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Taste the Soup (September CT Column)

 

Taste the Soup

Sometimes understanding follows obedience.

A man goes into a deli, orders the matzo ball soup, and motions the waiter back to his table.
 
"Taste the soup," says the man.
 
"Sir, is something wrong?" asks the waiter. "I can get you another bowl right away."
 
"Taste the soup," says the man.
 
"Sir, is there something you want me to tell the chef?"
 
"Taste the soup."
 
"Fine," says the waiter, exasperated. "I'll taste it. Where's the spoon?"
 
"Aha!" says the man.
 
Sometimes you have to do what's being asked of you before you understand why it's required. You have to be willing to taste the soup in order to discover the spoon is missing. In religious parlance: "Understanding follows obedience." It's an axiom every bit as true as it is vexing. Psalm 111 observes that "all who follow [God's] precepts have good understanding"—not the other way around.
 
Lately, for me, the command to "taste the soup" has been about attending church. Trouble is, I just haven't felt like going.
 
I've been sliding into pews (or modern equivalents) from infancy; my vocation has taken me to hundreds of churches around the world. I've met some of my dearest friends and endured some of my darkest betrayals in youth rooms, foyers, and sanctuaries. I've cried, sung, prayed, committed, disconnected, recommitted, scribbled sermon notes, doodled, been wounded, been healed, encountered the Mystery, and dozed off—sometimes all in the same service.
 
There are seasons when Sunday can't come soon enough. The gifts church has given me are too numerous to list.
 
But there are also stretches of disillusionment. Times when the songs that once ushered me into a profound awareness of God's presence seem suddenly schlocky and manipulative. Mornings when I can't find anyone I know during the "greeting" time, and a previously cozy ritual morphs into a caricature of superficial community. Those are the Sundays I struggle with the sermon and feel my theological earnestness hardening into elitism, discernment distorting into self-righteousness.
 
Like anyone who has logged serious pew time, I've got reasons to be jaded. I've seen churches split over trivia while they trivialize glaring immorality amongst their leaders. I've encountered gossip posing as prayer, and bullying masquerading as "spiritual guidance." I've watched the realignment and reduction of the gospel into a business plan for membership growth or personal improvement.
 
Most damaging of all, I've looked into my own heart and known that if my pew-mates are anything like me, church is composed of frail humans, each of us an unreliable, potentially dangerous mess of conflicting motives and wavering intentions.
 
People who complain that church is boring have no idea. Church is scary.
 
So I sell myself the half-truth that church is something we are rather than something we do. I stay home with my theology textbooks and Bible and enjoy a dissension-free congregation of one. I console myself with an online network of enlightened individuals who share both my convictions and my cynicisms. We satirize the excesses of organized religion, feeling cleverer than we ought about shooting the fish in our own barrels. We create a virtual but significant community. And for a while, it's enough.
 
There's just one problem. Beneath my rhetoric of antilegalism, enlightenment, and self-protection there remains a still, small—but increasingly insistent—voice. And it's telling me to taste the soup.
 
The biblical witness indicates that when God gets hold of people, they almost always work out the implications in groups. This has never been an easy process. The Israelites praise, squabble, fail, and repent together in a seemingly endless cycle. The Christians in the apostle Paul's churches alternately thrill and break their pastor's heart over and over again. But they keep at it, and with every try Paul grows more passionate about the ragtag crew of notoriously fallible humans who so thoroughly are the church that they can't help but do church together. Striving to convey the profound connection between Jesus and the people who gather in his name, Paul employs only the most intimate metaphors—we are Christ's bride, or his very body.
 
The triune God has always been into community. And community, I am forced to admit, ultimately requires meeting together with flesh and blood folks I cannot "block" or "unfriend" should they become annoying. It means getting close enough to hug and to arm wrestle, to build (and sometimes hold) each other up, even as we risk letting each other down.
 
It is important to remember that "tasting the soup" is not the same as "drinking the Kool-Aid." We are not required to unthinkingly remain in toxic or abusive environments, or even to follow a particular structure or meet on a certain day. Obedience in this area is simply intentional proximity with a group of people who love Jesus and each other. It is coming together to his table, if only because that is what he asks us to do. And it is trusting that he'll show us not only the spoons we're missing, but also the feast he has in store.

Satan's a Goner (Lessons Learned From a Headless Snake)

My most recent CT column went online today -- check it out, let me know how it hits you.
Thanks!
Carolyn
 
Wrestling with Angels

Satan's a Goner

A lesson from a headless snake.

As a kid, I loved Mission Sundays, when missionaries on furlough brought special reports in place of a sermon. Sometimes they wore exotic, foreign clothing; they almost always showed a tray of slides documenting their adventures. If they were from a dangerous enough land, the youth in our congregation would emerge from our Sunday stupor and listen intently.

There is one visit I've never forgotten. The missionaries were a married couple stationed in what appeared to be a particularly steamy jungle. I'm sure they gave a full report on churches planted or commitments made or translations begun. I don't remember much of that. What has always stayed with me is the story they shared about a snake.

One day, they told us, an enormous snake—much longer than a man—slithered its way right through their front door and into the kitchen of their simple home. Terrified, they ran outside and searched frantically for a local who might know what to do. A machete-wielding neighbor came to the rescue, calmly marching into their house and decapitating the snake with one clean chop.

The neighbor reemerged triumphant and assured the missionaries that the reptile had been defeated. But there was a catch, he warned: It was going to take a while for the snake to realize it was dead.

A snake's neurology and blood flow are such that it can take considerable time for it to stop moving even after decapitation. For the next several hours, the missionaries were forced to wait outside while the snake thrashed about, smashing furniture and flailing against walls and windows, wreaking havoc until its body finally understood that it no longer had a head.

Sweating in the heat, they had felt frustrated and a little sickened but also grateful that the snake's rampage wouldn't last forever. And at some point in their waiting, they told us, they had a mutual epiphany.

I leaned in with the rest of the congregation, queasy and fascinated. "Do you see it?" asked the husband. "Satan is a lot like that big old snake. He's already been defeated. He just doesn't know it yet. In the meantime, he's going to do some damage. But never forget that he's a goner."

The story captured our imaginations then because it was graphic and gory—a stark contrast to the normally genteel sermonizing we were used to receiving. But the story haunts me because I have come to believe it is an accurate picture of the universe. We are in the thrashing time, a season characterized by our pervasive capacity to do violence to each other and ourselves. The temptation is to despair. We have to remember, though, that it won't last forever. Jesus has already crushed the serpent's head.

Recently I heard a message from theologian Gary Deddo that got me thinking about that snake. Deddo challenges the tendency many of us have to be dualists—imagining God and Satan as equal foes deadlocked in mortal combat. To be certain, Deddo acknowledges, there is an immeasurable amount of evil in our world. But compared with God's love and power, all the evil in the universe doesn't cover the head of a pin. Love wins. Satan doesn't stand a chance.

Thus, though we wrestle with the brokenness that plagues the world, and ourselves, we do so not with grim resignation but with hopeful defiance. We face both our addictions and afflictions not with a faint, white-knuckled hope that someday we will be healed, but rather with an assurance that we are living slowly but surely into the healing already obtained on the Cross. There is still a waiting. In some cases the healing may not come in fullness until we are face-to-face with our Victor—but come it will. Guaranteed.

I've been trying to figure out what all of this means with respect to the way we deal with evil and injustice in our world. In linear, human time, perhaps the safest thing to do is batten down the hatches and wait somewhere secure till the thrashing is over. But one of the mysteries of living in God's time rather than our own is that, although the end of the story has already been determined, somehow he is still using us to write it. Because Jesus lives in us through his Spirit, we are called not just to anticipate the overcoming but also to be part of bringing it to fruition.

And so we are called to fight poverty, oppression, greed, and malice—in the world and in our own spirits. We are invited to live in light of the reality that greater by far is the living God who is within us than the dead snake thrashing about in this world.

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