Tuesday, April 28, 2009

In Search of Spiritual Contentment

It's a hard thing to be a simultaneously spiritually content Christian and a thinking Christian. The urge to constantly poke and prod ourselves and our concept of God is like trying not to pick at a scab.  We know that leaving it alone will help it heal faster, but it itches.  We scratch it, ripping off the protective barrier and start the whole bleeding process again.  It will eventually heal, but it's going to take much longer to do so.

Adult Sunday School has always been an exercise in frustration for me. I realized that this Sunday morning as I listened to a group venture way off-topic and express cliches and sentimentalities that have no real wisdom in them. It's a chronic complaint of mine.  

When I was younger and attended SBC churches, it was even more frustrating because combined with the off-the-mark interpretations and missing-the-point applications, I had to deal with the hovering idea of submission to authority, and the submission of women to male leadership.  I would bite my lip as leaders made nonsensical statements or took passages completely out of context.  Even when I didn't feel constrained by the general gender attitudes, I would ration how often I would speak up in an attempt to correct what was said, which I usually did in non-confrontational ways, phrasing things in terms of "I wonder if maybe so and so meant this."

Nobody likes to be corrected.  Nobody likes people who are always correcting other people.

Over the years, I've accepted that roughly 60% of what I hear from pulpits and Bible studies is generally chaff.  It's incorrect.  It's biased.  It's shallow.  It has no lasting impact on the speaker or the hearer.  It's noise.

You would think that having such a low opinion of Sunday School and sermons would make me run for the hills, and yet I still attend church. I haven't surrendered my hope for a spiritual home.

Considering how wrong I think my fellow believers can be--digressing into Young Earth Creation arguments, falling for Urban Legends as proof for faith, justifying terrible suffering as God's will--it may seem as if I foolishly cling to my personal faith. If the people by which I am surrounded have such low accuracy in these things, then why would I want to associate with them? Surely I can't expect to learn anything from these people.

To be honest, I have had moments in which I felt that way.....but those moments always pass.

My faith is my faith because of what it means to me.  I selfishly protect it from the errors I know of.  Yet, even now I must acknowledge that I probably possess errors of my own of which I am completely unaware.  It would be the height of arrogance to assume that my knowledge of God is complete and whole. If I am willing to allow for God's grace to cover over my own misunderstandings and gaffes, then it would be rank hypocrisy to not extend the same grace to others.

While trying to continue to poke and prod my faith and my understanding of it, there comes the recognition that all of the things I ponder and think about, all the pie-in-the-sky wanderings of my mind, have very little to do with the very basic tenets of Christianity--the reduction of all the Scriptures to loving God with all that I have, and to loving others as I wish to be loved.

I need a lot of loving...a lot of overlooking of my annoying qualities....a lot of grace for my many mistakes and imperfections...a lot of patience. 

I put up with the crazy ideas people spout, because I sense that sometimes I am the crazy person spouting ideas.

In searching for spiritual contentment, I find I have to release my urges to always have things just so. I have to let go of the professional critic that speaks inside my head and accept people for where they are in their particular journey with God. 

I find that when I set those things aside and focus on the actual people, and not the things that they say, it becomes much easier.


Anonymous said...

Wow, can I ever relate to this. Probably 99% of the "bible studies" ans Sunday School classes I've been to through the years boil down to, "what does this verse mean to me?" as if the purpose of the text was some type of rorschach test. The question of what it meant to the author is seen as exotic, if not nutty.

Even before I became a skeptic, that sort of thinking always drove me crazy. It was biased and shallow and basically serves to enable people to talk about themselves. But the bottom line is how you treat people.

I also can relate to the idea of being wrong. I've tried out ideas over the years that I no longer hold, and wonder how I could have ever thought that way. And maybe that discredits what I say now.

But I wonder, when you talk about faith, faith in what exactly? The more one pokes factual holes in childish beliefs, doesn't it get harder to cling to the rest?


Retriever said...

I can so relate, Terri. Especially to the notion that my own vehement opinions (seldom wrong, and never in doubt, tho I use a lot of those camouflage tricks like the one you describe "it might be interpreted..." etc.) may seem as wacky to somebody else. It's like when we discussed in a Lenten small group one year, the concept of the extra grace required person. Someone who is difficult to love/put up with/extend oneself for/be cheerful with as they make one want to commit hara kiri. We could all relate to that as all of us felt uncomfortably how much grace must be required of others to put up with, let alone love us miserable sinners.

I've led so much Xian ed for adults (as well as Sunday School) and I always tried to at least present some challenging material and handouts on the material, the authors of the texts, but when it comes to feeding myself spiritually, I rarely find a class that I am both inspired and educated by. My church is full of awesome people but the sermons are mediocre now(our former minsiter was a tremendous preacher and learned to boot) and the Xian ed is sophomoric, mostly canned videos by morons and discussion. But whenever I get too frustrated, I just dive randomly into the Bible or some of the early Church Fathers or Jonathan Edwards or C.S. Lewis, etc. and feel much better.

terri said...

I will preface this comment by saying that it sounds very elitist....but I don't know how else to put it.

It's hard for educated, thinking Christians who take an active role in trying to continue developing their faith.

It's hard because we are asking questions that most of our fellow church members don't think about, in general. We are not afraid to maybe question some of the things we know, or look for deeper answers. In our search, we usually wind up learning a lot about the Bible and can usually remember it easily.

We put ourselves in the position of knowing more than most of those around us....maybe even more than our particular pastor.

However....Christianity doesn't "work" as simply an intellectual exercise. It's main goal is transformation and action. So people can be practicing their faith from many different angles and reaping the spiritual benefits from it. We don't have to understand how it all works, for it to work in our lives.

That's hard for those of us who have minds that never completely shut down.....those gears are always grinding.

Unfortunately....I think that means we are freaks in comparison to the average person! :-)

I mean, how many other people are thinking about annihilation, or what substance makes up God while they're picking up bananas at the store or driving to work?

It takes a special kind of Obsession.


I believe there is a God. I just can't posit a universe in which no god exists. There is no escaping First Cause in my mind. So before anything else...I start off as a clear theist. From that point I can see the way to Jesus. It would take too long to try and answer in a single comment.

Another post I should work on!

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Well, look back over history and wonder when it was ever different - and where. It has likely been worse everywhere.

And yet God has put most of us down in such places for our edification, supposedly. I have concluded from that that the putting up with people and dealing with the community must be the real lesson, not the Bible study.

Word-for-word, text-driven Christianity became popular after the printing press and the general spread of literacy. Before that, the obedience, community, and rituals were the main show. I'm trying to get back to that, but it is not congenial to my reading-oriented life.

Retriever said...

Agree, AVI, but fess up: don't you just love those Bible Studies where (by the grace of God) people really grapple with the text, each toss their respective areas of expertise and personal questions out into the middle, really listen to each other with open minds, and end up learning and thinking in new ways as a result?

I learn more about the Bible from other people than from my own cranky, opinionated first impreessions. What I LOVE is when someone proves my initial interpretation to be completely backwards (after my hurt pride dusts itself off and finishes growling).

It worries me when some of my evangelical friends are too rigid about "the Lord says this" and "Scripture tells us that". I end up being reminded more of the mullahs than of Jesus. It is the rigidity, the certainty that one has a lock on the correct interpretation, that troubles me more than the reality that God's Word contains all things necessary to salvation.

My wisest friend is very humble about tossing out his interpretations: just offers them as the opinions of a miserable sinner doing his best to walk with God.

Levi said...

Welcome to the life of a pastor, (whether you are one or not).

Personally, I've earned a B.A. in Religion and an M.A. in Christian Education, and hardly any of that education prepared me for dealing with the disconnect between academia and the church as you have mentioned here.

I can't tell you how frustrated I get when I deal with people that don't want the opinion or guidance of their pastor, but instead want their pastor to be one that confirms what they already "know".

The disconnect which can cause the most widespread drama in this department is being in a context where your understanding of inspiration and inerrancy is different from those surrounding. You can try and teach all the neat things you want which toe the line of the different beliefs, but eventually it all seems to come back to inspiration. If Scripture was divinely composed, why would a discussion on the historical Jesus, the evolution of eschatology, or variances in christology throughout the NT ever be necessary?

btw - thanks for stopping by my blog.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

Retriever has indeed found me out. My small church is very unusual in this. 80% of adult attend adult Sunday School, and the discussion is exceptional, even by ECC standards. My Bible Study which has met for 30 years is just a notch below this. I just don't go to other things anymore.

I do, however, run into those you describe at work, at camp, and on committees. That's not the same, I know, but it's all I can manage.

Buz said...

I think you may be on the verge of discovering what St. Paul meant when he said in 1 Cor. 2:1-4 "I did not come with superior ... wisdom. I resolved to know nothing ... except Jesus Christ ... crucified."

God gave us a brain, and He expects us to use it. But there are times when our understanding fails.

We would like to thing that we can understand everything, but in the end we cannot.

That is when we get to the end of our own self and we begin to discover Him.

God is not a course or discipline that we can study and master. He is a person that we can have a relationship with.

My most humbling moments is when I find that someone who has 1/3 of my education has a far deeper relationship to the Father than I do, because they spend more time WITH Him that STUDYING Him.

It is about the people ... those for whom He came.


Anonymous said...


"...there are times when our understanding fails."

Really? Or is that just a cop-out to ignore the fact that what we believe is no more likely to be true than the Zeus myths?

If you can't explain the Trinity, how in the world can you actually "believe" it? People assert it because they think they should. Nobody knows (or have they ever known) what it is or how it works. Questions are discouraged because, after all, who are we to question God, but yet we "know" it to be true? What exactly is it that we know? C'mon.

I know, I know, what counts is the relationship with Jesus. But what is that? Nobody hears him or sees him. Most everybody who claims to know what he wants has a completely different idea of what it is that Jesus wants from us. I heard a pastor say that Jesus wants us to vote for George Bush. Others who speak to Jesus are certain that he is a liberal.

Maybe it doesn't matter. But I have a hard time wondering why God would encourage people to do opposite things.


Anonymous said...

This is what I'm talking about in my last comment. What does it say about how many people really talk to God:

"The more often Americans go to church, the more likely they are to support the torture of suspected terrorists, according to a new analysis.

More than half of people who attend services at least once a week — 54 percent — said the use of torture against suspected terrorists is “often” or “sometimes” justified. Only 42 percent of people who “seldom or never” go to services agreed, according the analysis released Wednesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

White evangelical Protestants were the religious group most likely to say torture is often or sometimes justified — more than 6 in 10 supported it. People unaffiliated with any religious organization were least likely to back it. Only 4 in 10 of them did.

The analysis is based on a Pew Research Center survey of 742 American adults conducted April 14-21. It did not include analysis of groups other than white evangelicals, white non-Hispanic Catholics, white mainline Protestants, and the religiously unaffiliated, because the sample size was too small."

Assistant Village Idiot said...

So, that's an example of using your intellect? No wonder you have problems with this.

Your objection is answerable when you are ready to hear it. Those same questions could be asked with curiosity instead of accusation, and I would joyfully answer. As long as you are pretending to mind-read what others are thinking, the answers will be opaque to you.

As the Buddhists say, "When the student is ready, the teacher arrives."

Buz said...

Anon, Sorry, but it seems to me to be very arrogant to expect to understand everything in the universe.

I don't understand how EM radiation can be a partical and a wave at the same time. I don't understand how gravity is a property of matter. I don't understand how quarks obey the Pauli Exclusion Principal, yet other particals, made up of quarks do not. I don't understand how time changes as we approach the speed of light. However, just because I don't understand them doesn't mean that they are mythical. 200 years ago, no one even knew about them, yet they were all still true.

So, tell me again how just because we do not understand the Trinity, it must be a myth ...


Anonymous said...

Buz, first of all, it IS a myth. It's not in the Bible, wasn't even invented as a heory until Jesus had been dead 350 years.

And those other things, I may not understand, but others DO.


terri said...

The Trinity...I'm not touching that one. I do think it's funny that people are so quick to declare heresy if a particular illustration of the Trinity is not considered "orthodox"...while at the same time admitting that nobody really perfectly understands the Trinity.

pf....I read that story too.

I think there are a lot of reasons the polling turned out the way that it does.....some which are tied to Evangelical Christianity and some which are not.

Anonymous said...


I guess it is a chicken-and-egg question -- do people become fundamentalists because they are inclined toward militant behavior or are they so militant because they are fundamentalists?

I went to a baptist church a few years back (in a very blue northeast state) where they had a salute to the military every Memorial Day weekend. The pastor even made a sarcastic comment one time about the evil media talking about torture.

I could just imagine Jesus singing a hymn to soldiers. Not.

But back to the point, I don't know exacty what it says about Christianity that it produces so many people with such militaristic tendencies, but I tend to think it is not good.


MInTheGap said...

I admit that there are many times where I cringe with something I hear-- a place where the leader misrepresents something that's happening, or teaches something that, while maybe correct in the Bible as a whole, isn't something you can get from that passage.

People learn things in different ways and God is speaking to those who are His own.

I appreciate the way that you can realize that you don't have it all together, just as they don't, though. That's a really good way to frame it and it challenged me as well.

The question is, how do we manage what we know, and do we let what we know get in the way of the message that's being said. No one likes someone who thinks they know better, and yet it's not enough to simply let people believe falsehoods.

I was musing, this past Sunday, that part of the problem may be that we have gotten the whole Christian tradition wrong when it comes to the Sunday morning service like it's now practiced. I'm not saying that we shouldn't get together to worship, but what I am suggesting is that we put a lot of emphasis on a sermon that morning when people are at so many different places and stages.

I like Bible Studies and Sunday Schools for that point-- that people have choices and that they can select something that ministers to them. People are freer to discuss as well.

Do we need sermons? Possibly, but is it also possible that with the education level in America as well as access to study notes and the Scripture that we should be emphasizing growing together rather than having someone pre-digest the Word for us?