Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Your Religious Beliefs: What Earthly Good Are They?

Trumpet Player, New York at Night
Photo Credit: Mark Grace

Some people use their religious beliefs to figure out what will happen at the end of time.  Some people use their theology to win arguments on internet chat rooms and in Sunday School classes.   Some people use their religion to sort out who is in and who is out, so they can be assured of being part of the in-crowd on that big playground in the bye-and-bye. 

The story below is another taken from a very difficult point in our nephew Little David's experience with leukemia.  It has become my bedrock explanation about what it means both to hold a set of religious beliefs and HOW those beliefs might be of any earthly use to you and me.  

October 20, 2007


One of the stories that Linda told me on Saturday night was about a conversation with Paul, her father. She said that they talked for some time about the decisions that were in front of David and Susan. Over the last two months this couple we love so much have had a boat load of agonizing decisions to make.

As she described her father mulling over the difficult circumstances faced by Little D, Linda said, "He would lay out one line of reasoning, talk through the biblical support for that line, then he would lay out another and then another . . . " I could see my wife and her father leaning in toward one another, their faces holding that thoughtful gaze that is so remarkably similar when they are bending every effort toward the solution of a problem. Like father, like daughter.


According to the theologian Karl Barth, theology can be summed up in the phrase, "faith seeking understanding."

The father-daughter conversation Linda described to me was steeped in months of anguish and hope, faith and desperation. As I listened to her, I imagined that encounter between two people seeking with all their hearts and minds to understand one small dimension of God's action in this great big world.

What has been happening over the last year if not that just that? People aren't pulling out fat theological volumes here.

We are all praying for understanding.  Even more we are praying that God grant David and Susan the day-to-day, footstep-by-footstep kind of understanding they need.

Paul, Susan, Little D, David & Velma Wilkerson
Photo Credit: Mark Grace


I have encountered one or two people lately who seem to believe I have gone slightly mad, thinking perhaps that desperation and grief have caused me to trade in my intellectually acceptable theology for some redneck version of the gospel that hovers just slightly above superstition.  

I will leave the fine critiques about theological sophistication to them.  For my money that activity is a parlor game, as bereft of any real meaning as arguing whose basketball team is better.

I have written things on this web site that I would never have dreamt of writing before all this happened. I have cried out in my prayers with the kind of desperation that I have never experienced. And I take some small comfort in the words of a theologian whose name I have long since forgotten . . . He stated that no one should be permitted to make a theological assertion they would not be willing to repeat in a face-to-face encounter with a pediatric burn victim.

What the author said to me loud and clear was simply that Christian theology has less to do with the classroom than it does with the day-to-day reality each of us encounters. 

Theology is not what fits on a page, or sounds good from a pulpit.

God's Word was not satisfied until it became flesh.


"Faith seeking understanding" once prayed in a garden called Gethsemane, and asked for the cup of suffering to be taken away. Faith seeking understanding hung on a cross, endured the scorn of others and cried out in utter loneliness and despair. 

That same faith seeking understanding rose, improbably, from a tomb.

I honestly do not believe that Jesus knew what was going to happen at each of those points on his journey. Else he would have only been a mock-up of a human being, and not fully human and fully divine as the great Christian confessions teach us.

Last night as I read over the story so far contained in this Caring Bridge journal and in the guestbook, I gained some perspective on God's presence that was not available to me before. 

I mulled over the prayer requests and was amazed at the evidences of God's attentive response to each one. 

And I think I understand a little better why you are needed so much, and even- possibly- why you may need to be here, now reading these words.


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