Monday, April 11, 2005

Why Christians get passionate about Scripture

I gave the following address recently at a men’s religious retreat at St. John Neumann’s parish, a large and quite indescribably wonderful Catholic church in Austin, Texas. The SJN folks kindly allowed me to talk about Scripture even though I’m not Catholic myself (I tease them that they had to get a Protestant to talk about Scripture because after all you do want somebody who knows at least a little bit about the topic).

This was a speech meant for sharing in person – with guys all sworn to utter confidentiality, I might add – not for publication. I thought about recasting it into an essay, since I can’t really incorporate the sight gags, or the tones of voice, or the places where I dragged some of the guys into the talk as impromptu props without warning them in advance. (The guy who found himself suddenly in the role of Blind Dude Who Jesus Spits On His Eyes didn’t seem very happy about it...) And I thought about making certain parts of the language a little...well, shall we say rather less Catholic and rather more Baptist? But in the end I decided that whatever power the talk might have had when I gave it, came from its raw honesty and directness. I talked about my life as I have actually lived it, which has not been very saintly; and I felt like I ought to give you guys the talk as I actually gave it, which was not very urbanely and not very Princeton-ly and not at all Baptist-ly. (Apparently one of the guys said after the talk to several of those around him, “Well, THAT wasn’t what I expected...I thought he was going to be like a Baptist preacher.” Which makes me very curious as to what a cradle Catholic thinks a Baptist preacher would sound like at a Catholic lay retreat...)

At any rate, I’m pretty much giving it here as I meant to give it there – I was looking more at the guys than at the script, and I lost my place a couple of times, and now and then, having wandered away from the podium, I wandered rather far from the script as well...but all I have is the script I meant to read so that’s what you get. I’ve added the occasional stage direction in brackets where needed for clarification, and also tossed in the Scripture chapters-’n’-verses as well, in case you want to look ’em up.

There is one section excised because even though my wife graciously allowed me to share some very intimate and painful details of our marital history to a roomful of sixty men she didn’t know, I felt like I had to draw the line about publishing those details more or less to the world.

Despite the fact that all my references to rednecks and the churches of my youth seem to have been intended for comic effect, I’m very proud of, and grateful for, the place and manner of my raisin’. Neither the term “fundamentalist” nor the term “redneck” is an insult when coming out of this good ol’ Okie boy’s mouth.

I should add a special note to Protestant readers: there is a point at which I criticize the teaching of early Church authorities. I am not at all criticizing the Catholic Church at that point (the point in fact is my own fallibility more than anybody else's). You must always remember that there is a significant difference between what some Catholic guy says, or even what most Catholic guys at a given time and place are saying, and what the Catholic Church's official teaching is...even things the Pope himself says are only considered infallible under very special circumstances. If you want to know what the Catholic Church says about human sexuality, don't go to Clement of Alexandria or even St. Augustine -- go read the Catechism. I was criticising the exegesis of many of the early Fathers and of the typical medieval Catholic theologian; I wasn't saying a thing about the teaching of today's Catholic Church.

Finally, I can never sufficiently thank the community of St. John Neumann’s for taking this particular eccentric, sarcastic, scruffily dressed Princeton-redneck-Anglican into their hearts. In thirty-seven years I have never known a community to more deeply and truly embody the love of Christ and to more faithfully and generously pour it out to all comers.

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My name’s Kenny.

I grew up in southeastern Oklahoma, and we used to tell about this redneck...and you’ll have to excuse the accent, but I can’t tell this story without slipping back into the natural accent that God gave me...at any rate, [proceeding in an outrageous hillbilly drawl] one of these sixty-year-old honky-tonkin’, good-timin’ rednecks had decided it was about time to be takin’ thought for his immortal soul, and he decided to go see what the Bible would tell him to do. Didn’t know much about it but figgered God would show him what to do if he just got his Bible and read it. [picking up my Bible and acting the story out as I tell it] So he opened the thing at random and looked down at the page, and read the first words that he saw:

“Judas went out and hanged himself.”

Now this didn’t seem relevant at all; so he figgered he’d try it again. He flipped a few pages and looked down at the text again:

“Go thou and do likewise.”

He slammed that Bible shut and stared at it for sixty seconds or so. Then...very carefully...with the tips of his fingers...he cracked it open, and peered in at it sideways. And there he read:

“What thou doest...do quickly.”

Now what you guys don’t realize is that I’m required to include a minimum of ten Scriptural references in this thing, and I just got three of ’em out of the way.

The Bible is not confusing. But we are confused. And God intends to spend the rest of our lives working on straightening out the confusion.

It’s absolutely critical for any Christian to understand at the very beginning of his walk with God, that the Bible is central to our experience. I grew up in fundamentalist Protestant churches that looked down on Catholics for many reasons, not the least of which was that Catholics “believed the Church instead of the Bible.” This old beat-up red Bible I’m holding is the old King James Bible I had when I was a young boy, and if you open to the page that immediately follows Revelation, you’ll see a table that shows you exactly which chapters you have to read each day in the year if you want to read the whole thing in one year – which we were all encouraged to do, and which many of us did. The year I turned seven I read the King James Version of the Bible from cover to cover...twice. I can’t remember not being able to recite the books of the Bible ([teasingly] well, the real Bible, without all the extra books Catholics put in there) in order and at speed, like this: [blistering through all sixty-six of them as one word and in one breath] Genesis­Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers­Deuteronomy­Joshua­Judges­Ruth­First-’n’-Second-Samuel­First-’n’-Second-Kings­Ezra-Nehemiah­Esther-Job-Psalms-Proverbs-Ecclesiastes-Song-Of-Solomon-Isaiah-Jeremiah-Lamentations-Ezekiel-Daniel-Hosea-Joel-Amos-Obadiah-Jonah-Micah-Nahum-Habakkuk-Zephaniah-Haggai-Zachariah-Malachi-Matthew-Mark-Luke-John­Acts­Romans-First-’n’-Second-Corinthians-Galatians-Ephesians-Philippians-Colossians-First-’n’-Second-Thessalonians­First-’n’-Second-Timothy-Titus-Philemon-Hebrews­James­First-’n’-Second-Peter-First-Second-’n’-Third-John-Jude-’n’-Revelation.

And yet [in tones of deeply facetious incredulity] I wound up an agnostic.

When I was argued back into the Faith, it was mostly by Anglicans and Catholics; and perhaps the one thing that most astonished me was the discovery that St. Thomas is as passionate about Scripture as Martin Luther or John Calvin or Billy Graham ever was. Even those Bible-hatin’ Catholics turned out to be saying that without the Bible, you can certainly have religion, but you can’t have Christianity.

But why is this? What is it about this book that makes it the very heart and core of our faith?

I was born in 1966 in Tyler, Texas, to a devout Southern Baptist father and a devout Disciples of Christ mother, and you can tell which one eventually won by the fact that my father is today an ordained minister in the Disciples of Christ. I spent time as an agnostic, then got argued back into Christianity by Anglicans and Roman Catholics. I got married in 1989 to a good Baptist girl and we were promptly confirmed as Episcopalians...though most of our kids’ godparents are Baptists. Through it all, the Bible has been one of the central common threads in my religious life. And I can tell you in a few words why the Church places – why all true Christian churches place – the Bible at the center of the Christian faith, both from the reading I’ve done down through the years and through my own experience.

Scripture is where you find the heart of God.

Everything important about our relationship with God is already in Scripture. Everything God wants to teach you about Himself and about the relationship He wants to build with you, is in Scripture. Theology can shed light on Scripture; science can supplement it; our experience personalizes it. But Scripture is, as St. Thomas has it, the deposit of our faith, the raw material from which all our genuine knowledge of God is shaped.

God has poured out His heart into His Word so that we could come to know him and fall in love with Him. It is His love letter, his marriage proposal; for 1500 pages He woos us and pleads with us to feel His love and respond to it.

But – and this is the kicker – even though everything God wants to show us about Himself is in Scripture, most of it is stuff that we can’t see even when we’re looking directly at the page. And God spends our entire life slowly and gently working us to the point where our eyes are opened and we can see. Our whole Christian life is a process in which God uses the truths of Scripture that we understand, to draw us into the experience of our relationship with Him, and then uses that experience to open our eyes to newer and richer truth. The Bible is not changing, and God is not changing...but God is changing us. We are like the blind man who asked Jesus to heal him [Mark 8:22-26]. So Jesus spat on the man’s eyes and touched them, and then asked him, “Do you see anything?”

He answered, “[with tremendous excitement] I see people!...[squinting thoughtfully] They look like...[squinting even harder]...um, trees...[with a slight air of disappointment] walking around.”

So Jesus worked on him some more, and then said, “Now what do you see?”

And the man’s sight was fully restored.

Personally, I prefer the instantaneous miracles; but that’s not usually how God works. Most of us get the long-term, little-bit-at-a-time treatment. After all, time is one thing God’s got plenty of.

I can’t explain the Bible to you today; it’s going to take God the rest of your life just to get started doing that, and He’s a way better teacher than I am. I just want to see you start to fall in love with the Scriptures. You can think of me as a friend trying to talk you into going on a blind date with the Bible.

“Go and tell this people,” God once told the prophet Isaiah, “ ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving’” [Isaiah 6:9]. In my experience, there are five things that blind us to what God is trying to tell us in Scripture, and God has to work through the circumstances of our life to open our eyes and get us past these barriers. They are, if I may put it this way, the five species of spiritual cataracts.

1. There are things we don’t understand because it’s like trying to explain a rainbow to a blind man: without at least a little bit of the experience the Bible is trying to describe, we literally don’t know what the words mean.

Jesus promised His disciples – who had spent three years listening to Him and understood practically nothing the whole time – “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” [John 14:26].

We read, and we don’t understand...maybe we think we do, but we don’t, or at least not fully. But then we get to a certain experience in our lives, and suddenly the penny drops: so that’s what He meant! And because we’ve read the Scriptures already, and now we know what it means...well, now we know what to do. Until we have the experience, we don’t understand the Scripture. But if we haven’t already read the Scripture when we get to the experience, so that the Spirit can call that Scripture to mind, then we don’t understand either the experience or the Scripture, and we generally wind up doing the wrong thing.

Jesus spent three years telling one parable after another to the disciples, and they never had a clue, not even when He tried to tell them in so many words [looking at a guy at the front table and speaking slowly and carefully and loudly like an Anglo speaking English to a Mexican waitress who only knows Spanish], “I have to go to Jerusalem, and be killed, and rise again.” And they’re looking at each other and going [wandering over to a different guy in the front row, looking at him in confusion, and cocking my head with furrowed brow], “What do you think he means by that?” But after the Passion and the Resurrection and the Ascension and the baptism of the Holy Spirit, then it all started making sense.

So you can’t get discouraged when you start reading the Bible and there are passages that just leave you scratching your head and saying, “What the heck is that supposed to mean?” When the time comes that you need to understand it, the light will shine. This is not to say that you don’t do your homework and study hard – just that, if you have done your homework and your study but you still don’t understand, just cheerfully leave it up to God to make it clear in His own good time. His Word will not return to Him empty, but will accomplish its purpose [Isaiah 55:11], when the time comes.

2. There are things we don’t want to believe because it would mean we would have to give up sins we love, and most of all because we want God to have to live up to our standards rather than our having to live up to His.

Of course I don’t need to give you examples of this – this is just standard old human stubbornness that you see all the time. Is it there? Sure. How do you cure it? God has to break down the barriers with His grace. But I don’t want to spend more time on this because you already know exactly how this works.

3. There are things we can’t believe the Bible would really say because it flies in the face of our fundamental cultural assumptions.

I told you that I grew up in redneck Southern Baptist churches, and that I read this here Bible cover-to-cover when I was seven. The year that I was eight, I began to lose my faith. And it happened this way.

Adamson Baptist Church had two more or less official positions. The first was that, not only was the Bible dictated word-for-word by God, but it was dictated in the King James Version. As to why St. Paul then felt it necessary to translate it into Greek...well, mysterious were the ways of the Apostles. The second was the idea that if you ever partook of the Nectar of Satan – which is to say, if you ever drank a beer or had a glass of wine – you might still get into heaven, but [dropping back into that deep Okie drawl] that was only because God was infinitely merciful.

And this posed a pretty significant problem, because in the King James Version there was wine all over the place, and people drank it a lot.

So I’m eight, and Brother [name omitted since he isn’t here to defend himself] is taking our second-grade boys’ class through the Gospel of John, and we get to the part where Jesus is at a wedding party and they run out of wine and he instantaneously changes seventy gallons of water into first-rate red wine so that the dudes can party on. Brother Mickey reads us that story, and he closes the Bible, and he looks at us just as serious. And he says, “Now, boys, there’s somethin’ you need to understand about this here story. When Jesus changed that water into wine, it didn’t have no alcohol in it. We know it didn’t have no alcohol in it – it couldn’t POSSIBLY ’ve had alcohol in it...’cause it didn’t have no TIME to ferment.”

I tell this story...well, first of all, I tell it ’cause I think it’s high-larious. But my excuse for telling it is that you’ll never get a better example of person who’s been so brainwashed to believe something by his raisin’, that he just can’t imagine that the Bible, and therefore God, could actually disagree with him. There are examples from every school of theological thought, I personally think just as frequently in liberalism as in fundamentalism (for example, every word poor ol’ well-meaning, feeble-minded Jack Spong has ever written can be summed up in the single sentence, “God is politically correct”).

But I’m sure you see the point already. And I’m not spending more time on these, because these are not the cataracts that I personally have had more trouble with. Sure, I struggle with them occasionally; but the next one’s the one that really gets me.

4. There are things we don’t even notice because our subconscious filters them out as unimportant. It’s not that we don’t believe them; it’s not that we disagree with them; we never notice them in the first place.

I’ve known Malachi 3:10 all my life, ’cause I’ve heard countless sermons on it: “Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.” And I’ve tithed all my life, 10% of my income plus some more on top of that, and I very strongly recommend the practice to you – it’s been a great blessing to me.

But a couple of years ago God went to a tremendous amount of trouble to arrange for my wife and I to fall in love with two orphans visiting from Kazakhstan, and eventually much to our surprise there we are in Kazakhstan thinking that perhaps we’re being led by God to do a lot of work with the unadoptable orphans. Now, when your heart says, “I think God’s saying thus-and-such,” one of the things you always do is you go check it against God’s heart, i.e., the Bible, just to make sure it fits. So I went to the Bible – and what did I discover?

There was a time when I had the first chapter of James memorized in the original Greek – and yet it was as if I had never read James 1:27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” I had memorized it – but I seem never to have actually read it.

And then there were Jesus’ words to the Pharisees in Matthew 23:14, 23: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers...You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”

And most of all, I discovered why I had heard so many sermons on Malachi 3:10. Preachers like to preach about making sure people put plenty in the offering plate, and unfortunately for all such preachers who wish to avoid monotony, if you’re gonna preach about how important tithing is, you have to use that passage over and over – ’cause that’s about the only one you’ve got.

But widows and orphans and aliens and just the generally poor and powerless are all over the place, from one end of the Bible to another. In fact in a very short amount of time it became obvious that the preachers’ hearts might be with the tithe – but God’s heart is with the widows and the orphans and the strangers and the homeless: “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in His holy dwelling” [Psalm 68:5]. And I had very carefully paid my tithes, while never paying the slightest attention to the people who really have God’s heart. I had always taken it for granted that the tithe was critical – because it was talked about so much. I had always ignored, never even noticed, everything God had to say about widows and orphans, ’cause the preachers never talked about ’em so they must not be important. And God had to drag my silly ass all the way to frickin’ KAZAKHSTAN in order to open my eyes to what the Bible itself makes blindingly clear are God’s real priorities.

Another example: Before my marriage, my wife and I decided we’d better figure out whether birth control was really a bad idea or not, and I spent several months reading the Bible and lots of different theologians, including a lot of the medieval theologians. Among other things I discovered that the celibate theologians who had a monopoly on published Church teaching for a millenium or so starting in the late second century, pretty much agreed that the Song of Songs could not be read literally. If you go and read the Song of Songs literally, you see, it’s just shameless revelling in “concupiscence” – this man and his new bride are just swimming in passionate desire for each other and they dwell quite disgustingly on all the erotic pleasure they’re taking in each other’s bodies (“Your breasts are like clusters of fruit...I will climb the palm tree; I will take hold of the fruit...” [Song of Songs 7:7-8]). And – Dominus meus! [crossing myself as if face-to-face with a vampire] – the man and woman in that book never give the slightest sign of having any interest in starting a baby at all. So the old converted-from-Stoicism Fathers like Clement just knew that if you read the Song of Songs literally, you were reading it wrong: it was really an allegory of God’s love for us.

Now I took that view seriously and carefully considered whether there was any reason to think the Fathers were right on this one, and in the end I decided that they were just plain wrong. And I still continue to believe that. The Song of Songs is primarily an erotic poem, and it was absolutely meant to be taken literally, by God no less than by Solomon.

But that’s just the beginning of the story.

I got married, and the first several months were a disaster...[details removed for this public version where I obviously don’t have the confidentiality agreement that was in force at the retreat, but let’s just say the bedroom was a disaster and leave it at that]. She was seeing a psychotherapist to try to figure out what was wrong with her; and, well, you can imagine that our marriage was NOT doing at all well.

But at the same time I knew there was a lot more wrong than my marriage. I knew that there was a lot wrong between me and God, and I didn’t want to face it. The conviction grew and grew that I needed to go off for a weekend and suck it up and hear what God had to say to me, even though I knew I wouldn’t like it. And finally, with pretty much my whole life a shambles, I gave up and told Dessie, “I have to go away for the weekend to talk to God because there’s a lot wrong.” She was, of course, like [sarcastically jerking my thumb in a hit-the-road-Jack gesture], “Oh, feel FREE.”

I went down around Panna Maria and Little Poland, and I found one of those glorious old churches built by the immigrants. Unlocked, nobody there. I went in and knelt down, and the moment my knees hit the kneeler God said perfectly clearly and with very great emphasis, “Now you just shut up and sit there and be quiet ’cause I’ve got some things to tell you about yourself.” And for the next fifteen minutes He let me have it. He had a lot to say, none of it at all pleasant to hear; and one of those unpleasant things was this:

“Boy, you have never in your life had a romantic relationship that wasn’t about one thing and one thing only: proving to yourself that you’re a Man. It’s all about you and your ego. Sure, when you’re in bed with Dessie you want it to be fabulous for her, but that’s not because you care about her – it’s because you want to be a God In Bed. It’s pure manipulation: even if she’s not in the mood you want to make her feel good because you want to be irresistible and The Big Stud. And that’s the way you’ve treated every woman or girl you’ve ever gone out with since your very first date at that church Valentine’s Day dinner.”

I went back home, and I told Dessie I had to talk to her, and I started telling her this. It took a while because I broke down; it was, as you can imagine, a heckuva hard thing to make myself say. I got through and she looked at me and said, “I didn’t know what was wrong; I just knew something was terribly wrong. But now that I hear you say that, you’re EXACTLY right. That’s EXACTLY what you do.” And then she started crying.

That night, the problem was 100% gone.

Now I realize this is supposed to be a talk about the Bible and it’s been a while since the Bible came up. This is not simply because I’m trying to hold my audience’s attention... “Hmm, I can talk to a bunch of guys about the Bible, or I can talk about sex. [holding out my right hand thoughtfully] Bible...[the left hand] sex...Bible...sex...hmmmm...” I do actually have a point here.

Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find” [Matthew 7:7]. What He doesn’t add is that you generally find only what you’re really looking for. When before my wedding I went through the Bible studying what it had to say about sex, I was trying to find out what the rules were – so, like, would using a condom get me in trouble, or could I get away with that one? And I pretty well figured out the rules: I sought, and I found, and I still think I got ’em pretty much right. But now I had been stunned to discover that even though I was carefully following the rules, I had managed to get everything that was really important about sex, totally wrong. And as my kids started getting older and I started to think about what I would tell them, I found myself returning to Scripture to wrestle with sexuality...but this time I wasn’t asking, “What are the rules?” This time I was asking, “Why did God do it this way in the first place? What’s this all about? What is He trying to do?”

And as I pondered that, suddenly I remembered something I’d read back when I was an agnostic teenager making my first acquaintance with St. Thomas Aquinas, but to which I had paid no attention because [in tones of deep irony] it wasn’t important. When that saint lay on his deathbed, he asked for a particular passage of Scripture to be read to him. Does anybody know what that was? [None of the guys did.]

It was the Song of Songs. That saint, as chastely celibate a man as ever lived, could find no passage in all the 1500 pages of the Bible that better expressed how he felt about God, than the greatest erotic poem in all Hebrew literature.

You see, the medievals had been wrong to say that the literal interpretation of the Song of Songs was “the wrong interpretation.” But with a shock I realized that I had been wrong to think the allegorical interpretation was a wrong interpretation – there was a whole level of Christian experience that I had never realized existed. That is, I was right that the Song of Songs was not intended as an allegory itself; it was intended to be about sex. But sex itself was designed by God as an allegory, so that we could have some way of groping toward comprehension of just how God feels about us and what sort of intimacy He wants to have with us.

And now as I turned to Scripture, I discovered, to my even greater astonishment, that as much as the Bible talks about God as our Father, it talks at least that much about God as our husband and bridegroom and lover. The story of the Prodigal Son [Luke 15:11-22] is one of the Bible’s two greatest expressions of the infinite forgiveness of God; but the other is the story of Hosea and his whore of a wife [Hosea 1-3]. I won’t go further into detail about what God began to open up to me as I read deeper and deeper, except to say that I am convinced that worship is, essentially, making love to God – worship plays the role in our relationship to God that lovemaking plays in marriage, and the more I learn about how other aspects of my relationship with Dessie affect our sexual relationship, the more I come to understand of how various aspects of my relationship with God affect my experience on Sunday morning...and vice versa.

Now all of that was there all along. But I didn’t see it before my marriage, despite all my careful study, because I was just looking for the rules, nothing more. Only by using my marital crisis to drive me back again to look deeper, was God able to begin to show me what He really had in mind for me to see in His Word all long. I had to stop looking for the rules and start hungering for His heart.

And when His heart was what I began to seek, it was there waiting patiently for me. It had been all along.

One final episode. Ten months ago I was once again in a place spiritually where I knew something was wrong. The joy was gone from my spirit. I was tremendously admired by everyone at my church as a godly and wise man of great faith, but [grimly] I knew what they didn’t know. I knew that in half a dozen areas of my life I had been so completely defeated by sin that I didn’t even have the heart to fight anymore; when temptation would rise up I would just say, “Oh, hell, let’s just go ahead and get this over with.” I knew that God was doing some very cool things through me, but I knew it was in spite of me, not because of me. And I knew something else. I knew there was something He wanted to tell me, but that, whatever it was, it was something I couldn’t let myself face. Brian invited me to this retreat and God said immediately to my heart, “Yes, you have to go; that’s where I can get you to where you can hear Me.”

So I came, all grimly determined to take my lickin’, about whatever sin it was that I was clinging to so desperately that I couldn’t even let myself admit it was there. And there came a point in the weekend when I sat off by myself in those woods and hunkered down and took a deep breath and said, “Okay, let me have it.”

And God said, “Okay, Kenny, here it is....I’m proud of you.

And I simply fell apart.

You see, the fifth type of spiritual cataract comes in because there are things we can’t dare to let ourselves believe...

...because they’re too good to be true.

“You can’t put new wine in old wineskins,” Jesus once said, “because they can’t take it and they’ll explode” [Matthew 9:17]. Do you know that new wine is a good thing? But I will tell you right now that there are things in Scripture that God cannot show you yet because your heart would burst from the sheer joy of it, and those are the things He is most longing to bring you to see. He spends all your life getting you to that point. We are old wineskins and the glory is too much, at least until God can make us new, can turn us into new wineskins that can take the new wine. And it’s our glory that we’re talking about. “I consider that our present sufferings,” said Paul, “are not worth even comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us” [Romans 8:18]. Do you hear that? He’s not saying our present sufferings aren’t terrible. He’s saying that what God is going to make us is so unimaginably glorious that by comparison the worst suffering we bear here – losing our infant child in a car wreck, losing our father bit by bit to Lou Gehrig’s disease, even suffering unspeakable sexual abuse as a child – will seem utterly insignificant. That’s not because that suffering isn’t as bad as we think; it’s every bit as bad as it seems. But the glory is really that much greater. Believe me, I know – we all know – that there are people in this room who have gone through suffering that is all but unbearable. Now if God were to just unload upon you, without warning, glory so great that your genuinely unbearable suffering would seem trivial by comparison, do you really think you could bear that glory? But He’s going to get you there eventually because your whole life is designed to get you there.

In my case, God simply said, “Have you never read what I’m going to say to you when you stand before Me? You know perfectly well I’m going to say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’ [Matthew 25:21]. Did you think I was going to be lying?” And I had to admit, I’ve always thought God would really be saying, “Look, we all know you were really a useless sinful bastard, but My Son died for you, so we’ll pretend you did a good job.” I sat there understanding for the first time that by the time God’s through with me, I’ll actually be a good and faithful servant. In fact right now He’s already pleased with me and proud of how far He’s already gotten. Despite all that’s still wrong with me, I’m a good piece of work and going to get better.

In the Psalmist’s love poem to the Bible, Psalm 119, he begs God, “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in Your law” [Psalm 119:18]. Those wonderful things are there all the time, but He has to open our eyes. Paul tells the Ephesians, “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe” [Ephesians 1:18-19]. It took God thirty-seven years to get my eyes and ears open enough to hear Him say His words of praise to me, not because I didn’t want to hear it, but just because I couldn’t believe something that good could actually be true. All that time those words, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” sat there waiting for me. I read them hundreds of times. Now, after almost four decades, He’s finally begun to convince me that He actually means them.

And that changes everything.

I don’t know what specifically you can’t bring yourself to submit to, to understand, to pay attention to, or most of all to hope for. But I know that God’s heart blazes with a love for you that is beyond all comprehension, beyond all hoping, even (if He weren’t too gentle to pour it out on us before we are ready) beyond all bearing. And I know that that heart, and all that love, is waiting for you in these pages, waiting for God’s hands to touch your eyes and give you your sight. I hope I’m there to see it when it happens for at least some of you.

[Ephesians 3:17-21] “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or all we imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus, throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”

-----

When You Say You Love Me (as recorded by Josh Groban, read in the spirit of St. Thomas)

Like the sound of silence calling
I hear Your voice and suddenly
I'm falling
Lost in a dream
Like the echoes of our souls are meeting
You say those words, my heart stops beating
I wonder what it means
What could it be
That comes over me
At times I can't move
At times I can hardly breathe

When You say You love me
The world goes still, so still inside and
When You say You love me
For a moment there's no one else alive

You're the one I've always thought of
I don't know how, but I feel sheltered in
Your love
You're where I belong
And when You're with me if I close my eyes
There are times I swear I feel like I can fly
For a moment in time
Somewhere between
The heavens and earth
And frozen in time
Oh, when You say those words

When You say You love me
The world goes still, so still inside and
When You say You love me
For a moment there's no one else alive

And this journey that we're on
How far we've come and I
Celebrate every moment
And when You say You love me
That's all You have to say
I'll always feel
This way

When You say You love me
The world goes still, so still inside and
When You say You love me
In that moment I know why I'm alive

When You say You love me

When You say You love me
Do You know how I love You?

2 Comments:

At 8:13 AM, Anonymous gail (ciaomylove) said...

Being a fan of your writing style, Kenny, I followed the link and read your post. About 3/4 of the way through, when you reached the point of "Well done, good and faithful servant" I suddenly found myself with tears in my eyes. I so related to what you said... I have been so critical of myself for such a long time, it took some small quiet subtle miracles to make me realize that there were some people in my life who really truly loved me, and did not turn their backs on me even during very difficult times. Felt like God had to hit me over the head with a 2x4, and one of my guardian angels is a living human being. Even my therapist, and my kids' therapist, both keep telling me I don't give myself enough credit. If none at all is not enough--then, guilty as charged. Could it possibly be that God is also trying to tell ME "Well done, good and faithful servant", and could it possibly be that He chose to try to get that point across to me by leading me to the words you shared? Life with these two children and all the issues and "baggage" they have brought with them, has been far more difficult and painful than anything I have ever imagined. But I step back and I see blessings in my life that became apparent because of that pain and challenge--and I think to myself that these are HELPS from God to get through this, and at the same time GIFTS from God that somehow I must deserve in His eyes...???
Thank you Kenny.
(((((((((((Kenny))))))))))))
There is so much I am trying to understand, but this
"Well done, good and faithful servant" resonates so deeply in my heart, that I cannot help but think that just maybe, I am also supposed to hear those words directed toward me.

 
At 10:21 AM, Blogger Ken Pierce said...

Gail,

It never stops amazing me how God can touch people through our words, if we'll just open up and talk about our own pain and failures honestly...we're so much more alike than we realize, and as TobyMac has it, "...and the greatest lie that you've ever been told / Is you're the only one to ever walk on this road..."

I'm glad God could touch you through what I shared. Hang in there...hope you know that those of us who know your family are proud of you guys for how stubborn you are about loving each other...stubborn love is a good thing and an admirable one and not that easy to find, especially for Kazakh orphans...

Love ya, Gail. Hugs to the kids and a manly handshake to the DH.

 

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