November 28, 2008

A Goat Among the Flock

You’ve probably heard this before, but there are two kinds of Christians: the sheep and the goats. In case you’re wondering which camp you're in, let me propose a few simple sorting criteria.

  1. When they hear about angels hitch-hiking in the Nevada desert to warn travelers to stockpile food, sheep accept the account as one more weave in a beautiful tapestry that is both logical in design and perfect in symmetry. Goats, on the other hand, hear the same story and feel nothing—nothing except perhaps a little nausea.
  2. Sheep like to be led straightway into pastures of righteousness. And Goats? Well, let’s just say they’d rather meander there and know they’d made it on their own.
  3. Sheep hear the shepherd’s voice and immediately feel a connection to it. Goats hear a voice, too, but to them the message is mixed with white noise and public hysteria. They’re never quite sure if they’re feasting on the words of Christ or gorging on junk food.
  4. Sheep are unquestioningly loyal—that’s how they show their faith—but to goats the term "unquestioning loyalty" is an oxymoron. They believe that when people are truly loyal to a cause or creed, they’ll naturally inquire about its means or motives. And that’s how they show their faith.
  5. Sheep see the world in black and white, because they believe we’re ruled by clearly delineated moral imperatives. Goats, on the other hand, experience the world in various shades of gray. They’re tormented by weighty decisions, because they see in each choice, a conflict between two or more divine principals that, of necessity, must splinter like glass before fitting neatly into life’s framework.
Now, I’m going to make a confession. I’m a goat—there, I got it out. I’ve always been a goat and despite efforts otherwise, I’ll probably always be, but is that bad? I hope not. I’d like to think there’s enough love, compassion and empathy to leave a little room within the fold for folks like me. On the other hand, maybe I’m being hard on myself, because some of the people we admire most have been goats: non-conformists ready to battle conventional wisdom.

There you have it in the tiniest of nutshells, a debate that at one time raged within my heart. Should I force myself into the mold of an easy believer? You know what I mean: a person who can hear an obscure church doctrine for the first time and immediately bear testimony of it. Or do I allow myself to be thoughtful and inquiring, but risk being bludgeoned by accusations of faithlessness?

I became a Christian after attending an inspirational church conference for youth. Later that evening, while returning home with friends, the car we were traveling in suddenly went dead and refused to crank up. When the others left to call a wrecker, I remained in that broken-down car and thought about what I’d learned earlier in the day. Before I knew what was happening, I was talking aloud into the dark and telling God—or whoever was responsible—that somehow I felt clean and at peace. I remember pleading: Please, don’t let this feeling ever go away.

Then, almost inexplicably, God talked back. I didn’t hear anything with physical ears but I heard Him all the same. An hour went by like eternity trapped in a microdot, while I learned that God knew and loved me. Though He didn’t part the veil, He must have cracked it just a little, because I got some sense for the beauty of His world and that’s something I’ll never forget—even when doubts cross my mind. Which, by the way, is still a regular occurrence. In fact, even simple daily experiences cause me to walk paths of logic that lead me to new canyons of uncertainty, into which I take leaps of faith. But I’ve learned to accept these experiences—even embrace them—because today I recognize value in the process.

Drawing its wonder encapsulated
As from an apothecary’s jar,
The Word stretched me beyond horizons
To gave me a sense of God.
For what of Godliness
Lest it be unfettered,
Free of horizons constraining mortal men?
Its good news changed this mortal’s course
(Having swallowed—but being swallowed in return)
And hearing Him who was more than philosopher say,
“Know the truth,”
I have searched.
But the search continues.
For somewhere unbound and never resting,
The Father to my soul urges onward,
To walk the path free of mortal constraints,
To be like Him:
Unfettered and unchained.
There’s a reason for spiritual struggles. Something astounding happens when we struggle—we overcome. So God provides us with challenges that enable us to grow. Sometimes the challenges He allows in our lives are spiritual in nature—a clouded meaning, a seeming inconsistency, an enigma—but by searching for truth and meaning, we grow and prepare ourselves to walk along a path free of mortal constraints. Although the gift of belief is wonderful, I’m thankful for my doubts and uncertainty. They remind me that my search continues.

So, like most goats, I’m comfortable with inquiry, but people who are uneasy with it often ask, “What of child-like faith? Shouldn’t we be as unquestioning as children?” My response to them is this: Child-like faith is important—in fact, I believe it’s crucial to spiritual development—but there’s nothing in this world more curious and inquiring as children.

We used to call Matthew (our second boy) our Pokey Little Puppy for a couple of reasons: first, that was the title of his favorite book and second, we were constantly trying to get him to hurry. Then on one of those rare days when time was less scarce than gold, I decided to follow him. I let him determine our pace and agenda and he taught me something I’d completely forgotten. With virtually every step he took, there seemed to be a gazillion things that beckoned to him, that quizzed him and asked him to speculate a prior chain of events. To him the world was remarkable, so naturally he got distracted. For a while that day, I saw things through his eyes and became fascinated again with a world I had come to believe I’d figured out.

There’s an extraordinary song by the Irish rock bank, U2, that summarizes what I’m saying. In the song, Bono says, obviously referring to Christ:
You broke the bonds
And you loosed the chains.
You carried the cross
And my shame.
You know I believe it,
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.
There’s so much in this world we’re duty-bound to search out and find—so much goodness we must create. And achieving these ends demands we question the status quo and dream of what is possible.

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