Friday, November 15, 2013

Words Without Knowledge

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind:  ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? – Job 38:1-2

“God is not an answer man can give, God says. God himself does not give answers. He gives himself, and into the midst of the whirlwind of his absence gives himself.”  Frederick Buechner

“You are going to have to speak up sir, not everyone can hear you,” the bishop said to the young man in front of an audience of about 600 fellow Methodist strangers.  “OK, sorry,” his voice cracked as he tried his best to move closer to the microphone.  “OK. So, someone much wiser than me once said, ‘You don’t have to attend every argument you’re invited to…’” 

It was the young man’s second day at his first annual conference, a gathering of ministers and lay people every year in the Methodist church to fellowship and take up church business.  He was looking forward to the fellowship, and being the grandson of a Methodist preacher, he was looking forward to learning about the business of the church.  Little did he know, he was walking into a culture war mine field, and little did he know that he’d soon feel compelled to speak in front of a room of complete strangers.

Apparently every four years it get likes this.  The year before the bigger general conference of Methodists from all over the world, people at the local level submit petitions to be voted on that get submitted to the bigger gathering.  Every hot-button issue of our culture was well-represented on the list – abortion, homosexuality, evolution, you name it.  And not just once; they voted again and again on these topics.  They had discussion time before each vote with time for people to speak both for and against each petition, which was a more gracious version of a cable news point-counterpoint, though the arguments were the same. Could it have been any different? 

Someone should’ve warned him, but they didn’t.  He kept thinking back to the story of a vagabond who came in dirty and smelly to a prim and proper church who was asked by the preacher after the service to “Go home and pray, and ask God what he thinks you should wear when you come into this church.”  When he showed up the next week dirty and smelly again, he was reminded, “I thought I asked you to pray and ask God about what you should wear when you come to this church,” to which the vagabond replied, “I did, and God said he didn’t have any idea, said he’d never set foot in this church.”

So on the third separate resolution about banning homosexuals from some part of church participation, he asked to be recognized and spoke – not about homosexuality, but about Christianity - the good news of god’s presence, grace, love and mercy - and how any message we send to anyone should at its heart be about that, and how a “no” vote wasn’t a “yes” for anything but a “no” against clothing ourselves in our faith and speaking of anything other than the gospel. 

Maybe it was just his imagination, but he thought the vote after he spoke was at least 575-25 in favor of the resolution he'd opposed, compared to the 580-20 in favor of the other two.

Reading Frederick Buechner talking about Job this week reminded me of that story.  Job can only hang his head when God in the whirlwind asks: “Who darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”  And so should we hang our heads too.  We sow this wind and reap this whirlwind with him.  We all trade in “words without knowledge,” don’t we, when we talk for God, when we quote scripture for a moral code or try to speak to someone’s darkness that we’ve never encountered. 

“Words without knowledge” is a simple concept, but it is enormous; it’s everywhere, and it’s in so many of our beliefs.  “Words without knowledge,” is anything - scripture, creed, doctrine, opinion, argument - anything not grounded in experience.  Albert Einstein puts its much better than me, “Information is not knowledge. The only source of knowledge is experience.”  The only part of me that resists that universal truth is not my faith, it’s my ego. 

“Words without knowledge” are a cheap and dangerous substitute for experience.  They soothe our egos, “Hey, you are right!”  They keep us away from people we are called to love, they keep us away from feelings we need to feel, and they keep us bound up in ignorance and away from living life in the world with ourselves and others exactly as God made it all: very good.

Paul tells us this as well.  He opens the famous “love is patient” chapter of 1 Corinthians with, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”  Love is the language of God.  And love, no matter how much we read and study about it, can only be known by experience. 

No one can tell you with any conviction what they don’t know by experience.  And so let us tell of our faith only what we know. 

I know a God who has carried me through some very dark times.  May I be there for others and help them experience it when the time comes. 

I know there is always hope.  May I speak that kind word to others when they are in need of it. 

I have known the pain of deep regret and failure.  May I share that experience with those I see walking a similar destructive path. 

I know there is always redemption.  May I encourage those who are outcast by their own shortcomings.

I have known the freeing power of forgiveness and mercy I’ve never deserved.  May I grant them both before they are asked for. 

I have witnessed personal destruction wrought by hate and injustice, and I have played a part in perpetuating both.  May I stand with those who are persecuted and pray for those who persecute.

I have had the rough edges of my perspective smoothed time and again by simple conversation with good friends, complete strangers, and my three year old kid.  May I carry the candle of peace in my heart to quietly share with others as well.

I’ve known immense joy and happiness.  May I look for ways to pay that joy forward in this life, and may a deep sense of gratitude be the lens through which I see the world.

I have known the unyielding grace of God in Jesus in ways unspeakable and dumbfounding.  May I live a life in communion with the rest of creation that in ways ever so small but ever so significant spreads the good news that I have come to know through experiencing this life.

Buechner is right.  God gives no answers, only himself – on the cross and in our lives again and again and again. 

What can we proclaim more honestly than that?