Man-cards and Maturity

There are a couple men in my church who I respected greatly, right up until I overheard a conversation they had about the merits of buying a specific brand of footwear. Yes, they were talking about the infant stages of their shoe collections. Being an older Christian brother, I admonished them to turn in their man-cards right then and there.

Some of my surprise came from expecting believers to debate issues higher up the maturity spectrum, such as the merits of Christian radio, religion in politics, and coffee in the sanctuary. This banter is a perplexing phenomenon, because we all tend to think that mature people have a singular perspective – ours – rendering further discussion useless. We congregate in little communities where our opinions are considered fact and our biases are celebrated. We congratulate ourselves on being right. The primary ministry of Jesus was, after all, to save us from being wrong.

If you’ve been in church culture for any amount of time you know what I’m talking about, and you know the group you’re most comfortable in. Is it Conservative Evangelical? And that less mature group – Progressive Liberal? Or are they legalistic, and you are part of the Grace camp? We use different labels, but what we mean is mature and immature.

The labels themselves are useful, to a point. For example, consider Good Christians vs Honest Christians. For Good Christians, predetermined categories coupled with a discerning spirit provide a rough sketch of who they’re sitting down to coffee with, possible conversational parameters, and most importantly the level of grace they’ll be required to extend. Honest Christians, on the other hand, use labels in exactly the same setting to identify how much of an ass you are.

Like I said: useful, to a point.

Regardless of how we gauge and categorize the maturity of others, it boils down to the degree to which they are aligned with our threshold of enlightenment. The test of our own maturity is simply a silent conscience, squashed or at rest notwithstanding.

Biblically, spiritual maturity is not so easy to nail down. At different times and places, the scriptures point to love, joy, peace, sacrificial giving, diligent study, hospitality, a lack of anger and many other things as signs of a well cultivated spiritual life.

There is one part of growth, though, that in Western Christianity is glaring in it’s absence: Holy Discontent. The knowledge that we are incomplete, and the passion to move forward – this we have lost, if we ever had it in the first place. We have enshrined the exact opposite: our own completeness and the passion to point out where others fall short.

The Apostle Paul explained this attitude of maturity in his letter to the Philippian church:

“…whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.”

Philippians 3:7-16 English Standard Version (ESV)

Not perfect? Pressing on? Forgetting what is behind? Straining towards what is ahead? That sounds like someone who still has something to learn! And imagine an attitude of humility that lets others be less mature, simply encouraging them to live up to whatever standard of faith they currently possess.

Back to the shoe conversation, because those trendy, well-shod brothers are the ones who got me thinking about Christian maturity. In addition to passion, there was more grace and care and concern on the table of that debate than I’ve seen in many a theological discussion. I was truly impressed. Well done, hipsters. Now, about those man-cards…

Dying Alive

Time is the leading cause of death. What the scientists say matters little – hot dogs might be a carcinogen and cutting down too many trees may eventually asphyxiate us all, but while we debate these things the clock remains relentless.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

Enough years have passed in my life that I’ve had the opportunity to attend the funerals of a number of people that I’ve loved and admired. We celebrate their time and achievements, feeling the ache that their leaving has left. In life their very presence was catalytic, moving those around them to spaces of the heart and soul that would have otherwise remained unexplored.

There are other wakes, though, that haunt me. These are the moments when we remember people who shrivelled into themselves long before their passing. A positive spin is put on everything, propriety bestowing a last dignity upon a life that could have been more.

The question is, more what? Was something missing? Or perhaps emptiness wasn’t the problem, and their souls were actually too cluttered? It’s difficult to pinpoint, but there is no denying that some people’s eyes glaze over long before their plot is purchased.

To glean some answers I went to went to the field of wisdom known as Facebook, and asked some of you how our time on this spinning rock is best spent. Here is what you said, with a couple of my suggestions thrown in:

7 Essentials To Guarantee You’ll Be Alive When You Die

1. Be teachable. This is difficult when you presume to know everything. Too often we take our own opinions as facts, worship some fancy paper on the wall, or box ourselves in with our own notions of how the universe should be run and which direction the neighbour should be cutting his lawn. Being teachable allows us to walk through time without being overly sensitive and easily offended.

2. Smoke a cigar. Not literally, of course, unless you want you. The writer of Ecclesiastes said that “Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes,” and counselled that it is best to not be over righteous or too wicked. That’s not to say that one of my goals each day is to be a little bit wicked, but sometimes it’s as though I can’t help myself. Knowing that my character and my lungs are not yet totally pure keeps me humble before my Creator.

3. Be authentic. One of my most annoying acquaintances is unapologetically Calvinistic, which I define as unteachable, dogmatic, unshaven and fundamentalist, with all the baggage that usually accompanies such labels. He, on the other hand, has big words which he uses to describe my liberal tendencies. One thing I grudgingly admire about him is his authenticity. He is a true believer. Unshakeable.

The most intriguing people in my life are ridiculously passionate. Some talk about theology; others champion the right of women to wear functional and pretty sporting attire. Whatever you do, do it from the heart.

4. Risk. Some mothers scold their youngsters with, “Just because your friends jump off a bridge doesn’t mean you should too.” My mom, on the other hand, is usually the first to take the plunge. I can’t imagine a life without some risk. You can’t love without it. Steak is best served with it (at least a little pink, please). It isn’t an end in itself, mind you. Which brings us to number five.

5. Invest in Others. Authenticity, risk, humility, and balance are of very little benefit if they are employed to serve only yourself. You want people to weep tears of sadness instead of joy when you kick the bucket? Invest in them.

6. Practise dying. When we are placed in coffins it becomes clear that the value of our lives is measured in those who come to say goodbye. The problem is the extent of the sacrifice it took to get them all showing up on the same day. The good news is that we can train ourselves to die. Little choices every day add up, and when we choose others before ourselves, forgiveness before bitterness, and the difficult good over the expedient less-than we get better at dying.

7. Slow down. You. Are. Going. Too. Fast. How do I know this? There is a 95% chance that you came across this blog post via Facebook, which is what we do when we could just be sitting still or gently kissing someone.

Which are you good at? What did I leave out? Do you sense that you are truly alive? If not, are you missing something, or is it soul-clutter that’s getting in the way?

Living With Questions

The first time I saw a man coming undone was in High School. One of his children was in the hospital undergoing spinal taps, and I sat there with the other students, stunned into silence on our cheap hard seats as he asked us…

Why…?

He was my Religion teacher and he taught me more about faith in those classes than I had learned in years. He kept asking – with anger and tears – the same question each day, and he continued to receive in response about 30 blank stares from children whose faith had not yet been tested. Day after day. Class after class. Bitter silence on top of sterile quiescence.

Trying to be objective, I peel back layers of memory and wonder if I’ve ever received a life-giving answer from anyone who hasn’t first learned to live with questions. I think not.

These days, I hear many questions and very few answers. “Why is that Christian such an ass?” “What will happen next?” “When will the anxiety and depression go away?” “How will I find another job?” “What is next for my loved ones?”

God, why…?

I share some of the same queries and would appreciate some answers, but what’s more important is that I am a part of a community that doesn’t fear a lack of answers. Like my high school instructor, my family of Truth Seekers keep coming back, continue asking. Step after step. Snotty Kleenex after snotty Kleenex. And I love them for it.

Like a question without an answer, I penned some lyrics this week for which there is no melody. It is for some dear friends who are learning to live with questions. “It’s okay to not be strong,” I would tell them, and you. “Don’t give up,” I would say.

And then I would sit with you awhile.

Song In The Darkness

We all want to live on the mountain
Arms lifted high to our God and our King,
But You’ve said the path to that glory
Comes when we share in Your suffering.

Give me a song to sing in the darkness
Like the one Mary sang as they laid You to rest
A harmony born in the womb of this sadness
A lullaby for every heart worn and hard-pressed.

We all want to drink from the fountain
Of joy that Your resurrection can bring
But for now faith is just me waiting
In the tomb’s pain for my Easter King.

Give me a song to sing in the darkness
Like the one Mary sang as they laid you to rest
A harmony born in the womb of this sadness
A lullaby for every heart worn and hard pressed.

You’re not far off
You see my pain
You’re the God who died and rose again.
You’re not far off
You see my pain
You’re the God who died and rose again.

This is the song I sing in the darkness
Like the one Mary sang as they laid you to rest
A harmony born in the womb of great sadness
For God who loves me ever and gave me his best.