Monday, October 31, 2011

Soul Survivor

Weather:  Last week brought unusual rains to Accra for this time of year, resulting in serious flooding in various places.  At least thirty persons died as a result of these floods.  Sunday night brought heavy rains again.

This week, the Building Bridges team from Madison Square Church in Grand Rapids, MI is visiting with us in Accra, and then will travel to Liberia. To see more about their visit, click here.

This summer, I happened across a book on my mother's bookshelf.  It was by an author whom I enjoy so I asked if I could borrow it.  The name of the book is Soul Survivor by Philip Yancey.  The subtitle of the book is, "How Thirteen Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church."  In this book, Yancey says, "I have spent most of my life in recovery from the church."  This is not something that you would expect to read from such an acclaimed Christian author, and although I don't necessarily identify with that statement, it does resonate with me on a deep level.  Since God took hold of me in 1997, I have been in a non-stop wrestling match to understand Him, the church, His people, myself, injustice, the way nations behave, and so on.  Bob and I had countless discussions together as we questioned, challenged, found answers that made sense one day and not so much the next.  Living in two different worlds (North America and West Africa), between poverty and affluence, Christianity and other religions,  peace and conflict, and so close to death and life, feeds the questions and the search for answers.

I found the book to be inspiring, as he provided new insights into the lives and faith journeys of thirteen remarkable persons who have asked and struggled with these same issues:  Martin Luther King Jr, G.K. Chesterton, Dr. Paul Brand, Dr. Robert Coles, Leo Tolstoy and Feodor Dostoevsky, Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. C. Everett Koop, John Donne, Annie Dillard, Frederick Buechner, Shusaku Endo, and Henri Nouwen.  Not only does he share insights into the lives and writings of these individuals, but at the close of each chapter, he gives recommended readings from each person.   I have decided to read through as many of these recommended readings as possible.

I have started with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.  Yancey starts the chapter about these two authors with this, "My deepest doubts about the faith can be summed up in a single question:  Why doesn't it work?"  This is a question that I struggle with as well while I see the Muslim faith gaining such momentum in West Africa, and the decadence and family breakdowns among Christians in the west; not to mention the Church's history in the Crusades, the slave trade, colonization, and the way we treat each other, both within and outside our own denominations.  Tolstoy and Dostoevsky address the tension that exists between Christian ideals and reality, not only in their writing but in their life as well.  Yancy expands his question by stating, "Christian ideals attract admiration even from unbelievers, yet what good are those ideals if I cannot put them into practice?"

Between these two Russian thinkers, we find an answer of sorts to the tension between the high ideals of the gospel and the grim reality of ourselves - absolute ideals and absolute grace - to accept that we will never measure up, but that we do not have to.  Jesus never lowered God's ideals, yet He offered a grace that is perhaps the greatest distinctive of the Christian faith.

The following quote by Tolstoy is taken from a personal letter, responding to critics at the end of his life.  It is one that I appreciate, as I wrestle with my own falling short of the ideals by which I try to live:

"What about you, Lev Nikolayevich, you preach very well, but do you carry out what you preach?"  This is the most natural of questions and one that is always asked of me; it is usually asked victoriously, as though it were a way of stopping my mouth.  "You preach, but how do you live?"  And I answer that I do not preach, that I am not able to preach, although I passionately wish to.  I can preach only through my actions, and my actions are vile...And I answer that I am guilty, and vile, and worthy of contempt for my failure to carry them out.

At the same time, not in order to justify, but simply in order to explain my lack of consistency, I say: "Look at my present life and then at my former life, and you will see that I do attempt to carry them out.  It is true that I have not fulfilled one thousandth part of them [Christian precepts], and I am ashamed of this, but I have failed to fulfill them not because I did not wish to, but because I was unable to.  Teach me how to escape from the net of temptations that surrounds me, help me and I will fulfill them; even without help I wish and hope to fulfill them.

"Attack me, I do this myself, but attack me rather than the path I follow and which I point out to anyone who asks me where I think it lies.  If I know the way home and am walking along it drunkenly, is it any less the right way because I am staggering from side to side!  If it is not the right way, then show me another way; but if I stagger and lose the way, you must help me, you must keep me on the true path, just as I am ready to support you.  Do not mislead me, do not be glad that I have got lost, do not shout out joyfully: 'Look at him!  He said he was going home, but there he is crawling into a bog!' No, do not gloat, but give me your help and support."
In Tolstoy's book Anna Karenina, the major character Levin has a spiritual awakening as can be seen in the following quote:

I shall still get angry with my coachman Ivan, I shall still argue and express my thoughts inopportunely; there will still be a wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife, and I shall still blame her for my own fears and shall regret it; I shall still be unable to understand with my reason why I am praying, and I shall continue to pray - but my life, my whole life, independently of anything that may happen to me, every moment of it, is no longer meaningless but has an incontestable meaning of goodness, with which I have the power to invest it.
Yancy was able to resolve some of his restlessness found in this tension and it has been a comfort to me as well.  As I wrestle with the daily incongruity between my own behaviors and those for which I strive, as well as struggling with the behaviors of others around me, I am reminded that these are not new struggles, but go back for centuries.  And like Yancy, I can say, "Having fallen from the absolute idea, as Tolstoy did, we have nowhere to land but with Dostoevsky, in the safety net of absolute grace."

1 comment:

Tom and Stacia said...

Renita, Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this -- and for the summaries as I don't suspect I'll be reading these anytime soon! :-0 I love your honest pursuit of God and His kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Also, I felt like I was worshiping with you yesterday because Hannah was in front of me at church and she is just reminding me of you more and more all the time! Miss you! Stacia