Skilled Faith?

In Joshua Foer’s book Moonwalking with Einstein, he discusses the work of Paul Fitts and Michael Posner, who did research in the 1960s on how we develop skills. They broke the process into three stages: 1. The cognitive stage in which you intellectualize the task, defining its parts to work out what to do; 2. The associative stage in which you concentrate less and make fewer major errors; and 3. The autonomous stage in which the skill no longer requires great concentration (think the way most of us experience typing on a keyboard or driving).

For this third stage, Foer offers additional nomenclature:

“As a task becomes automated, the parts of the brain involved in conscious reasoning become less active and other parts of the brain take over. You could call it the ‘OK plateau,’ the point at which you decide you’re OK with how good you are at something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving.” (p. 170)

If you’re like me, the faith analogy springs out of that quote. How often have I settled for less in my level of intimacy and relationship with God? How often have I stopped at the OK plateau?

A lot of us feel the sting of the OK plateau with respect to our faith. But with it comes a sneaky assumption – that faith is a skill and that it’s something in which we should always be improving.

It’s not surprising when you think about it. Culturally, most elements of our lives can be converted into some form of “expertise.” We want to be better. We watch the Cooking Channel and wish we could make crème brulée. We read blogs about parenting and want to start 15 new traditions every holiday. We watch people whose faith we admire and conclude that we just need to _______ (pray more, read more Scripture, attend church more often, fill in the blank).

Expertise, having the skills, is a comfortable idea. We’re familiar with all manner of ways to measure it (return on investment, accurate predictions, sheer output).

So it’s easy to forget that faith is not about expertise. It’s about experience.

Intimacy with God poses problems; it’s not always linear or “up and to the right.” It takes twists and turns, as our lives do.

Faith as experience invites us not to develop more “Christian skills”, but to enter mystery, to enter the very life of God. Jesus reminds us that to enter that life, we have to give up on becoming better.

Ultimately, our goal has nothing to do with surpassing some kind of OK plateau; our goal is far richer, deeper and truer than that because it’s found not in a skill set, but in God himself.

God Doesn’t Rush Pregnancy

Earlier in December, we were sitting with a group of friends, discussing Scripture and its significance, thinking about the upcoming birth of Christ, when Rachel, my wife, uttered these simple words, “God doesn’t rush pregnancy.”

They’re obvious words in some sense. We know that a fetus takes 40 weeks or so to fully form and be ready to enter our world. We’re grateful for the medical marvels that can help those born prematurely, but that is no one’s preferred way forward. Pregnancy takes time. Of course God doesn’t rush it.

But then, I think about Mary. Nine months of wondering what was going on. Perhaps years of pondering exactly what the reality-piercing words spoken to her meant.  Her body changing, cravings coming and going, morning sickness and the wearying burden and blessing of carrying life.

If ever there was a time for God to rush a pregnancy, to speed things up a little bit, that seems to be the time. He had already asked so much of her – to believe the miraculous, to face family and friends with a nearly unbelievable truth, to give her “yes.”

But…God doesn’t rush pregnancy.

I suspect that it’s these extreme times in the lives of our forefathers and mothers in the faith that speak to us something of the way God works in us. Mary’s yes wasn’t to an overnight result. It was to a process of forming and waiting and wondering. A slow one.

I want my yes to God to be punctuated by a rapid response. Sure, I know God has his timing, but how hard would it be for us to sync watches?

But formation doesn’t seem to happen that way. God seems far more interested in forming us slowly, over time, bit by bit. We are grateful for moments of punctuated grace – times when heaven comes near enough for us to gasp and we are fully aware of God’s presence. It’s the very rarity of these moments, though, that helps form us.

We are invited to find grace in the mundane, God’s presence in those around us, his gentle guidance in our listening when things seem quiet.

I wonder if Mary knew this when she gave her “yes,” when she agreed and affirmed that it should be to her according to God’s word. Maybe this came as no surprise to her, that she would need to be patient and wait a long time before having the promise undoubtedly confirmed – that she had borne the Son of God.

Maybe she knew, but I’m more impatient. I still need the reminder…

God doesn’t rush pregnancy.

Drawn by Christ

Titles, labels, are an important thing. We find them on business cards and offer them in initial conversations. They help us place ourselves and others in the world around us.

However, titles do not apply only to people or roles. We read a hundred “titles” a day, sometimes on the spines of books, sometimes as we surf the web for news, and sometimes scrolling by on the ticker of cable television.

Biblically, titles are significant as well. The biblical authors consistently search for language, for titles, that can begin to scratch the surface of a God who is three-in-one, and who surpasses our ability to comprehend him.

In all these cases, titles are trying to capture something, to present the essence of a thing in a way that draws us in. Whether it’s a clickbait article title or a lofty (and perhaps ridiculous) job title, titles are a moment of distillation and clarification.

This is why, as I return to this space with some degree of intention, I’ve been pondering the title. The blog has gone through a number of iterations, all in some way reflecting that particular moment (or year, or three) of my spiritual journey. As a result, “Confronted by Christ” doesn’t feel like a fit anymore. It feels like the pseudo-and-often-pettier-than-I-would-have-liked-indignation of a person in their young twenties who thinks they know a lot more than they do.

Do I still have these less-than-wise responses? Of course, but I’m also increasingly aware that words written even in the greatest fit of passion can too often be empty, particularly if Christ is absent.

My words, in this space or spoken elsewhere, can have no impact unless Christ is involved, doing his work. It is always Christ who draws us, whether to hear a tale of his goodness, faithfulness, and love, or to hear a rebuke and call to repentance.

The phrase “drawn by Christ” is rich with meaning. In addition to the magnetic attraction that the Spirit leads us ever further into, there is also the implicit creative metaphor. We are people who give up our right to draw our own life portrait.

This seems counterintuitive. Our entire lives are spent in rhythms that teach us the opposite. We go through education that empowers us to determine our own destiny,  we get paid for being independent beings, and we look down on relationships that exhibit almost any sort of dependence.

But the Christian life is different. It is one where we give up our right to draw our own portraits and invite God to draw us. It means that sometimes lines are erased that we may have preferred to keep, but the drawing is always a better one as we are drawn by Christ.

If titles are the distillation of a thing, then my hope is that this blog, “Drawn by Christ,” can become a space where we are drawn towards and by Christ, and hopefully, in the process, become people who are more receptive and open to his work.

Thanks for hanging around; I look forward to journeying together.

Preparing for the New Creation

About a year ago I was having a conversation with my housemate, Jérémie. He’s a very practically minded individual, wanting to serve the Lord by making the most of the time he’s been given. And make the most, he does. His ability to focus and get work done is incredible to me.

Of course, there are drawbacks to this mentality. When he was considering taking a break to read a novel (one of Lewis’s Narnia books), he struggled to justify why he should spend time reading such fiction.There were many reasons I could have offered—it’s good for your language, it can provide helpful cultural touchpoints, it shapes your understanding of “story,” and it’s simply fun. But I didn’t share any of those reasons. I told him that he should read the novel to practice for heaven.

Reading novels, engaging with art and storytelling, does something fundamental to our imagination. It expands it. As we read about talking animals, a world of possibilities opens to us. As we hear the echoes of the victory of good over evil, we’re given a glimpse of the final victory that is coming. Our capacity to imagine is expanded as we allow our minds to be filled with good stories.

Thomas Aquinas, the great Christian thinker of the 13th century, was also interested in the connection between this life and the next. He described the next life as an ongoing contemplation of God in which all of humanity’s desires are satisfied. However, Thomas also thought that not everyone would have the exact same experience of this vision of God. While all would be satisfied, some individuals would have a greater capacity to appreciate and enjoy it. The reason? They had greater capacity for love because of the way they lived their life on earth.

While Aquinas focused on love, I wonder if there isn’t something to the idea of expanding our imagination, as well.

I was talking with my friend Justin once about the new earth and what it would be like. We tried to stretch our imaginations to envision the possibilities. I think the images we offered were of Super Soakers filled with chocolate syrup and a massive library (not together). While definitely fun, they weren’t particularly awe-inspiring.

Maybe there won’t be Super Soakers filled with chocolate syrup, but the new heavens and new earth will be incredible. I wonder though if some of us who so rarely practice our imaginative capacities will struggle to appreciate the bright verdant colors, or hear the perfect harmonies. Perhaps some of us will have so stunted our imaginations because there are more “practical” things to do that our capacity to appreciate those things beyond our imagination (the literally fantastic) will be stunted.

The redemption of all things isn’t God pressing delete; it’s a restoration. What we do now matters. Fostering our imagination may be one way to prepare for that coming day. It’s just an idea, but it’s a good enough reason for me to pick up that novel I’ve been neglecting.

Less PR, More Jesus

Christianity is divided. This isn’t new. Division has marked Christianity in various reasons throughout its history. It’s what happens when broken people grapple and come face-to-face with the Truth.

Inevitably, division means that both sides think the other side has gotten some things (maybe even some really important things) wrong. When those differences come to light in a slightly more public way, both sides get up in arms. Some of this is justifiable; we ought to care deeply about the truth and hope that the Church does not deviate from it.

But there’s a sinister temptation for us when those things we are so invested in are challenged. It’s to either grow defensive or to attack our opponents. Different responses, but both manifest in similar ways. In either case, the Public Relations firms go into overdrive.

We begin to put words into Jesus’s mouth (for a helpful and cautionary piece on this, particularly in the context of satire, see Fred Sanders’s piece here).

We seek to  become Jesus’s Communications Director. You can tell this is happening when the discussion becomes more about who the other side is (or what they’ve done) than engaging with their perspective. We become more interested in making sure that others know what “our” Jesus would do, than in seeking the truth in the situation (particularly if it requires nuance).

But Jesus doesn’t need us to do his PR. I’m not sure who God would turn to if he was looking for someone to mold and shape his personal brand on earth but it probably wouldn’t be the Church. She doesn’t have the greatest track record. So God doesn’t ask her to do PR.

He just asks her to be Jesus, to show what the Kingdom lived out under Jesus looks like.

PR is marked by spin and words and, yes, blog posts. Kingdom living is marked by humility, thoughtfulness, gentleness, and yes, even forgiveness. One day, a day we hope and pray for, we know it will also be marked by unity.

When we grow more concerned about people misconceiving Jesus than people seeing Jesus, we cheat them out of the real thing. People don’t want our spin. We hate it when politicians do this to us; why would we think others would enjoy this kind of treatment from the Church?

The Church isn’t a PR firm. She’s the Body of Christ.

This means we have something the world does need: God’s presence. Let’s seek the truth, and do it rigorously, but let’s not forget who we are asked to be to the world.

The “Should” Question Still Matters

As we mature, more freedoms are granted us. As kids, we may stay up later or watch more mature media. As young adults, we navigate the world of substance use and political involvement. Eventually we are given the freedom to choose where we live, who we’re in relationship with and how we spend our lives.

In a parallel way, maturing in Christ-likeness brings with it more freedom. Paul’s words seem to echo this idea in 1 Corinthians 10:23:

“‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful.”

What probably jumps out to most of us is the phrase that Paul is apparently quoting (from various voices he has heard): “All things are lawful.” It’s an attractive idea, this first half of the statement; who doesn’t like to be told there are no limitations?

As good readers, we finish the sentence. “But not all things are helpful.” This may give us pause. But then the rationalization kicks in.

We have been formed to see the world in mechanical terms. Humanity is the user, producer, maker, and the world presents us with a series of tools for our benefit. The question we ask daily is less whether a tool is helpful, but how do we maximize its benefit? The way we use natural resources, the way companies are structured, and the way we are taught in school all reinforce this view of the world.

When told that not all things are helpful, this worldview may well incline us to think, “you’re just using/doing/watching it wrong.”

So we jump to the second tier of ethical questioning. We think of a certain television series and, treating it like a tool, ask “how can I watch this in such a way that it’s beneficial?” Or we think about alcohol and, viewing it as a tool, ask “how can I drink in a beneficial way?”

Those are valuable questions and certainly ones that are worth asking. However, they skip over a prior consideration: the “should” question.

This is actually the question at the heart of Paul’s words. Sure, you can do what you want, but should you? When we allow a mechanical view of the world(and its correlated goals of maximizing efficiency and using all available tools) to dictate our questions, we ask “how”, forgetting that we ought to ask “should.”

The Kingdom of God refuses to ignore the should question. It recognizes the freedom we have, but the freedom is one to follow Jesus’s sacrificial lifestyle, even abstaining from some goods if necessary. The should question is going to be answered differently for all of us. Some shouldn’t drink alcohol, others should avoid certain kinds of relationships, still others should avoid certain types of television.

We may feel less culturally relevant or suave, but in the Kingdom of God, the should question still matters. The life God invites us to live is one that is fully human under his reign, and there’s no room for unhelpful things there.

Jesus’s First Words

It’s always worth listening carefully to what someone says when you first meet them. Those words can tell you a lot about the sort of impression the other wants to make, the foot they’re putting forward and even what matters to them. When the world meets Jesus for the first time (in his public ministry), they hear these words: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew). Or “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark). Or “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me” (Luke).

Photo Credit: thetaxhaven via Compfight cc

Jesus doesn’t show up and say, “First things first. Here are four spiritual laws. Believe them and gain salvation.” He proclaims something more fundamental, yet also more robust: the Kingdom of God.

For how much Jesus talks about the Kingdom, we sure don’t. For Jesus, it was not just “a big deal.” It was the deal. He told parable after parable explaining what the Kingdom was like, its worth, and the struggle to enter it.

Perhaps we don’t talk about it because we’ve failed to understand what it is. Dallas Willard is helpful here. While people may not have understood what it meant that the Kingdom was at hand, they did know something important:

“They knew Jesus meant that he was acting with God and God with him, that God’s rule was effectively present through him.” – The Divine Conspiracy, 19.

That’s the Kingdom. Put simply, it’s God’s rule. When Jesus brought it, he brought it in a new way. Where before it had been mediated through the Law and religious ritual, now it was present in a person.

This isn’t the most comfortable thing to realize. For us independent types (who’s with me?), discovering that we have to submit ourselves to someone else’s rule isn’t particularly appealing. But we aren’t mere subjects. We are participants. Willard again:

“This ‘governance’ is projected onward through those who receive him [Jesus]. When we receive God’s gift of life by relying on Christ, we find that God comes to act with us as we rely on him in our actions.” – The Divine Conspiracy, 20.

The Kingdom of God is strange. It’s not marked by treaties that establish its boundaries. It gets carried out by its emissaries, its boundaries constantly expanding.

In Jesus, the Kingdom has manifested and we’re invited to live under God’s rule. As we submit to this rule, the Father-in-Christ-by-the-Spirit acts in and with us. The Kingdom may not be fully arrived, and all things put to right, but that’s sure an impressive start.

If we listen to that first encounter with Jesus, we may find our mentality shifting. Our eyes move away from “salvation” to life in the Kingdom. From the far and away to the here and now. From what we assume is vital, to what Jesus told us is the most important thing. The mustard seed grows, the Kingdom expands, and we get to be a part of it.