How will you search for something when you don’t in the least know what it is? How on earth are you going to set up something you don’t know as the object of your search? To put it another way, even if you come right up against it, how will you know that what you have found is the thing you didn’t know?*
I had just finished teaching a class on reading the Bible...a class that excited me and which I felt had gone quite well. Among other things, we’d been talking about the issues that arise when something is translated from one language to another. Idioms like “The kids were climbing the walls,” can be confusing if they are translated word for word without awareness of the intent.
When I saw the elderly man approaching I knew it was going to be interesting. His opening line was priceless. Without so much as a grunted greeting he fired his first shot across the bow: “You know what your problem is?”
There are so many possible responses to that question, none of which seemed promising. Has anything good ever come from a conversation that started with those words? I wasn’t getting out of this conversation, so I played along, “You mean you’ve narrowed it down to one?”
“You’ve lost the simplicity of the Gospel.”
There’s another one of those statements that just hangs there.
A year or so later the same man came up to me on a Sunday morning and said, “That was the best sermon you’ve preached yet. I’ve heard over 10,000 sermons in my life. So, I can say that one was pretty good. But last week’s was undoubtedly the worst sermon I have ever heard in my life.”
Now, I don’t think he can honestly make such a claim...he slept through at least half a dozen of my sermons during that first year, any one of which could have been worse than this particular message.
But I digress...Back to idea of simplicity.
It seems to be a commonly accepted truth that faith should be simple. Lately I’ve been thinking more about this assumption. Are we sure that’s where we want to hang our hats?
Adam and Eve struggled to get it. The Patriarchs struggled. Israel struggled. The disciples struggled. The Christians in Corinth, Galatia...even Jerusalem struggled to grasp the calling and the significance of faith. The Church throughout the last 20 centuries seems to have struggled with it as well. And yet, somehow today, its simple.
Last year I read a book which discusses the education process for architectural design students. There is a period in the beginning, before they’ve discovered what it means to “think architecturally” when the whole process is mysterious and confusing. The master designers who are there to coach and teach them cannot explain how to think this way. Textbooks can’t teach it, lectures can’t capture it. The only way to learn it is to do it - which leads to the paradox in the quote from Plato: “How will you search for something when you don’t in the least know what it is?”
I’ve found a similar process occurs with the process of learning to “listen to God,” particularly within the context of Scripture. We’re good at analyzing the text, but being quiet and listening is difficult.
The discovery process is necessary and it is simple in that the skill and ability is developed through experience rather than complicated algorithms, equations or memorization of data. However, it is no simple matter precisely because it must be experienced to be learned.
To learn to listen requires us to actually quiet our inner monologue; learning to think architecturally requires one to begin thinking in precisely the way they are seeking to learn. The same experience is undoubtedly true in many areas of life. Those proficiencies we seek to acquire - if we desire to become practitioners - must be cultivated. Structurally and programmatically this is simple...but this is no simple matter.
There are basic competencies which must be mastered - one does not refuse to study the language, history, theory and mechanics of architectural design if they seek to become an architect. Beyond that student must have a grasp of geometry and physics. These things must be learned, there are no short cuts. Yet, mastering the science does not in any way guarantee that one will become a great architect. The art and the science work in harmony with one another. The choice to ignore either is a choice to fail in the endeavor.
Some will point out that there are gifted architects who apprenticed under a master rather than attending “school.” Do we really think that such an apprenticeship is any less of an education process? The basics are still taught - perhaps much more effectively and often over a longer period of time - the difference is that they are not approached in the same manner.
To be sure, where God is concerned, one does not need a degree to enter the Kingdom - it is true that many with degrees find it difficult to experience the Kingdom life they’ve spent so much time studying.
There is a simplicity to the gospel that is filled with depth and profound beauty specifically because of its uncluttered nature. Yet, like the Genesis 1 and 2 accounts of creation which depict God as both the Transcendent Other and the Immanent Creator, the life of faith is at once profoundly simple and incredibly complex. The simplicity invites us to enter in, though we are lacking in every way and the complexity invites us to continue exploring the depths of this indescribable mystery. How wonderful is that?! Simple enough to appreciate and embrace and yet complex enough to be worth a lifetime of exploration!
In Acts 8 we find a story of an Ethiopian official who is reading the prophet Isaiah. The Holy Spirit sends Philip to this man and upon hearing the man reading from the prophet he asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian’s response is informative. “How can I unless someone explains it to me?”
Some have mistakenly assumed that this meant he wasn’t able to understand the words themselves - he couldn’t read the Hebrew (or more likely the Greek as the Septuagint was widely read during this time). But the text itself shows that the man understood the words he was puzzled by the meaning. “Tell me please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?”
It is okay to have teachers. It isn’t contrary to the Gospel to suggest that there are things we need to learn. Its even okay to admit that some of those things are not easy to grasp on the first pass. At least those things seem okay for the people described in the stories of scripture.
AND YET, the message IS simple. The message is a clear call of hope for those who have come to fear that hope is a myth. The good news is that the kingdom of God is at hand. The reign of Christ is going to be a completely different experience from the tyrannical reigns of human empires. In this empire you have a role to play. You are not a spectator - that position has been eliminated.
There are great depths to this message, great complexity in the universe, great mystery to be explored in faith. There will always be need for learning, study and yes, even teachers. Perhaps our greatest mistake is not thinking that faith is complex, but failing to realize that the complexity is a part of the simple beauty.
The “simple truth” is that we have plenty of adventure ahead of us. We’ll never finish our investigation, never map out the limits of this kingdom. So there is no expectation that we grasp everything before diving in.
Yes, this part is simple. Those who have heard the good news that a new life is available are a part of the team that is sent to participate, anticipate and invite others to do the same.
There is much to learn and we have our whole lives to learn it. That doesn’t mean we can sit around waiting to be taught and doing nothing. Do you have a story? Have you encountered the hope of the gospel? If you have been baptized then you have been ordained and commissioned. So go! Make disciples! No one expects you to have all the answers...NONE OF US have all the answers!
We don’t have to obtain a diploma but neither should we dismiss the value and contribution of those who have. We can embrace the simplicity of the gospel while still appreciating the beautifully complex mystery.
Whether simple or complex, neither option is fully explored in a classroom nor in the pages of a book - ANY book. Life in the kingdom is meant to be lived, experienced and embraced.
Who cares if you have memorized scripture only to let it sit in your gut with last night’s roast beef? If you have embraced the “simplicity of the gospel” so that you can look down your nose at others without offering hope to anyone...what have you really embraced?
The converse is true as well. If you have spent years - decades even - studying the most intricate details of history, language and cultural context and still haven’t learned how to be a neighbor...what have you learned?
Just this week someone asked me, “So, is there room for introverts in the kingdom of God?”
I sure hope so, because I’m one of them.
There is plenty room for extroverts and introverts in the kingdom, but - at the risk of sounding too harsh - I’m beginning to wonder if there is room for cowards.
That seems to be where the problem lies. We don’t require an extroverted personality that leads us to mix and mingle with everyone. But, we must have the courage and conviction to live out the hope we have, prepared to give an answer to those who ask. There are no position openings for “anonymous disciple,” or “passive consumer.”
Some will say, “I’m not looking for all that stuff. I just want to hear a good sermon and go on my way.” For those looking for a faith that will simply provide quality education and wholesome entertainment for their children combined with a weekly uplifting concert and relevant message for them - with little or no expectation that anything substantial is going to change... For those who are looking for a simple Bible study but are not willing to put what they find into practice or share it with others... For those who want to add religious goods and services to the list of things they need for a satisfying life... For those who see little need to count the cost or pick up a cross... For those who think that burying your bag of gold/talent in the ground and waiting for the master to return is a good idea... For those who just want to be an inactive player on God’s team and go to heaven some day to reap a great reward... It may be that you’ve lost the simplicity of the Gospel.
Take heart because many of us, including the heroes of our faith recorded in scripture, share this struggle.
* This question from Plato’s, The Meno is quoted in Donald Schon’s, Educating the Reflective Practitioner.