While TLC has its fair share of garbage shows like the infamously horrid “Toddlers and Tiaras,” the notoriously controversial “Sister Wives,” and the laughable yet lovable “Cake Boss” tonight my wife and I watched a new show that is pretty interesting. The show called “All-American Muslim” follows the lives of several families in Dearborn, Michigan as they live out an Islamic faith in America. While the show is obviously meant to show how “normal” Muslims are, if normal was somehow quantifiable, it provides an interesting viewpoint into a religion that so many people write off without a second thought.
While there are obvious differences between Christianity and Islam, there was an idea presented in tonight’s episode that Christianity in America undoubtedly purports. One of the people being followed on this show is attempting to get pregnant. Due to her inability to conceive she begins to struggle with the idea of once again donning the hijab. Her reasoning is that she feels that God is telling her to wake up by not allowing her to conceive and so by wearing the hijab God will then allow her to do as she desires. But I can’t just laugh off this idea that by obeying God certain blessings will be bestowed as something only Muslims assert because Christianity in America is pushing the same idea.
“Courageous” is a movie recently in theaters that discusses the idea of fatherhood. While I don’t want to spoil the movie for those who haven’t seen it, for the purposes of proving my point I have to talk about some key scenes. This movie follows the lives of a few individuals attempting to understand what God wants from them as fathers. Through heartbreak and loss it becomes apparent to these men that being a good enough dad just isn’t enough. So in the wake of a tragedy one man sets out to understand that which God desires of him as a father. Now, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be a good dad, this world could use a few more, but there is a problem with the thinking that by being a good dad is going to make your kids turn out right. This is part of the idea that shows itself in the movie, the idea that God blesses those who are obedient.
Two examples might be helpful here. First there is a scene where two of the men who signed the covenant are placed into situations that test their moral fiber. The man who tells the truth is promoted and the man who lies goes to prison. While its a nice story to get your point across, the world does not work in such a fashion. People are imprisoned for speaking truth and are allowed to walk free because of lies every single day. Are there situations when honesty frees and lies condemn? Most assuredly, but this is not a hard and fast rule. Also, this is a reality from which Christians are not free. Think of Paul who was imprisoned, or the thousands overseas imprisoned every day for clinging to a hope declared illegal. Does their faith and adherence to a promise not please God enough to set them free? I doubt it. In fact I have a sneaking suspicion that God is happier with his people outside the great U.S. of A than those who are within it. But even making a statement like that is problematic because it too is undergirded by this idea that in order to make God happy one must be faithful and pious.
There is another scene in the movie that pushes this idea and it is the scene where the father is giving his speech at church. One of the things he utters is almost a throw away phrase but I think it encapsulates the entire point because in his speech about being a good father he flat out states that he wants the blessing of God as if this were something he could guarantee by being a good father. I know that “Courageous” does not speak for all of American Christianity but I am hard pressed to find a place where this idea does not exist. The only problem is that this thinking turns God into a vending machine. I put in my dollar of obedience and get my snickers bar and all is well. This is not to say we shouldn’t want to be good parents or that we shouldn’t try to be faithful and pious but I think we need to recognize that being this way isn’t about getting God’s favor, its about acting the way we should act.
I had a close friend who was battling cancer. Everyone she knew prayed that she would be healed, that she would live a long and healthy life. But she didn’t. In January it will have been three years since she passed. She was one of the most selfless pious people I have ever had the privilege of knowing. Her faith inspired others, but it did not guarantee her recovery. Because faith doesn’t guarantee anything this side of death. It does guarantee that life will be easy. It does not guarantee that everything will work out the way we plan. It does not guarantee that God is going bless us in any way more or less than He does for anyone else.
Tonight as I was watching garbage TV I was also helping my wife grade. Her kids were doing memory work on the meaning of the Apostles Creed as spelled out in Luther’s Small Catechism. Although her kids were working on the Second Article my eyes happened to glance over at the First Article. It reads as follows:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.
What does this mean? I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life. He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil. All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me. For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him. This is most certainly true.
The third to last sentence is the one that caught my eye. “All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.” Blessings of life and home and food on the table come not as a result of my ability to do anything, but because of His ability and willingness to grant them. So why don’t all people get blessings then? Why are some homeless and some rich? I don’t know. I can’t answer that question. I once heard of a professor at my old seminary coining the phrase, “God is God… And you are not.” This phrase always seemed to me like a cop out. But the more I think about it the more I see the brilliance in its simplicity. I don’t understand God. I don’t know how He works or why things happen or why they don’t, and strangely I’m ok with that, at least for the most part.
I want to understand why bad things happen or why things go wrong. I want to be able to guarantee that my friends will overcome their battles with cancer and depression. I want to be able to guarantee that food will be on my table tomorrow and a roof will be over my head but I can’t. I can’t explain things and I can’t guarantee them. Not any amount of obedience or being the person I am supposed to be is going to fortify God’s hand of blessing in my life because I do not control God. God is God and I am not.
But that does not mean I am powerless in that ambiguity. Just because I can’t guarantee an outcome doesn’t absolve me from living the life I was created to live. This too is expressed in the explanation to the creed, “For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.” The life I live is one resultant of the work God has done in my life, both in the redemptive narrative of Christ which is made manifest at the resurrection to come and in the daily blessings I receive as I await that hope. But I do things not because I can guarantee more blessings will come. Such a task is futile at best. One look at the way life is attests to that fact. Yet when I recognize that I am cared for in every way no thanks to my own effort I am freed to care for others. I don’t have to worry. I don’t have to be afraid. God is God… And I am not.