Leaving Salem

At some time in the ancient past our ancestors began to watch the sun make its journey though the midday sky. It didn’t take long to figure out the days and nights, but somewhere in our DNA was the need for more precision. Human beings began to measure time.

It began with sundials. Not much more than a flat circle and a triangle, these used the sun’s casting shadow to give at least some sense of what time it was. Not minutes or seconds, but time nonetheless.

Later, our forbearers invented the first timepieces: Water clocks. These were huge, cumbersome machines which used the rising tides of the ocean to tell time. Then, in the Middle Ages,Europeproduced the first mechanical clock and the technological leap was made for the future.

Today we have more clocks than we can shake a stick at. Pendulums and clock towers, alarms, cooking timers, self-winding models, quartz watches, atomic timepieces, clocks on our phones, computers, in our cars, and projected onto the ceiling above where we sleep.

There is hardly a place we can look, and certainly not a single room in my house, where there is not an instrument spinning, blinking, flashing, or announcing what time it is. Ancient man would be proud to see how far the sundial has progressed.

So accustomed to this chorus and collection of clocks, we are, that we don’t think too much about how they work. When we look at a clock face or digital display, we don’t think about gears, springs, quartz power, or the science behind measuring minutes and seconds.

We just want to know what time it is. We just want the clock to work. In fact, the only time we think about how our clocks work is when they stop working.

At some time in the ancient past our ancestors began to wonder about God as they journeyed through life. It didn’t take long to figure out that God was out there, but somewhere in our DNA was the need for more precision. Human beings began to commune with the Almighty.

It began humble and simple enough, not much more than a sundial, but now we have our holy books, our religions, our denominations, and countless variations of these. Well maybe not quite countless.

There are nearly 300 major religious groups in the world today, and we Christians, well, there are more than 30,000 distinct variations of us. The numbers and varieties of clock styles don’t even come close.

Obviously, we are trying to build a better timepiece, a more accurate way to relate to and understand God. Every time there is a new insight, a new religious experience, a different emphasis of some kind, a new group is formed.

I’m okay with all this. People should be given space and freedom to pursue God so long as they let others do the same. So I don’t spend a great deal of energy investigating all the inner workings of every new religious movement out there. Who has that kind of time? My questions are much more modest. I simply treat theology and faith like a clock.

Don’t tell me about the gears and the geometry of it all. Rather, does it work? Will it “keep time?” Will it tell me what time it is? That’s enough for me.

Gallons of ink have been poured out and billions of books have been published explaining God. With intricate detailing and pinpoint precision, God has been accounted for, diagramed, clarified, and controlled. The experts have opened up the God-case to show what his gears and cogs look like.

That’s fine if you are in the academy or if you have time and energy for all the details. Most of us could care less. We just want it all to “work” and only think about the guts of it all when it quits working.

The Apostle James, one not always loved by theologians, put it like this: “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God means caring for orphans and widows in their distress…Faith (knowing how things are put together) by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.”

All theology must be practical theology, for if what we believe isn’t practical – if it doesn’t help others – then it is not worthy of belief or practice.

There is a story told about a meeting between Augustine, the early church father, and a little boy on a beach. At the time, Augustine was writing his book on the Trinity and was walking along the seashore, deep in prayer and thought.

Augustine noticed the little boy pouring seawater into a hole that had been dug in the sand. The little boy would go down to the surf, scoop up handfuls of the salty water, and quickly carry it back to the hole and dump it in. The boy did this trip, after trip, after trip.

Augustine watched this exercise for a while and then asked the little boy what he was doing. The boy answered, “I am pouring the Mediterranean Sea into this hole I have dug in the ground.” Augustine could only smile.

The old theologian then said to the boy, “Well, young man, you are wasting your time. You will never get the entire sea into that one little hole. It simply cannot be done.” To which the boy responded, “Well then you are wasting your time writing about God. You will never get all that he is into that one little book.”

That is great theology. Why? Because, yes, God is bigger than our books, our doctrines, our belief statements, and our theories about him – far bigger. I now resist even using the words “theory” or “explanation” when speaking of God, because these imply that we can figure it all out, when we can’t.

We get fooled into thinking that the totality of the holy, the Incarnation of God in the flesh, the essence of the Creator, can get crammed into one book, one series of sermons, one doctrinal system, or one denomination. How can that be possible when the entire universe cannot contain God?

The best we can do is use the tools at our disposal: Words, metaphors, stories, and pictures. We use these to describe our relationship with the Almighty and with his world. And even then, we are attempting to express the inexpressible.

In some ways, every time we open our mouths to describe God, we commit heresy; because whatever we say will be wrong. Like blind men describing an elephant, we articulate our own understanding best we can, of what we cannot and have not clearly seen.

But these understandings, these blind explorations, can quickly become unyielding dogma. We get locked into one perspective, discounting the views of others. Then we become more committed to our dogma than we are to our relationship with God.

C. S. Lewis explained it like this: Suppose a man looks out at theAtlantic Ocean. Then he goes and looks at a map of theAtlantic Ocean. When he does that, he has turned from something real to something less real. He has turned from real waves and salty air to a bit of colored paper.

Now, the map is important, because it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the realAtlantic. And, if you want to go anywhere, the map is necessary. To this, Lewis says, “Our theology is just like that map.”

Merely thinking about or learning about the Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and less exciting than actually hitting the water. What we believe about God is not God. These are only a kind of map. These are bits of colored paper pointing to and describing what is real and actual.

Now, if you want to get any where you must use the map – absolutely. But you will not get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. We love the map, but God wants us to love him. So don’t sit on the beach, reading the map and think this is it. The map calls is out to sea, out to follow Christ, out to the God who knows and calls us by name.

After all, we cannot have a relationship with a map. We cannot bond to theories or creeds. We cannot experience a confession of faith or church dogma. But we can have a relationship with God. We can experience Christ, even if it will take an eternity to begin to know him.

He had to stretch out every inch of his four foot frame to do it, but he caught the ball as he tumbled into the edge of the woods. It was one of our regular backyard family football games; I was the quarterback, and my son Blayze, was the daring receiver.

As we celebrated his catch, Blayze jumped up as well, but not in celebration. He pulled up his shirt, writhing and twisting in pain, reaching for his belly and back. It didn’t take long to figure out what was wrong.

Where he had landed, beneath the fallen leaves, was a short scrubby cactus someone had planted or thrown out years ago. This prickly little beast did not, thankfully, have the giant stickers you might expect. Otherwise, Blayze’s catch may have been far bloodier. Rather, this little cactus was covered with what botanists call “glochids.”

Glochids are tiny, tiny hair-like stems found on some cacti. They are as thin as the smallest splinter, sometimes clear in color, and when a few hundred of these find your back side, their size does not matter. They are excruciating.

Our game ended with that last catch. For the next 30 minutes Blayze soaked in a tub of hot water while I sat beside him with a flashlight, a pair of tweezers, and a bottle of Peroxide, pulling out glochids until I lost count.

Luckily for Blayze I had some experience with this kind of emergency medical care having learned my own cactus lesson years earlier in theUtahdesert. But that is a story of stupidity for another time.

Jennifer Yane said, “I try to take one day at a time, but sometimes several days attack me at once.” We know how that feels; like a hundred glochids stuck in our rear end. If it was just one day we had to worry with, just one problem, we could manage very well.

Or maybe even two splinters stuck in our skin – three or four; but it never seems to work that way. The tax bill comes due the same week the washing machine goes on the blitz; the same week the kids need braces; the same week you get diagnosed with an ulcer; the same week pink slips go out at work.

All at once, like a plunge into a sticker bush, all of these get their barbs into you. It hurts. Writhing. Twisting. Crying. Looking for a little help.

The Apostle James, sounding a bit sadistic if you ask me, said that at such times – when our troubles are numerous and varied – we should be joyful. We should actually be happy. Why? Because the end result of such “trials and tribulations” is maturity and wisdom.

In other words, hard times can make you better. Difficulties can make you smarter. When several days attack you at once and you have lost count of the splinters pulled from your skin, grit your teeth and smile: Your character is being developed.

But most of us live with this disconnect: We want maturity without the pain. We want to be smarter without the splinters. We want resurrection power without the suffering of a cross. We want wisdom without the glochids. It just does not work that way, even though I wish it did.

See, I am stubborn. It takes me a while to “get it” whatever “it” is. It appears that I have to fall into the cactus two, three, four times before I learn to stay away from the woods. I have to soak in Peroxide several times before I get it through my thick skull that certain things will hurt me. So once I do “get it,” I have all the scars, wounds, and war stories to prove so.

Now, do I think God is up in heaven causing me all this pain? No, no more than I wanted for my son to belly flop into a Prickly Pear cactus bush. But in the aftermath, I did want him to learn a few things, and for certain I did not leave him to himself to pull the briars out. Neither will God.

So if you are in the briars now, I’m sorry. There’s no easy way out. But you’ll get through it, one tweezer pull at a time. Then you will be on your way stronger, better, and wiser.