[Theological] Coloring Between the Lines

I like circles. Feeling hemmed in by a sphere of safety. I’m the person who carefully reads rules and directions. In new places, I carefully look for signs and instructions about how that system works. I want to know the expectations, boundaries and guidelines. I’m probably bordering on some kind of dysfunction.

So, why this obsession with rules and safety circles? It’s not because I like order or because I’m inherently rigid or because I love structure. I’m fairly comfortable with a good deal of chaos and disarray. Additionally, I’m suspicious of authority and rules.

I don’t like asking questions. I go by signage. In the coffee shops I frequent, if the wi-fi is locked and the password isn’t posted, I go without internet rather than asking. That’s how deep my issue is. And yes, you rule challengers and assertive questioners, I know that my inclinations aren’t always a good thing. Also, you frighten me with your boldness. Keep being bold, please! Even if I am a little scared when I hang out with you.

I hate conflict — particularly conflict which comes after breaking a social norm.  I loathe it more than I love the thrill of adventure or getting what I wanted. I have a huge fear of conflict. I want to know what is expected, so I can reside within a set of parameters. If I abide by the rules and guideposts, no one can come shaking a finger at me or yelling at me for a perceived infraction. I can avoid that messiness of others’ shaming me for mistakes if I color my life between the lines set out for me. At least this is what I tell myself; I know the world doesn’t actually work out this way.

When people yell at me for not following rules when their signage and directions are non-existent or unclear, I get really upset. Mostly because if I knew about their systems and boundaries, I’d be more than happy to comply. I don’t understand why they’re upset with me when their signage and rules are vague. Turn that finger back around.

And into this mix of my anxious psychology, let’s throw some talk about theology. I grew up in evangelicalism, Southern Baptist evangelicalism to be more precise. For now, the only point I want to make about about this heritage is the accompanying obsession with right belief — doctrinal correctness. Spouting the right words about God.

120415 Coloring

And here’s my conundrum: coloring my theology in the “right” lines. How do I keep the conversation about God within certain parameters?

Lately, I’ve been struggling with language and theology. Not just parroting what I’ve been taught or what I’ve read, but talking about God in a way that is both accurate, understandable and relevant.

I want the things I say about God to be as truthful as possible and as comprehensive as possible. Precise. Authentic. Rooted in the Bible. Connected to history. Integrated with a diverse array of global voices — not just white, Western men.

More, I want the things I say to make sense to people who didn’t grow up in church or study religion academically. Can I talk deeply and seriously about God in a language that regular people speak — not just in nerd code or churchese?

Further, I want the things I say about God to actually connect with what’s going on the world and in our lives — mine and yours. To not just say things I should say or things I’m supposed to say — but things that I feel are rich and deep and filled with messy, honest life. God matters now — not just yesterday or tomorrow. How can I talk more about where God is in the present tense?

So, now for a little integration with my psychological issues and my theological desires: to try and accomplish what I want to do theologically speaking sets me up in conflict with my desire to stay between the lines. Stay safe. Remain quiet. Touch my toes to the cold water and shrink back. Plod on obediently in the should do’s.

For those of you who may be worried about my salvation, I don’t want to go wildly outside the lines, nor am I wandering away from faith. I’m in hot pursuit of the Jesus who was born of Mary, was crucified, died and rose again.

I can talk about where God is my life. Talking about God in present tense for my life is possible and normal. God is challenging me on the writing front and on the identity front; God is unmaking and reforming me. I feel God here.

But, I struggle using present tense verbs to talk concretely about God for anything outside of myself. My theological defaults go to abstracts and past or future tense verbs. God did this thing. Jesus will come back.

That leaves a nebulous and dark present for the world. There’s not enough lines to color between, and the safety net has dropped out from beneath me while I swing on the trapeze.

Where is Jesus in the midst of the violence happening globally? I can say the suffering and crucified Jesus is present there, but those words come easily and cheaply for me. Consequently, they ring hollow lately.

I haven’t walked in those shoes. I don’t think I can talk about where God is in the world in a deep and credible way with someone in the midst of the horrors I’m seeing in my news feed. I can listen. I can be present. But, I’m unable to speak at this point.

And I’ll be honest when someone brings these kinds of things up in conversation, I feel stupid and wordless, all of which is shocker for me who usually has a plethora of words.

I can talk about the darkness that God has brought me through, but it is not the same. Not even close to the same at all.

My struggles aren’t a result of others’ actions; they’re just a part of being mortal. Parents die young from cancer. Miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies happen. It’s not anyone’s fault. it just sucks. I wish God would fix it, but God doesn’t promise to fix all these kinds of things. Sometimes God’s version of healing and life don’t line up with mine.

But, my suffering is not the result of someone else’s actions or choices. The death of my mother, the ectopic pregnancy and the miscarriages are not the same as being held at gunpoint, being forced into slavery, or watching your children blown up by bombs.

And so, I find myself listening to more questions these days rather than trying to answer them. Not just hearing questions, but listening to them. Regarding objections to God carefully, not just responding with canned answers which once made my faith feel more secure.

Taking the pain, the perspective and the injustice, I gently hold it in the bowl of my heart along with my conviction that God is good, alive, just, powerful and trustworthy. In holding holding these things together, I’m trying to flee from the urge to fix or save someone else. Meanwhile I battle the crippling fear that somewhere in this mess, I might lose myself. I’ll be honest. I often suck at this. But I’m working at it. And I hope that I’m not actually losing me, but instead am on a road toward healing.

I’m holding faith tightly at the same time that I’m loosing my grip on the need for it to be rational. I’m trusting I dwell within God’s grasp, and that somehow God will eventually steady the pendulum swing of faith and reason without me anxiously grabbing for a tow line.

To be clear, faith is not inherently in conflict with reason. Faith isn’t simply stupid, illogical hope. However, I think there are seasons where faith exists in spite of reason and all evidence to the contrary. And eventually as we hold out, reason seems to come back and buoy up our faith. At least this is what has happened for me in the past. I hope it happens again.

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