Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Dark Shadows of Christianity

The dim light from the moon filters into my room as I stare up at the ceiling. Another long night. I roll my head to the side and glance at the bright blue numbers beside my bed. 4:37am. It's been like this all week. I know what's bothering me, more particularly, exactly who's bothering me, but I don't want to think about it. I force myself up and pull on some jeans and an old sweater. There's no point in lying around if I can't enter the land of dreams.

I put some coffee on, stifling a yawn as I reach into the cupboards to get the sugar. A week ago I'd bumped into a former student. Sami had been one of my favorites, a bundle of energy who always seemed to be smiling, always willing to help with my disabled students. And unlike most guys in high school, he seemed comfortable with them. He'd come to me for advice more than once, and we'd chatted about a number of things, including religion. Although we talked about it, it was the one area upon which Sami never looked for my advice.

Sami was a Muslim.

He'd grown up in a kind and religious family, and he had about as much interest in Christianity as I had in Islam. This past week I hadn't been able to get Sami out of my mind, even as I confronted the dark shadows of my faith. Christianity stated, without apology, that unless something dramatic happened, my young friend was not going to spend eternity with God.

My coffee is finally ready, and I pour it into my mug, already loaded with cream and sugar. I take a sip, add a bit more cream, and head into the living room. The latest statistics show that nearly ninety per cent of all evangelical teenagers will walk away from the church when they turn 18. And the portion of the church that is conspicuously absent from most evangelical churches are the 18-34 year-olds, especially the ones without kids.

Every youth pastor has seen teenagers get caught up in the youth group and the excitement of church, only to see them go to university and disappear forever. They hit the 'real world', and once the sub-cultural bubble of the evangelical church breaks... well, they realize that church is for women and children. Nice for relationships and some community. Safe enough. But not too authentic. Or risky. They realize that the evangelical church is more concerned about giving answers than asking questions. Especially since the PAT answers we so often give don't make any sense. It reminds me of that great Jack Nicholson line.

"You want the Truth! You can't handle the Truth!"

I take a sip from my coffee and move to the window. The night is clear, and the cold presses itself against the glass. I'm thinking about Sami because even in this relativistic world, I would never suggest that Sami will know God simply because he's a great kid. And yet, I do not want to react like the fundamentalists, who often seem happy when the world 'plunges into the abyss of sin' while they cradle the hammer of self-righteousness and pride. If I'm honest, Universalism doesn't make sense to me, this idea that we can call god whatever we want, do anything we want, and everything will be okay. I can't help but think that if we actually believed in God, wouldn't it be insulting to Him if we didn't care who or what He was? Still, my heart breaks on nights like this, because I wish it were so. I wish everyone could know Him.

The point is that I can accept the truth of my faith, but I don't like it much. I want everyone to know God loves them. I want people broken and shattered by life to find their smile. I want the happy ending. And sometimes, when I think about Sami, I'm not sure about this faith of mine, this faith that says that God loves all of the world, died for all of us, but oh yeah, remember that student you loved, he's not welcome. Remember your brother, your dad, your daughter, they're not welcome. And it's in these moments I remember every jerk Christian, every idiot who accepted Jesus as their Lord, but have tested my patience with their lack of 'fruit.' The more I think about it, the sadder I get, and I step slowly back from the window.

When people ask me why so many college students are leaving the church, I have only one thing to say.

Maybe we're too busy making up answers to listen to their questions. Maybe we've decided that we've figured everything out, when it's obvious that we don't. Maybe we need to tell them how we struggle with this idea of a God who loves us and yet who leaves His wrath on so many. Or maybe we have to face that struggle ourselves.

Sometimes I think we're losing young adults because we seem so smug about being right. I know that it's as much about perception as reality, but for my generation, if there's one characteristic that marks Baby Boomers, its smugness. the insular idea that they've got everything figured out in their little bubble.

I open the door to the balcony and step outside. It's cold out, cold enough to see my breath as I glance at the night sky. Copernicus was the first to suggest that the Earth was not the center of the universe, that it made no sense that a larger body (the sun) rotated around a smaller one. The church forced him to recant his views, and had him thrown in prison. And yes, he was a Christian.

I'm like that sometimes. I think God revolves around me, a larger body revolving around a smaller one. In my bubble, in my world, I have everything figured out.

I shiver as I think about Copernicus and Galileo. I glance up at the moon, which is almost full, so bright it seems to light up the street. Stars twinkle in the night sky, cast across the heavens, shimmering so close it feels like I can reach out and touch them. It makes no sense to me that those twinkling little lights are the size of the sun. It makes no sense to me that the universe is unimaginably wide and deep and long.

But then, there's so much I don't understand.

I don't understand, for instance, why I was born in a rich culture, and most of the world is not. I don't understand how God can love the world so much that He sends His only Son, only to reject the billions who will never meet Him. Perhaps worst of all, I don't understand how I can love this Creator, this Creator who rejects so many, and yet I do. Not only that, but in the deepest part of my soul, I believe He loves me too. Not only me, but every human who has ever walked this planet.

A breeze slips down the back of my sweater and makes me shiver. My apartment seems warms and safe, filled as it is with familiar things. I've created my own environment inside, and I love how I've set everything to my liking. But out here under the night sky, the cold reality of the natural world and all its mystery presses down on me.

I turn and head inside. We will never have all the answers, because no system of theology has ever truly fit this Carpenter we follow. But we should never stop asking questions. Maybe the point is just that. That we don't know everything. That sometimes the reality of our faith is painful. And that in spite of the overwhelming sorrow it can cause, we must face the truth of what we believe. Maybe it's time for us to stop running, to stop trying to pleases the world around us, and be honest with ourselves.

I yawn, still thinking about Sami, but it's too late to go back to bed. I wonder if other people are asking these questions too, the ones that keep me up at night, the ones for which there is no easy answer. But somewhere in my spirit, I believe we honour God this way, don't we? We honour our Creator with thoughts on who He is and how to follow Him. We honour Him when we ask Him how this can possibly be so?

The week has been difficult, and I don't have any easy solutions. What I do know is this: God loves me as much as He loves Sami. I head to my bedroom and get on my knees.

Until God gives me the answer, there really is only one response...

"Lord, I pray for my friend, Sami..."