Posted on March 29, 2009
Filed Under Journeyman Chronicles | Comments Off on Nibbles

I went to a Baptist church for months and then stopped. I was not, to any meaningful degree, bored, offended, unfulfilled, or opposed to their stated doctrines. I stopped joining their primary worship service because it was a worship service. The people at large (the laity, the attendees) were having something provided to us by the elect few (the pastor and the various functionaries). A fellowship ought to be a gathering where everyone is in principle equal–that is, there is nothing at the outset limiting what participation you may have. Going to a traditional or institutional church service is like going to an Amish barn raising and watching. If all you did was watched you missed the point–you missed the fellowship. I am no expert on Amish barn raising so I am going out on a limb here, but I suspect that your role in raising the barn has more to do with your skill than your status. If you are not handy with a saw you are probably not asked to saw. If you have not been involved in many barn raisings you are probably not asked to coordinate the whole thing. But whoever you are, if you show up willing to work there is something you can do to help: bring this, hold that, at minimum. Everyone free to do what they may, and everyone freely listening to the people who know what they are doing.

This is what conventional churches have lost. I stopped going because I was tired of watching the barn raising. And I don’t mean I was too impatient to work my way into a Position in the church; I probably could have. I make a good impression in religious gatherings and I’m reasonably bright and hardworking. But I am not interested in moving from the Hapless Masses to the Expert Few. The distinction is the problem; switching sides isn’t the solution.

In this house church that I’ve been going to for several months now, there isn’t the same distinction between the expert and the common among the people there. There are two men who have been there the longest, Paul and Brandon, and generally take the lead: starting and closing the prayer, getting the whole thing started, deciding when to stop singing and move on. But anything I or someone else might suggest is regarded as if it might be valid–like if I am working with family some construction. Chances are the people I am working with have a lot more experience than I do and have a better sense of what will work, but if I make a suggestion it will be considered and regarded for the merits of the suggestion, not my rank or certification. And the same goes for the people who come to the house church.

But then, when it comes to actually opening up the Bible and dealing with the writing in there, everyon present shuts up and somebody far away speaks via a recording, without any interaction from anyone present. And maybe he’s building a perfectly fine “barn,” off there wherever he’s preaching; but we are here. God has called us as his disciples and brought us to where we are physically. He own the sheep on a thousand hills; we’re all fed by the same shepherd, but we graze in different pastures; we should build our own “barns.”

The irony is that after we’ve all come and done our eating and chatting and singing and listening, followed by more chatting and eating, then we can actually talk as fellow Christians about the things of God. Once we’re all done with that last round of eating and chatting it’s late Sunday afternoon and if I go back to my apartment I’ll usually just putz around on the internet accomplishing nothing; all I’ve got in front of me is a relatively isolated week of work. So I’ll hang around a little longer, cadge a few more pastries, finish a few thoughts, and pretty soon a couple more hours have gone by.

Sometimes I worry a little that I am exploiting the hospitality of my hosts, but I try to keep a sharp eye and ear for any hints that I should go and have not found them. Their insistence that I am welcome to stay as long as I want is borne out in their actions. Today, when I did leave about the same time as everyone else, Vickie caught me on the way out the door and struck up conversation, and seemed to wonder why I was leaving so early. I wound up standing in the misty rain exchanging parting remarks until the phone rang.

I know what this means: we both enjoy the conversation. I work so hard to prove the point because I am socially very insecure. But the bottom line is that these Sunday gatherings offer good food, good conversation, and a pleasant day all around.

But it doesn’t involve sharing the word of God — sharing the Bible. We hear a sermon about the Bible, sure. Today’s was from John MacArthur; it was a detailed look at the social-political background of Herod and Pilate. What that taught us about God and his purposes I have no clue. Most of what was detailed I already knew from previous Bible studies with my Dad that I would generally call “sharing the word of God.” So if historical matters were covered in both, what was the difference?

I’m not sure I can do a proper job explaining the difference, but I’ll offer it as a difference in method, not material. On the one hand you have John MacArthur preparing for that specific sermon for I don’t know how long in advance, and carefully delivering his prepared lesson. On the other you have my dad, delivering ad lib whatever comes to his mind as he examines the passage in front of him, developing his thought on the fly and reacting to our comments and questions. And the biggest weakness of my dad’s teaching was not his lack of formal certification (he’s much less certified than John MacArthur, although he has nevertheless read a scholar’s diet of biblical commentary). The greatest lack in my dad’s teaching was the availability of any other perspective.

It’s not that my dad never explained other viewpoints. He does that all the time. But all of us in our family agree with Dad by and large. Sometimes theres a bit of disagreement that blossoms into long and passionate discussion, but sometimes there’s quite a lot of silence and not much said; we all think the same thing and pretty much agree about it, so what is there to say?

I’ve been in another group where there was more diversity of opinion, where also we were reading from the Bible through a particular book, and there we never some comment that got the proverbial ball rolling. Nobody in those discussions was as deeply read as John MacArthur or my dad, but the guy leading the group had a good broad understanding of the Bible and others there were perceptive enough to raise points that entailed good healthy discussion. Some people just sat back and listened. It was a great college Bible study, and while I learned more and better doctrine from my dad, I would say that as I <em>process</em> the college Bible study was a better example of Christians sharing the Bible with one another. My dad has never wanted to call our family fellowship a house church for largely the same reason; there isn’t a wide enough diversity to make a compelling example of sharing.

Because there is nothing like this in the house church I’m currently going to, some in my family think that I’m only getting social rejuvenation from this meeting, and if I stick to my principles about Christian fellowship I will wind up wandering away from this church as well. They’re a pretty sharp bunch, my family; dismiss their insights at your own risk. I wasn’t sure at first, but now I am convinced that they are right, if you are talking only about the church per se. It just feels too hollow to listen to some pastor add ten pages of extra words into three verses of scripture without shedding any extra insight into their meaning and call that Christian fellowship. Songs are nice and are an important part of Christian fellowship but it’s kind of like dessert without dinner. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Dessert Control Officer–I’ll eat dessert before the meal, after the meal, or even for the meal once in a while. I don’t mind generous portions (and seconds). But somewhere along the line you have to eat food, too. I want to share the Bible; that’s the highest-nutrition spiritual food there is, and it’s a lot better with good company.

The catch is the after-hours fellowship. Everyone else who came for church is gone; only the people who live in the house and relatives of those people are still around. Those conversations always get into something that’s discussed with Biblical reference; a doctrine, a concept, or a paraphrase of some verses. It might be the importance of accepting literal creation as a part of God-honoring theology, or the way some conventional church practices substantiate a righteousness by works even if the church has a written statement proclaiming grace alone. 

It’s a little frustrating becasue these discussions, while interesting, are still pretty light fare compared to discussing the Bible directly. But a couple of weeks ago the conversation took a turn that was encouraging; one of them, I don’t remember whether it was Vicky or Paul, brought up my earlier remarks I had shared to the general effect of what I have said here. I wasn’t trying to go there with the conversation because I thought I had talked that one out to the point where it wasn’t going anywhere helpful last time, so it was a pleasant surprise to see that the idea hadn’t been cast off and forgotten. I can’t say whether we made any progress toward agreeing with one another but it felt like a good discussion.

And there we come to the real point. Even if this house church group never agrees with me on the local believers personally sharing the Bible with one another, I’ve left some kind of imprint on their lives and thoughts as Christians, and they on mine. That’s not the ultimate goal; it doesn’t justify, by itself, anything done to attain it. But it is something different than the “worship service” of a conventional church, whereat I cannot touch the spiritual lives of anyone else though anything other than my hairdo, because the most anyone will be doing with me is looking at the back of my head. The same is not true of even a conventional Sunday school, which is why I am still attending one of those.

Ironically, the people at the house church don’t understand why I am still going to the conventional Sunday school, since like a lot of Baptist churches their doctrine looks okay on paper but is practiced in a lot of behavioural, procedural ways, which is to say a righteousness of works. As long as we are both talking, and we share some subtanatial fundamental concepts about the supremacy of God in accomplishing our salvation through the atonement of Christ Jesus, we might be helping each other along.

I don’t pretend to know for sure whether we are; I don’t use a definite knowledge that I am helping someone and being helped as a litmus test. But the reason I go to the house church, and the Sunday school, is partly out of the same reason that I think we ought to be “building our own barns,” to borrow from my previous metaphor. Here I am; let me be of some help to the Christians who are here.

I ought also to be of some help–or at least, some witness–to everyone else around me who is not Christian. But that is a subject for another day.

The Mite and Measure of Forgiveness

Posted on March 4, 2009
Filed Under Theological | Comments Off on The Mite and Measure of Forgiveness

I have often wondered whether a wrong can be forgiven if its effects are persistently felt. A permanent injury and a deep betrayal alike cannot be forgotten; and when these harms are remembered by the victim, can it be without regret? And if the victim still feels sorrow, should not also the wrongdoer? Where then is forgiveness?

Let us be sure of the question we are asking. I want no consideration now of injuries where the fault may be at dispute. When several people knowingly engage in a risky course of action and some but not all suffer harm, to speak of forgiveness among them is to invent fault. But, to clarify the question, I exclude even cases where a person is clearly at fault, but had no deliberate intention: recklessness, carelessness, drunkeness leading to accidental death, negligence in workmanship or safety precautions, all of that. If we forgive in these kinds of faults, we may be only acknowledging that we ourselves might make the same mistake; and we are not extending unilateral forgiveness as much as bargaining a kind of insurance, peforming a transaction with a societal bank of tolerance. And if indeed this is not the case, then the forgiveness exercised can be considered of the same nature as that granted in the most extreme cases, of wrong done deliberately and yet forgiven.

We must also speak of a permanent injury that will not be forgotten, or again we are merely performing a credit transaction. If in a week or a month or a year I will have entirely forgotten the wrong you did me, to forgive you now is merely an exercise in foresight. This may not always be easy to do–sometimes in the moment we are completely enthralled by some trivial injury against us–and the prudence of employing this credit-forgiveness should not be dismissed. But the virtue is arguably prudence, not uniquely forgiveness, if we can imagine in our mind that we might ever forget the offense.

Most simply, then, we are speaking of murder–or wrongs that have the same abiding nature as murder. The objection at once arises, how can the victim of murder ever possibly forgive the murderer? But perhaps the victim does not die immediately. Or perhaps we speak of the victim’s family (some will accept the substitution, some will not). In either case, deliberate and unprovoked murder is very rarely forgiven; but we do hear, a few times in our lives, of cases when this is said to occur. (Here is one example: the murder of Amish school girls in October 2006. The journalist is full of doubt whether the forgiveness offered has a genuine substance, the same doubt we now entertain here.) We can conjure up a few other scenarios as well: What if someone burned down the house of a family, and with it near all of that family’s property, which they could never fully recover? What if a spouse of many long and loving years departs in sudden and fervent adultery? But the further we wander from our prime case the more space we leave for arguments about recovery, compensation, and so forth. So, for this inquiry, we stay with our prime case: murder unmitigated.

Now, we should pause here and note that some do not believe there is any such thing as forgiveness of this nature, nor that there ought to be. To forgive an act the harm of which is permanent and irreparable they consider a moral abomination. For them, the only proper forgiveness is the kind which can be accomplished by exchanging shares of the reserve of mutual tolerance held by society. From there the discussion can only move to which deeds may be covered by these funds, a subject beyond my present energies.

If we ponder our case it becomes quite grim. What can become of the mother who has forgiven her husband’s murderer? In those first years there will be a constant turmoil of grief, a tide that sometimes storms and rages, sometimes ebbs; the questions of children that cannot be answered, the sobs heaving in small chests that cannot be stilled. But this time will pass. Some urge forgiveness that this time might pass more quickly and the bereaved not be caught in a trap of resentment, anger, and bitterness. However long or short the time of tumultous grief, never after will the years be free of sorrow. There will be a part of the soul forever lost to grief, like the fading away of certain colors or the half-glimpsed shadows of an unspeakable presence.

Our hearts love to pitter in sympathy with the bereaved mother and children. But now let us outrage the pride of our consciences by considering the murderer. None of us want to tread in the path of the deliberate, unjustified murderer, but if you have felt persistent regret and the want of true forgiveness, carry that feeling with you now. Leave aside the guilty fear of being caught–our conjured murderer has been tried, found guilty, and fully forgiven. No doubt his days are lighter than those of the wife and children bereft by his violence. We consider his state of mind because forgiveness is a matter of removing the burden on the one who did wrong, not the ones wronged; if he has been forgiven, however undeservedly, does that fully free him? Or does he find that his thoughts, on occasion, are interrupted, as suddenly as a blink, by thoughts of his deed? In the midst of some discourse between he and himself, his self interjects like a sneeze: You killed him.

He should never forget, well we may say. Let him be haunted into his grave, and beyond. But have you ever been guilty of a wrong — just guilty, no excuse? Have done anything that mattered, and could not be overlooked for convenience? Have you wished for forgiveness that was not reasonable, only kind? If you have any thought that brings you shame, can you not wish with the murderer that forgiveness could be complete? Oh, that the crime were erased, that the harm were undone, that the hurt were unfelt! Would that anything could cancel what once has been done! If there were any small reparation that might, if done over again so many times, at last diminish the mountain of my fault!

But there is no freedom, is there? I have invented and presumed the experience of the wrongdoer and the wronged. I have given no proof that someone forgiven cannot walk away free forever from any guilty thought. But I feel secure in having imagined so. I have begun this journey considering forgiveness as the act by which a person who has been wronged consents and commits to remember no more the wrongdoing, and also the state when the wrongdoer has been freed from any recollection of his misdeed. Having searched, I cannot find this thing. Instead I have found that even when a man is let go free without any retribution for his crime, even when he is willingly pardoned to suffer no material consequence, there is nothing to expunge his deed save the decay of human memory. And what redemption is the death of memory? When the victims are all dead do the criminals all go unpunished? The feebleness of the mind is not the fulfillment of forgiveness. Where there is living memory the remembrance of guilt is near at hand.

This runs hard against the description of forgiveness captured in Psalm 103:12:

“as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”

Yet the life of David the Psalmist bears witness to my meaning. David had many wives, and the corruption of this followed him through his life. One of his sons raped one of his daughters; then, as David did nothing, one of his other sons killed the first. As David still did nothing, this sond went on to raise a rebellion against his own father, in which he was then killed. David’s first son of his infamous wife Bathsheba died as a direct consquence of David’s sin; but so also did other sons of David. How far was David’s sin taken from him? Shortly after he died his regent son killed another of David’s sons, again because of a woman.

If David believed in the infinite forgiveness he sung about, then, it could not have been in his own life. Indeed, to have a crime the penalty of which fairly paid, the consequence of which has been made of no significance at all, and the memory of which has been laid aside willingly and joyfully and not by natural force; to accomplish all these you must have the all-sufficient substitution of Christ and the continuing life of the redeemed, who do not inherit a moment in time contingent on a thousand guilty acts of their forbearers, who are fully capable of remembering and fully capable of seeing what, after all, man hath wrought–nothing, absolutely nothing. For it is not that God makes up for the bad things bad men have done to each other by punishing the one good man who ever walked the earth; the total redeeming work of God is not quantitatively equal to our sin, but qualitatively greater than it, like the death of a man for the sin of a sparrow.

True forgiveness, then, can only be granted by God. Those who pledge forgiveness on this earth, in true apprehension of what that means, are not actually at that time abrogating the guilt; they are making a statement of faith about the work of God yet to be completed. They are saying, in effect, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). Forgiveness is after all an anticipatory transaction, a borrowing against a future state; thus merely human forgiveness that banks on forgetfulness mimics what it can never attain, substituting the inability to remember for the ability to redeem.

The forgiveness that we can neither give nor get has already been obtained, but not by human mercy. God is “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus,” the only one who can make any sin of man of no effect. When we look at forgiveness in our lives and find it wanting, the bloodstain of what we have done still shadowing our lives, we might conclude that God has left us in our wretchedness without hope. But we ought to conclude that he has not finished in us the glory of his hope.