But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.Romans 8:37-39
I have been struggling with this post for a couple of days. Not with the content so much as the tone. Then, this morning – while walking Max – I had a bit of an epiphany. It has been exactly ten years since I stood in the amphitheater in Caesarea, talking to a small crowd about Paul’s famous “Defense of the Gospel,” and that memory is a great context for what I want to say today.
This is how I wrote about that moment in my 2015 book, Pilgrim in Progress:
It is always this way, the pull of the truth and the tug of my responsibility to live in the spirit of, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).
I went on to write the following:
We meet people like Festus and Agrippa every day. We work alongside them, worship together, live in the same house, share the highway, stand in line at the store, volunteer with the P.T.A…. And I’m wondering what kind of story my life tells them?
Does my life tell a story of love and clarity and light? How persuasive is the narrative? Do the twists and turns of the plot-line support – or call into question – the foundational premise of the Good News? Does my life story articulate with eloquence how startlingly wonderful it is to know and to love Jesus?
Listening without Judgement:
One of the values I try hard to practice is that of listening without judgement. This comes along with thanking people for their ideas, respecting differing points of view, learning from people I disagree with, engaging rather than reacting, and entering into dialogue with people who are oppositional.
This doesn’t always work, especially when people practice “hit and run” tactics, troll, have no interest in learning anything, are actually “bots”, or are like that hate-filled guy with an ax to grind who launches personal attacks and then runs away!
Regardless, I typically own the fact that I am often wrong, I acknowledge that I have a lot to learn, I try to understand where other people are coming from, and I point out that we all can grow through an honest exchange of ideas.
But. Some people not so much.
Here is something I have noticed.
Sometimes, when it comes to a willingness to invest in authentic conversation, my fundamentalist detractors sound a lot like the atheist critics – and the atheists come across sounding just like the fundamentalists they purport to eschew.
Here is what tends to happen:
- First, I write something that points to the invitational, inclusive, wide-ranging love of God.
- Then, someone drops a snide, dismissive, or oppositional comment.
- Next, if I have the time/energy, I respond with something along the lines of, “I understand where you are coming from. Your point of view is shared by many people. But let me share something of my journey and maybe we can talk about it.”
- But it is, evidently, difficult for those who have built their convictions around negative past experiences, reactionary ideology, emotion, or the opinions of other people (talk show hosts, celebrity preachers, politicians etc) to engage with mutual respect. So they resort to talking points, clichés, name-calling, false equivalencies, distractions etc.
- Or, in the case of the hit-and-run folk, nothing at all, because they have no interest in conversation.
Your God is too small!
What strikes me most about this is how close atheism seems to be to fundamentalism; it’s just one more inflexible dogma, prone to digging in, uninterested in give-and-take dialogue, essentially a belief system hiding behind a set of preemptive conclusions. Surely if you advertise being “a free-thinker,” shouldn’t there be some interest in an exchange of ideas and a commitment to learning? Why close the door on honest, authentic, learning-oriented conversation?
For both the obdurate fundamentalist and the rigid atheist, the phrase “Your God is too small” absolutely comes to mind.
But then – and it is important to understand that I am thinking out loud here (and using far too many generalizations) – I find myself back in Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean Sea, channeling the apostle Paul:
Paul stood here – in this place – at the crossroads of history, and what he said was supported by the authority of a life lived as if everything Jesus promises is true. And it reminds me of something he wrote – later – to his friends in Philippi:
“Shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the Word of Life. That way I can boast on the Day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing.”
I have this image of Paul, standing right here, holding out the Word of Life to Agrippa, and to Festus, and to anyone else listening. And here we are, today. Is the world we live in even close to persuaded that what we’re holding out to them is the real thing?p 172
I have no interest in arguing the Good News of Jesus – just in sharing the story. I am not trying to develop an apologetic designed to prove anything – just to live an authentic witness to Jesus. I am not interested in judging – but inviting. Not so much pie in the sky when we die – but, as Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is already among us.”
Pharisees asked Jesus when God’s kingdom was coming. He replied, “God’s kingdom isn’t coming with signs that are easily noticed. Nor will people say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ Don’t you see? God’s kingdom is already among you.”Luke 17:20-21