Thursday, May 3, 2012

Unsolicited advice from somewhere in the middle

Last week I read about Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (John 8.1-11). And as the Bible often does, it surprised me again with something new.

Jesus knew his Hebrew Bible, he knew it said the situation warranted a death penalty. He also knew his religious opponents wanted to catch him fudging it so they could prosecute him accordingly.

The irony is scalding. Here’s a bunch of zealous Bible-readers in a white-knuckle frenzy against the very one their Bibles are about. How does this happen? How does something meant to lead people to Jesus become the very thing used to thwart him?

“Okay, stone her,” Jesus said. “But let the ones who’ve never sinned throw first.”

Sheer brilliance. On my good days I can honestly say I love Jesus but even on the less than good ones I can always say I admire him. That was a tight spot. And I imagine it might’ve felt like a bit of a gamble, given the company he was in. Who could be sure there wasn’t at least one within that self-righteous group who imagined himself sinless?

The phrase that caught me last week was this: the older ones first. The gamble worked, thank God, the mob dispersed. And it was the older ones who left first.

I’m not old yet. The stats tell me I’m likely somewhere in the middle. It’s a strange place to be, this midway. It means I can easily remember what it was like to be young, and I can almost hear what it will be like to be old. From this place I know that unsolicited advice is very unlikely to find its mark. But I’m not crusty yet. There’s still enough youth in my veins to give this a shot.

So here goes: Allow yourself space to be uncomfortable because there is more freedom in questions than answers. Truth is slippery when we try to grip it, like water through the fingers, but it comes free and undeserved when we’re tired and thirsty, like beer from a friend. In the church we call this ‘grace,’ but it’s true everywhere: Life gets smaller when we hold on tight and bigger when we lift our heads and listen.

As far as I can tell, faith is like that. It’s more like listening than gripping, more like accepting a gift than crunching data.

The temptation for you and I at this point is to think we already know this. We nod at quaint thoughts about a relationship with God as if we’ve already checked that item on our list. “Next, please.” But the checklist is fooling us. The most important truths neither fit in boxes nor line up beside them waiting for checkmarks. The big truths take a whole life to learn, over and over again.

The one on my mind at the moment is this: We don’t have faith in Jesus because the Bible has informed us about the mysteries of God, of which he is one. We have faith in Jesus because God enables us to trust him like a man trusts his wife or a close friend.

That sounds a bit weird. Or it should anyway. After all, we’ve never met Jesus in the flesh. But this is where the Bible comes in. With God’s help we can know Jesus through this book and through others who’ve believed it. And that’s the spot we’re in. Like a mob of religious Bible-believers surrounding the one it’s all about.

I used to think that faith in God meant knowing a lot of things about him, that my faith would grow by keeping hold of what I already knew and carefully adding more and more knowledge until one day I had all the answers. As a young man I would’ve been one of the last to finally drop his stone.

So here’s a request from a guy somewhere in the middle: Please don’t make the same mistake. It’s better to be dirt-level and sobbing at the feet of Jesus than disappointed by his grace and walking away.