I’m excited about the musterion of God and His tireless and passionate pursuit of the restoration of all of His creation. I’m cutting the chains of the “my way or the highway” mentality that has held me captive for so long, and removing words like “clearly” and “obviously” from discussions about God. I’ve taken off the old black and white lenses of modernity and am trying desperately to learn the beauty of gray.

1 comment:

  1. Amen! I identify with so much of your story! In my narrow conservative life I missed so much beauty!