Eric Youngblood: Getting Re-Acquainted With Our Inner Beggar

Tuesday, October 24, 2017 - by Eric Youngblood

I figured it out. 

Or rather it occurred to me. Christians believe in “knowledge as grace.”

I accidentally tripped over a solution to a great deal of the “toxic suspicion” and “willful incomprehension” presently plastered on the walls of our democracy like dangerous mold growing amid the stale gagging stench of used unfiltered Camels.

I wasn’t trying to solve anything when it happened. Just reading. But as I read, puzzled, pondered and murmured over what my eyes had drunk in, it increasingly, if slowly, rose to the top of my consciousness like unrooted milfoil floating to the surface of Chickamauga Lake.

 

I fear that when I share the solution I have in mind to alter the poisonous atmosphere of political discourse and relational strife in our homes and on our streets, there’ll be a huff or condescending guffaw from those who may not grasp quite what I mean. Some will nod approvingly, but even then, I’m doubtful our reasons for agreement will be similar. 

I’m not so naive as to imagine this remedy for verbal vandalism and rancorous divisive speech universally healing, but that’s mainly because I do not anticipate wide acceptance. (And because we are all way more terrible than we are willing to admit--but more on that later)

But it might be worth a shot to share. A sort of flu-shot for the soul to prevent us from virulent outbreaking strains of the influenza of self-righteous smugness and feverish chills of condescension. An immunization against an illness of heart that will keep us from coughing contaminants in our work places and air waves with potent bacteria of degrading dismissal and furious, choking outrage. 

So, here’s my solution to shut down the fear-rooted rage of the right and the derisive contempt of the left. It will be a diffusive action. Create an attitudinal remodel in whomever might give ear, which will be bound to budge the immovable barriers of our inhospitably talking past one another merely to win.

Here it is......

Read the Bible. Yes, Read the Bible. That’s the prescription I have in mind.

OK, Calm down! Calm down! 

NOT for the reasons you think!

NOT because I think it will make us all better, as if I were a prominent celebrity (Head Football Coach at a major university, Fox News Anchor, politician, etc) who had for some unfathomable reason been granted the pulpit on a Sunday morning and was holding up a closed Bible and urging folks “we all just need to get back to this here Good Book.” I’m not offering the spiritualized version of insisting more kale in our diet will heal not only our weight problems but our finances, the timing issue on our car’s engine, the disciplinary quandaries with our kids, and our excessive technology use. 

I don’t mean it like that.

Quite the contrary. I think reading the Bible will actually make us worse!

Or so we will appear, if we read it carefully and sympathetically, with an intention to take a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves” as AA has long insisted is crucial for any substantive life alteration. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once perceptively noted to an ecumenical group what was obvious, apparently, to no one else, namely: 

“We like our own ideas better than the Bible. We are no longer reading the Bible seriously, we are no longer reading it against ourselves, but only in our own favor.”

My moderate experiments in “reading the Bible seriously,” attempting NOT to read merely “in my own favor” generally leads me to a significant devaluation of my moral rectitude. Put plainly, I commonly find I am much worse off than I had previously imagined. I grow worse as I read!  

Eager to Misunderstand
If we carry our common cultural strategy of reading, talking, and “listening” to win to the Bible, we’ll likely suffer from the malady Alan Jacobs expertly coins as “willful incomprehension.” We will decide NOT to understand what is being said before we have ever begun. But, for fair warning, it won’t be an issue of intellect. It rarely is. But an issue of character. A matter of the heart. 

But I’m proposing Christians read to be altered. For recovery of life. For societal healing. So we must give up some other purposes, defenses, and agendas in our reading:

“The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)” CS Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

Then try reading, say, the Prophets (maybe, Amos, or Ezekiel). Or the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke or John). “Surrender” to the text. “Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.” You will know you are doing it right, if you start to perspire a bit, and feel a pit in your stomach. The sinking bewilderment of pondering whether it might actually be true that what is “highly valuable to men is detestable to God.” You might think, “I need to change.” Or “I’d better say I’m sorry!

Smugness Stomping
Not only those things, of course. You might find desire well up within you. But one thing that will occur to you from a sympathetic reading, in the Bible’s favor, “against yourself,” is you will find it impossible to feel smug, or better than, OR to take deep pleasure in denouncing your favorite “wicked idiot” out there.

Impossible. 

In fact, you might feel the opposite. Undone. 

You may rethink the urge to post the 10 Commandments every place as you consider their ability to issue multiple indictments about all of us (ponder #1 and #10, for fun). Oh, you’ll read about the sins of Sodom, which you figured you knew well enough from Sunday School, but may come to learn another aspect of God’s rationale that we don’t oft consider, one which demanded his decisive justice in wiping out that whole place. Sodom was “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned. They did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me.” (Ezekiel 16) 

Yikes. 

Self-interrogation might follow, or better, prayers for help in understanding....

What ways am I unconcerned? 

Has my too much-ness and relative middle-class comforts numbed me to demands that folks who don’t live next door to me, might nonetheless have on me? On us? How might our prosperity be snookering us into thinking that because we have more, we ARE more...more important, more to be preferenced, more to get our way, than our neighbors, or those with different wage structures, or skin colors?

When I read earnestly, I realize that 1) I am answerable to God in more ways than it generally occurs to me while I am watching the Vols being humiliated and outwitted from the sidelines and 2) I can NEVER satisfactorily accomplish what I read in the pages of the Scriptures. 

Nothing You Have To Do?
The commands are exhaustive. God’s demands are HUGE. Jesus’ church is called to such an upside-down reality that if I ever come to imagine that I have now arrived at such an obedience that I can leisurely and joyfully look down on anyone, then I have misunderstood, how can I say, EVERYTHING ABOUT THE BIBLE!

But when I realize how bad off I am, I also start to rummage through Scripture for provision for my failure. My failures to love, to care for the poor, of devotion to God, and my myriad disordered loves, loving so much else so much in relation to my paltry love for Christ and others. And do you know what happens?

Like a drowning man, fighting the water for his life to get his head above surface, after fighting with my failures and presuming the Bible’s commands are pushing me under, I find a strong hand reaching down to pull me up. A mask of grace given to breathe in deep to steady me. A realization that though all God’s commands are relevant to me and to his church, my keeping of them doesn’t make or keep me his. 

I remember, in other words, when feeling pummeled by the Scriptures a bit, what the world will remember in a couple of weeks as it celebrates the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, that “we are saved by grace”...and “this through faith”...a faith that “is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God so NO ONE can boast (Eph. 2)! 

Or as Buechner pithily captured it:

“A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There's nothing YOU have to do. There's nothing you HAVE to do. There's nothing you have to DO.”

Patience. Patience. Patience. Without End.
Alongside the commands the can aggravate and pester me like poison ivy is always the bright, blinking source of reassurance that “Christ came to the world to save sinners” of whom, says one of the most influential Christians in church history, “ I am chief.” An aged and astonished Apostle Paul as life’s end edged near, gave us another divine rationale for God’s decisive judgment of Christ. So he might “display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe.” Grace implies unlimited patience. For folks who can’t keep all God’s commands, God’s patience insists on grace to keep them!

And each time I re-remember it, I am re-relieved, and softened. And gladdened. And tenderized. 

It’s why I reminded our congregation on Sunday of our daily Bible reading plan immediately BEFORE our corporate confession. Not because I wanted them to feel guilty for NOT reading their Bibles. But rather, because I wanted them to read their Bibles so that we would all find ourselves ravenously thirsty for a grace to cover all the ways the Scriptures might expose us as frauds, swindlers, and pretenders. Then we get to know the stunning relief of being saved by a grace we couldn’t manufacture or earn. Which might then compel us to new allegiance, obedience, and intentions in the world. 

AND knowing that grace might just make us a tad bit more gracious. Toward all those “Repugnant Cultural Others” whose ways and choices seem vile, alien, or unimaginable to us. And even toward those who hate us.

Martin Luther whose 95 posted theses on All Hallows Eve (1517), is alleged to have died, fittingly uttering these famous words from a champion of Christ’s grace, “We are beggars. This is true.”

Is there little grace in our present discourse, because there’s so little Grace...that we presume we need. Did we accidentally abandon our beggarliness?

Maybe we should read the Bible more so we can discover not our inner child, or deepest passions, but to get re-acquainted with our inner beggar. And just how much of God’s altering grace is available to empty hands held out in need for it. And having been the beneficiaries of this healing grace, maybe we will insist on giving it away as freely as we received it. 

Seems I read that somewhere before.

------

Contact Eric Youngblood, pastor of Rock Creek Fellowship on Lookout Mountain, at eric@rockcreekfellowship.org




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