How Do You Know What You Know?

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Your faith in God takes all your days and then some…

I’ve just spent the week trying to explain a very abstract concept to my students. The world that we’ve made to live in, a world full of relationships, expectations, rules, feelings, organization and dreams is as real as the natural world all around us. The guilt your dad can make you feel is as real as that river rushing by. But as real as it is, it’s socially constructed, so…unlike the rainstorm that hits at just the wrong time, our man-made reality can be changed and improved.

I encounter God in dozens of ways each week. He reveals himself through social experiences with family friends and strangers.

What we come to believe about God is planted in us by all the people around us our whole lives. Our parents, teachers, friends are essential in helping communicate to us what it means to believe. These people and the social institutions they inhabit (family, church and friendship) are all used by God to strengthen our grasp of eternity.

What we know about God comes from other people. We often expand what we believe as we grow and add new experiences to our menu. As we meet new people and increase our general and specific knowledge of the world around us, our experience of God changes. God doesn’t change. That’s what get’s confusing. As we change, we mistake that experience and come to believe that God is the one that is different.

When I was a child, I spoke, thought, and reasoned in childlike ways as we all do. But when I became a man, I left my childish ways behind.  For now, we can only see a dim and blurry picture of things, as when we stare into polished metal. I realize that everything I know is only part of the big picture. But one day, when Jesus arrives, we will see clearly, face-to-face. In that day, I will fully know just as I have been wholly known by God.  But now faith, hope, and love remain; these three virtues must characterize our lives. The greatest of these is love.

– I Corinthians 13:11-13 (The Voice)

  1. Are you growing up (maturing) in what you know and experience about God? – Do you need to stop what you’re doing and START doing something different, right now?
  2. Do you understand and communicate to others that what you do know is only partial? – If not, change the way you are speaking. If you can’t hear the way you are speaking, ask your spouse to tell you. Stop talking so much and start listening to others. Stop feeling like you have to solve other people’s problems or have an answer all the time. You don’t really have to be God’s number one spokesperson. Just be you. Be authentic.
  3. When you experience God and pass this on to others is it characterized by faith, hope and love? You aren’t trying to fix everyone, are you? Everyone needs more of these gifts. Are you getting out of your private world and spreading your experience to others?

“Don’t be too quick to draw conclusions from what happens to you; simply let it happen. Otherwise it will be too easy for you to look with blame… at your past, which naturally has a share with everything that now meets you.”  ― Rainer Maria Rilke

The Reconciliation

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“Go where your best prayers take you.” ― Frederick Buechner

I think what we call faith, what is our own,  is a reconciliation of two essential dimensions of our life; our lived experience and our internalized beliefs.

Our faith isn’t really a noun, it’s a verb. It’s a life-long construction process.  We fit together all that is handed down to us with the bits and pieces of our own lived experience. This faith shields us from a cruel world and an enemy out to destroy us. It makes us feel safe. It really keeps us safe.

Our lives are filled with experiences like coins in a jar. We gather formal knowledge from intentional learning (going to school, reading, watching someone else, etc.). But don’t discount the informal knowledge we gain from everyday interactions and living in the real world:

  • What about that whole menagerie of characters that we have lived and worked with during our life?
  • After those years in school and having a few jobs we start to stockpile all kinds of information about other people and about yourself.
  • Each one of us practices all those lessons and stories about God and how Christianity is supposed to be lived.

We also have beliefs that are internalized into our hearts. Beliefs about other people and the world in which we live. Some of these are from personal experiences (like the list above) but most come from our shared culture:

  • Two wrongs don’t make a right
  • When the going gets tough, the tough get going
  • Hope for the best, prepare for the worst

And of course there are our beliefs about God.

Mostly we don’t think too much about our everyday beliefs. Usually they don’t get challenged that often. Every now and then a tragedy might hit and we come face to face with taken-for-granted beliefs about “the way things are” and we see how much of a hurricane they can withstand.

As we mature and reflect, our understanding of our own experiences changes and can deepen. Our beliefs get tested and we discard those that don’t hold enough water. We cling to those that stand up over time. As time goes on and we put together more and more of our life we begin to weave a faith.

I think that’s what walking by faith means. It’s finding your way through what life hands you, your own rebellion, all the everyday experiences and building something meaningful to hang on to.

Faith is also a gift from God.

Our faith is not ours alone but great parts of it are passed on to us by significant others in our lives. Our experiences and beliefs are handed to us by others, intentionally and unintentionally. Our faith is borne up and supported during difficult times by the faith of others who come alongside us and help us travel the dark roads home.

Faith is what grows in a life that is being transformed by the work of God’s Spirit. There is a great reconciliation between our hopes and our hikes. The interaction of experience and belief brings it about. Ultimately we must walk through our faith or it’s not much use.

Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness.  – Colossians 2:7

Always True

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“Many a night I woke to the murmer of paper and knew (Dad) was up, sitting in the kitchen with frayed King James – oh, but he worked that book; he held to it like a rope ladder.”   – Leif Enger

You know we live in a world where we crave experience (as we sit and stare at our screens). As a society, we enjoy so much personal freedom. Over time, if we’re not careful, what can end up happening is that we start to think and believe that our individual experiences are the only truth that really matters.

The fire remains the same. Sometimes we approach it because we need its warmth. Sometimes we draw near because its light illuminates the darkness of our path. Other times we run to the fire seeking safety from the approaching night. We have different needs that drive us toward that fire. We have different experiences once we near the fire. But the fire never changes.

It remains the same.

You wouldn’t know this living here in America. We have over 3,800 Protestant denominations, all pointing to the same Scripture as their guide for doing church their way, the right way. We’ve always had trouble with Scripture. It has liberated us and then divided us. We search within it poorly and then find only what we were looking for (not necessarily what it means to say).

Scripture isn’t a magic book. It’s not just a subjective experience that seems to change itself for each new reader. It remains the same. It teaches us the same truth, generation after generation. It points toward the unchanging magnificent love of God.

Doesn’t it?

We sometimes search it for secret formulas and pull words and phrases out of their context all trying to find some sort of experience all our own. The Scripture is the whole fire, the entire story. It has a context, a history, a purpose and most of all, a message. It is worth our study. We ought to be its students for the rest of our lives. Its pages tattered and frayed because of constant use not misuse.

Because of the world that we’ve made for ourselves we are always in danger of making our experience all that really matters. Sure, it’s all we really know (what we experience), but we must believe that there is an objective truth outside of ourselves that doesn’t change. What matters is what’s eternal.

The fire remains the same.

They said to each other, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us as he talked with us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?”   – Luke 24:32