I recently dusted Philip Yancey’s Soul Survivor : How My Faith Survived the Church off my bookshelf and re-read it. I recall being drawn to this book when I first bought it maybe six to eight years ago because of the title. With a title like that - how can it not ?
Reading it again, I find myself touched and poignantly refreshed.
I appreciate Yancey (and in the present case, his book Soul Survivor) for his honesty about the Christian faith and church. At a time when traditionalists blandly repeat "repent and be saved", and modernists boldly proclaim "repent and be victorious", Yancey digs beneath the words and probes the issues which have often bothered me about my faith - that the church and its believers do not always measure up to its words, and that Christians do not always have complete answers to our struggles in life (though we like to pretend to).
I remember that as an undergraduate, there were weekends when I would stay in hostel and away from church on the pretext of being busy with school - yes, I am a bad Christian - because I could not cope with the reality of people whom I once looked up to, fail yet deny their failure; fellow believers being accoladed by the church for their involvement in church despite living quite irresponsibly outside of it; and friends being rejected for their failure to conform to the self-made rules of the church.
Not that I did not play the part of the Pharisee too, from time to time. I recall giving trite answers to a friend who never quite recovered his childhood faith after completing a module on theodicy (the philosophical / theological study of evil and suffering), when the last thing he needed was self-righteous platitudes to the problem of pain.
Battered, bruised and humbled at various times in life, I remember saying at one particular low moment to a group of youths that I led (paraphrasing Stacie Orrico) that they should never look at me for a model of perfection (despite what I fondly remember one of them saying were my "hot legs"), because I would surely let them down.
Now, married for nine years and a father of two, having changed several jobs and experienced an additional six plus years of sometimes dysfunctional Christian life, I am blessed again by the compassionate candour of Philip Yancey, who shares that he too has found that life, church, Christianity and personal faith are sometimes less than perfect, but that he can see how God loves and continues to love us, through and despite all this.
*** Excerpts ***
"Ever since, I have clung on fiercely to the stance of a pilgrim, for that is all I am. I have no religious sanction. I am neither pastor nor teacher, but an ordinary pilgrim, one person among many on a spiritual search. I question and reevaluate my faith all the time. … Why am I still a Christian? What keeps me pursuing a gospel that has come to me amid so much distortion and static, that often sounds more like bad news than good? … If I had to define my own teme, it would be that of a person who absorbed some of the worst the church has to offer, yet still landed in the loving arms of God."
"Only one thing haunts me more than the sins of my past : What sins am I blind to today? It took the greatness of Martin Luther King Jr to awaken the conscience of a nation in the last century. What keeps us in this new century from realising the beloved community of justice, peace and love for which King fought and died? On the wrong side of what issues does the church stubbornly plant its feet today?"
"When the London Times asked a number of writers for essays on the topic ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ Chesterton sent in the reply shortest and most to the point : ‘Dear Sirs, I am’."
"I learned that part of the answer to my question, ‘Where is God when it hurts?’ is a related question: ‘Where is the church when it hurts?’ As … Heschel wrote, ‘The cardinal issue, Why does the God of justice and compassion permit evil to persist? is bound up with the problem of how man should aid God so that His justice and compassion prevail.’"
"Today I see teenagers wearing WWJD bracelets to remind themselves of the disturbing question, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ That question first appeared in Charles Sheldon’s novel ‘In His Steps’, which recounts the story of ordinary church people solemnly vowing to act as Jesus would … As a teenager in the 1960s long before marketers discovered the sales potential of WWJD, I read Sheldon’s book and asked that question of myself everyday. I nearly went crazy. If I gave to everyone who asked me, I soon ran out of money. In a flash of anger, I would call my brother ‘Fool!’ or worse, then worry that I had put myself in danger of hellfire. If I stole a look at my neighbour’s girlie magazine, should I pluck out my eye? When the kids at my bus stop jumped me after school, should I offer no defense? I tried that approach until I tired of coming home with a bloody nose."
"The gospel presents both high ideals and all-encompassing grace. Very often, however the church tilts one direction or the other. Either it lowers the ideals, adjusting moral standards downwards, softening Jesus’ strong commands; or else it pulls in the boundaries of grace, declaring some sins worse than others, some sinners beyond the pale. Few churches stay faithful both to the high ideals of gospel and its bottomless grace."
"After I wrote a book about my friendship with Mel White, formerly a ghost writer for famous Christians and now a prominent gay activist, I received a number of letters condemning me for continuing the friendship. ‘How can you possibly remain friends with such a sinner!’ the letters demanded. [ My ] most succinct answer is another question: ‘How can Mel White possibly remain friends with a sinner like me?’ The only hope for any of us, regardless of our particular sins, lies in a ruthless trust in a God who inexplicably loves sinners, including those who sin differently than we do."
"I do not live well, I merely point to the vision." (quoting Annie Dillard)
"After watching all this from his pulpit chair … [ the preacher ] Buechner stood and delivered an eloquent sermon. Afterward, he had two comments. About the woman who led worship he said, ‘How can anyone let herself get that fat!’ About the dance he said, ‘I know it is supposed to enhance my worship. Instead I spent the whole time wondering whether she had on any underwear.’ From then on I knew I liked this guy, who alone felt free to say what everyone else was thinking."
"… Jesus too knew rejection. More, Jesus’ life was defined by rejection. His neighbours ran Him out of town, His family questioned His sanity, His closest friends betrayed Him, and His fellow citizens traded His life for that of a common criminal. Throughout His ministry, Jesus purposely moved among the poor and the rejected: He touched those with leprosy, dined with the unclean, forgave thieves, adulterers, and prostitutes."
"Writers of faith have a tendency to sanitize their characters, to portray them with a kind of glow about them. This tendency directly contradicts the example of the Bible, which depicts the flaws in its great characters - Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, Paul - with brutal realism."
"He told me of young men banished from their own families, forced to hustle on the street. Some of them had hundreds of partners whom they had met in bathhouses, whose names they had never learned, and from one of those partners they had contracted the virus that was now killing them. Nouwen looked at me, his piercing eyes bright with compassion and pain. ‘Philip, those young men were dying - literally dying - because of their thirst for love.’ He went on to tell me individual stories he had heard there. The accounts all had in common for a search for a safe place, for a safe relationship, for a home, for acceptance, for unconditional love, for forgiveness …" (on Henri Nouwen’s ministry to HIV patients in San Francisco)
*** Postscript ***
I don’t believe in keeping a good book to myself. So I recently gave a spare copy of Soul Survivor away as a birthday gift. This was (part of) the accompanying note -
"I read my personal copy the first time I think about 6 years ago, and picked it up again recently on a whim. I’ve yet to complete re-reading it, but it has already spoken to me in a different, I think, more meaningful way. I don’t recall these words when I last read this book, and now like it particularly –
“What keeps me pursuing a gospel that has come to me amid so much distortion and static, that often sounds more like bad news than good ? … If I had to define my own theme, it would be that of a person who absorbed some of the worst the church has to offer, yet still landed in the loving arms of God.”
I hope my life story reads somewhat similarly, especially when it reaches the final chapter.
I believe God pursues us, through good times and bad, in our successes and failures, and whether we feel good or awful about ourselves. In the language of romance, He is the resolute Lover who pursues the fickle beloved in His limitless divine love. In the language of hunting, He is the Hound of Heaven who pursues the fleeing soul in His Divine Grace, till we surrender ourselves to His tireless love.
He is faithful where we are faithless, because He cannot deny Himself."