Saturday, May 2, 2009

Thinking Together at the Public Defender's Office

My mind is going in number of different directions today. I think of family, of friends, of church, of work, of what I am working on in my heart and mind. It seems to me that I am always working on a problem, or thinking in some certain direction. I don't know anybody else who is like that except my friend Mack, who is our head Public Defender. I don't know for sure. One or both of my children might be that way. Maybe a lot of people are that way.

My father always had a project he was thinking about or working on. His projects were not philosophical or religious, but working on land or buildings.

I think all the time as if I am working on a project. For me, it is about understanding in life, about understanding life, about understanding something above life and in life - God.

Mack and I have this continuous thought process going, and we share it through the week: between court, on the way to court, on the way back from court. The best I can tell we have this compulsion to make sense of things, and we report back to each other about how we are making sense of things. It's not like we decided to be this way; it is how we are.

One day, Mack will say something like: "I realize why the judge took the position he did . . . " And, he will go on to explain his theory on how the judge could have reached the conclusion he did - a conclusion which seemed to have no explanation. Or, the next morning I will go into his office and state some theory about why people act or believe as they do. He will join right in as if we had never stopped our conversation. Thing is, we really don't stop our conversation, because it is an extension of our ongoing thought process which we share now and then. We will be walking in the front door of the justice center talking about religion, and I'll be inveighing against some type of crazy biblical interpretation, and suddenly we are greeted by the court officer and we move into talking about how many inmates are on the docket.

Mack has all kinds of philosophy and theology and political science books, and also, poetry, novels, historical books. He is a much broader reader than I am. He is also a close reader of the Bible and some scholarly works on the Bible. Mack, who one of the wisest and most sane of people I know, basically thinks that most religion and theology is crazy. That is not to say that Mack isn't religious. He is deeply religious in the sense of giving praise to God in the depths of his life, and caring deeply for this creation and the creatures God has made. And, Mack understands the Bible. He understands it so well that he doesn't get too interested in going to any church.

Mack and I talk law one minute, then fall into theology the next, and then a little politics and psychology. We continue trying the make sense of things; we are compelled to. I don't know how I would have gotten through the past fifteen years without my friend, Mack. Our office is a place where you can try to figure things out, be a little out there at times, and find some real support when you need it. Through his decency as the head of our office over the years, Mack has drawn people to work here who care about our clients, care about people in general, and care about each other. Our work place is more in line with the spirit of the Bible than 95% of churches.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Question of Identity

One of the great questions for religious people concerns identity, which is really at least a two-fold question: how do I identify with my religious group? and how do I identify with those outside of my religious group? For a radical sect, the answer is "I identify exclusively with those in my religious group." But, for those religious groups that don't identify exclusively with the insiders of their religious group, how is the question of identity answered?

H. R. Niebuhr wrote a book called "Christ and Culture" that proposed five typical answers given within the Christian tradition: 1) Christ against culture (Tertullian); 2) Christ above culture (Aquinas); 3) Christ of culture (Schleiermacher); 4) Christ and culture in paradox (Luther); 5) Christ transforming culture (Calvin). In parentheses, I've put examples of leading theologians of these ways of understanding the relationship between Christ and culture in the Church.

I have always been actively involved in this question since my late teenage years in which I was drawn both to the religious and the secular parts of life, and since I have always felt very close to believers and non-believers, and have always found it natural to speak of faith to those who don't believe - but, I don't mean speaking to try and "change/convert" these people, who were usually good friends.

To make my position clear: I am first a human being, and second a Christian. I am first a member of my family, and second a member of my church. Now, that may sound strange to some, make a lot of sense to others. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Christoph Blumhardt said so well: God means for us to be true human beings, and being a Christian is only a means to that end. If there is another way to get there, then praise God for it. The only way I know is to follow Christ.

But, this identity thing. I remember my young adult days, especially in college. I always felt like I wanted to say "shit" or something worse or at least fart to lighten things up when I attended Young Life meetings or Intervarsity meetings when I was young. I was a lot more comfortable in my faith going out for a couple and talking honestly with a friend than going through all of that. And, I don't mean to disparage everybody in Young Life, because I have a couple of old friends who are absolutely wonderful people and great ministers of the Gospel who work for Young Life. Jim Branch and Brett Allen - they are as good as ministers get. But, back on track, what really bothered me in high school and college about these groups was that they conformed so well to the surrounding environment. And, neither group knew shit about the Bible. I could argue them into complete despair within a few minutes when I went to their Bible Studies. For them, life was all happy and wonderful and authorities were fine, and beer and sex were the great evils. Well, not to say that beer and sex can't be really bad, but, then again, they can also be really good - of course, sex would have to be rated a lot higher than beer when its good, and a lot worse than beer when its bad.

The issue that really set me off in college (that was almost 30 years ago) was fraternities and sororities. The fact that Christians participated in all that bullshit that was so anti-Gospel just cranked up my mind and heart. I kept raising this issue about excluding people and faith and several of my friends at Wake Forest quit their fraternities or sororities, and, for the ones who didn't, they stayed with a sense of Christian responsibility. I've got a sermon I preached once that sort of touches on that. I might even put it on this blog. I preached it when my daughter was a freshman in college.

I started out talking about identity, and this has been a determining thing in my life. My Mom and Dad who were Christians would never cut themselves off from non-Christians or from people who were just a little on the wild side of life. I may just blog about Christmas Eve parties at our house when I was growing up. Those parties shaped me as much as any sermon I've ever heard. My parents sheer graciousness and openness and love and deep sense of solidarity with people of all sorts, not just on Christmas eve, but throughout the year - that is the determining factor in my life. That is the faith God has blessed me with. That is how Mom and Dad understood the Gospel, and that's who I am.

And, that leaves me to say: God's grace in Jesus Christ unites me with every damn person on this earth, and more closely with those others would cast out, whether they are Christian or not. That is my faith. That is my identity in Christ. I am so grateful to my Mom and Dad for showing me this by the way they lived, because it is the truth - it is the way of Christ.