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Reading or Joe?

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By Mark Azzara

My Dear Friend,

I am bombarded every day by emails from faith-based and secular publications, websites and bloggers. I signed up for this stuff because I felt obligated to know the latest thinking about my faith. Had I known what I was getting into I might have thought twice.

Thank God for my friend Joe, a thoughtful, prayer Christian whose listening presence is always reassuring. He and I come from different church backgrounds and yet it’s heartening that we can speak and know we are heard, hear and thus encourage the other to speak freely.

Most of that emailed reading material talks about issues in the abstract – i.e., articles written by authors who lack personal experience with the problem at hand. None of them, for example, writes about poverty as one who is or has been poor. It’s as if they don’t want human experience to soil the purity of their theological truths.

When theology becomes an abstraction we lose touch with God. And since the word “theology” means “the study of God,” that’s a pretty significant disconnect. I remember Jesus’ rebuke to the Pharisees: “You pile tremendous loads on people’s backs but you don’t lift a finger to help them!” And I wonder if he had these authors in mind.

I have no problem talking to Joe, however, because we never talk in the abstract. We talk about us – our kids, our hopes, our trials, and how God wants to be with us in the midst of our lives. When Joe and I met the other day at Starbucks, we agreed that moral issues have become politicized. When writers address topics in the abstract they always inject politics – i.e., division – into the discussion, especially when saying, in effect: “I’m right.”

I wonder how Jesus would deal with the issues that writers address so glibly. How would he treat the poor who use contraceptives so they can get some worry-free joy in a conjugal embrace? Would he turn his back on those who seek love in a gay marriage?

I am not saying I endorse those kinds of behaviors. I’m not stating any opinion at all. I am just asking questions, which boil down to one question: Is there something more important than obedience to God’s law that we must see? One of the foundational Scripture verses for me is Galatians 2:21, in which Paul says that “if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.”

When I talk to Joe I am freed from the powerful temptation to embrace legalisms, and find it easier to embrace God. I must remind myself that the two aren’t the same, and that I am called to obey Jesus, not some legal abstraction. When Jesus speaks truth to me I know it’s his voice because I recognize it as truth that applies to me, rather than some intellectual abstraction.

One of my first prayers every day is, “Show me where I’m wrong so that you can lead me in right paths for your name’s sake.” He did so recently on an issue where I thought I was certain I knew what God expected of me. He didn’t tell me I was wrong. But he said there were other considerations that He had to share with me because I couldn’t see them on my own.

Obeying him on this issue is likely to put me at risk of losing some friends who are so caught up in legalisms that they cannot see Jesus anymore. That’s OK; I can live with that if they choose to suspend our relationships. I would prefer to be rejected by them than by God.

My obedience will require God to reassure me that I’m on the right path – a path, as I said, that was inconceivable for me to walk just one month ago. This isn’t some trifling change God is working in me. It’s a radical departure from what I had expected from God, so I have not only the right but the responsibility to ask for that reassurance.

When I told Joe how God had answered my prayer by changing my viewpoint completely, he smiled, thus conveying God’s reassurance, because he saw that I had left politics and abstractions behind and entered into the real world where God expresses love to real people living with real problems – the God who, in Isaiah 55:8-9, says his thoughts and ways are vastly different from ours. After the change God has worked in me, I can only say, “Amen to that.”

Mark Azzara
Mark Azzara
Mark Azzara spent 45 years in print journalism, most of them with the Waterbury Republican in Connecticut, where he was a features writer with a special focus on religion at the time of his retirement. He also worked for newspapers in New Haven and Danbury, Conn. At the latter paper, while sports editor, he won a national first-place writing award on college baseball. Azzara also has served as the only admissions recruiter for a small Catholic college in Connecticut and wrote a self-published book on spirituality, "And So Are You." He is active in his church and facilitates two Christian study groups for men. Azzara grew up in southern California, graduating from Cal State Los Angeles. He holds a master's degree from the University of Connecticut.

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