A Relational Theologian
…My wife, Karen, thinks I have brain damage.
I played hockey through high school and can remember at least three concussions, but she’s convinced I’ve had more.
It hasn’t affected her love or high opinion of me, but she occasionally sighs when, after 27 years of marriage, I still text to make sure I am buying the correct brand of sharp cheddar. And the whole family teases when I call out from the kitchen to ask again, “Bake or Broil?” It just makes no sense.
I did go to Bible College, and passed all my classes. The school let me walk but held my diploma until I completed my senior ministry internship, which I did by becoming a worship leader at a Foursquare church—but I never got around to sending in the paperwork.
Twenty years later, while on staff as a family pastor at a Methodist church, the Bible College sent new paperwork informing me it needed to be completed and sent back within two weeks, or they would no longer hold my diploma.
I was thrilled. I had no idea they were still holding my diploma. I excitedly filled out the paperwork and truly meant to send it in.
Recently, I connected with a brilliant friend who was sharing that, due to some medical issues, if a stranger calls while he’s driving, he can’t remember the person’s name long enough to pull his car off at the next exit and write it down. “That’s every day of my life,” I thought.
Which is why I’m pretty sure I don’t have brain damage. My brain has always been this way. I didn’t retain the order of the months until Bible College. That’s also when I finally learned how to tell time on a clock face.
And it was Bible College, where I pulled an all-nighter to memorize 20 Scripture passages only to squeak out a C- on the test—then promptly forget those Scriptures within hours. And when I say forget them, I didn’t do it on purpose. I just took a nap.
Though I’ve read Scripture daily from the age of thirteen—the whole book many times over—I couldn’t give you more than ten addresses from memory. I’ve lived in my house for eighteen years. I could drive you anywhere but couldn’t give you more than ten street names.
This isn’t a confessional.
Well, maybe it is.
But not of some indiscretion; it’s about how my brain works, and doesn’t. I am writing about my limitations so you can properly place your expectations.
You see, in this book, I navigate Western Enlightenment and Evangelical tradition and, along the way, confront some cruel and punishing systematic thoughts about God with the serious limitations of a fella who couldn’t read a clock face until he was twenty.
I have not written as a systematic theologian with letters in front of his name; it’s just not who I am. I am a relational theologian and have spent my life leaning into my relational limitations, even when those limitations have confronted and offended many a systematic thought.
I’ve written as a son, husband, dad, brother, and friend. I am loved, and I love. Family and friendship are the lenses through which I perceive and interpret all things—All things.
This is not a redress of my scholarly brothers and sisters. I am grateful for my friends who study and provide scriptural, historical, and cultural context—those who articulate with knowledge and grace. We are sons and daughters of the same Father, and I learn from their faithful study. I am thankful for how their minds work, their knowledge, and many of their systematic approaches to our thoughts about God. But relationship is the only theological lens through which I can communicate authentically and with any effect.
Love is my doctrine.
Kindness, my dogma.
The goodness of God, my creed.
And Jesus is what love looks like, and He described love fully when He said, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (8) To me, this Scripture verse defines perfect theology, and I’ll reference it often.
And Jesus didn’t just talk about perfect theology. He lived, died, and rose so we could fully know Him.
Greater Love—that’s what this book is about.
And Jesus is what Greater Love looks like: dreams, teaches, grieves, heals, saves, judges, transforms, dies, and raises like…
I believe Greater Love is the clearest and truest way to know God, and Greater Love has pierced my heart with His friendship. He’s the kindness that transforms me; the goodness that answers every question of lack, the eternal life I am awakening to, and the only road I’m keen on traveling.
This book is an expression of where my friendship with Jesus has exposed three-foot concrete medians in my life, where Love has redirected traffic.
Because I know well the vain exhaustion of seeking the right destination on the wrong road. I’ve traveled many a Western Enlightenment, evangelically influenced, institutionally endorsed, systematically well-worn “What am I still lacking?” superhighway in an endeavor to arrive at eternal life—only to discover you can’t get there from here.
You see, Greater Love is not a destination. Rather, it’s a friendship, an awakening to the Spirit of God within us. (9) Jesus described it this way, “For indeed, this (eternal life) Kingdom of God is within you.” (10)
And so, I have written as a relational theologian about my friendship with Jesus in the hope I might also encourage you in your friendship.
Brain-damaged or not, I have written with confidence, not in my ability to parse Scripture or break down theological terms, neither in what is right or wrong, but in whatever is true, noble, just, pure, and lovely. (11)
As a relational theologian, I have also written with the awareness that the greater love of Jesus is always better than our best understanding—often offensively so.
This article is excerpted from my book, Leaving and Finding Jesus