by Len Hjalmarson
"For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Neither are My ways your ways," declares the Lord. Isa.55:8
"Surely You are a God who hides Himself..." Isa.45:15
My life has sometimes been too planned. Most of us live somewhere on the continuum between chaos and inflexible structure, and intellectually we are somewhere on that line also. The right brain artistic types are usually toward the disorganized and spontaneous side of the scale, and the left-brain intellectuals are usually toward the rigid, disciplined and structured side. One group thinks they have it all figured out, and they like it that way. The other group figures you can't really know anyway!
Evangelicals as a group are toward the structured side, and would argue that the entire weight of revelation pushes us this way. God is the Word and He makes Himself known. The Christian life is about revelation, not mystery. It's all about knowledge, they argue.
They also argue that it's about organization. "Aim at nothing and you'll hit it." "To fail to plan is to plan to fail." Most of us have heard these phrases, and most of us would agree that there is truth there.
Paul himself says, "God is not a God of disorder, but of peace." Non-charismatics are fond of quoting this verse for charismatics. But the context of Paul's exhortation is revealing.. a meeting where everyone is participating. Paul actually encourages the mutuality of the meetings, and his point is that it must be God who orders the gatherings. Reading the Corinthians passage, it sounds a bit chaotic.
I wonder then.. have we gone too far? Is the western church too organized? Do we have too many charts, too many plans and too much structure? Is there a point where our knowledge and our plans can actually suppress the work of the Spirit? Is our need for control so strong, or our fear of disorder so great, that we have in fact not heard Paul at all?
Living in the Tension
"Do not marvel that I said to you, "You must be born again. John 3:7,8
The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going.
So is everyone who is born of the Spirit."
Honestly, these verses make me a bit uncomfortable. In fact, this entire discussion makes me a bit uncomfortable. Personally, I prefer clarity and definition.. and... control. There, I said it. I like to know where I stand and where I am going. I like measurable results; I am fond of success!
But could it be that people like me, with too much education and too much culture, tend to make great managers but poor mystics? Could it be that we westerners aren't always the most spiritual people? And could it be that in landing squarely on one side of the teeter totter that evangelicals are more anchored in culture than in a biblical perspective on these things?
Yes.. it could be. It could be that the Greek heritage has overtaken the Hebrew heritage. Larry Crabb, in his book, "The Safest Place on Earth," comments that we have a choice: we can be either managers or mystics. Most of us feel somewhat out of place in community: we don't always feel safe where order is more relational and less defined and community itself is a mystery. We prefer structures we can understand and control.
The problem is, God is less interested in predictability and control than we are! Or, from another perspective, He wants to be the one in control, and He doesn't always tell us in advance what He is up to!
Equally important, all our wisdom is foolishness to Him.
Most evangelicals live on one side of the tension. We tend to trust our plans, which means in turn trusting our ability to figure things out. We would rather have a five year plan than a walk of faith. We are into organizing. And let's be honest - we do oppose these things to the other. Faith is mostly something we privatize, something for the closet. To talk about a faith walk with finances, for example, is seen almost as heresy in some circles, and certainly as irresponsible.
But maybe where there is lack on one side, there is plenty on the other. Catholics and the high church traditions, like the Eastern Orthodox, live on the other side of the tension. They have learned to live with mystery, and even to assign it a place of honor.
How do I know this is true?
For one thing, I read their books. I've been spying!
For another, I have known a few Catholics over the years, and attended a few retreats, and I have observed that they are comfortable with silence. Silence is the one element almost completely missing from evangelical meetings.
Have you ever wondered why?
Margaret Wheatley in her book, "A Simpler Way," reflects on modern organizations and their leadership. She comments,
"There is a simpler way to organize human endeavor. It requires a new way of being in the world. It requires being in the world without fear. Being in the world with play and creativity. Seeking after what's possible. Being willing to learn and to be surprised.
"This simpler way to organize human endeavor requires a belief that the world is inherently orderly. Life seeks organization. It does not require us to organize it."
I believe that we do many of the things we do because of fear. Fear that the bills won't be paid; fear that no one will come; fear that we will be alone. What could we be if we really left fear behind? What would we discover about Jesus and His kingdom? What would it be like if we really did trust the Holy Spirit?
Something else I have noticed about our churches has bothered me for a long time. In spite of the talk about gifts and diversity, I don't see much diversity in it. I see similarity and homogeneity. I see people who dress the same, look the same, and talk the same. I see that a few gifts tend to be exalted above the rest, inevitably leading to comparison and striving and neglect of a whole set of gifts and people types.
Have you ever wondered why there is so little diversity in the average church? Wheatley has some insight...
"We have focused too long on right answers. We have taken things apart in an attempt to build the better mousetrap. But it is all falling apart.
"Our previous activity was cloaked in fear. What if we don't get it right? What if someone else gets it right before we do?"
When we are immersed in fear, our creativity disappears. We don't hear from the Lord. Our options narrow. We make the greatest mistakes when in this state.
Look at the diversity of creation. Do you see a playful creator? Do you see solutions, or just a love for life in all its expressions?
"We often tend to limit our explorations of what's possible by surrounding ourselves with large amounts of information that tell us nothing new. These measures lock us into learning about a predetermined world. They keep us distracted from questioning our experience in a way that could create greater possibilities.
"There is an important humility associated with trying to direct our activities by setting goals or measures. Every act of observation loses more information than it gains. Whatever we decide to notice blinds us to other possibilities. In directing our attention to certain things, we lose awareness of everything else."
But what if we really let the Lord be the Lord? What if we really surrendered control to Him? What if we let God do the organizing? What if we lived with more spontaneity and even a bit of chaos? How would the church look different in our day, and what would be the result? Wheatley says that,
"We need explorers, those willing to venture where there are no maps. We need tinkerers... Tinkerers have skills but no clear plans. They make do with the materials at hand. Tinkering opens us to what's possible in the moment."
"People cannot discover new lands until they have the courage to lose sight of the shore."
Let's come back to the idea of mystery. I've been reflecting on mystery lately. On the whole, we evangelicals don't know how to live in that place. We've lost the tension between knowledge and mystery, coming down squarely on the side of knowledge. On the other hand, many teachers in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions make mystery the center of faith.
The contrast is striking. How do they manage to hold such a perspective in the midst of western and rational culture?
In the first place, according to some observers, western culture is in its death throes. For another, with the rise of quantum physics, even some physicists are getting friendly with the idea of mystery! The biologists and astronomers have been there for fifty years or more.
So while one part of our culture is living in one world (with a rationalistic worldview), another part of our culture has already left that place behind.
Some years ago Scott Peck wrote that, "There are two reasons people become religious: to approach mystery, and to escape mystery." But how do those of us who have grown up so Greek and western in our thought processes learn to approach mystery?
Learning to Approach Mystery
Approaching mystery isn't an easy thing to do in our world of day-timers, PDAs, constant interruptions, cellular phones and pagers. We have some unlearning and some learning to do.
The contemplative tradition offers some help. Pick up a book by Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, or Richard Rohr. Try "The Way of the Heart," by Nouwen, "New Seeds of Contemplation," by Merton, or "Everything Belongs," by Richard Rohr. You'll be amazed at the wisdom there.
But isn't this an intellectual approach to a heart problem? Yes - and no. Better get used to paradox! While on the one hand books are only collections of more words, as you read and pray your way through these meditative journeys on paper, you may find yourself meeting with God in new ways.
Rediscover the Lord's Supper. While you're at it, rediscover a sacramental approach to life. CS Lewis wrote that,
"There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God. God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why he uses material things like bread and wine to get the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it. -C.S.Lewis. "Mere Christianity" Book 2, Chapter 5.
One of our problems is that we have slowly become Gnostics, affirming the reality of a spirituality that has no ties to matter. The incarnation pulls in a different direction. There is no spirituality apart from matter, the body, and the world of "shoes and ships and sealing wax, cabbages and kings."
Discovering God intimately involved with matter is something of a shock for some Christians, with almost a neo-pagan feel to it. Never mind. Celebrate the goodness of God the Creator. Bake a loaf of bread; open a bottle of wine. Before you know it, communion will happen.
But don't stop there. The Westminster Confession defines sacrament as "the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." For those who have eyes to see, the world becomes a sacrament of the gracious and creating god who dances and delights over His creation. Truly God meets us in unexpected places.