I do not remember a time before I knew the word "theology." When I was a child, the adults tossed it around like a Frisbee in the back yard. "Hey Ron, what do you think about the theology of Grace?" they'd say. Or, "how does that theology account for the spiritual gifts?" It was their best effort to sum up an infinite God, to harness the wind. Sometimes, I'd take a break from my Big Wheeling and listen to their theological banter. I did not understand them, not really, but I remember wanting to tell them that I could hear God whisper in the mesquite trees.
I never did, though.
Over the years I've heard some say that God does not whisper to children in the trees, and that any allusion to the notion amounts to little more than a syncretistic amalgam of Christianity and pantheism. "God is more systematized, more summed up and proper and he speaks ever and only through his written word," they say. I'm not sure what to say about that, layman though I am. I suppose I could say, "go read Paul's letter to the Romans." Instead, I'll just tell you that I know what I heard when I was five, and we can leave it at that.
Over the years, I've tried on theologies like designer jeans. There was the season when I wore my five point Calvin Kleins. They were high-dollar blue jeans that seemed to create the illusion of a contoured rear. (Though we're dealing in metaphor here, let me state for the record that I've always been lacking in the proper rear department.) The look of Calvin Klein theology? Impeccable. But if you run those suckers through the wash one too many times, they skinny up in all the wrong places, fit so tight that you cannot sit for fear of splitting the seams.
Don't get me wrong, I've tried on those boot-cut, relaxed fit jeans from the Gap, too. They're hip in different social circles, but I find them to run threadbare too quickly.
Ultimately, I've found that jeans are an imperfect analogy for theology.
Most analogies are.
My mother was a new follower of Christianity when I was a child. She'd gone cold turkey on cold beer and cigarettes, and traded in her Aretha Franklin and Janice Joplin for Amy Grant and Sandy Patty. She carried a red guitar around with her to house-church meetings and vacation bible school, and kept my ear inclined toward the songs about Jesus.
She'd have never second-guessed my notion of hearing God in the mesquite trees. I'm thankful for that.
When I was thirteen, Father Harris taught a class on the book of Luke. He called it the "Gospel of the Underdog," and the "Gospel of Equality." At the time, I don't suppose I realized just how egalitarian all of this sounded. How could I have? After all, the class was not composed of underdog sorts. Instead, the 8:00 a.m. bible class seated twenty doe-eyed, middle-class white kids, most of whom were clean-cut German Catholic and professionally predestined.
I've lost touch with most of those kids over the years. Sometimes, though, I wonder whether the other 19 remember Father Harris' description of the Gospel of Luke, whether they find themselves longing to be an underdog these days.
My dad converted to Catholicism when I was in the fourth grade. I thought this an odd move, but looking back on it, I think he was always more comfortable with the folks who drank red wine and shamelessly spun their old Crosby, Stills, & Nash records. His church was made up of good, quiet folks like Mr. Lelemsis and Mr. Buergler. They prayed more than just about anyone my father had ever met, he once said. I think he told me this mostly to spite the tea-totaling Baptists across town who were teaching me less about prayer than they were about tossing U2's The Joshua Tree into a bonfire. The Catholics never once asked him to burn a secular record, he said.
My dad never saw the benefit in all of the Fahrenheit 451ing we did. Music, books, art, even football helmets--they were all subject to the fire. My dad wouldn't have it. In fact, pops once hid some of my old comic books to save them from being reduced to ash. The older I get, the more I reckon my father as the best Faber I've ever known.
I still read my bible in the morning. I read it in small chunks. I stop. I listen till my mind wanders, till I start thinking about work obligations, or family engagements, or about the time Jude got a pencil eraser stuck up his nose. Sometimes I inadvertently doze off in those moments, and I'll dream about the prayers I should be praying. When I find myself in these prone-to-wander places, I stop. I recenter, and I say simply, "I am sorry, Lord. Help my unbelief." Then, I look back down to the words in my lap, and I take another small chunk to heart.