Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Is "professional believer" an oxymoron?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, spirituality, christian mysticism

In an old book by James Taylor, Sr., a leader of the most exclusive branch of the Exclusive Brethren, he recounts the story of David, shortly after he was, for the second time, given an opportunity to kill King Saul, and had refrained. The king blessed David and prophesied his (David's) succession. What is David's response?

Then David said to himself, "Now I will perish one day by the hand of Saul. There is nothing better for me than to escape into the land of the Philistines. Saul then will despair of searching for me anymore in all the territory of Israel, and I will escape from his hand." (1 Samuel 27:1; NASV)
Taylor noted how curious it is that a man who has just been so blessed and protected by God should suddenly quail. As he wrote, "David's heart failed him." He recalled something similar in Elijah's life: he single-handedly slaughtered 400 priests of Baal, but one threat by Jezebel sent him running into the desert, despairing of life.

Does not this show how prone we are to doubt? Even given recent, extraordinary evidence of God's care, we quickly succumb to fears.

I am also reminded of a line from that goofy movie they show every winter, "Peter and Paul". Saul of Tarsus (Paul) has just survived being stoned, and Barnabas thinks they should return to Antioch. Paul wishes to continue the journey, saying "I have not yet been tested beyond my capacity to endure." That sounds to me more like Nietzsche than like Paul. The Paul who wrote half the New Testament, whose biography forms half the book of Acts, was a big crybaby. He feared, he wept, he doubted; he mourned his miserable eyesight, his stuttering speech, and his failures.

That stoning in Lystra came about because he misused his gift. He'd realized over the prior few months that he could heal just about anybody. In Lystra, among a people who spoke little Greek and no Hebrew, he saw a paralytic, and without taking a moment to pray, made a big show of healing the guy. The people immediately thought he was a God, and prepared to sacrifice to the apostles on the spot. When Barnabas and Saul (he was called Paul later on) managed to convey that they refused the sacrifice, the townspeople were shocked and resentful. Some realized these guys must be mortal after all, so that it took little instigation by Jewish opponents to incite a crowd to stone Saul. Thereafter, he was more careful whom he healed, and when, and in what manner.

And what of Peter, to whom Jesus had said, "I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail." When Peter denied the Lord the third time, and Jesus looked at him, his torrent of tears shows his faith had not failed him, but he knew he had failed his own faith. This is a significant lesson for us all.

I could multiply examples, but let me instead present Patty Kirk, whose book Confessions of an Amateur Believer reveals a woman learning the hard way just how far faith will go when we cannot.

The easy faith of childhood must change mightily to be transformed into a mature walk with God. Nobody finds this easy, though I suspect the way is shorter (and rougher) for those who lost faith, or thought they did, and returned. Sister Patty (I cannot call her Ms Kirk or Mrs. Kirk) was pressed beyond endurance, by shock after shock. It took her a decade or more to realize God is still real.

In my own case, the first shock was being told by someone I respected, "You're not a Christian. You just follow what others have told you, without conviction. Be what you are." Though his intention was to bring me closer to Christ, the way was roundabout, racked by shocks I brought on myself as I tried to be a skillful sinner (Well, I wasn't a Christan, so why not?). Only as a failed sinner—it took me only a few years to learn this was so—did I cry out to God for salvation.

I appreciate Patty's struggles all the more for her willingness to disclose them. Wittingly or not, she has partaken of the spirit of wisdom and revelation, that inspired the prophets and apostles to write the stories of God's people, "warts and all." By the end of the book, regardless what warts may show, we find a woman of God who is showing us how we, too, can more quickly find Him in every situation.

God's people are real people. In total godlessness, any of us is complex enough, being both good and bad; each having the capacity to be both saint and slaughterer. Yet, except for those who have seared it, everyone has a conscience. We are often at conflict with our own selves.

This graphic shows the inward parts as elucidated from Biblical writings and the experience of believers. The spiritual function of Conscience is inborn, but the rest of the human spirit is numb (called "dead" in many scriptures) until faith enters. Receiving Christ is our first act of Fellowship. For much of our Christian life our Mind gradually learns to communicate with our spiritual Intuition.

The diagram shows the deeper, spiritul parts nearest the soulish functions they most affect. For example, Fellowship with God and with fellow believers is connected to Emotion, particularly to love.

Thus, a believer's experience is even more complex than before. Gaining Christ does not simplify your life!

Though her tradition differs from mine, Sister Patty has been gaining deep, powerful training in godliness. Of course, she probably doesn't think so. Yet the grace and blessing that is hers is written into every page of her book.

Feeling continual dissatisfaction with oneself is the perennial condition of a mystic. I am reminded of a day I has half an hour early for a meeting. I began to clean the whiteboard so I could use it. After a first cleaning with the dry eraser, many dimmer marks showed, so I used a damp rag. More marks I hadn't seen appeared, so I used a rag with alcohol "board cleaner". After a second going-over with alcohol (the fourth cleaning so far) I could still see faint marks, but it was time for the meeting. That board was really very clean by that time, yet I could still see how more could be done.

Our Christian life is like that. Patty Kirk knows it better than most, and explains it better than anyone else I've read.

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