Thinking the Worst

What’s the worst that could happen? It is probably the most over-utilized question in situations where something egregious is probably going happen.

I stood there with my friends as one of them sat in his father’s car. He just received his license and was finding great joy in, as the kids used to say, “burning rubber” in an empty car lot. He circled around the area in this smallish maroon Dodge, leaving black streaks along the asphalt. The little car took the punishment well.

After an especially loud and pungent loop he stopped in front of us and rolled down the window. With the infinite wisdom of a sixteen year old boy, he admonished us to stand back. He decided that he was going to put the car in reverse and then slam the transmission into drive so that the tires could truly smoke as they spun on the asphalt. He claimed to have done it before to great effect. With a shrug, he declared “what’s the worst that could happen?”

The car began accelerating in reverse and we saw his brow furrow and lips grow tight. With wild abandon his shoulder grabbed the shifter and he wrenched it with all of his might. At that moment the car halted its backward momentum and the tires began to squeal. Abruptly, the car halted with a loud clang. A look of worry washed over my friends face as he slammed on the brakes. Running to the car we watched him struggle with the shifter.

Apparently, one of the worst things that can happen is that a car’s transmission will no longer function as it was intended. A panicked look crept up my friend’s face as the shifter remained stuck. I think, at that moment, he just thought of his parents and imagined the worst that could happen.

Bad things happen; it is a part of life, a part of risk, a part of living. Good things happen as well; also as the results of life, risk and living. One of the great sins of the church may be that we often err on the side of bad things happening. When it comes down to it, the church actually risks very little. It is almost as though we ask and answer the “worst that could happen” question before anything has been said or done. Risk is what the church, what our faith is built upon.

How would we be different if we risked transforming our theologies? How would we change if we risked becoming radically hospitable? What would we look like if we lived into the transformative nature of faith, hope and love?

To be the church is to ask the question “what’s the worst that could happen”, and believe that it is of greater risk to not do something rather than step out in faith and believe God will be present to these moments in life.

In the end, there will be times when we step out in faith and drop the transmission of our cars through reckless abandon; in those moments when we face the worst that could happen; we realize that we never face them alone. So, maybe, the worst that could happen is that we sense God’s presence and strength in the face of disaster. In the end, that might not be such a bad thing…

I Really Don’t Care

I don't care about your salvation. I don't need to know if you think you are saved. I don't really want to know your testimony; the exact moment, place and emotional state of your recognition of God? I really don't care. In fact, I am pretty sure that God could care less about your perceived moment of salvation. God knows it all anyway. In fact, if we want to be all Reformed about it, then God chose to be in relationship with you long before you could speak, walk or control your bowels.

I sat in a small circle with a group of college students. As we were talking, one person piped up and said let's share our testimonies. He leapt right in to his own life story, sharing moments of health issues and healing which culminated in a life altering moment where God suddenly became real and he was saved for eternity. Like a good little sheep I pulled every hair-raising story from the recesses of my mind and came up with a pretty good emotional journey which culminated at an alter call in Jekyll Island, GA. As the storytelling continued we reached a good friend of mine who basically said "no".

We were perplexed at her response and asked her to elaborate. She said (and these are my words 10 years later), "I don't have any tragic stories. There are no great emotional moments or epiphanies. In fact, I hate telling testimonies because it feels fake, and it puts down the people who haven't endured suffering in their lives. I don't see the need to tell these kinds of stories. I just know God is there and that I am trying to listen."

Needless to say our campfire moment came to an abrupt halt. Little did I know, she was the most Presbyterian among us. We were used to the evangelic language of the deep south and the idea that if you couldn't describe that moment of epiphany, you weren't a real Christian. I look back on that day and see the courage and faith it took to save the group from itself. In her words, I see more of God than any others that were shared.

And so, while I really don't care about your salvation, I do care about the times in your life when God becomes real. In the Reformed Tradition we have this silly notion that God has always been with and for us, long before we could acknowledge it. Our whole idea around Baptism is that God, out of God's love chooses us for relationship. So, our stories about conversion are more myth than reality in the Reformed Tradition. A more accurate assessment of these narratives is that they are the moments when the faith God has instilled in us from birth becomes real. We do not save ourselves in some grand gesture, God is been working a minor miracle of grace within us, hoping we might recognize the deep relational bonds of the divine-human connection.

In a recent article, John Cobb, Jr. challenges the church to take on as its mission "working with God for the salvation of the world". If you read this, then read that article. It is brief and full of important ideas about the true meaning of salvation. Furthermore, it reveals the kind of salvation I do care about. This kind of salvation seeks to move beyond the eternal reward and begin to think about the impact we should be having on the world as faithful people. So, while I don't care about your salvation, I do care about the manner in which you are a party to the salvation of the world.

I do want to hear your stories of struggle, success and failure as you try and live out the relationship God has initiated. I want to know about your deep wounds, created by a world that has somehow failed you or the ways in which you have failed as well. I also want to hear how God is challenging you to accept the love and grace of a living faith and life-giving relationship. I want to know how you are working with God to save the world.

Thought Provoking Things

Over the past week I have read several things that made me think or see the world with a different set of lenses. Here are three of them.

Sometimes the Facts Don't Matter : In this Talk of the Nation interview we learn that when people learn facts that are contrary to the "truths" they hold as beliefs, the facts don't change our minds. This got me thinking about the people who get scared when we tell them that truth is relative. It is because truths are often based on the beliefs we hold rather than the facts we know. A fact is true, but a truth is not necessarily a fact.

Speaking of facts, Gravity Doesn't Exist. In this NY Times science article a physicist and string theorist theorizes about gravity and its existence. To make a long story short, he doesn't believe gravity exists. His argument is based on the laws of thermodynamics, and the notion that there is something that causes gravity rather than gravity being a force of its own creation. It is interesting to me that science finds these revolutionary moments around the time something is accepted as a fact, turning what was previously known into a truth.

Finally, Teddy H. builds another one. This one hits a little closer to home. I am glad T.H. has found God again and is building a missional church. However, this reinforces a belief of mine (a truth if you will) that some large churches are built on the personality of the preacher. One of the few reasons I remain a Presbyterian is the focus on lay-lead ministries rather than cults of personality. It is important to me to believe that the community of faith has a voice, a vote and a vocation in making the church work to its fullest potential. I wish T.H. the best; I wish that his experience had opened him to accept a broader theological position; I hope that his betting the farm on expanding so quickly doesn't come back to burn him. I seem to remember him saying that this was a church for downtrodden of society. Moving to the 2000 seat civic center doesn't seem to invite those kind of people. What a quick turn around...


Murky Waters

I was not thrilled as I looked at the gray sky before me. A smattering of rain drops pelted my forehead and I frowned a little on the inside. Wandering down the gravel pathway we scoped out a perfect spot for our picnic. We checked the ground for sticks and goose poop. Satisfied that we were safe from both squishy and poking objects we set up camp for the next few hours.

Two blankets, numerous Tupperware containers, a glass of lemonade and four scattered shoes later we settled down to listen to the free jazz concert in City Park. We chatted a little; watched Caitlyn dance and play around the blankets and scoped the area for some friends who we knew were heading our way. The rain held off, save for a few droplets here and there.

Our friends would arrive about twenty minutes later, and our two blanket camp blossomed into five. Wine was poured; food eaten; conversations came and went. We laughed as the two boys and Caitlyn tested the surroundings. They were both about six to ten months younger than her. They were, as it has been said before, all boy.

As the evening wore on, Caitlyn was content to stay on the blanket and watch the world around her. This was a new development and one that my spouse and I welcomed. Caitlyn has never been one to sit still and we were relieved to have some time together without one of us chasing our wild horse.

As the daylight waned, the two young men, no longer enamored with the sticks they were using to dig holes in the ground, noticed a rather large mud puddle across the gravel trail from our picnic spot. They began by poking the puddle with stick, gradually placing their feet into its murky depths. Then the fun began…

Soon afterwards they were the hit of the picnic area, running the length of the puddle, covered in muddy water from their feet to their waistbands. The other picnickers watch with a sense of joy and laughter as the two boys ran faster and the splashes grew larger. Several other children attempted to join in, only to be caught by their parents before their first step could hit the water.

Caitlyn watched this from across the trail. Smiling as the boys moved from one side to the other. She asked if she could join them and we said no. She asked again, and again we said no. To her credit she never cried, never fussed and so when asked a third time, we said sure. We put her on the ground and watched her cross the trail. Caitlyn doesn’t run so much as prance; she lifts her knees up high and kicks her feet out to the side a little. She lined up at one end of the puddle and began running towards puddle, full of elbows and smiles.

The crowd around the puddle held their breath as she hit the edge of the puddle. We watched as the smile was torn from her face replaced with what could only be described as a look of horror. It took her another three steps before she realized that she had made a horrible mistake. Rivulets of muddy water stretched up the back of her legs; her once pink shoes turned a dark shade of brown. On the third step she veered off course and back onto the dry ground, seemingly in shock.

I sometimes wish I had the tenacity and flexibility that Caitlyn demonstrates. She saw something she wanted and went for it. Sometimes we do need to take the risk and experience new things. This is how we learn and grow through our experiences in the world. If we remain comfortable and clean then the world becomes boring and simple. A muddy puddle is a complicated thing depending on how we experience it. For two little boys and the crowd that watched them it was a revelation in joy and unfettered fun. For a little girl and the crowd that empathized with her, it was an uncomfortable experience in a wet sticky muck.

This is where Caitlyn’s flexibility shone like a bright star. It only took three steps into the puddle to realize that it wasn’t for her. She didn’t bother taking the remaining six to eight steps and finish trudging through it. She veered off course and evaluated the situation. Reflection on the decisions we have made, the positions we have taken is crucial to experiencing a novel world and making meaning out of it. One of the greatest sins of modern liberal and conservative church goers may be our inflexibility and the belief that we are always right. Rushing headlong into the mystery and murkiness of faith and theology without reflection we succeed in only making our self muddier and muddier.

As we step together into the novelty of each new moment, what are risks we need to tenacious about and how will we know when to stop and be reflective and flexible about the path we are taking?

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