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:


Q & A: Week Six – Holding the Reins Lightly

This week’s ‘Living the Question:’ How do I make all the pieces fit?

Next week’s Question: Why do bad things happen to good people?

Links to each post in this series can be found in the introductory portion of this post.
Waterlogue (3) shoreline viewSo, it’s been a week.
Not one of my favorites,
and I’m looking for the lessons in it.
So far, I don’t like what I see.

Because what I see is the truth:
some days, life stinks.
People you love deal with worrisome things,
you feel like you’re caught
in the middle of a personal
third-time’s-a-charm kinda deal,
only there’s no charm to be found.

And that close encounter with a good God
you had last week?
Well, that’s last week’s news.

But then. . .
you read words that nourish,
or you spy a photo that 
gives your soul wings.
A bird calls,
the breeze blows,
and the sun shines brightly
on the water.

And you remember.
You remember that this is
what it means to be
a human person,
living on planet earth.

There is so much pain,
struggle, outright evil.

And there is so much beauty,
goodness and wonder.

Together. Always together.

And most of it is way beyond
our power to control.
Yes, we are invited into a
partnership, of sorts.
A dance, with the God of the Cosmos,
who chooses to work stealthily,
covertly, through very leaky vessels.

Like you. And like me.

And there is no explaining it,
not any of it.
Except to say
it is, indeed,
a mystery.

And the bigger mystery,
at least to my eye,
is this one:
the good stuff.
All the good stuff:
the beauty of creation,
the selflessness of some,
the revelations of modern
science and technology,
the miracle of a true friend.

Large or small,
new or old,
I cannot find a way to
tell you why there is anything
redeemable at all
in this crazy, wide world.

If I think about it at all,
which I do, on occasion,
I ‘get’ the bad stuff,
the ‘nature, red in tooth and claw.’

But I can’t for the life of me 
figure out why
a hummingbird hovers
so perfectly,
or when love happens,
or why it lasts.

I can’t reason it out,
make it fit the facts.

So I’m learning to live in the 
valley between,
holding two realities in
creative tension,
very, very loosely.

And in the process,
I’m learning more about God
and more about myself
than I sometimes wish I knew.

But then, that’s the way with questions, right?
That’s the way with questions.

Waterlogue (4) paddle surfer

Not sure I feel exactly upright this week, but looking at this photo, ‘watercolored’ through a phone app, reminds me that it’s good to keep afloat whenever possible! Just these few quiet reflections for you all today as I continue to recuperate from the flu. I did find this wonderful comment today, from one of our regular conversationalists to another in the comments section of one of their blogs. A lovely summary statement of ‘making the pieces fit,’ I think. Please let me see your words on this important question. Maybe by wrap-up day, I’ll have a few more to add, but I’m not countin’ on it!

“I feel like a ‘work in progress’ too! What else can we be unless we determine to stop growing. Sometimes the chisel cuts, sometimes the smoothing away of rough corners hurts. But unlike works of art we take part in our creation and moulding. And we know that the desired outcome is nothing less than to make manifest our unique beloved perfection.” – from Juliet’s comment on Joy’s blog

Click on the froggie to link your specific blog post. It looks different because it is different. Starting last week, they changed the system.

Q & A Tuesday Wrap-Up: Week Three

DSC00878I’m thinking maybe this week’s topic — SIN — felt too big for some of our usual conversational partners, because a few voices are missing this time around. We picked up a few new ones, however, and so the conversation continues to be rich and challenging. My thanks to all who linked and to all who left comments over the weekend. We’re wrestling things out together and I am glad.

I write with some frequency about my own journey with Jesus from fundamentalism to what I hope is a more grace-based space on the faith spectrum. What has surprised and saddened me as I continue to explore the world of faith blogs is the number of people who have been terribly, sometimes irreparably, burned by the church. My own experience is decidedly NOT that and I want to say that as clearly as possible. Yes, I had to unlearn some of the things that my earliest church experiences taught me. But my emotional connections to that early church are strong and universally positive. There were people there who loved me, worship was beautiful and thoughtful, and I actually loved earning ‘spending money’ for the treasure chest of goodies that Bible memory work made possible to the serious young student!

Some of you cannot say the same. Perhaps these words sum up what too many of us have experienced as a result of early church experiences: And I am still getting my head around how to achieve the balance between hating sin yet not hating myself. Maybe you get stuck there too? 

Reading this paragraph, however, brought hope that we can, by God’s grace, learn to move away from old paradigms and embrace the truth of the gospel:

I begin to glimpse how death connects to sin, not as some arbitrary punishment, but an intrinsically linked growth–plant from root. Sin no longer seems like failure of some cosmic test, but some dark and awful thing that wants to eat us alive. God is not removed on some academic seat waiting for my proper supplication in order to expunge my “F” with Christ’s blood and replace it with His “A.” He is stooping beside an angry Cain, urging him, “Sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” He is eating with the sinners, insisting, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” He is sitting beside the four-year-old girl who has shut herself in the closet to pray, again, not to go to hell. And though she doesn’t love Him–doesn’t even want to love Him–yet, He loves her.

One essayist hoped to wax eloquent and speak in theological terms about the concept of sin, only to find herself falling into a familiar pattern, one that reminded her that “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak!”

Our thoughtful, neighborhood poet gave us two pithy, thoughtful examples of her good thinking, one in the comments:

oh to have His eyes
that cut through fog
to see the heart of us, the heart of all
and with a breath of His Spirit
He brings clarity we can’t find in our own power

pondering long before I blog…

And one on her blog:

so I need not think long about sin
I need not give too much power 
to the darkness, no
I won’t deny His sacrifice
I instead choose freedom
choose light, choose life

Our conversation this week was enriched by the addition of two voices in a lower register, with links to two essays by thoughtful writing men. One wrote about our need to look sin square in its dark face in order to embrace the light. And the other pointed us in the direction of systemic sin, looking at the lectionary passages for the coming week.

Sometimes we have trouble looking at the judgmental texts of Jesus. If we take these texts as condemning individuals, they are harsh indeed. But if we understand that they are judgments against systemic sin, a general cultural abandonment of the values of their religion, we can pay more attention to them and learn from them.

I wonder about the general materialism of our culture. Might not this be such an example of “systemic sin?”

Each week, I am moved by and grateful for the comments that are offered on the weekly topic/question. Here are a few of my favorites, in no particular order:

“I took my first deep breath of grace. I am still breathing grace and always in need of more.”

“It seems to me we often forget that in the very first place God created us all. Deliberately. Desiring us. Loving us. Sin is what gets in the way of our loving relationship. It is not the ESSENCE of our very selves”

“I was raised in a church where I knew that Jesus died for our sins, but I didn’t really understand that it was a free gift of salvation and that I could be changed by the power of Christ IN me.”

“Obviously we know there is sin and evil in the world. But I’m not sure that the Augustinian “original sin” idea is the only way to account for it. You know the Celtic church was less influenced by Rome and therefore by Augustine, and they believe that one is born in holiness and returns to holiness at death. Now a lot happens in between, but I like the sense of the holiness of our life, derived from the fact that we bear God’s image and are born in his holiness. I think this speaks to our value, to our ability to choose to follow Jesus, and to have the offering of our life in discipleship to be a process of continual transformation. Which doesn’t mean that forgiveness and grace is not needed, but is more part of the process than the main thing.”

“Loves comes first…doesn’t it break a heart wide open when we see a place of blindness in our lives…places we have walked in ignorance …and His love opens our eyes…and we see through the lens of His love how wrong we have been…and the waves of grace come over us…He saw it all the time…and His love never stopped…His love patiently and continually called to us…called us out of the fog into the light…”

And to wrap-up the wrap-up once again, our Kiwi friend gave us a gift that looks like this:

I DID behave badly, and cause problems and stress. But nobody seemed to be able to see anything more than that – that underneath all those problems was a little girl, scared, alone and desperate for someone to love her. So when I was told that God couldn’t bear to look at me because of my sinfulness, and that He only wanted to look at Jesus, it made perfect sense! Of course God would feel that way, just like it seemed everybody else did.

It took leaving everyone and everything I knew and creating a completely new life (which also involved a new church) before I started to believe any differently. I had always known that God loved me, as long as ‘me’ was submerged and invisible in Jesus, but ever so slowly I started to learn and believe that I was of value to God. Not just as a container for Jesus, but as me. That God loved my strong will, and had intentionally given it to me (it wasn’t a design flaw after all!), that He loved my sense of humour, and that He actually liked me! Gasp! This was a completely earth-shattering revelation. God cared for me so tenderly and kindly in those first few years of transition that I started to be able to trust Him, instead of only fearing Him.

I am still – alas! – a sinner. And I am still often overwhelmed by how very far I am, from even my own standards, let alone God’s. The difference now is that I am getting better at knowing that God loves me, and that I give Him joy… even in my sinful state, He SEES me. The real me, the one He made and loves. It’s the difference between thinking that God looks past my pitiful attempts at goodness, sees my great sinfulness, and says “I knew it, you’re just a fraud!” and thinking that God looks past my sinfulness, sees my heart, the daughter He loves, and says “Come back to me, I miss you!”

WONDERFUL words from all of you – I thank you!

Week Four will be up a little after midnight on Friday morning and the Linky will be open until the following Monday at 4:00 in the afternoon, PST (If I can remember how to correctly program the dang thing!) Our question for this week: Is there room for my tears here?

  

Q & A: Week Three – Remembering What Comes First

Welcome to Q & A, a weekly series of ‘living the questions,’  questions that we often struggle with as people of faith. You are invited to read along, to comment with as many words as you like (just keep them in a conversational tone, without sharp edges, please), and/or to write a reflection of your own and link it back to this conversation. Each week the linky will be open from midnight Thursday/Friday until 4:00 p.m. on Monday (PST), allowing time for weekend wondering and writing. Then, each Tuesday, I’ll attempt a wrap-up post, with links, to help us begin to ‘live into the answers.’

This week’s question: “What’s with all this talk about ‘sin?'”

Next week, we’ll wrestle with this one: “Is there room for my tears here?”

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Interesting surfing weather this week. I took another trip out to Coal Oil Point and discovered that the entire coast — and at least 200 feet inland — were shrouded in fog. The sun shone through it, which actually made it more difficult to orient myself, as the light bounced around the thick air. As I walked that gravel path, I thought to myself that the entire experience was akin to trying to write the essay for this week. SIN is a huge topic. An important one, and for most of us, absolutely central to our understanding of who we are, who God is, why Jesus came to earth, and what the cross means. So wading out into this particular topic is a whole lot like wading out into the fog. It’s harder to see what’s coming at you, it’s tough to find your fellow travelers, and it feels decidedly more scary than the exact same water does on a sunny day.

In my introductory post for this series, I featured photos taken at the exact same spots along the path that you’ll see here. They look decidedly different today. This weather feels slightly threatening, even a bit frightening and pretty much mirrors my feelings as we delve into a discussion about sin this week.

So . . . here we go.

Remembering back to my earliest years in Sunday School, at about age 4 or 5, I can see a little booklet. It had no words, just different colored pages, and the teacher used it to tell the gospel story. I don’t remember all of the pages and their contribution to the overall narrative, but I do remember these: a deep black double page to represent the state of my small, 4-year old heart, completely darkened by something the teacher called ‘sin,’ then a bright red page which represented the spilt blood of our Savior, then a white page, to indicate my now-clean heart if I said ‘yes’ to Jesus, followed by a shiny gold spread, which assured me of my eternal destination.

Oh, I loved that book! And I loved that story. And I wanted that white heart, yes I did. And I definitely wanted that shiny gold future. This little tool was meant to be a good, simple means for helping children begin to understand some of the truths of the Christian faith. I’m not sure, however, that those truths actually sank into my little heart as intended.

And here’s why:

Children that age are just beginning to understand about good and bad behavior; they have no real concept of ‘sin.’ I think I internalized the message this way: Jesus wants me to stop doing bad things; if I don’t stop doing bad things, I am a bad person and I cannot get to heaven. So, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I worked very, very hard for a very, very long time to be a very, very good girl. 

And I began to believe that my sinful self was the most important thing about me. Otherwise, why did Jesus come? Why did Jesus die? 

Because I am a sinner. Everybody is a sinner. And that’s all that matters about us: we are sinners.

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I had a sense of diligence, of always working hard to be better, of trudging through life, walking the straight and narrow  I was a church girl — and I loved church, don’t get me wrong. I was a church girl in conservative southern California (and no, that is not an oxymoron. . . there was a lot of fundamentalism in CA in the mid 20th century). And every single invitational sermon I ever heard in the first twelve years of my life was centered around how sinful I was and how much I needed to be assured of a place in heaven someday. So by cracky, I’d better raise my hand, walk down that aisle and say ‘yes.’

I overstate. A little. But I think you catch my drift, right?

Then we moved and began attending a different church, one where I came to know Jesus in a much different way. The central truths were the same; it was the presentation that differed. More layers were added and the story of salvation took on deeper, richer hues. There began to grow in me the sense that maybe there was something more to be found in Jesus than forgiveness.

Forgiveness is powerful, wonderful stuff – and it is so very important. BUT. There is also Restoration. Empowerment. Redemption. Transformation. And I was deeply moved by the stories of Jesus I read in the gospels, the way he moved to the edges, called out the best in people — even people the rest of society had already written off, like Mary Magdalene, the Samaritan woman at the well, Zacchaeus.

Jesus saw something else in them that no one else seemed to see: he saw something worth his time, worth his goodness, worth his invitation. He saw them.

He also, of course, saw their sin. And he did not ignore it — he exorcised, he healed, he questioned, he called for newness. But here’s what I began to understand during my adolescent years and then reflected on more and more in my 20s and 30s:

Jesus saw beneath their behavior, beneath the swirling demons, beneath their bad reputations. He saw something else, something real and true and more important, even than their sin: he saw God’s image in them, and God’s design.  And then he reached right in and pulled that beauty out so that others could see it, too!

Take a look at these two photographs for a minute.

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When I put my camera up to take this shot, I saw only water with my naked eye. My camera, however, showed me — ever so dimly — that there were surfers out there! At least four of them! And then, I hit the ‘enhance’ button in iPhoto and voila! There they were, in sharper contrast and detail — four strong surfers, doing their thing, despite the messy day.

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God can see us, my friend. He can see us beneath all the fog of sin and brokenness.
Not only that, God LOVES what he sees, desperately, passionately, eternally. God hates sin, that is true. God hates anything that cuts us off from relationship, from ‘walking in the garden’ together. That for me is the clearest, simplest and best definition of the word — ‘sin’ is anything that separates us from God.

But God loves us. And that means that sin is NOT the most important thing about us. Our created humanity is. That’s what needs rescuing, that what’s needs saving, that’s what needs restoration, that’s what needs transformation. 

And that’s why Jesus came as one of us: to show us what it means to live a fully human life, with all of its ups/downs/struggles/joys/questions/answers. And to show us that neither sin, brokenness nor death has the last word. The cross followed by the empty tomb become the place where heaven and earth meet, where God shows us what it means to be a ‘king,’ where power and authority (and forgiveness and redemption) are redefined forever.

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I’m not sure how or why the dominant picture of the atonement — what happened in the incarnation/death/resurrection — became sin-centric in the last few hundred years. It has not always been so. Scripture teaches us that many things happened with the Great Event of Jesus.

Indeed, we do need to grapple with, understand and relinquish our inner ‘bentness,’ our direction-toward-sin, and we need to do that each and every day. Confession is good for the soul, and by that I mean it is good for the soul. It reminds us that God is God and we are not.

But. BUT. When we focus so much of our attention, our study, our prayers, our worship, our conversation on what a mess we are (even though we are, indeed, very messy people!), we take the focus off of God’s ongoing work of redemption and transformation within us. We lose sight of our utter loveliness to God, despite the messes we make, despite our proclivity for willfulness and idolatry. 

LOVE COMES FIRST. And if we can allow ourselves to be loved, without apology or hesitation — well, the earth moves,  you know? Read the story of the Forgiving Father in chapter 15 of Luke’s gospel. Read it through carefully and prayerfully. The father loves that boy long before he sees him coming down the road. Long before the boy repents of his sin. Long before anything.

Love comes first.

 “To God be the glory, great things God has done!” 

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I look forward to your comments and any reflections/responses you’d like to link up to this week. Even through the fog, there are great rides to be had! I am grateful for all the ways you are choosing to ‘live the questions,’ and then ‘live into the answers.’

Next week, we’ll wrestle with this question: “Is there room for my tears here?”

Q & A: Tuesday Wrap-Up, Week One


DSC00504 Oh, my! Such rich and wonderful depths to this conversation. My heartfelt thanks to each and every one of you who is reading along as we continue this experiment of pushing out, ever-so-gently, into the deeper waters that we wonder about as we live out this life of faith. And special thanks to each one who commented and/or who linked up some longer reflections from their own blogsite. I am grateful for each one of you, and grateful for the time and thought that went into your contributions here.

We have barely begun to scratch the surface of this topic, this thing we call obedience, but we’re enjoying the beauty of a shared ride along the crest of a wave, with thumbs up all round. I read every word you wrote, and these are the things that rise to the top as I reflect on what you’ve shared.

Almost everyone has had a difficult relationship with the idea and even with the practice of obedience, especially when it was taught in the context of conformity and obligation. (One of the links had this great line: “Goodness, obedience, when looked at through the lens of conformity is a dangerous thing.”) Several different writers mentioned the weight of being the ‘good girl,’ or the ‘good boy,’ and the pressure that rises as we try to make sure everyone is pleased with us, that we’re living up to expectations, that we’re earning performance points.

There was also, however, the recognition that if we re-define the term, if we look at it prayerfully and intuitively, the emotions surrounding the word change. Finding our way to a healthy, clear definition seemed to be high on the list; it feels important to us to think through what we mean when we talk about being obedient people.

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I loved that the story of Rahab came up in one of the linked posts, and also the reflection on civil disobedience, which was linked near the end of our celebration of MLK day yesterday. Rahab and Martin Luther King, Jr., each push us to ask good, hard questions about what we mean when we say we are obedient people. Obedient to whom? To what? for what purpose?

Rahab broke one of the 10 commandments, didn’t she? She lied, she bore false witness. But most of us resonate with her choice. Why? 

MLK encouraged black Americans, and any white Americans who felt called to join them, to disobey unfair laws and to step right into the middle of the mess by standing tall for the right, the good and the just. He looked the rules in the face and said, ‘NO. No, I will not be obedient to injustice.’

They each broke the ‘rules.’ And in the process, they rid themselves of the shackles of one set of culturally imposed values for another set entirely, a higher one. Rahab lied to save lives; MLK and all who followed him landed in jail, got beaten, endured insults, for what? Because they recognized a higher authority, the authority of justice, and they stood up for it. Which is something one of the commenters at the post talked about, too: that Jesus ‘stood up’ when treated unfairly – I loved this line: “But before Christ ‘laid down’ He stood up. He didn’t knock down but merely stood up.”

Sometimes obedience looks like standing up, breaking rules, speaking truth to power. And sometimes obedience looks like holding our tongues, being gentle and gracious, leaning into the difficulties in which we live. This line hit me hard and reminded me that sometimes, brokenness takes time to mend: “I think my obedience this year involves a willingness to receive God’s comfort in the emotionally decimated parts of myself.”

Yes, yes! Opening ourselves to the comforting love of God is an act of obedience, one that too many of us deny ourselves, believing that to be comforted and loved, we must somehow earn those things. We must do All.The.Things, the important, obedient things, and then maybe God will be there for us.

But how can we ever learn to love God — as the scriptures teach us — with ALL of who we are, if we don’t allow God’s love for us to fill and comfort and change us? Before we can love well, we need to know what being loved is like. Almost always that means learning to listen. To listen to that still, small voice that whispers hope, invitation, confidence, and love to our hearts. 

“I attempted to be faithful in prayer
yet never fit the pattern
of warriors and intercessors
who tried to school me
no list of requests for me
instead I simply seek His presence
abide, wait, respond
He said

when you’re breathing you’re praying

so I relax into that.”

 More than one person mentioned the importance of having trusted others in our life, those who love the Lord and who also love us. “Experience has taught me: those who have my best interest at heart will encourage me to seek His face, not try to tell me what His face looks like.”   I think that is a central part of what it means to be in community with one another — that we encourage each other to seek the face of Christ AND that we recognize that each of us will be given a slightly different angle from which to view that face.

Over and around and above all of the difficulties, the misunderstandings, the limits of our human vocabulary, there shines this powerful truth: God is bigger than the rules. And God will never leave us to fend for ourselves, even though it sometimes feels like that is exactly what is happening! “No matter what circumstances I encounter, no matter what insurmountable obstacles appear to be in my way; and no matter, even, the dumb things I do–Christ will not relent. He will not stop. I can rest in knowing Christ remains steadfast in being for me. He continues marching forward, working all things toward his purpose and for my good.”

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We’re riding this wave well, friends. I see you ‘listening’ to one another, with comments and links, with cross-comments and follow-up words. We’re in this together, and we’re learning as we go. Thank you, thank you.

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On Friday, we’ll jump into a famous phrase that has so many levels of both difficulty and beauty, we may be surprised at what will rise to the surface. What’s with this ‘more of Jesus, less of me’ stuff? I’m mulling this one over. And over. I look forward to posting my own ‘living the question’ and some of my ‘living into the answer’ musings at the end of the week. The link will be open through the weekend.

Please take a button for you own blog from one (or both) of the ones Lyla has so beautifully tucked into the side bar here. 

 

 

 

Q & A: Week One – Letting Go of the List

I want to begin by saying that I am FLABBERGASTED by and deeply grateful for the response to last Friday’s introductory post in this . . . shall we call it a series? I want to call it a conversation, one in which we can share questions, ideas, concerns, without ever doubting anyone else’s sincerity or questioning one another’s commitment to growing in grace. I also want to state very clearly (and undoubtedly, will do so again) that I do not pretend to have answers to All.The.Questions. I don’t think that is possible or, quite frankly, even desirable.

We are works in progress, designed by God to search and seek until we are found. I hope you will consider this space a safe one for exploration, wondering and discussion. And I’m pretty sure that those of you who are here are not interested in argument, in fact are exhausted by it. So. . . may this be a place for stories, for honest questions, for differing opinions . . . but not a place for theological arm-wrestling. We’re all pilgrims on the way, and it’s good to walk that way together, don’t you think? I have barely scratched the surface of this week’s topic, and I will be looking at it again in this conversation, I’m sure!

Next week’s question?

What’s with this ‘more of Jesus, less of me’ stuff?

DSC00474 Surf’s up! And the water looks great. So grab your board, find a trail down to the beach and let’s venture out into the deep, blue sea.

Safety first, however.

Remember that the ocean is vast, extends way beyond our view, is deeper than we can imagine and can sometimes prove treacherous. Even if we’re waiting right next to each other for a new set of waves, each of us will have our own experience.

We’ll use the same general skill set, grapple with similar pieces of equipment, and wave at one another when the next swell rises. But when we catch that ride, we’re on our own, finding our way back to the beach. DSC00492 We can share with one another helpful hints, scary stories, good (or bad) memories of past ventures out into the deep. And that’s a very good thing, that sharing. We can teach each other, learn together, experience the rolling of the water as a team. But what we cannot do is make assumptions or hold onto unrealistic expectations about any of it. We’re all finding our way. And by the grace of God, we’ll discover reservoirs of courage and grace we didn’t know were possible. 

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So, bearing all that in mind, let’s push our way out into the deeper water for a while. 

Earlier this month, I wrote a one-word post for 2014, bemoaning the fact that the word I was given is NOT a favorite of mine. It’s a word that carries piles of negative freight, instills fear in the hearts of toddlers, and frustration in the minds of most adults. It flies in the face of what we believe is the highest value known to humanity: freedom

My 2014 word is this one: obedient.

I’ve wrestled with this word for most of my life, my rebellious heart resisting the very sound of it. Strangely enough, however, I have lived my life in an outwardly obedient way. I never did anything as a teenager that brought angst to my parents. Yes, I was outspoken, given to crying jags, and beginning to pull away from a wonderful but sometimes invasive mother. Still, I was a good girl.

A very good girl.

There was a problem with that, however, and it took me a long time to figure out what that problem was. Yes, I was obedient to the ‘rules,’ both written and unwritten. The rules of my family, my culture, my church environment. I was downright dutiful in many ways, helpful around the house, caring for my much-younger brother, getting good grades in school, not experimenting with anything. I learned to conform, to live up to the expectations of all kinds of others, and I worked hard to be pleasing, lovable, accepted. I had a clear picture of right and wrong in my mind and I toed the line conscientiously. Sometimes too conscientiously.

Yes, indeed, I was obedient.

But I don’t think I had a clue what that word meant. In fact, I’m still learning, unpeeling layers, redefining terms. I had internalized a long list of rules as a young kid, and that list just kept getting longer as I moved through high school and college. A few of those rules are part of my life today — I’ve learned that boundaries and limits can sometimes be gifts, giving shape to life, and hope in the midst of confusion.

But the problem with a too-long list of rules is that it can become like that many-headed water monster of old, the Hydra, the one that grew two heads for every one you cut off. Before you know it, you can find yourself gasping for air, the very life sucked out of you as you frantically try to contain all of life’s contingencies in their own secure, little boxes.

Here is just one, small example. Very personal to me, not necessarily applicable to you.

I began teaching Bible studies when I was 14 years old, immersing myself in devotional reading, prayer, journaling. And I kept teaching Bible studies, off and on, for the next fifty years. FIFTY YEARS. And I loved it. For one thing, it kept me ‘in the Word,’ which had been drilled into me as the most important rule of all, to be in that Word every day of my life. I am grateful for the depth of my own experience with scripture and I love it dearly.

But a funny thing happened when I retired from pastoring: I stopped doing daily devotional reading. And you want to know something even ‘funnier?’ I believe I was being obedient when I did so.

Okay. Now catch your breath, close your mouth and relax.

I still read the Bible. I still love the Bible. I even still study the Bible, though not as often as I once did.  But I know now, three years into this strange land called retirement, that daily reading had become a ‘list’ item for me, one that had to go, at least for a while. Why? To draw me deeper into the heart of God, that’s why. To teach me — again — that obedience is not about adhering to a list, not about earning my way to grace, not about proving myself worthy.

For hundreds of years, people followed Jesus with their whole hearts without ever — EVER — holding a Bible in their hands and reading from it by themselves. Sometimes we forget that truth. I do not mean to diminish the remarkable gift that is ours in this book we call holy — it is the very breath of God and a primary means of encountering God in this life. I am grateful for it every day of my life.

But following a reading plan, in obedience to some inner call to toe the line, be a good girl (or guy), to check those fifteen minutes off the list, to prove to myself, or heaven help me, to God, that I am worthy of love and grace? Not good. Yes! The discipline of reading the Word is important, especially in the earliest years of faith commitment. But doing it in response to an internalized list of rules does not necessarily lead us into God’s heart. 

And that’s where this word ‘obedience’ can get tricky, isn’t it? Obedience to what? To whom? To an ever-growing external or internal list of acceptable behaviors? Or does it look more like this: learning to listen to the voice of Love within, and to follow where Love leads.

This is where Jesus tells us we are to look, this is how we’re called to listen: to love God, and to love others as we love ourselves. Our dear Lord took the shining sword of his own sweet tongue and sliced through the multitudinous lists of the professional religious folk all around him when he said this: 

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.” – Matthew 22:37-40, The Message

Now that is a very short list.

So this is how this small facet of obedience is unfolding in me at this juncture of my life, at this end of fifty years of immersing myself in the Word of God. Over those years, I memorized some good-sized chunks of God’s word. And much of it, I still remember. During these last three years of digging deep instead of spreading wide, I’ve been grateful for that memory work. Most days, I chew on phrases — sometimes just a single word! — from that memory bank, and I ponder them while I walk, focus on them when I sit in contemplative prayer. I think I spent about four weeks just holding the word ‘glory’ in my mouth and in my heart, amazed at all the ways in which I could see it shimmering all around me.

Being obedient to this strange new call has brought profound reminders of who I am and who God is. I am grateful that as I move into the next decade of my life, I am slowly re-learning that God calls us to relationship, not a head trip; to transformation, not information; to love, not lists.  

DSC00497 So, you over there, the one riding the board next to me? What is God teaching you about obedience these days? What further questions are being raised as you think about it, or as you read my thoughts? Share in the comments OR join your own blog post about this question by linking up below.

Next week’s question, for Friday, January 24th:
What’s with this ‘more of Jesus, less of me’ stuff?

And here, thanks to the hard work and creative genius of my friend Lyla Willingham Lindquist, is your choice of a button or two to put on your own blog as we walk through these Q & A times together:

Diana Trautwein - Living into the Answers
Diana Trautwein - Living the Questions

Delving into the Mystery — Introducing Q & A

I will admit that this new year is already kicking my butt. I know that sounds rude, and, to tell you truth, it feels rude.

I have one more year in my 60s. One.More.Year.

And I’m feeling it.

My husband has already moved through that milestone. And he’s feeling it, too.

We’re tired, cranky at times, worry too much over our old, dementing moms and our beautiful, energetic grandchildren, and our joints ache almost all the time.

Yet, here I sit, staring out at the brilliant noonday sun on a winter day, grateful right into every aching bone for the life I’ve lived, the gifts I’ve enjoyed, the things I’ve learned.

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Yes, these joints hurt. But this heart and soul are still beating, still singing. I am grateful to be here, inhabiting this space for however long the Lord grants it.

And in between the groans and sighs, I’ve been listening. Paying attention. Reading. Learning.

Case in point.

This week, I took a walk on the bluffs near the University of California, Santa Barbara. I love that walk, the glorious views in every direction, the energy of a university campus beating its way underground clear out to Coal Oil Point, where the surfers hang ten.

So I took my very fancy new point-and-shoot camera and I walked. And I watched the surfers as they inhabited that immense sea.

Who knew that surfers could be such powerful teachers?? Here’s a little of what I learned on Tuesday afternoon:

To be a surfer requires dedication. These kids ride their bikes out the long, dusty pathway, holding their boards — holding their boards — close to their bodies.

DSC00569To be a surfer requires community. You will never see a lone ranger, waiting for the next set. Always, always, they do this thing together. Yes, their rides are individual, but the waiting? The learning from the water? The ebb and flow? This, they do together.

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To be a surfer requires patience, long stretches of sitting, watching, sensing, obeying the rhythm of the water. In between the thrilling stuff is a whole lot of boring stuff, but all of it is what makes an expert out of a beginner.

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To be a surfer requires flexibility, and a willingness to go with the flow. From straddling to crouching to half-standing, to a full-out-stand-up-look-at-this, you’ve got to be willing to change your position on a dime. Take a gander at these:

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DSC00554Dedication, community, patience, flexibility — all part of the surfing life. And all part of being obedient to what the water has to teach, don’t you think?

If we want to learn —

we’ve got to get wet,
we’ve got to find a tribe,
we’ve got to be willing to wait out the lulls,
and we’ve got to move with the rhythm of the water.

I’ve been following Jesus all my life, cannot remember a moment when I didn’t know him. And still, I fall off that board, miss the cues, lose the rhythm. I’m not there yet — not exactly a beginner, but not quite an expert, either.

All along the way, I have managed to learn a few things,  Some of them are painful, painful enough to leave scars. And though I would never seek it out, I’ve lived long enough to know that pain can be a place of profound growth, even of transformation.

Every surfer worth his or her salt has endured bruising, battering, humiliation and defeat. But the ones who choose to learn from all of that are the ones who become adept, adaptable, creative and committed. In short, the ones who yield to the mystery of it all, and accept that an occasional punch to the gut is part of the process — these are the ones who catch the waves, time after time.

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This cross stands at the edge of the cliff that sits between the two primary surfing coves along the Coal Oil Point Reserve. It is glorious and sturdy, withstanding wind and weather for as long as I’ve been living. I like the juxtaposition of sturdiness and wildness that I find in this place, the unpredictable mingling of formed and unformed, hand-created and God-created.

It reminds me of life – this crazy mix of goodness and grief, beauty and horror, healing and brokenness that makes our four-score-and ten (if we’re lucky) the rich and remarkable thing that it is.

I am quickly approaching that number, on my way to three score and ten very soon now. Over the years that have been granted me, I have never been able to settle for the quick and easy. Don’t offer me truisms, cliches, pat answers or formulas, please. I’d rather hear a different way of asking the question! Because, here’s the truth of it: I am a person who loves the questions; I believe they are worth the patient work of exploration, prayer and lived experience that can sometimes lead to answers. In fact, I believe that my word for 2014, obedient, is as much about asking the right questions as it is about finding answers.

For as long as I pastored, there was a beautiful calligraphic print that hung in or near my various offices. It contains these words, written by Rainer Maria Rilke in his small book, “Letters to a Young Poet.” This is a truth I believe; this is a truth I try to live:

“You are so young, you have not even begun,
and I would like to beg you, dear one, as well as I can,
to have patience with everything that is unsolved in your heart and to try to cherish the questions themselves,
like closed rooms and like books written in a very strange tongue.

Do not search now for the answers, which cannot be given you because you could not live them.

It is a matter of living everything.
Live the questions now.
Perhaps you will then, gradually,
without noticing it, one distant day,
live right into the answers.
 

I would like to invite you to spend some time living the questions, beginning next Friday, January 17th. I’ll start us off with some reflections on a question that I’ve lived with for a while. And we’ll do that every Friday until there are no more questions to be asked.

Although I’ve got a list of about a dozen that I’ve discerned from my own life experience and from much of what I read on the internet, I am open to suggestions. Please leave them in the comments or email me directly at dtrautwein at gmail dot com.

Also? YOU are invited to link up your own reflections — either on the question that I raise or on another one that you’ve been living for a while. PLEASE NOTE that this is not an invitation to extended theological debate. There are lots of places to go if that’s what you hunger for. What I’m looking for are stories, experiences, concerns, points of conflict — anything that sets you down the road of wondering about the life of faith.

I think we’ll come closer to living an answer if we tell our stories and if we live our questions. Next Friday’s question set?

Why is there so much talk about ‘obedience?’
Does following Jesus mean I have to give up having fun?

Diana Trautwein - Living the Questions

Then, beginning the following Tuesday, January 21st, we’ll try our hand at discovering how we are living the answers. I will do some personal reflecting on truths I’ve been living into — perhaps connected to the question of the previous week, perhaps not. Sometimes I’ll look to scripture for help, sometimes to life, sometimes to both. And I can tell you right now, that some weeks there will be no ‘answer,’ just an encouragement to live with the un-knowing, to explore the mystery . . . to wait for the wave. 

Diana Trautwein - Living into the Answers

I have no idea if this will work or not! It is an experiment, one that I think is worth the risk. I hope you will, too.

I’m willing to get wet, are you?
I’m looking for my tribe, will you be a part?
I’m okay with the lulls, especially if I’ve got company.
And I’m willing to move with the rhythm of The Water.

So . . . let’s do a little surfing, shall we?

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