Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Memories of Another Place

C.S. Lewis has stated that much of our work in coming to know God is not so much one of learning a thing for the first time, but of remembering what in truth we have always known. (I paraphrase.) One of the criticisms I see leveled at such comments, though, is the idea that because human memory is imperfect, and sometimes our desires are imperfect and lead to further corruption of our memories, that very little in our minds can actually be trusted.

Some go so far as to suggest that nothing except that which is captured in a scientific experiment could be valid and that in essence, all that is not quantifiable data becomes meaningless (perhaps "vanity" would be another term for it, if we take a page out of Ecclesiastes?). Dr. Victor Reppert posts an excellent refutation by C.S. Lewis to that particular point today, on his blog.

I'll be taking on a different angle today than Dr. Reppert's post. What I take issue with is the idea that because our memory is imperfect that EVERY impression it receives is therefore untrustworthy and all of the data has to be thrown out. Yet I believe that very often, even though we don't always correctly make sense of our impressions, we must assume that there is something at the root of those impressions in most cases, excluding, of course, those who have experienced severe self-delusion, or a break with reality.

Now let me start off by saying that anyone who wants to claim that we who are all believers are all that severely self-deluded, or that we have all broken with reality, is leveling a very serious charge against a massive segment of the population--and is essentially claiming that we are all so incompetent (in the literal sense) that we ought not be in with the general population. And a massive self-delusion on
that scale really ought to mean that nothing our society has come up with ought to be trusted, to include even the most basic moral precepts (and I would refer you again to C.S. Lewis for a discussion of the reality of moral law even before discussing God).

Instead, for so many of us to have reached the same conclusion about moral law, about meaning, and for those of us blessed to live in such nations, to hold the faith even in a society where the government cannot compel us to, suggests just as Lewis claimed that we are indeed remembering something essential, something shared--and even if we don't always get it right, our impressions and understandings truly
do converge on something real, something outside of us and that we have all known.

Let me give you an example from my own travels.

Not that long ago, I returned to Little Rock for the first time in about a decade since having lived there for one year. As you can imagine, I was very rusty in finding my way after having been there for such a short time--and at that time not being a very experienced driver and not having very many routes I actually drove for myself--and had what seemed at first like very vague memories. Memories that by all rights shouldn't have been trustworthy.

But odd things started to happen as soon as I started moving from North Little Rock to the western part of the city, mirroring one of the routes I used to drive to go to Barnes and Noble (they didn't have the one on McCain Boulevard back then). There were certain impressions I had of the route, though I couldn't exactly get the picture to form in my mind.

  • A bridge
  • A curve to the right
  • Strong impressions of being surrounded by yellow ochre
  • The color red--and a very specific shade of rust/brick red

I wasn't sure exactly what I was going to see, but I was convinced these fleeting impressions were going to help me somehow to know that my GPS was doing the right thing. I thought perhaps there was a bridge with a red structure and pavement of ochre. As I drove, I found I wasn't quite right about what my impressions meant...the bridge and the curve were right--one of the interchanges from interstate to interstate was indeed a curving flyover bridge that bent to the right. And the pavement of that interstate was indeed that shade of ochre.

But what about the red?

I figured that out very quickly as soon as I started getting closer to my destination--and there was a building sitting there on a hill overlooking the highway, with an incredibly bright shade of rust-red brick.

As I got even closer to my destination, some other rather interesting things started to happen. As the interstate ran out, my GPS started to give directions that made absolutely no sense for where I was going. Unsure of what to do to get to the place I was headed, I picked a lane that felt safe--and as it turned out, it took me right back to that Barnes and Noble I'd gone to all those years ago! Instinct just took over and guided me somewhere familiar even though I had only the haziest impressions of where I was going.

The interesting thing to note is that even though some of my attempts to reconstruct those memories before I actually ran the route weren't quite right, every single one of those clues was meaningful, and led to something

Another memory reasserted itself on the way to Fayetteville, and this one was even more striking to me given that most of the time when the family drove THAT route, I used to sleep in the car, and maybe only paid attention to where we were going half or a third of the time. And I certainly never drove the route myself (it would've been FAR too challenging for me at the time--drivers ought to have to take a special test before they go up 540, given some of the antics I saw this time around!). I had a vague memory that there was a tunnel somewhere on the route, but I had no idea where and had certainly never bothered to pay attention to any of the signs.

Yet after so little experience that should've applied, so few opportunities to form memories, I started getting this sense at one point on the route that I was perhaps only a few miles out from the tunnel. I couldn't explain why--it's pretty hard to tell one hill and one curve from another out there, and there were hardly any exits to remember things by, either. Yet I was convinced
this was the area...

...and there it was as I came around the next curve, exactly according to this instinct that came from somewhere I simply shouldn't have remembered.

I think that our understandings of God can be like that, too. Yes, we are prone to misunderstanding--to misremembering sometimes, and trying to put the pieces together incorrectly.

Yet the pieces
are there within us, and what they point to is real...and when you couple that to the experiences of so, so many fellow Christians who have also traveled down this road and found themselves beginning to feel the same fundamental memories stirring within them (anyone remember Close Encounters of the Third Kind?), it becomes very clear. We may not have the capacity to retain everything we should. We may confuse things. Yet somewhere in there, there is truth. There is a reality it all leads towards, and while our fallibility is grounds to tread very carefully, it ought not deter us from continuing on the path and trusting that the clues will eventually fall together into a shape we recognize, and we'll be able to look back and realize...

Though we saw through a glass darkly, this is how it was all along.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Gracefulness, Gratefulness, and the Car Industry

One thing you'll learn about me is that I get a lot of insights on the road, or related to what I see on the road. That's one of the blessings of my job, which has me quite often putzing around the Memphis area. Today was no different.

Tonight a commercial caught my eye from GM. As you might have already heard, GM has just paid back the money it owed the government for its bailout, plus interest. What really amazed me was that the spokesman expressed a very graceful attitude towards his company's detractors, including those who were against government intervention. I won't be getting into that argument here.

But here's what he said: "A lot of Americans didn't agree with giving GM a second chance. Quite frankly, I can respect that." (Listen here.)

When was the last time you heard someone express real respect towards their opponents in other realms, like politics? Religion?

You might argue that this is a move intended to generate sales. And it certainly is. But here's the interesting thing. GM is a company that has had to learn the hard way what it means to be utterly, totally dependent on an outside source for its very survival. GM had a lot that needed forgiveness...and we as Christians know that the proper response to forgiveness is gratitude, and that to turn around and express an ungrateful attitude towards others after we have been forgiven is to spit upon the gift of grace Jesus extends to us.

That made me consider another car-related experience I had today. After a mishap in a parking garage, I had some scrapes on the side of my car I needed to repaint, and my car has a hard-to-get paint color. The first dealership I called for information about the paint was one that has found out they will be closed as a result of the recession. The paint was not in stock, but I got the impression they really didn't want to help me; they told me to go somewhere else.

The second dealership I called was Sunrise, a GM dealer. They also didn't have the paint on hand, but they didn't jump telling me to go somewhere else before I had a chance to get a word in edgewise. They were actually willing to have a conversation with me, and were glad to order what I need. That wasn't the first time in recent months I'd had a great experience at Sunrise after a not-so-great one at the other dealership. In the previous case, they had told me they would honor my warranty--and when they got on the phone with GM found out they couldn't. Even though they couldn't get GM to pay, even though they surely needed every dollar, they ate the loss without even being asked. They stood by their word, and that's not something I forget.

That brings up the other part of maintaining a graceful attitude, I think...understanding that we truly have something to be grateful for. God did not leave us adrift after our expulsion from Paradise--He dove into the dangerous waters of this world to save us.

I mean no insult to anyone affiliated with the dealership that's on the chopping block, but I think that maybe the issue there is that they've simply given up...and with nothing to hope for, what good is the present moment? Why worry about each customer interaction when there is no longer any long-term reputation to be concerned with? It's understandable, and very human...and I really do feel bad for the people working in that situation. Still, it's unfortunate to behold.

Sunrise, on the other hand, got the reprieve along with the rest of GM. They know they have something to hope for, and I believe they work out of gratitude for what truly was a gift extended towards their company even though many believed it to be undeserving. They are aware of grace. And that grace has prompted them to show respect and kindness to those who come through their doors.

I think this is a lesson that we as Christians should learn--we, just like GM, have gotten ourselves into such a state that we are utterly and totally dependent upon outside salvation for our survival. We do not stand upon our own two feet as we like to think we do...we must kneel. For we have that salvation--we have something to hope for...and just as we have been shown kindness and mercy, shouldn't we show that to others? What excuse do we have to be cold and unforgiving?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Tale of Two Billboards

One of the opportunities I have in my day job is to do some traveling around the Mid-South. And everyone who is familiar with the area already knows, this is a part of the country where people are not afraid to express their belief in God.

Yet as deeply as I love this place, it's also an inescapable fact that we have become a microcosm, in the public eye, for all that is best
and all that is worst in what we have become as Christians. Yes, believers are numerous here, and ardent in their passion for God. I find myself questioning, however, whether we have let our regional demographic power go to our heads--and a bunker mentality concerning the rest of the country--brew into a perfect storm of gracelessness.

In many ways, that was the situation faced by the Pharisees in first-century Israel before the destruction of the Temple. They lived in a precarious position: they enjoyed a majority close to home, and a great deal of local influence--but zoom out one degree and we see the fetters of Roman occupation. Perhaps this was at the root of some of the gracelessness Jesus condemned in the Pharisees: a need to maintain strength and identity in the face of the occupation. As we know, many Pharisees went the route of legalistic striving, and condemnation towards all those who were seen as not living up to the standard.

As I was driving through Arkansas on I-40, I saw a set of billboards that epitomized this very same attitude. Both bore verses of condemnation in stark black and white: "THOU SHALT NOT COMMIT ADULTERY." "IF YOU ARE ASHAMED OF ME AND MY WORDS, THE SON OF MAN SHALL BE ASHAMED OF YOU."

And there was not a word of grace or love or redemption anywhere in there.

Sometimes, yes...we need a kick in the complacency. But how can we expect to elicit any other response but anger unless we can
truly see and feel that the message is delivered in love?

As I came back home, I saw another billboard. This one was a real study in simplicity...and I really find myself stopping and thinking every time I see it.


That's it. That's all it says.

Think about it. God sent his only begotten Son to save not just the disciples around him, but all nations. Including us, here in Memphis, for yes...we are just as fallen as anyone else.

That is the truth:
first we must know we are loved.

Before anyone accuses me of hiding from the harsh truth of our sins...I do not. As God's love and grace fill us, we come to understand the ways in which we need to repent--but this is a deeply personal journey that must be taken above all with God's love. It is one thing, I believe, if we ask someone else to help us be accountable, someone we can trust not to take the knife and twist it. It is another thing...and a cruel one...to simply heap on condemnation and then claim that if people recoil in disgust and crippling shame at this attitude, that this reaction must prove they are incorrigible reprobates and hey, that's the "offense of the Gospel."

No, that's the offense of
someone's bad attitude. Let's not get the two confused.

Let me say it again:
first we must know we are loved.

Which of those two billboard messages do you think
really has the chance of drawing someone in? The one that simply condemns...or the one that reminds us, as the Bluetree song says, that our Lord is the God of this city, and His love extends to us, too?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

It's True, It's True, We Don't Exist!

One of the oddest experiences I ever had in the wild world of the Internet was to be told in the midst of a discussion on faith and Christianity that people of my kind did not exist.

How could one be a Christian and hold no fear of the works of His hands as revealed by science? But far more importantly than this one petty and false division...how could one be a Christian without cruelty and condemnation?

To the minds of many these days, this seems to be a contradiction of terms. Indeed, we have become a byword among the nations, just as the prophets warned long ago. Look at the popular portrayals of the faith these days, and what do you see? Not the works of God's hands, but the twisted works of our own.

It's easy, when you look at the preponderance of debates in the media, to understand why someone might come to this conclusion. Extremes grab attention. They
sell. Those of us who are moderates, who try to follow Paul's admonition to gently instruct find ourselves being shouted down by voices to the right of us and voices to the left of us...and it's easy to simply give up in the face of such convergence of opposition. I should know--I very nearly left the faith, not because I lost my belief in God but rather my trust of those who claimed to serve Him.

When I returned, it was with not only a stronger understanding of why I believed--but a strong conviction that I do no good to heal our self-inflicted damage by running away from the problem. Instead, I believe my calling is one of healing...not of the body, but of the spirits we have damaged within and without. In the silence of contemplation is submission to God--in the silence of complacency, submission to the world.

And when someone can actually tell me to my online face--and mean it--that I don't exist...I see the steep price we have paid for our silence. This blog, and all of my other works, are ultimately an expression of this calling: to give boldness to the voice of moderation and above all to point the way to God's grace as best as I can.