It’s Wednesday evening and bath time for my kids. My first-grade son has had an adventurous day at school and is sharing with me all the details, though his stories seem to lack any coherent sequence. Before he steps into the not-too-hot, not-too-cold water waiting to wash away the evidence of his conquests, I notice a bandage wrapped around his elbow. This flesh tone wrapping was applied by someone with battle-field experience as the attempted removal made evident; a school nurse no doubt. As the final layer is removed, with a grimace of pain and a glitter of pride, my son asks, “Dad, why does it hurt?”
“Well,” I said, “when the durable yet soft tissue that covers our bodies encounters a solid, ragged object like rocks at the speed and violence which a play-ground warrior like yourself propels himself, the ragged object always wins. Striking a rock, even accidentally, always hurts.”
With an affirming nod and a slow, “Yeah,” my son acknowledges what he already knew to be true but needed to be connected to his experience earlier that day. Fundamentally, colliding with rocks hurts. After all, this was not his first scuffle with ragged objects. Yet he still asked, “Why?”
It seems to me that much of our experiences of faith are collisions with the ragged objects of life and us asking our Father, “Why?”
Sometimes the ragged objects are like the rocks at the end of the slide that my son encountered. Unexpected difficulties that impede our enjoyment and freedom. “Why does life have to be so difficult?” “Why must so-and-so suffer?” “Why did she have to act that way?” “Why did he leave me?” “Why does faith feel weighty at times?”
Other times the ragged objects appear as alluring opportunities, yet somehow entangle our stomachs in knots while we ponder what to do with them. “Should I take this new job?” “What should I do with this relationship?” “Should I help here, take up this cause, join this community, move to this city, sacrifice or pursue this dream…?”
What we are seeking in these life induced pleas is discernment: the skill of distinguishing good from evil. The author of the letter to the Hebrews remarks to his fellow faithful that the mature “have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:14). Children, on the other hand, as the author notes, are “unskilled in the word of righteousness” (Heb. 5:13), unskilled in how God’s world and salvation work out practically.
Let’s think about our collision questioning this way. In a letter commenting on her novel to John Hawkes, the famed American author, Flannery O’Connor, made this statement,
“Wise blood has to be these people’s means of grace—they have no sacraments. The religion of the South is a do-it-yourself religion…” (Habit of Being, 350)
O’Connor was a Catholic and a genuinely devout one at that. She considered herself a “hillbilly Thomist” and a devotee to the doctrines of the faith which grounded her life and work. What she documented in the spiritual life of Protestants like myself was a religious experience that found us in all sorts of “practical heresies” with little way other than stumbling into truths to correct us. We, she observed, were unskilled in our discerning in large part because we didn’t know the fundamentals.
Thus we stumble through life, seeking our Father when we feel the tensions, but unlearned in the practicalities of a world being redeemed. That’s what O’Connor means by wise blood being our means of grace. After all, she admitted to accepting “the same fundamental doctrines of sin and redemption and judgment that they do.” There is something in our Christian life and history, something flowing through the veins of faith, that makes it “too wise for [us] ultimately to deny Christ,” even if we must stumble into discerned wisdom most frequently.
In a spiritual biography on O’Connor, Jonathan Rodgers notes, “In the absence of sacraments, O’Connor believe, Protestants have to trust their instincts. It’s a sloppy way of getting to the truth, but, she suggested, it sometimes works” (The Terrible Speed of Mercy, 94). Doesn’t that sound like many of our lives of faith; sloppily running into truth?! In her own way, I think O’Connor recognized in her sisters and brothers what the author of the letter to the Hebrews recognized in his, that the way we respond to life in our faith is more often than not, like a child.
A child often knows what is true, but has a hard time connecting truth to real life. As O’Connor discerned, many of us practice a figure-it-out-yourself pattern of religious practice. We are like children, unable to connect the truth known with a way of living in the normal things of life. So we keep running to the next spiritual cure, the next spiritual experience, the next spiritual community that will help us figure-it-out. And, like the pastor of Hebrews, O’Connor says our issue is not with our seeking but in our failure to build on what is fundamentally true:
“So come on, let’s leave the preschool fingerpainting exercises on Christ and get on with the grand work of art. Grow up in Christ. The basic foundational truths are in place: turning your back on “salvation by self-help” and turning in trust toward God; baptismal instructions; laying on of hands; resurrection of the dead; eternal judgment. God helping us, we’ll stay true to all that. But there’s so much more. Let’s get on with it!” (Heb. 6:1-3, The Message)
There is nothing wrong with being a child, but there is something universally acknowledged as deficient if one remains a child. We remain like my son, needing what we know to be connected for us in our experience, unless we constantly build upon the foundation of what is fundamentally true. If Christ’s life (including his death and life again) is to be our lives, then why wouldn’t our experience of faith in its difficulties and glories be similar to his? If a life of faith is turning from what destroys life to what gives life, then what other ends do I need to pursue? If faith is believing that life centers on and emanates from the God we know in Jesus, then why stress about the future? If we are immersed into the family of God with others, then why do we not know how we should relate to others? If only things that die are raised to new life, then why wouldn’t we experience little deaths on the way to eternal life? If there will be an end to evil, then why wouldn’t evil fight back and why not live with the courage to love in the midst of the battle?
Eventually, my son will not ask me, “Why does it hurt?” anymore, at least for play-ground wounds, because he is growing up, knowing the fundamental truth and discerning himself. Some would say that such living is freedom. We’ll always need to ask, seek and knock as we mature. In a much greater way than myself, our Father in heaven will always desire for his children to run to him, but he also desires them to experience a life that is beyond their imagination, a life of freedom and abundance experienced as we learn to discern upon the fundamentals.
Photo by José Ignacio García Zajaczkowski