When Truth and Tradition Collide

CoverSince my last post, I’ve been doing a lot of interviews about Mary Magdalene Never Wore Blue Eye Shadow. There are some questions everyone asks me, such as, “How did you come up with that title?” Around Christmas time, everyone wanted to talk about the not-a-barn where Jesus was born, and a particularly fun interviewer wondered what kind of music I choose when David isn’t in the car.

At some point in every interview–often after some levity and laughter–the host gets serious and asks me, “Why did you write this book?” That should be an easy question, but I break into a sweat every time I start to answer because it is impossible to edit my life into a five-second sound bite. (Or an entire blog post, as it turns out!)

I was a “good kid.” I grew up in the Bible Belt and experienced Believer’s Baptism twiceat ages 8 and 9–because my family switched denominations. From the fourth grade, I attended church Sundays and Wednesdays, did my “quiet time” every night before bed, and followed every rule every day. Such societal structures reinforced my Type-A personality, set me up for academic success, and gave me a constant awareness of and connection to God.

My spiritual foundation was first shaken in my late teens. I took religious studies courses at Rhodes College, and for the first time I was learning from people who did not believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God–but who knew more about it than any Sunday School teacher I’d ever met. In my first semester, my eyes were opened to everything that is “wrong” with my beloved Bible, all the contradictions, textual errors, and historical inaccuracies.

For the next several years, I described my faith as schizophrenic. In class I was learning and regurgitating biblical facts that threatened to undermine my biblical faith. Many of my classmates abandoned Christianity as they learned there was no apple in Eden, Moses parted a reed sea, Jericho was destroyed long before Joshua got there, Goliath (probably) wasn’t nine feet tall, there is no whale in the Book of Jonah, and Jesus was three years old when the Wise Men showed up. But I still had my quiet time every night in my dorm room. My faith in God never wavered, although my understanding of Him did.

After four years of keeping my academic side separate from my spiritual side, a conservative Jew put me back together. While studying Exodus 19 (where Moses goes up and down Mt. Sinai umpteen times with the speed of The Flash), Dr. Schultz highlighted all the places the Hebrew text repeats itself. The class already knew he would say the copied lines are evidence of multiple authors being involved in the creation of the text, but we didn’t expect him to then use those so-called errors as evidence in favor of God’s presence in the creation of the chapter.

His logic was simple: no writer or editor would ever “make the mistake” of including contradictions, errors, or inaccuracies in the final version of any text, let alone a divine one. There’s no way the thousands of scribes who followed them would then leave the “mistakes” uncorrected. God must be responsible.

This is a bold stand for a PhD to make because the first question anyone would ask him is, “Why did God do that?” No matter how many theories anyone ever proposes, the answer will always be, “I don’t know.” And that’s an uncomfortable statement for any human.

Maybe there’s a little Type-A in all of us. We like to know what is true and what is false. How things work, and why things happen. To that end, we humans might prefer that God have an annual conference call with all of us where He answers questions, gives instructions, and maybe chastises those who disagree with our personal opinions.

But that isn’t how God has chosen to interact with us. He is a God of relationships. He wanted to walk with us in the Garden of Eden forever; He did walk with us for awhile two millennia ago. He wants us to know Him, and that means reading His words, spending time on the hard parts, discussing them with Him in prayer, and debating them with others in fellowship.

Sadly this very quest for truth and the heart of God can lead to dissension in the churches. We must hold lightly to our own revelations because the stubborn adoption of one human’s idea over another’s causes denominations to divide. These Christians  insist those Christians aren’t Christians. A nine-year-old girl wonders why a dunk is better than a sprinkle when she knows her God hasn’t changed.

God wants us to study His word for ourselves, but remember that the mystery is in the text by His design. It helps us to keep coming back to discover more about Him, and as we know Him better, we want to share Him more. So that is why I wrote my book(s): I love God and His Words, and I want to share that with everyone. I want people to know they are as empowered to study the word of God as any theologian, and that it is okay to ask questions of His text and our traditions. (He can take it, and the church needs to be more self-reflective anyway!)

In time we will all be right and wrong about nonessentials, but disagreement must not divide us. As Jesus said, we are to

“Love the Eternal One your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is nearly as important, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The rest of the law, and all the teachings of the prophets, are but variations on these themes. (Matthew 22:37-40)

Love and Light in the Dark

Back in the late 1990s, a group of high school students would serve dinner at the Nashville Union Mission one night per week. The ringleader of our little group was a guy named Eric. He and his sister organized our volunteer work for the Mission and made sure we made it downtown on time each week no matter how late Coach kept us in the pool. Always wet, sometimes smelling of chlorine, and usually having forgotten our coats, we would pile into Mariah’s red Jeep and drive north for 30 minutes. There we would dish food, hand out day-past-date milk cartons, and then clean the kitchen and dining room.

The first time I volunteered, few of the people in line would look at me; but after I returned the following week, they started to acknowledge me. I started to learn faces and a handful of names. This was some of the first regular, sustained community service in which I ever participated, and it taught me the importance of building relationships with those whom you serve.

As I get older and take on more responsibilities with work and family, it has become harder to build personal relationships in my community. David and I try to keep quarters available for anyone walking by who needs bus fare, and we do service projects for the homeless and hungry through our church. Excepting one lady “of the night”–whose favorite part of the day was greeting Copper every morning–I do not know the people we are hoping to help. I worry that I am not doing enough, so I too often overload my calendar with Meal Trains and sewing projects in what are probably attempts to tamp down my guilt over not knowing my “neighbors” well enough to love them.

I’ve long supposed that the only people who don’t struggle with such feelings of inadequacy are professional servants–pastors, doctors, social workers, etc. Take Eric, for example. He and his wife are missionary doctors in Africa, raising a lovely family while saving lives and training future doctors. But in his new book, Promises in the Dark: Walking with Those in Need without Losing Heart, he reveals many of the same worries and doubts that I have:

I believe much of my tendency to overwork is a manifestation of seeking control and a lack of trust that, in the end, God–not I–will bring about real transformation in this broken world (79).

Eric tells stories of healing and death, frustration and inadequacy, joy and unimaginable sorrow:

The blinding reality is that suffering is everywhere. The world is filled with trouble, disease, and loss….Since moving to Africa, there’s probably no single theme that has felt so urgent to me. No other problem has felt so pressing: if I can’t find some way to at least think about all the suffering around me, then I won’t last long here (109).

In his stories of language barriers, infrastructure failures, cultural conflicts, and human suffering, I see parallels to many of our Western struggles. At the root of all suffering is evil, and that is what humans struggle against every day. We cannot do enough or love enough to get rid of the evil–that’s God’s job.

CoverI am encouraged that on the other side of the world, Christians who have devoted their lives and livelihoods to serving God and loving His people share many of my own frustrations. Eric reminds me that God wants to use all of us to reconcile His people to Himself from wherever we are, be it a hospital in Africa, a sidewalk in Chattanooga, or even the parking lot of Bridgestone Arena (where our beloved Union Mission once stood).

Happy-Crazy-Busy

This morning David pulled the honey bear out for his coffee and grinned. “My honey fairy didn’t come!” Yesterday he had used the last of the honey and had left the bottle out for me to refill. For 15-or-so years that had been our habit, not just for honey refills but for everything. When something was running low, I’d tell David to “put it on the list” and his so-called magical fairy would meet his needs so long as she wasn’t under an editing deadline.

The arrangement worked for us both because I have always worked from home. Laundry could be running, dinner could be cooking, and paint could be drying all while I was editing Word documents. I was happy to do most-things domestic so that when David got home from his long hours at work or many days away on business he could just relax and pay attention to me. He had less stress, and I got to do everything to my own type-A standards.

Then came 2019 and a seismic shift in my work schedule. No longer would I being doing freelance writing, editing, and reviewing only when it was convenient for us; now I was committed to writing 3 books in 3 years and all the research, travel, publicity, and bonus-content development (i.e., blogging and podcasting) that goes along with publishing books these days. I may still work from home, but I no longer have time to fill his honey bear. Clean laundry waits days to be folded, dinner is more often bought than made, and I haven’t done a house restoration project in at least a year. (Gasp!)

I have adopted a new motto for myself: Happy-Crazy-Busy. If I’m not working, then I’m thinking about working. It’s crazy, but I am so happy knowing I’m exactly where God wants me to be at this moment.

Naturally, we have struggled a bit with the changes. David is doing a lot more around the house, and I am learning to be thankful when I can’t find my colander–because that means he unloaded the dishwasher! There have been arguments and anger, but we are learning how to work together differently now that circumstances have changed.

Since March, God has seen fit to speak into our marriage through one of my chore-disrupting book projects. I have had the privilege of collaborating with Jeremy and Adrienne Camp to write a book about marriage. It will release March 3, 2020, in tandem with the film, I Still Believe, which is based on Jeremy’s spiritual journey in the wake of his first wife’s death. In Unison: The Unfinished Story of Jeremy and Adrienne Camp uses anecdotes from their personal life to explore topics such as tragedy, stress, finances, and parenting that can strain a marriage, and it offers Godly perspectives on how such challenges can strengthen and not separate husband and wife.

This project and these new friends entered my life at just the right time. From the floor of their living room with my laptop in my lap, I witnessed the fruits of a marriage lived in right-relationship with God. This family–who is separated by the demands of two successful careers by far greater distances and for much longer periods of time than those David and I complain of–exudes the love they espouse. Their home is a place of peace and cooperation (where, incidentally, screens are tools for work and school, not sources of mindless entertainment!).

Jeremy and Adrienne have inspired David and me not just with the words they have written but with the lives they live. They, too, are happy-crazy-busy, and all of that comes from being obedient to God and how He wishes to use them in service of His will. No tiny fairies make their marriage work; one big God does.