On Tuesdays or Wednesdays…or sometimes Thursdays depending on the week…you can usually find me at the local coffee shop reading Tolstoy at 7am with one, sometimes two, other people.
Well, currently it’s Tolstoy. Who knows who it might be next.
We’re reading The Kingdom of God is Within You. I’ve read it before, at my previous parish in fact, with another parishioner on Friday mornings.
We sit there, we drink coffee (and sometimes eat a biscuit) and we discuss Tolstoy, chapter by chapter.
And one of the interesting cultural changes for me, having moved to North Carolina in the last five months, is that we’re surrounded by other people at the coffee shop at 7am (not a lot of people, but enough), and to a person almost every single group is doing some sort of Bible study.
Bible open, guide in hand (or on laptop), talking about Jesus. That was uncommon back in Chicago, but here it’s like they’re happening everywhere: Bible out, guide in hand (or on laptop), Jesus talk.
And then there’s us, reading Tolstoy.
Sometimes I wonder what they’re thinking about us. I see them looking over at us, and not just when I wear my awesome plaid suit-coat. I wonder if they wonder what we’re talking about when we talk about Tolstoy’s thoughts.
But the thing is, we’re talking also talking about Jesus. And the Bible absolutely comes into play, especially for Tolstoy. We’re absolutely talking about the Word of God (hint: that’s Jesus), too, just like them.
Tolstoy is our guide, though. And culture is our context. Not a Bible guide.
And I’m not making a judgment call here, I’m actually making a defense of sorts. Because, and this is the thing, I think Tolstoy forces me to wrestle with faith in ways that sometimes aren’t present, at least for me, with traditional Bible guides or traditional Bible studies.
And I have to wrestle with faith.
I have to wrestle with it…how else will I eek a blessing from it?
I have to wrestle with it…or how else will I know what it even is?
I have to wrestle with it…or else it’s just all too comfortable and too formulaic and I fall in love with my right answers and right beliefs much more than I experience faith and then I become my own savior…
And I certainly wrestle the text itself. I’m always wrestling with the text. Unless you wrestle with the text, how will you begin to contend with the tension in the story where Jesus calls the Caananite woman a dog?
And the trouble I have with so many guides, and so many sermons, and so many Christian podcasts, and so many devotionals, is that they resolve the tension to easily, too quickly, and too simply. They tell you what the parable means (as if any parable means just ONE thing). They give you the answer to faith questions too immediately (and often, wrongly in my opinion).
They make sense of it for you, instead of invite you to come to your senses with the text and testimony and story in hand.
And I get why it happens. It happens because we want to make sense of everything.
But what if the point of faith isn’t to make sense of everything, but rather to invite you into the process of making sense through the lens of faith?
We’re wrestling with concepts in our Tuesday morning Bible study here (that’s the 9:30am group, not the 7am group). Big concepts like “faith,” “post-modernity/trans-millenialism,” “theodicy,””soteriology.”
And I am so grateful for this group of people, from diverse backgrounds, wrestling together. And as their pastor, sometimes I worry that we’re wrestling too much, or that we’re hitting the mat too hard and it’s not helpful for life or for spiritual growth, or that we’re wrestling so long that we’re getting fatigued.
And that’s a real problem, and this is where devotionals that comfort more than afflict are blessings. We cannot discount that work!
But I wonder if that’s all that many are getting. I wonder if the contending that St. Paul and St. Peter did in the early church is lost in a church quite comfortable just simply being reinforced in their beliefs and not stretched and pulled and prodded and pushed off the faith cliff into the open air of uncertainty.
Because there is where we learn to fly, to “soar on wings like eagles.” There is where the true meaning of the term faith is found and experienced and actually does something.
This is all to say, the Word comes in many and various ways, including through Tolstoy as he wrestled with his own faith.
So wrestle on, good and faithful servants. And if you’re not wrestling, I encourage you to start conditioning. Because the easy answers will run out, if they haven’t already. And God is so much more beautiful and complicated than we’re often led to think. And the story of salvation is so much more wonderful when you engage it than when you’re force fed it.
And when you’re fatigued from wrestling with it all, allow the angels of the church around you to attend you.
You know, like Jesus…