Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Month: February, 2018

Exvangelical Devotions: The End of Job

God shows up and is all, Who’s darkening counsel without knowledge? Then, in four chapters, God tells Job all the things he’ll never understand or accomplish. Job listens, puts his hand over his mouth, and withdraws his complaint.

From the pulpit I’ve heard that the answer to Job is kind of an expansion of Isaiah 55:8; “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.” Basically, God knows what’s up and we ought to trust that everything will work out and Job got his money back and new kids so, over all, there is a justice to the world.

My interpretation is a bit different. See, God keeps coming back to the same kinds of questions. Where does light live? Does rain have a father? Can you bind the constellations? Will the unicorn serve thee, doth the hawk fly by thy wisdom, and all that? The end of that matter is that the question falls fully apart. Why do the innocent suffer? Where is snow is stored for winter? It isn’t. It just doesn’t make sense.

The three friends are moved by this revelation to bring food and throw down some money for Job to get back on his feet. They stop blaming. They stop trying to figure out the Story. They just help.

Morning Devos: Elihu the Fourth Friend

Job rests his case. He’s innocent and suffering and that chips away at the shared Story of a just world.

Elihu’s mad. He’s mad at Job’s three friends because for condemning Job even though they couldn’t answer his legitimate concern. He’s mad at Job because of his self-justifying, God-condemning reasonings. So he takes his turn, despite his youth, and nails it so hard that Yahweh shows up.

Watching Elihu argue is useful for any of us who talk about hard things. Here’s a list of ways he kicks conversational butt:

  • Job 32:11-12; Elihu listens more than he speaks, which gives him the ability to meet the real questions in new, useful ways.
  • Job 32:14, 33:7; Elihu is not adversarial toward Job like the three stooges. Also, his contribution to the conversation will be different from theirs–otherwise why would he even be talking? Notice, also, how often Elihu uses Job’s name; he refuses to forget that Job is a person, not a theological problem.
  • Job 33:8ff; Elihu repeats Job’s argument to shows that he understands it.
  • Job 33:12-13; Elihu does not flinch in his own argument. Since he’s demonstrated he is not against Job, there’s no need to flinch.
  • Job 33:31ff; He’s still listening and he checks in to see how his words are taken.
  • Job 37:1; He’s emotionally invested. He doesn’t pretend that it’s not personal. He doesn’t detach.
  • Job 38:1; His arguments prompt revelation; God appears and blows everyone’s minds.

There’s a sermon here, and way more in the last ten chapters of Job than a weekday blog post can fit.

Christianly Book Review #2: Intimacy With God by Thomas Keating

I spent a few years as a Cognitive Science major, mostly because it spoke to the kind of spirituality I used to pursue: very introspective and interested in mental/spiritual/emotional growth. I first heard about Thomas Keating’s book on Christian Centering Prayer, “Intimacy With God,” while doing a paper on the similarities and differences between meditative practises and prayer. This year of living christianly is a good opportunity to finally read it.

Here’s how Thomas Keating lays his prayer out:

  1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
  2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
  3. When you become away of thoughts, return ever so gently to the sacred word.
  4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes (16).

The idea is to “gently establish an attitude of waiting upon the Lord with loving attentiveness” (43). I’ve found it to be a difficult practise to keep up, perhaps because it doesn’t have the same, er, cultural flavour as the evangelical disciplines I’m used to. Also, training intention is a different skill from training attention–one of the goals of mindfulness meditation. So while I think Christian Centering Prayer could be really useful for some people, it’s not super palatable for my evangelical tastes. Has anyone else tried it?

Morning Devos: Proverbs 3:31

Envy thou not the oppressor, and chose none of his ways.

Lines like these strike a sad chord because of how often Christendom is the oppressor. And how often Christianity envies the oppressor and choses his ways, or at the very least gets out of the oppressor’s path so he can get on with his oppressing. And how many times cries against oppression are implicitly and explicitly resisted by Christian voices.

Almost every week I hear social commentary from the pulpit: how #metoo is rooted in the sin of sexual liberation, how social justice distracts from the gospel, how conservative politics are a mark of being Christian: and all of it couched in Biblical-sounding talk.

oh i don’t know the sufferings of people outside my front door.
and i join the oppressors of those i choose to ignore.
i’m trading comfort for human life
and that’s not just murder, it’s suicide.
and this too shall be made right.

Derek Webb, “This Too Shall Be Made Right”

Morning Devos: Job 30:20

“I cry unto thee, and thou dost not hear me: I stand up, and thou regardest me not.”

Job’s not doing so well. By the end it works out for him because (spoiler alert) eventually God is going to show up and give answers. Cryptic answers, but at least something to work with. Job is going to be OK because eventually the voice from one high will have something to say about the whole situation.

I’d like to see what would happen if God never showed up, and Job just had to deal with the silence, like so many others who have cried out with no answer, and stood with no regard.

Morning Devos: Job 27:5

Job’s friends are still at it. He says, “God forbid that I should justify you: till I die I will not remove mine integrity from me.”

There’s something noble about being willing to face death before disintegrity. I think integrity isn’t the same as convictions. Integrity implies a kind of stable wholeness. It implies my integrals–my important things–are in position and cared for.

Job can’t repent for something he hasn’t done. He’s not going to capitulate to his friends on their word, because that would ignore what he knows about his situation and experience. In the end, his friends can’t understand, but that doesn’t make it Job’s job to justify them. He just needs to hold on to his integrity.

Morning Devos: Job 21:3

Job’s friends were downers. I guess they probably had good intentions when they first came, but Job’s condition was so mind-reelingly bad that they sat there speechless for three days trying to figure it all out and came to the conclusion that Job must have sinned because there’s no way a just God could let an innocent man suffer this much.

Job’s all, “No I’m a good guy, this isn’t fair, something’s wrong,” but his friends are like, “That’s not possible, Job, it’s a more or less just world and we more or less know the rules to it and the rules say you must be in the wrong somewhere. In fact, your attitude is downright disrespectful and basically proves you’re in the wrong.”

It’s been going on more or less like this since chapter three. Whatever the conclusion ends up being, the striking thing about the conversation is that everyone knows the answer to Job’s problem, even though they haven’t heard anything he’s said. By chapter 21, Job’s caught on.

“Suffer me that I may speak,” he says. “And after that I have spoken, mock on.”

Christianly Book Review #1: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

Marie Kondo’s “the life-changing magic of tidying up” is not a Christian book. It has nothing to do with Christianity. I didn’t even finish it. Nevertheless, it seems an ideal first book for the year of living christianly because it’s the first book I read this year. If I dig hard enough I can find parallels, I bet.

First, Marie Kondo promises big stuff. She claims if you do it her way, your house will never get cluttered again. Crazy, right? In a completely different way, Christianity offers to change your life forever.

Second, the KonMari is really simple. “Start by discarding. Then organize your space, thoroughly, completely, in one go.” That’s on page one. You could stop reading and just do it now.

Third, the KonMari is surprisingly difficult. You have to go through every single possession, category by category, physically handling each, and keep only the things that spark joy. Seems risky. This is where most people stop. Just like rigorous Christianity!

Fourth, something about the KonMari seems to really work. We KonMari’ed our house during Christmas break and there hasn’t been any return to clutter since. In the same way, we’ve all heard stories of people whose faith overcome real-life problems.

Fifth, I only had to read half the book to get benefit. I read the whole thing and learned the KonMari fold (it looks really cool) I’d have even more KonMari magic. Even so, the amount of KonMari I was able to put into my life was enough to make positive change.

Sixth, the KonMari changes how you look at things. We had twenty garbage bags and three van-loads of clothing, toys, electronics, books, gear, trinkets, utensils, dishes, furniture, and et ceteras that we are better off without. It’s not that we don’t need it—we don’t even want it!

Seventh, the KonMari makes it so you are only surrounded by the things you love. This parallel is a little reachy, so I’ll unpack it. While the KonMari offers freedom by removing unloved things, Christianity teaches indiscriminate love. In both cases, everywhere you look you see the Beloved.

Eighth, the KonMari can seem unpalatable, scary, against common sense, and is rarely seen through to its core. Similarly, the really powerful and difficult things at Christianity’s root tend to be left undone. G.K. Chesterton had a point when he said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

All in all, I recommend the KonMari because it worked for me. It was a great way to clean house in preparation for my year of living christianly. If you have the time and will-power, get a copy, read half of it, and lay siege to your fortress.

The next christianly book review will be significantly more christianly.

What it Would Take to Believe

There’s beauty in the idea that we are chosen, and our reward will be worth any amount of suffering. There’s power in the idea that the Omnipotence indwells a believer. It’s great to believe that no matter how bad things get, the One in control of the cosmos has my back.

I’d wager it sounds trite to most unbelievers. The power of Evangelicalism is a bit like the harm of cultural appropriation: you can’t understand it unless you know the whole story. And even then there’s something important lost in translation.

See, every human restlessness and ache and shame and attachment is because of innate brokenness. Our souls are bent before birth, and our bodies reflect it. Ours is a world of exiles, so far from God that we wouldn’t believe the truth even if it slapped us in the face and sent us all to hell. Cut off from reason, we suffer and cause others to suffer until we die and reap suffering’s fulfillment.

Some are saved when God breathes life into their dead spirit, rips the scales from their eyes, gives them a heart of flesh instead of the stone inside. These ones are set apart. No matter what suffering they go through it will not be comparing the eternal weight of glory prepared for them through Christ.

I used to believe all that.

The year of living christianly is not about trying to recapture that belief–it seems dishonest to set out trying to attain any specific belief. But the other day someone asked me what I wanted from God. What would God have to do to prove that he was real? Well, faith is a gift of God, lest anyone boast. If God wanted to prove himself real to me, he would have to give me faith.

so either you aren’t real

or I am just not chosen

maybe I’ll never know

either way my heart is broken

– Derek Webb, “Goodbye, for now”