Friday, October 1, 2010

Mistakes and Messes

Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5.13-14)

An Organic Process

We’ve a new kitten in the house, a dark-gray shorthair named Maxwell. Our first concern was introducing him to Cody, the two-year-old prince who took charge the day we brought him home. We read the articles, talked to the vets, and prepped for the accepted protocols, expecting Cody to put up a serious fight. Not so. The getting-to-know-you period lasted all of an hour before the buddies-for-life phase kicked in. We’ve got a different problem on our hands with Maxie. He’s so besotted with his big brother he’s determined to be like him in every way. This is most apparent at mealtime. Kitten food doesn’t interest him; he wants what Cody eats. Despite every ploy to prevent him, the little guy finds a way to gobble up anything the big guy leaves behind. It’s often too much to for him to digest—not enough to hurt him, just more than he can handle. Suffice to say, until Max’s system matures and he trains himself to eat richer foods in proper quantities, stain and odor alerts will remain in effect.

With faith formation being an organic process comparable to physical maturation, obvious parallels spring to mind—particularly, integration and dietary issues we tend to overlook. In many ways, we’re like cats, dogs, and other domestic pets. Our adoption starts with being lost or outlasting our welcome. We need a home. Christ finds us, takes us as-is, and promises to love, nurture, and protect us. Although He ensures our security, acceptance by others He found and took in isn’t always assured. Sometimes, the getting-to-know-you phase flies by so quickly it barely registers. Sometimes, it takes a very long time. And, sadly, sometimes it’s aborted when believers who fear any challenges to their way of life become antagonistic. In the last scenario, we have no option other than asking for grace to understand them and trust Christ to deal with them on our behalf. For the moment, however, let’s look at the first case, the Max-Cody situation.

Growing Up

Easy acceptance often triggers overindulgence. We bite off more than we’re mature enough to process. On the other hand, fear of rejection may cause us to stunt growth by sticking with what we can easily absorb. Scripture teaches growing up in faith involves training ourselves to distinguish what nourishes us from what harms us. Neither a diet we’re not yet strong enough to handle is recommended, nor is one of easily digestible fare that no longer spurs growth. As we muddle toward spiritual maturity, we can’t forget it’s okay to make a mess. Training ourselves to absorb increasingly complex, healthier fare necessitates impulse and presumption. (How can we learn what’s too much without discovering it’s too much?) But, on balance, mistakes and messes we make to enrich our faith far outweigh becoming weak and exhausted on watered-down staples we outgrow.

A rather charming moment arrives in Hebrews 5 that helps us understand how mistakes and messes connect with growing up. The writer is deep into his/her theological premise that Jesus is our High Priest, the Agent by whom we access forgiveness and redemption. It’s a message sure to resonate with Jewish readers steeped in sacrificial rituals. But it’s tricky. Understanding the principle demands a leap that begins with the symbolically literal to arrive at the conceptually abstract. So the author is rolling along, making the case, and suddenly realizes a lot of readers probably don’t get it. The accomplished theologian becomes the frustrated parent. In verse 11, we read, “We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn.” A bit of chiding follows. “You should be teachers by now,” he/she writes, “but you’ve not learned how digest meatier ideas.” For those who’ve not risked making mistakes and messes by attempting to process heavier fare, the writer essentially lays their immaturity at their doorstep. “Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” (v13-14)

Training Our Palates

Although many persist in trying to complicate the Gospel of Christ, it’s remarkably simple. We strayed from God’s intentions. Jesus came to redeem us—to give us a new home. Obeying His commands rewards us with abundant life. The Hebrews writer refers to these concepts as “elementary truths,” the milk of God’s Word. As we mature, however, milk no longer suffices. We need solid food. Our hunger for new flavors and textures grows keener. We begin training our palates to digest complexities hidden in these elementary truths. The simplicity of God’s intentions gives way to implications in our lives and responsibilities to Him and others. They morph into His will and we steadily learn what pleases Him most is always best for us. The unparalleled love expressed in Christ’s sacrifice opens our comprehension of grace’s power and our obligations as recipients of grace to provide grace. We recognize the unmerited favor we experience by right of adoption requires us to welcome everyone who finds a home in Christ.

Training our palates is how we wean ourselves from basic milk, so we no longer need to be spoon-fed or closely monitored. It becomes unnecessary to be told what’s healthy or harmful in our behaviors and attitudes. Our mistakes and messes teach us what tastes right and what doesn’t. But none of this occurs if we insist on playing it safe and never bite into more than we can chew. When we’re infants in Christ, the complex implications of following Him are difficult to digest. I should evaluate everything I do in terms of God’s will and how much it pleases Him? The unconditional love that rescued me requires me to love everyone—including my enemies—without condition? Self-control and sacrifice are prerequisites for fulfillment and growth? In training ourselves to process these more difficult ideas, we’ll invariably mess up. But Max teaches us something. Testing our tolerance for richer foods is how we develop tastes for them. Mistakes and messes are how we grow.

As we mature, we crave richer flavors in God’s Word. Some are difficult to process at first, but we train our palates to digest them and grow stronger as a result.

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