I don’t usually write about Jesus in this space. I’ve gotten in trouble for it before… But I’ve recently given up my other blog where I did write about faith, and it is Good Friday of Easter week. I’ve just written and rewritten this chapter–in fact, I’ve been writing this chapter for ten years and I’ve only now felt drawn to put it out there where others can read it…For more like this, I invite you to visit Faith Is the Hammer, Grace Is the Nail: Lessons Learned from an Old House.
I have had black and white on my brain lately.
Everywhere I look, I see black and white together. Dark and light. Absorbing and reflecting. Hot and cold. Opposites. Contrasts.
Black and white together–it is bold. Courageous. Balanced. Stunning. It takes a stand.
And it’s our newly laid kitchen floor..
I generally believe in hardwood floors or muted rugs because I don’t think it’s a floor’s job to be noticeable.
But this is bold.
The contrast of black and white tiles laid next to each other makes this floor shout out: Look. At. Me. One of my friends shook her head when I told her what we’d be doing with the floor. “If one color doesn’t look dirty,” she said, “the other will.”
Yes, it’s a worry–I’d better be able to keep it clean…
Ten years later, I can say contrasts, opposites, paradoxes–these have been on my mind lately too. Tensions of faith fill the Bible, and sometimes it’s hard for me to get my head around them. I just read today in Joshua 1:7–
There are many other verses that tell us to keep straight on, not veering to the right or the left. (Deuteronomy 5:32; Deuteronomy 28:14; Joshua 23:6; 2 Kings 22:2; Proverbs 4:27; Isaiah 30:21 are just a few…) This is troubling to me, because I don’t always like to stay on the main road…I like taking little detours, or long detours; I think they can add stillness and depth and beauty to a journey. Perhaps I am overthinking it though, because our Christian faith journey is already filled with the enigmas of contrasts, opposites, and tension:
- Jesus’ kingdom is already, but not yet. The present may look bleak, but God’s promises for the future are true and the basis for our hope;
- We are sinful, but forgiven in God’s eyes;
- Grace means we are free from “works righteousness”, but we are still responsible for working for the good;
- Christ was a human, yet Christ is God;
- God’s will judge us all with his righteous judgment, yet he is also a God of mercy;
- God is a God of personal intimacy, yet God is a God of the universe;
- Sorrowful, yet rejoicing. God allows both unimaginable joy and unimaginable suffering;
- Poor, yet rich;
- In the world, but not of the world;
- God is sovereign, yet humans are responsible for their own actions;
…and I am certain that I’ve only thought of a few.
How do we, as people of faith, deal with all this tension? We can get stuck on one side or the other, veering off to the right or to the left and lose focus on what is straight ahead. In truth, the world is always calling us to veer off to the right or to the left. Even those words right and left are loaded with the world’s values, aren’t they? (And some of those “right and left” issues are fracturing the American church and Christian testimony right now.) Look at some of those contrasts in the list above and think about which ones trouble you the most. Mike Cosper writes about the balance that Christians must struggle with:
“Does it sound confusing yet? Does it sound absurd? Rest comes with struggle? Blessing comes with wounds? Grace comes from the death of an innocent man?… Life with God is an invitation into a world where most of what makes sense to you crumbles. It’s far richer than you imagined, far less orderly and sensible, and far more mysterious…”Mike Cosper, Recapturing the Wonder, p. 163
The mysteries are many…
so why must we argue about them and substitute human-made rules? We must remember and take to heart that Christ’s Church is called to be a diverse lot of believers from every tribe and nation. God calls us to be different, to be a peculiar people. He called the Hebrews in the Old Testament to be His chosen people and they failed spectacularly. Yet regardless of their failures, God did not change his plan. He kept on using sinful, prideful people to do his work of building his kingdom. Jesus came and opened the kingdom to all who repent and believe–and yes, the church is STILL made up of prideful sinners, for even though we have the Spirit, even though we are forgiven, and even though Jesus is our cornerstone, God’s blessed Kingdom has not yet come. We are still tempted and tried by the world and its curse of sin. And so often we fail…
And yet, God is sovereign. He holds the spinning planets and stars of the universe loosely in his hands–allowing for our own free will–desiring for none of us to perish. Because we are the people whom he created to be like him (see Genesis 1:26-27) we have that thirst for knowledge, that curiosity, that need to know; and we sometimes (most of the time!) can’t accept the mysteries.
And yet, there are things we don’t know, can’t know, and need not know. We study and study and argue and argue and split churches over doctrine and point fingers at other believers and say You’re wrong about that. (Jesus’ Church has become contentious Pharisees.) I admit I’m no better than anyone else. I saw those Jesus signs held by demonstrators who later took over and tried to destroy the Capitol building, and I cringed. I hate that there are so-called Christians who are trying to make our nation into a theocracy and ruining the witness of Christ. And yet, if I criticize them, I am no better than they are with their loud and ugly signs and words. And yet, God is in control. All of us–you, me, them–we will be judged by a just, but merciful God.
The mysteries are many…
and if you are anything like me, you like to have order and reason in your life. Confusion, uproar, and tension leave me shaky and wishing for peace. Perhaps this is why Jesus talks so often about the peace He gives us. He tells us straight off that it is not like the world’s peace; it’s a different kind of peace. (John 14:27) He knows that humans won’t understand what he is telling them, what he is bringing them. The disciples sometimes have no clue–“Who is this?” they asked each other in Mark 4. “Even the wind and the waves obey him.” (Mark 4:41) The disciples lived with the man Jesus. They saw his miracles daily. They heard his words over and over. And yet still, they didn’t understand until later. That should be comforting to us here in the 21st century who are still living in the not yet and still struggling to understand.
How is the peace that Jesus gives us different from the world’s peace? We all know that worldly peace can be shattered by one event, one phone call. I’m no expert; I still struggle, but I believe the peace of Christ comes through knowing, trusting, and believing his great promises. There are many great promises, but here are a few:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)
For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. (Luke 19:10)
I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. (John 8:12)
For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:8)
I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)
Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me has everlasting life. (John 6:47)
And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:20)
The mystery here is that Jesus took on our guilt and sins, and after three years of teaching his followers, he took our place as the sacrificial lamb. And now, in God’s eyes, we are seen as sinless and clean as Jesus. So mysterious as to be unbelievable to the rationalists among us….
The mysteries are many…
I can say very truthfully to you that until recently, I raged against those mysteries. I tried my best to understand them. I read and studied diligently; of course, I knew that I was limited by my little brain, but the rationalist in me said I can figure this out if I just study harder and read more! It’s only been lately that I’ve been able to let those mysteries be. Perhaps it’s my old age? Perhaps it’s the hard lessons I’ve learned? But I’ve been encouraged by reading and listening to N.T. Wright. You can listen to his podcast with this link; the two books that have most helped me are Surprised by Hope and The Case for the Psalms: why they are essential. He wrote in his book on the Psalms that Jesus is the point where space, time, and matter converge. It’s fascinating to think about that way, and it encourages me to accept the mysteries; love the mysteries; and make peace with the mysteries.
In my quest for order and understanding, I think perhaps I divided scripture and concepts too much. Instead of thinking about opposites or trying to make contrasting concepts black and white, I should have been concentrating on the whole. God wants our whole mind, heart, body, and soul (Deuteronomy 6:5 and Mark 12:30). Rather than dualistically examining faith and works, or rich and poor, or sorrowful yet rejoicing, we should be encompassing the whole of scripture and seeing it as God’s One Big Story for the World. It is the Wholeness that counts. The story consists of concentric circles, overlapping and growing ever larger, that include the whole of time, space, and matter. It is God’s universe, Jesus’ kingdom; and as we live and work and worship as part of that world, the bold and courageous and good things we do for the kingdom will somehow be transformed into that new world that is coming down from heaven. The earthly tensions will be transformed, and we will realize then that they were nothing but mist that obscured the clarity of Jesus’ light.