31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Sixteen

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We have a small fishing industry here in Santa Barbara. I love to see their small boats sitting just off shore during the various seasons of the year — lobster, crab, salmon. halibut, even sea cucumbers!

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They look tiny against the horizon, don’t they?

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This one was checking traps last week — you can see the trap markers to the left of the picture.
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Working boats and pleasure craft share our marina space and each type brings its own unique kind of beauty to our waterfront. I love to watch a graceful sloop or a sturdy looking catamaran sail by. But it is the working boats my eye is drawn to most often. Some of those boats have been part of the story of our town for decades, holding deliciousness in their freezers and hard working men and women at their helm.

Fishing is work. Yes, it is often pleasurable. But it is work, first and foremost. And somehow the phrasing of today’s quote from St. Paul of the Cross stirs in me a deep reminder of that truth. To fish in the sea of Christ’s sorrow is work, plain and not-so-simple. It does not come naturally to us to reflect on sad things, to step into another’s suffering and see what nourishment we might find there. But oh! It is good work. And necessary work.

Once again, the key word in this quote is ‘love.’ If we can firmly hold onto that powerful truth, everything changes. Christ willingly stepped into that sea of suffering because of divine love — divine love for human persons. This is the kind of ‘atonement theory’ that resonates with me at the deepest level: for God so loved the world. This is the bedrock truth of our faith and taking time to fish in these good waters is one of the healthiest and most life-giving things we can do.

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31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Nine

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Do you see that lovely arch out there? It is the source of the name of the state park in which it is located – Natural Bridges. We drove out there from our retreat center fairly early in the morning of our first full day. Discovering that it would cost us ten bucks to drive onto the campground, we opted to go in the opposite direction, toward the parking lot right at the edge of the cliff that overlooks this rock. From that viewpoint, this is what we saw:

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Do you see any sign of that lovely arch from this angle?

Nada. Zilch. Nope. 

Your point of view, your perspective, your position makes a huge difference in what you can actually see. I’ve had days, I’ve had seasons, I’ve had YEARS when parts of my life looked like a solid, dark wall. And then, a simple shift in my viewpoint, a slight difference in my perspective, a new angle of vision made all the difference in the world. 

At no point in time can we see every possibility that exists in a given situation. WE don’t have the power, the ability, the intelligence, the vantage point to make such a thing possible. But . . . there is Someone who does. There is Someone who can. Sometimes the most important thing we can do is to wait. To trust that with the passage of time and the accumulation of more experience, the gathering of more facts, the readiness to engage in more of those ongoing conversations in life, we will begin to see an old, impossibly bleak problem with freshness and new insight. Maybe that blank wall has a lovely big hole in it! Maybe we can sail our small craft of a life right on through it and come out the other side with a deeper appreciation for the beauty of a brand new view.

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Putting That Horse BEFORE the Cart . . .

When I began to seriously explore the internet in the months leading up to and following my retirement from parish ministry at the end of 2010, I was stunned to discover an enormous array of opinions, viewpoints, personalities, and stories — oh, my, the stories! They ran the gamut from ultra-conservative to out-there-liberal (to use outdated terminology . . . maybe fundamentalist to progressive is more current?).

One of the voices that most intrigued me was that of a young, Methodist pastor in the south named Morgan Guyton. Morgan addressed ‘big’ issues, wondering aloud about theological positions that have been espoused by wide swaths of the Christian community for the last few hundred years. He engaged serious conversations about atonement theory, environmental and justice issues, always asking insightful questions and encouraging honest feedback.

Now, he has a book! I am working my way through this little gem, one chapter at a time, digesting, noting questions in the margins, nodding my head, or scratching it, ALL of which I love when I do serious reading and thinking.

Today, I am joining a blog tour for this book, looking especially at chapter four — “Empty, Not Clean: How We Gain Pure Hearts.” This is the fourth of 12 provocative contrasts that form the spine of this volume, which is called: How Jesus Saves the World from Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity. I highly recommend  this book to you and encourage you to engage with it and see where you land on each issue in turn. It’s a very good thing for the church to re-examine what we say we believe and why. Morgan Guyton invites us to do exactly that.

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“The problem is that the modern American church often makes Christianity into a completely rational, purposeful, experience instead of a spiritual, intuitive encounter. We seek to know about God rather than to know God, and we worship our knowledge of God instead of God himself.”

Can I get a LOUD amen? I cannot even begin to verbalize how exhausted I feel by argument, by theological nitpicking, by endless and circular conversations about fine points of dogma. Even Jesus himself told us that words are far less important than deeds (see John 10:25), that ‘right belief’ is revealed only in right relationship, that abiding is what is needed. Being with, listening, stilling the noise, living in love . . . these are the things that make for pure hearts, that help us become who we were meant to be.

The line of distinction that Morgan draws in this chapter is the one between trying to stay clean and trying to get empty. That last phrase is one that would have made me more than a little bit nervous about a dozen years ago. Empty? Whaddya mean, empty? Sounds new-agey to me. 

I have since come to appreciate the fine difference between empty and open . . . so I might have chosen the latter word here. But what he means by ’empty’ is pretty much what I mean by ‘open,’ so I’m pretty sure we’re on the same page!

For far too long, religious folk (I’m talking almost all religions here, not just the Christian one) have chosen a bifurcated view of the world, making it (and the flesh, which Morgan discusses in a later chapter) the enemy of our souls. The result is too often a growing list of do’s and don’t’s and a shrinking view of all that is good and beautiful in what God has designed and given. Others of Morgan’s generation have written moving memoirs noting this phenomenon – Addie Zierman, Rachel Held Evans, among many others – sometimes describing the debilitating after-effects of a steady diet of fear-based restrictiveness. The entire purity sub-culture is an extreme example of this ill-fated attempt to ‘keep our young people pure.’

It does not work. Anything based on fear is doomed to failure. Anything. And fear is what lies behind so much of the ‘staying clean’ mentality. What is desperately needed is an invitational mentality — we need to invite our children (and ourselves) into the wideness of God’s mercy, the enormity of God’s creative genius, and the beauty of unending, unquenchable, ever-widening Love. 

There is a gem of a paragraph on page 39 that I am finding to be deeply true in my own spiritual journey just now:

“Before the rational modern era in which we live, Christian prayer looked very different. In the rational, modern approach to life, which tends to be all mind and no heart, the purpose of prayer is simply to make requests of God, and say appropriate things about God. But for most of Christian history, prayer has involved repeating the same words over and over again every day, according to a fixed schedule in a sacred language that isn’t your mother tongue, not in order to tell God what he already knows or ask him for what he already knows you need, but to “order {your} steps in {his} word.” (Ps. 119:133)

Courtesy of a blogpost by Sarah Bessey early in Lent this year, I have been using some lovely prayer beads, assembled and sent to me by Episcopalian nuns in the midwest somewhere. With the beads, came four different suggested prayer rotations to use while fingering them. I chose the Celtic version and have been using both beads and words every day since. Now this language is English, but the vocabulary is definitely not my own and I am hear to tell you that using these aids has changed my prayer experience in ways that are only positive. There is a movement from the left side of my brain to the right as I softly whisper the words that are now my own, cemented in my memory by frequency, something which a dear spiritual director earnestly desired for me to experience several years ago! (He sent me to the ocean for long episodes of staring and waiting, which is also a wonderful aid to this process.)

As the beads slip past my fingers, and the words enter the atmosphere around me (through sighs and yawns!), I find the presence of a Loving God to be real and near in ways that using my own chosen words too often do not. Yes, I still offer names and faces to the Throne, I still say thank you with almost every  breath of my day, I still offer, “Help,” and “Glory!” regularly. But the openness that comes with ritual has stunned and moved me.

Mike McHargue (“The Science Guy” for those who listen to The Liturgists podcasts) reminded us recently that we are creatures who possess a human brain that is wrapped around a simian brain that is wrapped around a lizard brain, etc. And it is the noise from those parts of ourselves that we so often need to silence. And what is the single most helpful aid for silencing them? Repetition, liturgy, learned prayer. YES! For Morgan, this is a critical step on the road to ’empty.’ For me, it’s part of becoming increasingly more ‘open’ to the presence of God.

He finishes this chapter with some reflection on a topic I have addressed, both here on the blog and in the ebook that is available to my newsletter subscribers. And we come to different conclusions, he and I. I take issue with the “more of Jesus, less of me” mentality, preferring instead to say, “more of Jesus, MORE of me.” I say this because I deeply believe that God does not desire us to so much become Jesus but to resemble him, in our own unique and irreplaceable selfhood. We are, after all, invited into a partnership with God in the building of the Kingdom in this place. God chooses to use very frail human vessels to do God’s work in the world. Jesus is our guide, our template, our savior and our friend. And we are invited into relationship with the Triune God through the selfless giving of this dear Incarnate Friend.

Hopefully, as we release the lists, as we say good-bye to the do’s and don’ts and the ‘stay clean’ entanglements, we will, indeed, ever more closely resemble our crucified, risen Lord. But . . . we will still be ourselves. Because WE are the reason Jesus came, we are the reason he lived and walked among us, telling those stories, teaching those lessons, dying on that cross and rising from that tomb. God loved who we are enough to join us, to celebrate us, to welcome us, to change us.

And that is the wonder of it all, is it not?

I’ll keep working through this book and hopefully, engage other chapters here on the blog in coming weeks. In the meantime, why don’t you get yourself a copy and let’s dialog about it, okay??

 

Something New, JUST FOR YOU!

 

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He is risen! He is risen, indeed!

This has been the greeting for this season of the Christian year for centuries. So I greet you, on this first Monday of the Easter season with the words of our fore-parents in the faith — He is risen!

This magnificent truth is something to celebrate. And more than that, it is something to live. ‘We are an Easter people’ — I’ve heard it, I’ve read it and I believe it to be true. This grand Easter event colors every other aspect of life when we lay claim to the word ‘disciple’ — Easter changes everything.

So it seems to me that this first week of the Easter season is a natural marker for new beginnings. And I am beginning something today, something which makes me more than a little bit nervous:

 

I have an eBook!

 

And I am giving it away to everyone who signs on the dotted line for yet another new thing in my life: a semi-monthly personal letter.

This small epistle will be from me to you, and will land in your in-box on the 1st and the 15th of each and every month for at least the next year. That means the first issue will show up in just nine days.

I’m calling this letter, “More Wondering. . . ,” and in it I will say things I won’t be saying anywhere else on the worldwide web. It will be an amalgam, I hope. A mash-up of personal note, updates on my book-publishing project (did you know I have one of those?), things that have caught my eye on the web, quotes I love, photos I’ve taken. A little of this and a little of that — all of it, I hope, adding up to something worth reading and enjoying.

My blog guru, LW Lindquist, has been hard at work putting the ebook together — and friends, it looks amazing! It’s an edited version of the blog series I did at the beginning of 2014 called, “Living the Questions: Reflections on the Mystery.” I’ve edited those essays for this new format, and added some questions for reflection at the end of each of the eight chapters.

An 8-chapter book — can you believe it?

I cannot tell you what a joy it was to see this thing jumping up at me from the screen of my Kindle Fire. 

It will be available as a free download whenever you subscribe to my new letter, “More Wondering . . . ” Because it’s in PDF format, the book is easily downloadable to any mobile device that connects to the internet. I just turned my Kindle sideways, and there it was, filling the entire screen! Amazing, right? 

I am delighted to be able to offer you this gift. And I want you to feel free to share this news with friends. In fact I hope you will — and please direct them back here, directly to this post so that they can get their own copy — after all, it’s FREE!

I think it looks pretty fabulous — don’t you?

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You can sign up for the “More Wondering . . .” letter using the form below, or the signup form in the sidebar:

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And yes, there will soon be one of those pesky pop-ups on this blog. That’s because I really would love for anyone who reads something I’ve written here to have the opportunity to join our newsletter circle.

Can you all help me spread the word? a Facebook share or a tweet or two would be just grand.

Thanks, friends! And I hope you enjoy the eBook and the newsletter when it comes into your inbox on the 15th of this month.

An Advent Lament: SheLoves

My friend Kelley Nikondeha and I are writing about lament this month at one of our favorite places — SheLoves Magazine. It seems fitting for lament to be a central piece of Advent, maybe especially this Advent. This piece starts off our series of four. On Saturday, Kelley will respond to this individual lament. Then she will write a community lament next Tuesday and I’ll respond the following Saturday. Our psalter is rich with both kinds of sad songs — written from one person’s perspective and also, from the community’s. Please join us as we walk through these songs in the days before Christmas.

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Each December, we find ourselves in a season of waiting. Primarily, we wait for that baby to be born, to break through the bonds of water and blood and slither down into the dust from which we all emerged. We wait for the baby, the infant conqueror, the one who shows up not as mighty warrior but as a small and helpless human person.

It is the most remarkable story ever told, this one we share.  Scandalous, even ludicrous — a grand and mighty God showing up, looking like the rest of us, squalling, searching for sustenance, blinking against the light. The birth of a baby is always cause for celebration, and this one certainly deserves to be celebrated.

And yet, there is also an undercurrent of sadness swirling beneath the pretty decorations and the sweet smells. An undercurrent that rattles around in my soul and lurks in the corners of my heart, pushing me to pay attention, to make room. Room for the babe in the manger, yes. But also, room for the painful details, both then and now, room for the tears, the anguish, the questions and the loss.

Because there is always loss, isn’t there? This journey we’re on is littered with broken hearts, with pocketed tears and too many regrets. So I wonder — this Christmastime, amid the major key sounds of the pop music that bombards us everywhere we go, can we also make room for the echo of an oboe, can we sit with some minor chords that might not resolve anytime soon?

Truth be told, there are pieces of our Christmas story that would not sell many Hallmark cards: a captive nation, refugees on the road, poverty, homelessness, murderous kings and the wholesale slaughter of little boys. And right now, this year, amid the joyous gathering of family, the feasting, the children’s sweet singing, the giving of gifts, there are so many swallowed tears, there are questions, there is sadness.

There is, most assuredly, room for lament:

And so, I sing the hard news as well as the good,
the edges as well as the center.
And I sing it all to you, O Lord — to whom else can I go?

Hear me, O Lord. Hear my cry!
Here is the truth: those we love leave us, Lord.
They leave us in all kinds of painful ways:
     they die, suddenly or after long suffering;
     they betray us with false words and false hearts;
     they get lost in the thicket of mental illness.

Sometimes we lose ourselves, too, O God:
     we do battle with addictions;
     we wrestle with confusion;
     we sink into depression or anxiety.

Too often, those who say they love you,
     betray you with their words and their actions.
     And sometimes, the betrayer is me. . .

To read the rest of this lament, please click here to join us at SheLoves today. . .

Q & A: Tuesday Wrap-Up: Week Eight

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Somehow this picture from my surfing cache seems to capture our little band,
hanging out together in the water, encouraging one another to go deeper!

As I read through the linked posts this week, and re-read the comments section, I was just overwhelmed with gratitude for each one of you who has been reading along through this series. I truly didn’t have a clue what I was doing when I opened the door to this and I am so glad that our small band has stuck it out to the end! Thank you all for your thoughtful, sensitive, loving responses to me and to one another all the way along — this is, sadly, a somewhat rare thing out here in the wild and wacky world of the internet, the Christian internet, and I’m thankful that we took the time to care about the words we wrote and about the people who received them.

This week’s question stirred the waters more than most, I think. Some of us have been hurt by Bible-pounding in the past, by a church community (or a family) that pulled words out of context and applied them with a sledge hammer to tender hearts. May I just say how truly sorry I am for the ways in which the church has wounded you? And used the Bible to do it? 

These poignant words made my heart hurt! 

I soaked up the teaching not to succumb to a lazy belief in a wishy-washy god who just wanted to love everybody. It seemed that mention of God’s love always had to be tempered with the requisite counter-balance of His justice. It’s hard when every time you think of someone loving you, your mind adds “yes, but . . . ” Maybe part of the reason the Bible has seemed crammed with “hard” things to me, is because I have trouble accepting the love of the One Whose word it is.

I’m learning to rest my weight on His grace and love instead on my own anxious efforts and promises to do better. After years of regimented personal devotions, I don’t read my Bible every single day, anymore. I don’t have one specific time of prayer. I don’t have a plan. But I’m delighted to find how God’s word has taken root in me even through the difficult years. Verses of comfort surface, sometimes when I am half-asleep, and I am reminded of Jesus’ promise that the Holy Spirit will remind us of Christ’s words. I’m treasuring Bible verses that tell me of God’s love, tenderness, and care. And for now, I’m just leaving those hard things on the shelf. My brain is healing. 

This beautiful book of ours, which can be a rich source of both comfort and challenge, has too often been used to batter people. One writer wrote about the power of one group’s particular interpretation of just thirteen words in Paul’s second letter to Timothy:

The hard bits that ruled my life for so long, are still a part of my life.  When I look at my wedding photos and think of my family who should have been in them, when I hear one of my children asking who ‘that lady’ is, when they’re looking at a photo of my mother, when I wish I could talk to my sister like sisters do… so many things I have been robbed of, because of the way 13 words have been interpreted: ‘everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness’. (2 Timothy 2, v 19)

I’m not bitter, but I am hurt.  I will be hurt until the day I get to heaven, because there’s no getting round this one.  Sure, the raw edges have healed, but it’s like an amputation – just because the stump has healed, doesn’t mean that the limbs have been restored.

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Some of us are paddling hard, some of us have been through the rough bits,
and some of us are taking the ride of our lives! And we’re all in it together.

One wise writer reminded us that we sometimes bring our culturally influenced mindsets to scripture when we read. He challenged us to shed the dualistic worldview that colors too many interpretations, to choose instead to see the wholeness of the human person, and of the word of God. 

In our day, the science/religion debate seems to me like a debate between a pre 17th century cosmology and a 17th century cosmology.  I feel that as the 17th century cosmology – that everything can be explained by the laws of physics – a mechanistic materialism viewpoint – as this view becomes more prominent: the dualism of the Greeks becomes more attractive.  It is almost as if contemporary religious thinkers accept fully the 17th century cosmology, but say “yes, that may be true, but there is another realm, the spiritual realm, and we have the key to that realm.”  “All you have to do is say the right words and you can be a part of this realm too, you can be saved and enter heaven.” 

Our traveling poet returned home with some rich words to share, underlining the importance of the Holy Spirit at work in us as we read and wrestle with the Word:

so I read with an interpreter
the Holy Spirit
gifted, poured out 
and into me

how much better
to request living water
and let go, trusting
He will make all things
the hard, complicated

sticky things
clear in His perfect timing

help me then, Lord
to remember to release it all
that my answer to 
what do I with the hard things?
would be

I lay them at His feet

Two writers wrote lovingly of their growth in understanding using more contemplative practices for reading the Bible. One combined prose and poetry to create a beautiful reflection:

Over time, my ‘bible-thumping-in-your-face-are-you-saved?‘ days gave way to deeper reflection and grace. Made space for the ‘not knowing’ aspects of faith.

Now I am leaning toward the Contemplative and finding church is everywhere 

So why should I, with great temerity,
expect You to reveal all things to me?
Should I not make room, give space
for the protective nature of Your grace
Allow for Your Spirit to open my eyes
in a gradual way ~ day after day
Knowing I can only handle so much
surprise, information, knowledge, as such?

The second referenced a wonderful book by Ruth Haley Barton (“Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation”) and included a great outline for the practice of lectio divina, which I heartily recommend. 

It is listening in a spirit of silence and of awe for the still, small voice of God that speaks to us personally.

It’s different than in-depth Bible Study, which is much needed and important to the understanding of scriptures.  Many of us have done a lot of that already, but this is a reflective reading.

Reading a passage of scripture, I listen for a word or phrase that strikes me in some way, stands out from the rest. And I pay attention to the words that bring resistance, for it is often in the things I resist that I find God has something to say to me. 

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At the end of the day, it is good to rest on the water and enjoy the view!

The last of the linkers (linkees?) came at this question from a different angle, and from a different background — and reading her words was both informative and delightful. She took the word ‘hard,’ which most of us defined as difficult to understand, and stood it on its head a bit by defining it as describing those things which are difficult for us to do. What a great insight! Sometimes it’s easier for us to roam widely around a perceived error or culturally dense decree or some other fine detail in scripture which doesn’t demand one thing from us in day-to-day life. 

There are many passages which, with more cultural and historical understanding, become less confusing. We spend a lot of time on those but to me they are not really the hard parts.

The parts of the Bible that are hard for me are those parts where I learn that God wants me to live differently. When his expectations of his covenant people are laid out before my eyes and I know that I fall short. Not only that, I know that I don’t always want to change. But what I have found is that it is hard not to. If we keep at it, if we let the words work their way into the innermost parts of our being, change often happens.

SO true — all pieces of this! Often we don’t want to change, but if we hang in there, if we keep reading, and, as this writer suggests further in the essay — if we spend quiet, contemplative time with those words that are hard for us to live — we do find ourselves being changed! Amazing.

Readily acknowledging that some in our community have been battered by biblical misinterpretation and even abuse, she shared a different story:

No one ever used the Bible as a weapon against me. It’s just a place of great discoveries. New stories, new meanings in familiar stories. Poetry, proverbs, Wisdom, history, law, letters, gospels and even the still very odd in my eyes Book of Revelation. They are all wonderful treasures and they change me.

When I read the Bible I am learning about God and about God’s relationship with his people. I am one of those people. I am learning how God wants us/me to live.

EXACTLY! Our Book is a gift to us, despite the attempts of too many to use it as a weapon. It is, as the psalmist says, ‘sweeter than honey,’ and is one of the primary ways in which the Holy Spirit works within us to conform us to the image of Christ. Thanks be to God!

 

At this point, I am still uncertain if I will be undergoing surgery to repair the torn tendon in my left ankle, so I cannot say with what frequency I will be posting in the next few weeks. I’ve got several book reviews coming up AND about 4 columns/posts at two of the online magazines for which I write. All of these will show up over the next month or so; they’re in the queue and ready to roll.

I’d appreciate your continuing prayers as we make decisions and hear options. 

Q & A: Week Eight — The Book of Love

We have arrived at the end of the journey, this exploratory willingness to sit in the middle of the hard questions and LIVE them a little. You’ll notice that I’ve picked up the surfing image once again, ever grateful for all that I learn about God and faith when I watch them do their thing! I thank each of you for coming along with me down this road, for your contributions to the rich conversational threads spun by each week’s topic. You can find links to each of my reflections in this post. Each individual post listed there holds the links for your contributions to that week’s conversation. And if anyone wants to add further to the conversation, please do so by linking your post in the comments section of whichever weekly question you want to reflect on.

I have one further resource of my own, one that applies specifically to this final question, which is, What do I do with all the hard/weird stuff in the Bible? Seven years ago, I was invited to be a writer for a denominational resource paper on how we read scripture. I offer it here, if you’d like to read it, as a more detailed and somewhat more academic approach to the whole topic of our relationship with the Word of God. I also commend to you these fine posts, written within the last week or two, by Morgan Guyton and Ed Cyzewski. Both men did stellar work on these biblically related themes: Here’s the link to Morgan’s and here’s the one to Ed’s post at Micha Boyett’s beautiful blog. Lastly, I cannot recommend too highly Eugene Peterson’s beautiful tome called, “Eat This Book: a conversation in the art of spiritual reading.” He says everything I would say and he says it so.much.better. 

DSC01029It was stormy last week. Much-needed rain fell by the bucketful, and we were thoroughly and delightfully doused. From my perch on the bluffs, I could just barely make out a couple of surfers, trying valiantly to take advantage of the buffed-up waves. They were heading into rough water, with swells extending well above their heads.DSC01032

Depending upon where they were located in relation to the development of the wave, these surfers only had a couple of options. They could quickly turn their boards around, climb on top and try like crazy to stay upright. Or, they could duck their heads and dive underneath the wave as it broke heavily above them.

On this stormy Sunday morning, I saw a whole lotta ducking!

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Sometimes, that’s what we have to do, too. Maybe this is particularly true in regard to this week’s — or any week’s — question about the Bible. I do not pretend to have all the answers about this book of ours, about its origins, its contextual issues, its multiplicity of genres. I do have some answers and I’ve enjoyed all the learning I’ve done over this life of mine to get to those answers. But there are times when I truly do not know what to do with some of the strange or difficult things I find in scripture.

That’s when it’s time to duck myself beneath the wave and swim through. Because if there’s one thing I know about our holy book, it is this: we are meant to place ourselves under its authority. 

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This does not mean blind obedience, nor does it mean adhering to a strictly literal interpretation of what we find there. It does mean that the Bible is primarily designed to be a book of revelation and of transformation. It is not a book of information, not a list of facts to be digested mentally. It is not a science book, nor is it a history book in the sense that we currently define the subject of ‘history.’

It is, I believe, a love story. A love story that is meant to be ‘eaten,’ thoroughly ingested and lived into. And it is a story told in words. Genesis 1 and John 1 each tell us that the WORD of God breathes out all that is, calls it, and us, into being. And the words that fall off the pages of scripture are words that are designed to be taken in, not simply read and filed. They are words meant to change us, from the inside out.

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I was raised by a mathematician father and a word-gifted mother in a home where arguments over inerrancy were simply not important. The Bible, I was taught, is the word of God, the ‘only infallible rule for faith, doctrine and conduct.’ It is God-breathed, in partnership with human authors, and tells us all we need to know about who God is, who we are and how we are made whole. Although I’ve had to wade through, and eventually discard, some pretty lousy theology in my life, my early understandings about what the Bible is, what the Bible does and how the Bible does it have remained steady. 

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In my faith community, we look to the word of God to show us Jesus, to guide us into truth and to tell us how to live. We love the Bible and we offer multiple opportunities to study it and learn from it.

We also offer twice yearly day-long prayer retreats, monthly Taize services, weekly prayer gatherings — all because we believe that the Bible, under the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, is meant to change us, not just teach us. There is a difference there, you see. A big one. Yes, there is a wealth of fun and challenging information to be gleaned from our holy book. The stories of beginnings in the first 11 chapters of the book of Genesis. The patriarchs and matriarchs, the exodus, the monarchy, the prophets, the exile, the wonderful, story-laden gospels, the letters to young churches. It is wonderful, rich and true and we love to learn it all!

But beyond learning, beyond memorizing, beyond making and keeping lists or rules, the Bible is a powerful force for inside-out transformation in the human soul. Reading it reverently, intentionally and slowly can change our DNA, if we let it. We must read scripture with ALL of who we are, not just our brains. And that task? Well, it pretty much takes a lifetime.

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By Tuesday morning of this week, the sun had returned and the water had calmed. There were no surfers this day, only walkers and lookers, soaking in the sea air and enjoying the blue of the sky. But as the previous weekend had taught us, not every day is a sunny one. 

We don’t get to decide if the day is going to be sunny or stormy, do we? Maybe that’s because WE are not the center of the universe and not nearly as powerful as we sometimes believe ourselves to be. And some of our experiences with scripture feel more closely akin to sunny days than others, don’t they? Sometimes our reading brings us glimpses of God, glimpses of ourselves, glimpses of grace. But then, of course, there are those other experiences, the ones that descend when we come up against a difficult passage. Some days, it feels like the storm clouds have moved in on us, bigtime. 

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And there is not one thing wrong with butting heads with the word, with arm-wrestling God about how hard it is, with asking questions. This entire series is based upon the necessary goodness of questions, of living them well and heartily as we limp our way down the road called faith. But there is one very important truth that we need to hang onto in the middle of all of our questioning: our experience is not all the truth there is to be found. It’s important to explore our feelings, responses, reactions and to try to sift out what’s going on inside of us. 

But we are not the final arbiters of much, truth be told. And sometimes we have to remind ourselves that our personal experience-of-the-moment is not at the top of the pile when we’re searching for truth. What we’re wrestling with needs to be placed, as Eugene Peterson puts it, “under the authority of the Bible and not over it. . . the Bible, all of it, is livable; it is the text for living our lives.” 

We are invited INTO the word.

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And we are invited to let the Word into us. There are always going to be mysterious and strange pieces of story in our book. There just are. Happily, there aren’t all that many! Most of what we have, when we take the time and care to understand nuances of language, culture, changing societal norms, the development of the canon of scripture, and the variety of literary genres included in this collection of ours — most of it is readily accessible to us. There are so.many.resources available to help us work through the tough spots, the weird stuff, the question marks. And if there are specific texts that are troubling you, I encourage you to look at the commentaries, to speak with  your pastors and teachers, and to see if you can find answers that satisfy.

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But here’s the thing: please don’t lose God in  your efforts to understand the things that trouble you in the Bible. Some of the things I read on the internet make me wonder if the writer has ever encountered God in the pages of scripture. Have tears been shed, jaws dropped, realizations appeared like a bolt of lightning? Because sometimes excursions into questions can quickly become intellectual exercises — a parsing of verbs, a splitting of hairs, and way too much proof-texting. 

DSC01087BUT . . .when our honest, heartfelt questions help to open our souls and widen our spirits, they are very good things, indeed. They can lead us deeper into God and deeper into ourselves by leading us deeper into the word.

And it is the Word of God that centers us, anchors us, transforms us:

“Without this text, firmly established as the authoritative center of our communal and personal lives, we will founder. We will sink into a swamp of well-meaning but ineffectual men and women who are mired unmercifully in our needs and wants and feelings.” – Eat This Book, page 35

“But the words of Scripture are not primarily words, however impressive, that label or define or prove, but words that mean, that reveal, that shape the soul, that generate saved lives, that form believing and obedient lives . . . Having and defending and celebrating the Bible instead of receiving, submitting to, and praying the Bible, masks an enormous amount of nonreading.”  – Eat This Book, page 140

 

Just in case you missed seeing this on Facebook when Ann Voskamp posted it, this is a lovely small video clip of some Chinese Christians receiving Bibles for the very first time:


How the Bible Reads Us

Most of you know that I an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church, a denomination in the free church tradition, with many ties to both Lutheranism and Methodism. This is a paper submitted to a denominational committee in 2007. All of us were required to read Eugene Peterson’s fine book, “Eat This Book: a conversation in the art of spiritual reading,” before we met together. Four of us were assigned to be the writers for four related topics and then all four were to be compiled into one document. Somehow, one part never got written and so one of our NT professors took all the pieces that did get submitted and re-wrote them into one longer paper. I believe that exactly ONE line of my contribution ended up in the final product! (Here is a link to the entire paper, if you’re interested in reading it.) I loved doing the work for this assignment — looking at scripture and at our denominational heritage to re-state what we believe about the word of God. I am posting it here in conjunction with the final post in the Q & A Series. It is an extra resource.

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All scripture references in this portion of the paper are taken from the TNIV

How the Bible Reads Us:
Reading for Transformation
Part 4 of an ECC Resource Paper on
how the Covenant does biblical and theological reflection

written by Diana R.G. Trautwein

 ”Come here and listen to the words of the LORD your God.
This is how you will know that the living God is among you…” Joshua 3:9-10

“If you are sitting there dead in sin and shame, dear one, sit then where it rains…
It is always raining in the Word.  Sit there, and you will soon be drenched through and through.”
 August Pohl (1845-1913) Sermon in Missions-Vanne, September, 1878,

from Images in Covenant Beginnings, Eric G. Hawkinson (1968), pp. 65-67

From its earliest days, the Evangelical Covenant Church has proclaimed both a profound respect and an abiding passion for the written word of God.  Our respect for the Bible leads us to honor its contents with serious study, doing the difficult but rewarding work of textual, historical, linguistic, literary, and sociological analysis.  We train our pastors and encourage our laity to make use of good academic tools, and to read with minds engaged, as we seek to learn together about the biblical underpinnings of our shared faith. We desire to honor God’s word and to serve the church through rigorous scholarship, careful deliberation about interpretive differences and humble appreciation for this rich resource we share.  We stand in awe before the word of God and its complex ancient languages, its variety of historical details, covering thousands of years and dozens of cultures, and its beautiful mix of literary styles and types – all of it working together to tell the story of God’s redeeming work in the world.

Our passion for the Bible leads us to a slightly different perspective when we read God’s word, both personally and as a community of faith.  As a people of God committed to the Word, we firmly believe that in addition to standing in awe before the Bible, we also need to sit in obedience under it.  A foundational truth for the Covenant church is that the word of God is a living thing, a primary place where we go to meet the living God. “The Word of God is ‘spirit and life’ and always meets us as such, and therefore requires of us a spiritual and living response.”  (From Covenant Principles, 1960 and 1973) “We are a people of a Book.  We believe the Bible is the place where God is to be met, where his forgiveness is proclaimed, and where his will is made known…the Bible is for us a meeting place with God.” (From Covenant Committee on Freedom and Theology, Biblical Authority and Christian Freedom  (1963), pp. 6-7).

This gift of God, this living book, is made alive for us and in us through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.  It is the Spirit who makes the word “alive and active.” (Hebrews 4:12)  “Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”  Paul picks up similar imagery in his letter to the church at Ephesus when he describes God’s word as “the sword of the Spirit.” (6:17) This remarkable, double-edged sword of the Spirit – God’s sculpting, shaping word – does its work in us in order to transform us.  Through the guiding, probing, challenging power of the Holy Spirit, the word of God works within each of us as individuals, and within all of us as a community, to transform us into the image of Jesus Christ, who is the heart and center of our shared story.

For our story as a denomination, our stories as local congregations, and our individual and personal stories all find their meaning and purpose within the larger story of God, as it is told to us in scripture.  This is most especially true as God’s story is lived out in and through Jesus, who is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.”  (Hebrews 1:3)  When we come to this narrative in an attitude of openness, expecting to encounter the life-changing, powerful Word, we discover that we are there, participants in God’s story of love and rescue.  Even though this marvelous word was not written to us, it surely was written for us, and our fingerprints begin to emerge with every turn of the page.  We, too, have bitten into forbidden fruit and paid the price for it; we, too, have wandered through the wilderness, wondering where we’ll land; we, too, have been overwhelmed by a task, only to discover that God is able, that God is faithful; we, too, have been lost and then found.

These discoveries, made in the context of reflective, participatory reading and meditation on the word of God, also lead us into confrontation and challenge.  Not only do we recognize ourselves in the sly ambition of a Jacob or the sibling rivalry of his 12 sons or the chronic complaining of the newly freed Hebrew slaves, as they meander through 40 years of desert living, we also come face to face with the call of scripture to live differently. Sitting under the Bible in obedience means that we must do more than simply smile in recognition, and shake our heads at the vagaries of human willfulness.  Following the admonition of Jesus in the gospel of Luke, we learn to call ourselves blessed if we are “those who hear the word of God and obey it.” (11:28) Obedience to the word of God, which is possible only through the affirming, comforting and challenging presence of the Holy Spirit, leads to transformation in the life of the disciple and in the life of the church.  Conversion is necessary; repentance is required; change is inevitable. We are continual works in progress; we are ever pilgrims on the way; we are always “being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)

It is this process of conversion and change, wrought by the living word of God at work within us, “that has been at the heart of the Evangelical Covenant Church since its founding…This dynamic life-shaping power of the word leads us to affirm that both women and men are called to serve as ordained ministers.  It is the reason we intentionally pursue ethnic diversity.  It is the motivation behind every act of compassion and justice through the life of our shared ministry.”  (From Covenant Affirmations, 1976, 1996, 2005.)

Collectively and individually, we are encouraged to continually come to the word of God in a spirit of humility and gratitude, seeking to discover how we are to be changed, how we are to be transformed into the church and the persons that God intends us to be.  We come to the text not simply to ‘feel better,’ nor to find a magic ‘fix’ for a particularly vexing question or problem; not to earn ‘points’ for good behavior, nor for confirmation of a preconceived agenda.  We come to the word of God to wrestle with our own sinfulness, to acknowledge our own brokenness, to learn of God’s redeeming grace one more time.  We come to be changed.

It is only by purposefully placing ourselves, as individuals and as a community of faith, in a posture of submission, receptivity and expectation that the word of God can continue to convert us.  It is there, and only there, that we find ourselves in the best possible place to receive God’s gift of grace, over and over again. Many years ago, C.O.Rosenius wrote these words:  “Thus you see that the Word was the means through which God sustained your life in grace.  It is the same way with the church and with all Christians.  God’s Word is not called a means of grace in vain.  Without this word it is impossible to keep a life in grace.”Thanks be to God for the “life-shaping power,” and grace-sustaining winsomeness of the word.

* “On the Purpose and Necessity of Using God’s Word,”
from Images in Covenant Beginnings, Eric G. Hawkinson (1968), p. 113

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Q & A — Tuesday Wrap-Up: Week Seven

Painted in Waterlogue

What an amazing collection of words have flown around the blogosphere this week, just here, in our small corner! Thanks to each of you who linked a post on this week’s question — which was: Why do bad things happen to good people?   And thanks to each of you who contributed to the comments thread, too. We’ve been pushing through some tough stuff the last few weeks and I am grateful to each of you for hanging in for the duration, for wrestling well, and for sharing your insights and your questions with all of us.

Every one of the posts this week spoke to some piece of my heart and I encourage you, if you have not already done so, to read each one. Our group is small enough to make that very doable, indeed. It will be well worth your time, I promise.

A pastor friend in Pennsylvania, on the verge of a major move with her young family, wrote an exquisite post this week, weaving together quotes from three writers, and touching on birds, dancers and Mercy. I dare you to read these words without tears!

You are not lost, dear ones, you are held, though you may not yet be aware of it. 

This Mercy, this tender mercy, it is the key to endurance, the doorway to hope, the promise of joy in the midst of deep and tragic sorrow.  

I have only waited for a little thing – a house, a home, a promise – and maybe this song I sing seems as foolish to you as the voices of the birds did that snowy day.  What can I say to convince you?  

There are not words, my friends. 

So I’m singing today in the face of winter, singing from a place I’m coming to know, lifting notes that crack and fail to carry just as often as they sometimes soar.  I’m singing this song of hope in the waiting, pressing these tender shoots of green against the snow and ice, dancing these slow, strange steps with a Partner I cannot always see.

Spring will come, love will unfold, and when it does, you will be found in its midst, held, protected, embraced.

Oh.My.Word.

Another friend from the cold east revisited an old post of hers, a beautiful prayer of thanksgiving after reflecting on deep losses in her life:

You knew my path.

You provided people who
journeyed with me,.
people who did not give answers,
but gave themselves.
And now I can thank You,
not that you allowed the loss –
but that you knew my path
through the loss.

You knew all I would learn
as I processed this deep loss.
And You did not spare me.

You knew I would learn to
“Pay Attention . . . ”
to  see more clearly
your activity in the midst of
daily life.

You knew the self-awareness
that comes from processing grief
would give me the confidence
to stand on my own two feet.

You knew my path.

Everyone who contributed to the conversation this week affirmed the truth of that last line, despite incredibly difficult circumstances for many of us.

A voice of deep wisdom, reflecting a life of rich experience and conviction, took a two-pronged approach. He looked briefly at the historical roots for what he finds to be an American political and religious heresy — the belief that “God’s favor is manifest in material blessings.” To me, this is an important idea, one that we need to think through and speak against, primarily because the logical antecedent to such thinking is that suffering and struggle are indications of God’s disfavor. . . which is what gives rise to exactly the question we’re looking at this week! Prong two sprang from his own personal journey right now, as he walks through a terminal illness:

So from April until September I was in bed on my back. 

But during this time, I realized that I could still pray.  I spent many quiet hours in bed, just being quiet, meditating and praying. 

The treatment I was on failed and in September I started Chemo Therapy, so that as I was trying to recuperate from the surgeries, my body was taking a hit from the chemo.  But that period of quiet, of lying for months on my back gave me the serenity to deal with my status in this life/death cycle.  I don’t consider my situation as a “bad thing” that is happening to me.  I have a wonderful family and church community, and I will live until I die.  But God is with me.

But God is with me. YES! Right there, in the midst of the struggle — this is the gift of Presence, the fulfillment of the promise given as Jesus ascended into heaven, “Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Another voice, again one of deep wisdom born of chronic illness, gave witness to the ultimate story of bad things happening to a good person — Jesus himself:

He didn’t deserve to die. We don’t deserve His sacrifice. Bad things happen to good people. Sadly, this is a sinful, fallen world.

We live in an upside-down, here-but-not-here-yet Kingdom where we begin to accept the cloud of unknowing is part of belonging. 

And we look to the cross. Consider Calvary. Weep for the loss and rejoice in the resurrection. Marvel that His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. 

All He asks is for us to lean on Him. Rest on His word. Seek strength and help in time of need. Find comfort and share it with others.

Meanwhile, we live with smoke and mirrors, with mystery and mayhem, with pain and with promise, with unanswered questions and faith. . . 

Prayer draws us nearer to God’s heart and there we find all the comfort and reassurance we need to keep us afloat. We begin to see an open door of hope through the painful places.

Though we may still emerge with unanswered questions, in the listening and leaning we learn to release the pressing need to know and rest in trusting all that we do understand.

Our traveling poetess returned home just in time to contribute these lovely and succinct words:

I am learning to surrender
my need to know
giving up the why?
again and again
I find myself confessing
my heart on its knees
let it be enough to know that You know
so we can move on
to the now what?
remembering we are still in Your arms
even when nothing feels safe
or certain

 help us turn the question
on its head, and ask instead
why do we deserve all the good poured out upon us?

 grace, Your grace alone

I loved these words, offered just prior to telling the stories of  ‘three good men,‘ each of whom suffered greatly, two of whom died in the midst of the pain. As always, stories are powerful tools of Truth, especially as we are trying to live the questions. . .

Nobody is actually good. Really, we all deserve much worse than we get. It’s one of those things you decide to believe to be humble and reverent, while somewhere inside you’re mad because these bad things just don’t seem right

And these words? Wisdom way beyond the writer’s years!

Suffering catches us in the middle of things and feels like chaos. The attempt to lay out sensible reasons and answers feels to me like trying to lasso a tornado. I remember declaring vehemently to a friend: “I don’t want God to tell me why Dad died, because I know I wouldn’t really understand it, and no answer would seem good enough.” I find it disturbing that in their arguments for God’s sovereignty, some people seem to stretch “God works all things together for good” to “all things are good.” I’m confident both God’s power and His love will survive without that kind of mental gymnastics. I hope that as we all continue to grow and to know God better, that we will learn to see how He touches us as whole people, beings of body and mind and heart. We don’t have to make God work for us. He is present with us–as present with our broken hearts as with our careful theology. We don’t have to make everything work. Because He is, and is with us, no matter what.

 These opening words surprised my by their logical clarity — why didn’t I think of that?

No one seems to feel God has to explain why good things happen, and everyone seems quite at ease with bad things afflicting the Bad. Of course Good things happening to Bad people is often fodder for a few outraged headlines, but in the end, we are concerned with ourselves, and we rarely consider ourselves bad.

This same writer then continued to dig deep and to speak to her own greatest fear — that her children would suffer:

I have been so scared at times, not knowing, simply not knowing.
And not trusting.
I am not ready to let them be free. Free in the loving care of Jesus.
I hold my daughters in chains.

Bad things must not happen to the fruit of my womb.

And I am thrown again on the passage from Romans 8 where Paul insists that nothing can keep us from the love of God. Surely that is the most important thing for us to hope for.  That we are never separated from God’s love. . . 

My head accepts things far more readily than my heart. Should serious harm ever come to my dear girls I make no promise I won’t rant and rail and I am sure I may well doubt the love of God. And I will have need of friends who will sit with me in the dark times clinging on to my old certainties for me whilst I can not.

May my love for my daughters set them free to follow Christ and lead me to love, serve and intercede for all his daughters and sons.

My lovely young friend from New Zealand poured her heart out on her brand-new blog, agonizing over a national tragedy in her country and over her own terror for the safety of her husband and children. This post got injured in the link-up and was only connected late in the day yesterday, so if you have not read it, I urge you to follow the link and read every word:

Despite praying for their children’s protection, their parents, families and friends were left grieving and devastated.  And the question nags at me – why do I pray for my family’s protection when God may chose not to answer it?  What is the point of praying this way?

The best answer I’ve got is that I can’t not.  I ask God to protect the ones I love, because I trust Him, and because that is my part.  My part is to ask, His is to answer.  I have no control over the answer, but if I have at least asked, then I have done my part. . . 

We got to the part of the service where we have communion, and as we were singing the song following communion, I was hit by a revelation.  I had just had communion, which somehow joins me both to Christ, and to the rest of His body.  I knew that my family (still in the cult I left) would have had communion earlier that morning, and I thought about Diana and all of the rest of the people I am getting to know on the interwebs, who would be having communion while I was asleep.  I thought about my sister-in-law who died a month ago, and remembered the line in the Anglican liturgy that talks about the whole body of saints, those who have gone before, those who are here now, and those who are to come… and I realised that in some way, despite all our differences of denomination, location and even state of being, we are ALL ONE in Christ.  Taking communion is actually a point of connection with my family, who are believers but major on the minors, my friends, who are believers who happen to live on the other side of the world, and my sister-in-law who was a believer and is now ‘in Christ’.

For some reason, I’ve never really seen it that way before – despite our worst denominational efforts, we are all part of one body, and the griefs, tragedies and heartache that we have to deal with cannot change that.

I don’t really know how that ties in to why bad things happen to good people… except that it is all a mystery.  How this whole thing works, good or bad, is a mystery.  We truly are living in the shadowlands, and there is so much we never see or understand.  I cannot trust that God will always answer my prayers the way I want Him too, but I can always trust what I know and have seen of the character of God – He is kind, just, merciful and ‘has compassion on us because He knows that we are dust.’

You all did such stellar work and I am so grateful for every one of you. Please read through the comments section, too, because there are some gems in there. Here are just two:

Asking “why” only wearies me and makes me a bit crazy. Because there are no answers I try not to go there. My prayers in times of sorrow are usually ” please let me feel your presence and walk with me”. I look at the world and no one is without their own private grief. Why should I be exempt? The rain falls on all of us. And so does the sunshine!

 

I have to work from the foundation of this truth…God is Love… And true love never forces Itself on anyone….so much of this suffering is at the hands of other broken people…and so often people wonder ….why won’t God deal with that rebellious son….husband…but what that means most of the time is…why doesn’t God shorten my suffering and deal hard with the other person….but if we think about it…when we want God to be the ” enforcer” in someone else’s life…where are we willing to let Him be the same in our lives….where do I want my free will to be violated. 

God has been good to us, to give us each other for this stretch of the journey. My thanks to each of you as we head toward home this week.

Friday’s question: What do I do with all the hard/weird stuff in the Bible?

 

 

 

Q & A: Week Seven — The Question without Answers

I’ve been praying about this week’s question for days. It sits at the center of so many struggles, for me and for people I love — indeed, for just about everyone who takes their faith seriously. My words today are not meant to be final, but simply a reflection of my own processing around this important question over many years. I look forward to reading your words, too. Wrestling with hard questions is important work, necessary work, even when the answers do not always satisfy. And this question? There are no ‘satisfying’ answers out there, I don’t think. What there is . . . is acceptance and — here’s a hard word!  — submission.

Next week’s question: What do I do with all the hard/weird stuff in the Bible?

Painted in Waterlogue

i.

I suppose you might call me blessed. I was well into my forties before I ever experienced the death of anyone close to me. I had lost three grandparents before that time, but somehow, their deaths seemed the normal progression of things, almost orderly. I was sad and I was sorry, but I was not cut to the quick. And I didn’t actually see any of them when they were near death; I didn’t watch them suffer.

Looking back now, I’d have to say that any blessing involved in that particular twist of the calendar was a mixed one. I didn’t know. I didn’t know what it was like to watch someone I love suffer. Suffer and then die. I wasn’t ready when it happened. And, as it does to every one of us, it happened. A lot.

ii

My midlife foray into seminary and then pastoral ministry exposed me to a lot of death and dying. And I was given a great gift early on. A woman I knew moderately well was close to death and I went to visit her while I was still a student. I uttered a prayer under my breath as I pushed open the door to her hospital room: I had never been close to a dying person in my life and I truly did not know what to expect.

But as I stood with her, praying and talking (which are so often the same thing, aren’t they?), it seemed as if God gave me a vision. She had little hair, she was incoherent, she wore only a hospital gown and a diaper — and it hit me: she is getting ready to be born!  And I said that to her as I stroked her forehead, “Oh, my friend! God speed you on the journey.”

Painted in Waterlogueiii

In the years since that afternoon epiphany, I’ve watched my father-in-law, my best friend, my father, my son-in-law and dozens of parishioners suffer and die. And I’ve watched their families suffer and try to live, so this question is one I’ve carried around inside me for a long, long time. However, I have changed the question considerably over these years. In fact, I would have to say that the ‘why’ part of it has pretty much disappeared from my vocabulary. 

Because there is no answer to the ‘why,’ at least not one I can live with. I choose to hang onto the biggest possible picture of God — believing that God is good and God is powerful and God is loving and God is just. And holding all those things together makes the ‘why’ question unanswerable, at least for me. A big God, and the ways of a big God, are beyond my power to comprehend. Beyond. So I am increasingly at peace with leaving that huge area over to the side and focusing instead on questions like these:

What can I do to offer comfort/support/encouragement/hope to people who are struggling?

How can I pray for myself and for others when the tough times hit?

When is the best time to talk/be silent/offer practical help/sing a lament?

Where can I find more resources for those who are suffering?

Who is here? Who needs to be here? Who needs to be re-directed? Who needs more help than I am equipped to offer?

Painted in Waterlogue

iv

Those are the questions, those are the concrete activities, those are the best-case-scenario, left-brain things that happen when I click into crisis mode, in my own life or on behalf of someone else. And they are necessary, good and helpful things to think/do/offer/plan/imagine. But there is more. There has to be more. Because sometimes the weight of it all, the fear that creeps in and around the edges of serious suffering, the uneasy, uncertain darkness of it all — well those things are not quite so amenable to left-brain thought processes. The truth of God’s goodness/power/love/justice must somehow permeate me, not just my rational, thinking self. There must be room for the mystery, and somehow that ole left-brain just isn’t big enough. 

Painted in Waterlogue

v

The journey of the last half of my life is a journey away from the left side of my brain, that default position I have explored so heartily for so many years. It is a journey toward wholeness, an acknowledgement that I don’t know — I can’t know — what everything ‘means.’

To get to the center, to make room for the mystery, I must carve out time to . . . shut down the noise. Most of that noise happens inside my head, but some of it comes from outside: other people, outside commitments, expectations, assignments, distractions. And when something difficult happens to me or to someone I love, finding that quiet place becomes much more difficult.

But that is exactly when it is most needed. And slowly, with much trial and error, I am learning to find the quiet right smack dab in the middle of the noise. Sometimes it’s three minutes of deep breathing, eyes closed. Sometimes it’s the Jesus prayer, said over and over just before I drift off to sleep. Sometimes it’s taking a familiar phrase of scripture and looking at it, without dissecting it. Sometimes it’s a quiet 30 minutes in my car, perched on the bluffs, overlooking the ocean. Sometimes, it’s a poem or a song that winds its way around my soul, reminding me of Beauty and Grace and Peace. Sometimes, it’s falling asleep in the sunshine of my backyard. 

All of that helps me to find center, to make space for the Spirit, to transfer the swirling anxieties within to the strong, double yoke of Jesus, who has so graciously offered to carry those burdens with me. All of that helps me to come to peace with the unanswered ‘whys’ of my life. 

Quiet. Stillness. Contemplation. Meditation. Wordless prayer. These are the gifts, these are the invitations.

Painted in Waterlogue

vi

Discipline is the other side of discipleship. Discipleship without discipline is like waiting to run in the marathon without ever practicing. Discipline without discipleship is like always practicing for the marathon but never participating. It is important, however, to realize that discipline in the spiritual life is not the same as discipline in sports. Discipline in sports is the concentrated effort to master the body so that it can obey the mind better. Discipline in the spiritual life is the concentrated effort to create the space and time where God can become our master and where we can respond freely to God’s guidance.

Thus, discipline is the creation of boundaries that keep time and space open for God. Solitude requires discipline, worship requires discipline, caring for others requires discipline. They all ask us to set apart a time and a place where God’s gracious presence can be acknowledged and responded to.
– Henri Nouwen

vii

The only way for me to hold the tension of ‘bad things’ happening to ‘good people’ is to remember that I do not and cannot know the reasons why these hard, horrible things happen. I can, however, resolve to enter into the suffering — my own and others’ — and look for God there, because everything I read in scripture and everything I know about Jesus tell me that right there, in the middle of the mess, is where God is sure to show up. And all the topics that we’ve been exploring together in this series come together in that central truth.

We worship a God who knows what it is to suffer and who walks with us through whatever terrible things unfold in front of us. More than that, we worship a God who promises to somehow, some way, redeem that suffering in ways we cannot now imagine. 

viii

“This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?” God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know we are going to get what’s coming to us—an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we’re certainly going to go through the good times with him!

That’s why I don’t think there’s any comparison between the present hard times and the coming good times. The created world itself can hardly wait for what’s coming next. Everything in creation is being more or less held back. God reins it in until both creation and all the creatures are ready and can be released at the same moment into the glorious times ahead. Meanwhile, the joyful anticipation deepens.

All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.

Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.”
           – Romans 8:15-28, The Message

 

Next week’s question (LAST week of this series for now): What do I do with all the hard/weird stuff in the Bible?