Tag Archives: Faith struggles

The Redemptive Wilderness

DesertSermon originally delivered to the Calvary Reformed Church of New Berlin, Wisconsin.
Text: Luke 4:1-13.

 

The other day, I went out for a walk, as I often like to do in the winter, on the lake behind my house. It is shallow, and it freezes over quickly, solidly, and smoothly. For someone who cannot swim, this may seem to be an odd thing to enjoy. But for some reason, I find it enjoyable, almost cathartic. As a child, one of my favorite things was when my folks took me to the Holland State Park in the winter, when the shoreline of Lake Michigan was frozen, and I could go exploring on the ice.

And as I walked out there, the snow crunching under my boots, the hairless parts of my face stinging from the sub-zero wind with no houses or trees to break it, I looked around at the frozen landscape with houses a bit in the distance, smoke and steam curling up from their chimneys, I began to wonder, as I sometimes do, why do people live here? Not necessarily me, I know why I live here, and I love living in the north. And not necessarily the European immigrants who came here, I know why they did, but before that. Why would people settle in a place that, for nearly half of the year, becomes an icy, harsh, and unforgiving landscape?

In the second year of seminary, as part of our formation, we went on an intercultural immersion trip, to experience and learn about another culture while immersed in it, and I was a part of the group that went to Oman. Oman is a wonderful nation on the southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, with Saudi Arabia to the northwest, the United Arab Emirates to the north, and Yemen to the west. We spent time there with one of the RCA missionaries there. The RCA has had a continual mission presence since the late 1800’s. We were there in winter and it was still in the mid-to-upper 70’s and sunny. There are areas good for cultivating crops, but much of the landscape is a rocky, mountainous desert.

We spent a day and night in the desert, and for how hot it was during the day, it gets quite cold at night. It is a place of extremes. You can easily become dehydrated without even realizing it in a relatively short period of time. And while we were in the desert, we were visited by a group of bedouin who were selling their handmade goods. The bedouin are nomadic herders who live in the desert, and as they were there, I also began to wonder, why would anyone settle here in the first place? Why would they make their homes in this arid, hot, and unforgiving location?

I don’t think that it is a coincidence that this region of the world is the cradle of the three distinct, yet related, Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And it is not just that they are from this place, but this geography is engrained into the spirituality of these faiths as well. When you can have an understanding of the landscape it is a bit easier to enter into the biblical world in your imagination. The geography is harsh, the climate oppressive, and drinkable water relatively scarce.

Throughout the sacred scriptures, the wilderness is a place of trial, a place of temptation, a place of faith-formation. Most of all, it is a place where one learns, through experience, what it means to completely trust in and rely on God.  It is a place where it is obvious that people are not self-sufficient, and where it is clear that they rely upon God for even the most basic needs.

The ancient people had a long lesson where they learned to rely on God for guidance, food and water, and healing when vipers were sent to the camp. After his conversion, Paul spent three years in the desert of Arabia as part of his formation, and here we see that a significant part of Jesus’ formation took place during these forty days in the wilderness — the desert.

***

After Jesus was baptized, we are told that he was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. He was not just picked up and dropped and left to fend for himself like some sort of a reality TV show. No, he was led by the Spirit who remained with him. And it was to this sparse landscape that he was driven, not to a Wisconsin-style wilderness lush with vegetation and flowing water.

We are told that Jesus didn’t eat anything during those days and at the end we are told that he was famished. After all, he was fully divine, but he was also fully human, both at the same time, two natures inseparably united in one existence. And as he was human, he needed to eat, just like you and I.

And it was at this point, he was tired, hungry, his body and spirit was likely at its weakest, and at that point that we are told that the devil shows up. How often do we have an experience like this — that the tempter, the accuser, shows up when we are at our weakest, when we are tired physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and presents us with a path that is particularly appealing to us in whatever weakened state in which we find ourselves. And so the Tempter comes to Jesus and before him lie two paths. On the one hand is the path that is consistent with his mission, the path that is self-sacrificial, the path that shows power through weakness, the path that is tough but that ultimately leads to restoration and redemption. And there is a second path that the Tempter invites him to. The path of comfort, ease, and power and authority without sacrifice. It is a path that trusts in the illusion of certainty rather than the uncertainty of divine providence.

He was tempted with the ability to make bread from stone, and therefore not having to trust in divine providence. Throwing himself off of a high building to test the Divine, and the promise to give him all of the kingdoms of the world without suffering or sacrifice.

The appeal is to his base impulses. Hunger, safety, power. And in many ways this is not that much different than us. Because it is not just about these three things — it is about something more significant, something much deeper. The temptation is, “Can I depend on God?”

***

These are temptations that we all face as well. Can we depend on God? Can we rely on God? Can we trust God to lead us through the wilderness experiences in our lives? Can we trust God to lead us through the wilderness experiences in our church? Or in our country, or in our world?

As we have learned from Scripture, the wilderness can be destructive, but it can also be redemptive. The wilderness can consume, but it can also purify. The wilderness can cause us to get lost, but it can also help us to find our direction.

And I cannot help but wonder if this is the gift of Lent. It is traditional, during Lent, to give something up. The root of that tradition is to try to, in some way, relate to the sufferings and of Christ, and relate to the denials that Christ went through in the desert when he ate nothing and denied those very real temptations. But I often question the value of giving something up for Lent, because so often it has lost focus.

We give up candy, or chocolate, or ice cream, or television or red meat, or other things in which we feel that we should not indulge. It becomes yet another self-help practice. But this misses the point. Or, we can deny ourselves something to prove to ourselves that we can do it — mind over matter and all that. But this also misses the point. The point of Lenten discipline is to bring us back to a point of focus and dependence on God.

We so often imagine the devil in this story the way that we typically do — bright red skin, black hair (with a widow’s peak), horns, and a forked tongue. The problem with this image is that the devil is clear. It is easy to resist evil when it is clear and in plain sight, and in the way that we expect to see it. However, so often it is not so clear. So often the lies and temptations do not come from our culturally conditioned view of the devil, but rather in faces that look less sinister, in voices that sound less distinctly evil. Often the tempter takes the form of a face that seems more friendly, a voice that seems more genuine. Perhaps the face that we see wears a business suit and makes great promises to us, perhaps the face we see is the one that looks back in the mirror and the voice that we hear is the one that we hear inside of our minds when we are alone.

And it is so often at our weakest moments, moments when we are afraid, tired — physically, emotionally, or spiritually — or otherwise weakened. It is these wilderness experiences in our lives that we, too, face temptations. Unemployment, sickness, fear, struggles with finances, with difficulty seeing the way forward, difficulties hearing God’s voice. It is at these times that the tempter can come with a familiar voice and face and tell us that there is another way, there is a way that is easier, that seems safer, a way that we can have everything now without having to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus the Christ.

***

And now, we have insulated houses with central heating systems that can keep us warm, and we have air conditioning when the heat is dangerously high. We don’t have the same experiences in the same ways as our spiritual forebears. After a while on the lake, I came home stoked the woodstove. But still, we are not exempted from wilderness experiences. We are not exempt from the feeling of being lost in alone in a hostile atmosphere. Sometimes it is less obvious, but just as real. And just like the ancient people of God, and just like Jesus, we are not exempted from the lies and temptations from the Tempter.

And we need preparation to be able to face the tempter with a clear head, and not fall for the lies which sound often sound so appealing. And it is this what Lent offers us. It offers us the opportunity to refocus our lives, to reorient our lives, to place God and God’s desires as the center of our lives, and to grow in our ability to depend on God rather than on mortals or horses or chariots.

And so this year for Lent, don’t worry about giving up something but do something that will bring you closer to the Divine. Maybe it is a book, maybe it is regularly reading scripture, maybe it is a spiritual discipline of study, fasting, prayer, or service. Maybe it is to take a walk amidst the cold and ice and snow to understand that, regardless of our illusions, we are never self-sufficient or self-sustaining, but rely completely on the Divine hand.

So whatever your wilderness — our wilderness — we, too, are presented with a couple of paths. On the one, we can seek escape from it. And on the other we can lean into it, and discover what God may be helping us to learn.

Stepping Into the Unknown

My sermon from this past Sunday. Text was Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16.

 

Faith. Hope. Assurance.

Christianity has its own language, its own vocabulary, and for those who are new to the Christian faith or new to the church, the vocabulary can be somewhat confusing, with terms that are used so often and so frequently and in so many different ways with little or no definition of the terms. Faith is one of those words. In fact, if you asked twenty Christians to define faith, you may well get twenty different answers.

But faith is what the eleventh chapter of Hebrews is all about, and in fact, in the first verse, we get a fantastic definition of faith that we would do well to spend some time and meditate upon. “[F]aith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

You see, many times we think of faith as something intellectual, something that we think. We are saved by faith. This is true, but when think of faith as what we think which is distinct from what we do, this becomes a problem. Faith is not just thinking, faith is not just in one’s head. We can’t claim to have faith and then go on with our merry lives. no, faith is not just thinking something. “[F]aith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Faith is not just wishful thinking, we read here that faith is a confidence. It is the assurance of things hoped for, some translations even translate the term assurance as substance. Faith is not just wishing or hoping for something, faith is a something. Faith is not something that we just muster up on our own, faith is granted to us by God. Faith is not just looking forward to something — it is that, but not only that — but faith is something.

The writer of Hebrews allows us to linger on the life of Abraham and Sarah in order to illustrate faith.

One day Abraham, actually, before he was Abraham when he was Abram, was doing what he was doing living in Ur in Mesopotamia. However, God had a plan for him and his descendants that Abram didn’t know anything about. So God told him to get up and to leave his home, and to travel to the land that God was going to show to him. God promised to Abram that God would make a great nation from him. Now, when he and his wife Sarai were young, this would not have been an unheard of promise. But Abram and his wife were old, and while it may still be possible for Abram to father a child, the idea of Sarai mothering a child was pretty much unheard of. I can only imagine that Abram had a lot of doubts about this promise, but there must have been something within Abram — or rather something that God planted within Abram — that caused Abram to believe God, to have some sort of confidence about this.

Now, getting up and leaving one’s country in the ancient world was a bigger deal. There was no internet, no telephone, no postal mail. There was no Craig’s List to find an apartment. So Abram was leaving all that he knew, probably all that his father and his father’s father knew and he set out for who knows where on nothing but a promise from a God whom he didn’t knowingly have a particularly long history with — there was no Bible at the time — and he packed up his home, and loaded up his camels with all of their worldly possessions and left their home and headed west toward the setting sun, unsure of where exactly they will land.

The writer of Hebrews tells us that they lived in tents. In fact, for generations they lived in tents. They lived in tents because they were always strangers. Always sojourners, always travelers. They lived in tents because they were always journeying, never quite home. They lived in tents because they were never led to the place where they are able to stake out property and build a permanent home. They were always foreigners in a foreign land. A land which would become home to their descendants, but never home to them. It was a land in which Abram — who would become Abraham — would never see, would never have any tangible evidence of, but he lived in a tent and never arrived home to the “city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb 11:10).

At some point, Abram says, “Wait a minute there God. You’ve made all of these promises to me, of being a great nation, but if you haven’t noticed, a great nation begins with a single descendant, but I don’t have any descendants, so I suppose that my great nation will have to be born from a servant in my house?”

But God, not one for clear and simple answers, takes him outside, outside of Abram’s tent and God points him to the sky. God says to Abram, “Do you see all of these stars? Count them if you can, because this many will be your descendants.” Abram, I can imagine, was overwhelmed by the sheer number of stars which filled his eyes — it would have been magnificent. Those of us who live in the city can’t really quite understand what they view could have looked like, we have streetlights which obscure our view, but for Abram there would have been nothing else, save a fire to cast light which would have dimmed the brilliance of the stars that seemed to completely encircle him on the desert plain. God planted something within Abram much earlier, and we are told that Abram “believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6).

Even though Abram and Sarai were old, even though she was barren, even though there was no child to be the next in line for this great nation, Abram believed the LORD, and we read in Genesis that the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness, that this faith this belief, this assurance, confidence, the substance was enough. It was enough to allow Abram to move into the future that God was calling him into. Abram could have said, “That’s enough, I’m going back to Ur.” But he didn’t. He continued in the future that God is unfolding, a future that Abram will never see with his eyes, it is a future in which seeds are being planted but are not yet popping through the soil. It is a future which exists but is not yet evident. For Abram, then, this faith that he had was not just hope for something that he would possess in the future, something that he would have in the future. No, for Abram, this faith was the substance, it was the thing, it was what he had.

Abram would eventually have a child, Isaac. It would be through Isaac that this great nation would continue. Unfolding over time, piece by piece, little by little, and in fact, it is still not finished. Even after Abram became Abraham, he wouldn’t get to see the nation of Israel. He wouldn’t get to see Jerusalem. He wouldn’t get to see his descendants at home in this land that God was giving to them. He wouldn’t get to see “the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

***

Although Abraham was the main story which is here for reflection, Abraham wasn’t the only ancestor of the faith who lived this kind of life. We can see it similarly with his son Isaac, and his son Jacob. Even before Abraham, God was not absent for Noah believed God when God instructed him to build an ark for God was going to send a flood.

You see, God called each of these out of their homes in one way or another. God called them out of their home, out of what they knew, and charged them with entering into a future into which they would never really enter.

When we think of this, we must ask ourselves, was their faith in vain? Did they live in a hope for nothing because they never saw the fulfillment of their hope?

We may think so. After all, faith and hope are supposed to be fulfilled within our lifetimes. We hope for something because we want it to come to be. We have faith, and we expect a pay-off for this faith.

Not at all, the writer of Hebrews tells us.  It is true that they they did not see the this-worldly fulfillment of what was promised, we read that “from a distance they saw and greeted [these promises]” (Heb 11:13). Faith is not just something which gets us something, faith is a form of courage, as we can see in the stories of our spiritual ancestors which launches us into a future with God, a future where we don’t know where it will lead, a future which might be uneasy, a future which we might not completely see, knowing simply that the future belongs to God, the future is one that God is unfolding.

God’s call to Abraham and Sarah was unique, but God’s call is general. While we won’t all have to get up and go to a far of nation and be told in our seventies that we will be the progenitor of a great nation, we are all people who are on a journey. We do not dwell in tents always moving to one place or another, but we don’t live with true foundations, we don’t find our true home in any particular place other than the city where God is the architect and builder.

Faith is the way by which we can hold fast to the promises of God, even if we don’t see the promise fulfilled with our own eyes. Faith is the way in which we boldly step out of our complacency, out of our selfishness, out of our comfort, our of what we know to be familiar and into the future that God is preparing. Faith isn’t simply expecting things to get better for us, faith is the assurance, confidence, substance that we are a part of God’s future which has been unfolding for longer than we can imagine and is continuing to unfold.

It is fitting, I think, that the writer of Hebrews speaks at some length of the story of Abraham and Sarah, a story with which all the original hearers of this story would be familiar. It is a story of a journey, a journey which never truly ends but where the end is always envisioned. It is the story of a promise in which fulfillment is certain, but never within a lifetime. It is a story in which people, are emboldened and encouraged by God to boldly step into God’s future with little other than the confidence that the future belongs to the trustworthy and faithful God.

Where can you relate to this? Perhaps you are not far from where you grew up, where you consider home.

I wonder if Abraham felt like he was wandering aimlessly. I wonder if Abraham felt like he was feeling out his way in the dark. I wonder if Abraham felt like turning back. Returning to what he knew, to what he could experience, to that with which he was familiar. But this is the thing that we can know that Abraham couldn’t. He made it to where he needed to go, even though he didn’t know where that was. He had a child, which he didn’t think was possible. He was the ancestor of a great people, a people of which, in Christ, we are a part. None of this Abraham saw, but when we read of this story, we can see his role in God’s continually unfolding story, God’s continuously arriving future.

You see, faith is not just wishful thinking. Faith is the thing that we grasp hold to when things don’t make sense. Faith is the thing which we grasp hold of when we feel as though we are wandering aimlessly in the wilderness. Faith is the thing which strengthens us to take a step in a new direction, a direction which might not be clear, but a direction in which God is calling us. Faith is the home that we have when we don’t have our true home. Faith is the assurance, the confidence, the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

So what do we do when we feel as though we do not have faith? We pray for faith.

What do we do when our faith is less than consistent? We pray for a more steady faith. God is faithful and God is trustworthy. You see, God doesn’t leave us to our own devices to do this on our own. God provides the way, we simply have to take a step into it.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

Hump Day Hymns: Christian, Dost Thou See Them

Hymnal

Christian, dost thou see them
On the holy ground,
How the powers of darkness
Rage thy steps around?
Christian, up and smite them,
Counting gain but loss,
In the strength that cometh
By the holy cross.

Christian, dost thou feel them,
How they work within,
Striving, tempting, luring,
Goading into sin?
Christian, never tremble;
Never be downcast;
Gird thee for the battle;
Thou shalt win at last.

Christian, dost thou hear them,
How they speak thee fair?
“Always fast and vigil?
Always watch and prayer?”
Christian, answer boldly,
“While I breathe I pray!”
Peace shall follow the battle,
Night shall end in day.

“Well I know thy trouble,
O My servant true,
Thou art very weary —
I was weary too;
But that toil shall make thee
Some day all Mine own,
And the end of sorrow
Shall be near My throne.”
Andrew of Crete (660-732) [Trans. John M. Neale (1818-1866)]

Empathy is one of the most powerful of the human emotions. The ability to be able to understand, not just feel compassion, but to understand deeply what another is going through is significant. This comes not from reading, or studying, but rather simply by living. While many professions reward experience because one grows in one’s capacities to fulfill the tasks of the profession. The most significant thing, in my opinion, for ministry experience is not just growing in one’s skills, but actually living and the increasing capacity to empathize with others.

***

The trinity is likely one of the most difficult central and universal doctrines to Christianity, but is significant for many reasons, and one of those is that it allows God to have the capacity for empathy.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin (Heb 4:15, NRSV).

For me, it is the empathy in the fourth stanza which brings this hymn together.

“Well I know thy trouble,
O My servant true,
Thou art very weary —
I was weary too;”

***

When I struggle, while expressions of compassion are good, there is nothing like an arm around the shoulder and an “I know how you feel” — and they actually do know how you feel. Even though someone cannot make things all better, someone who can respond with empathy, the concrete knowledge that you are not alone in your suffering, somehow makes it bearable.

This is what is so significant about the closing stanza of this hymn is that it expresses such an empathy. Not simply a “keep going, my child,” but a true empathy, the understanding that Word knows our weariness — because he experienced it too. I personally like the image of God the Son sitting at the right hand of God the Father° saying, “I know what that is like.”

That in and of itself does not make suffering go away, it does not make everything all better, but that does, in some way, make it more bearable.

_______________
°I use these terms in their gendered form, not because of the gender which is implied by the language, but rather because these are the relational terms which are often used in scripture and in the trinitarian formula.

Hump Day Hymns: Father, whate’er of earthly bliss

Hymnal

Father, whate’er of earthly bliss
Thy sov’reign hand denies,
Accepted at Thy throne of grace,
Let this petition rise.

Give me a calm, a thankful heart
From every murmur free;
The blessings of Thy grace impart,
And let me live to Thee.

Let the sweet hope that Thou art mine
My path of life attend;
Thy presence through my journey shine,
And crown my journey’s end.
Anne Steele (1717-1778)

“God wants you to be a champion,” the man on television tells me. The man with the million dollar smile and the thousand dollar suit. “God needs you to plant a seed,” another one tells me. “But if you plant that $100 dollar seed — if you give something for God to work with, you will receive a harvest of ten-fold.” “Allow the blessings to multiply your material investments — name it and claim it!”

It sounds nice. It sounds attractive. All I have to do is think good thoughts and and say good things and Jesus will make all these blessings will flow my way? I must have been doing things all wrong for much of my life thus far.

This equation of God as a vending machine can be read both ways. If we do this, God will give us that. This also leads us to reading it the other way, if this bad thing happened, we must have done that bad thing to deserve it.

While one one level, it is one thing to think that God will give us whatever we decide that we want, the true damage of this line of thinking cuts much deeper. I minister in a poor community – in a neighborhood where wants and needs go unmet or insufficiently met. What truly grieves me to my core, though, is that when things are truly not going well, when they are not sure how they are going to pay their rent, when they get laid off…again, when their children get caught up in a multi-student brawl at school which require several police officers, people tend to think that God hates them. “I don’t understand why this is happening, Pastor,” they tell me. “What do I have to do to get God’s favor?” they ask me. “I pray, and pray, and pray, and it seems like God never listens!” they cry out in desperation.

This saddens me more than I can express.

But really, who can blame them, or anyone, who follows this line of thought. Turn on any television and you will get some version of prosperity theology.

I try not to alienate folks, but sometimes that goal is difficult. So I’m just going to say it…I don’t like prosperity theology.

I grate against anything that promises us financial blessing, worldly success, expanded territory, or anything of the like. I don’t like it because it attempts to offer an alternative to Jesus’s message of taking up our cross (whatever that may be for us) and following Jesus (Mt 16:24; Mk 8:34; Lk 9:23).

What is so lamentable about this is that when we get so caught up in what God isn’t giving us and what we did or didn’t do to not get the thing that we wanted/expected/thought we needed is that we may miss the actual core of everything: God.

This is not, however, to exonerate the church from its responsibilities of mercy and care for physical needs. To be sure, the church must work to meet physical needs. We need to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and house the homeless. The church needs to work to ensure that everyone has access to clean water for drinking. The church needs to work to ensure that everyone has a level playing field in the world. After all, the church is (and should be) a foretaste of the Kingdom of God.

But, it is terrible to get caught up in the, “God didn’t give me this car that I asked for, so God must be ignoring me”, which can easily lead to the more insidious, “I am poor/troubled/&c., therefore God must hate me.”

His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned…“(John 9:2-3a)

***

The question that I always ask myself is this: “Is God enough for me?” That is, if God is all there is, if there is no prosperity or wealth, no worldly success or honor, no power or authority, if there is even no sense of security or stability — if simply God is all there is…will that be enough?

I think of the first question and answer of the Westminster Catechism (if you can forgive the gendered language, I’m quoting directly):

Q: What is the chief and highest end of man?
A: Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.

God exists to be enjoyed. We are not to enjoy the things that God gives us or does for us, we are to enjoy God.

***

Hymns are formative — and this is the reason why the hymns and songs that we use in worship must be good hymns which speak honestly, deeply, and soundly into the Christian life. This hymn helps correct the prosperity fallacy.

Father, whate’er of earthly bliss
Thy sov’reign hand denies,
Accepted at Thy throne of grace…

Steele writes beautifully about desiring to be given a “calm [and] thankful heart”, to be free from murmuring — to live only to God, to allow God to be the light in our journey and to be the goal of what we seek.

My concern with over-materializing our relationship with God is that what we truly desire is not God but the material thing which has been promised, which we can attain or obtain. But this is nothing short of idolatry, and rings as hollow and shallow as idolatry.

The good news of this hymn is that struggles and even denials of “earthly bliss” are simply a part of life in the not yet. The challenge is to remember that the only “sweet hope” that we have — that we could ever have — is that “Thou art mine.”

***

Truly if someone like Anne Steele, whose mother died when she was three, was disabled at age nineteen, and whose fiancé drowned the day of her wedding…if someone like this can write these words, I can sing them and allow them to speak to my life.

Advent in Tension

The Old Guitarist by Pablo Picasso

Many of my parishioners walk to church, as most of my congregation does not own a car for financial reasons. One of these was walking the two blocks from her home to church. In that short distance she was struck by a car and died as a result of the impact.

All of this while she was walking to church.

***

Advent is a time in which we prepare ourselves for Christ, not only the first coming, but also the second. Advent is a profoundly conflicted season, and a profoundly conflicted orientation for life. For those of us who have wonderful memories of the holiday season, Christmas is a wonderful time. For others of us who have bad memories of the holiday season, it can be incredibly painful.

Advent is a time in which we can understand most clearly the tension of the in between in which we live. We celebrate Jesus’ birth but we also look forward to Christ’s return.  We sing about the coming of Emmanuel and this is a cause for rejoicing. Yet we also face the stark reality that redemption is not yet complete.

A perfect example of this is a mother in her 40’s who gets killed because a car ran her over.

The already-but-not-yet is a difficult place to live. It is hard to sing “Rejoice! Rejoice believers,” while at the same time grieving the fact that life continues to be but a shadow of what it was intended to be.

In her book, Deeply LovedKeri Wyatt Kent bravely takes on the aspect of the walk of faith that few Christians dare speak of: depression and its relatives. Although “‘happy, happy, happy, happy, happy all the time,;” is popular in religious talk, it is often not rooted in reality (Kent). The good news, that she brings out, is that when we express our depression, our melancholia, our blues to God we follow in a long line of the faithful. Kent notes, “The Bible is full of stories of victory, but also of struggle” (Ch. 15, para. 12).

If the Christian life eliminates a place for sadness, suffering, and mourning, then the gospel ceases to be good news for real life. If God is only present with us in good times and not in bad, then God ceases to be good. If God forbids us from expressing emotions and thoughts from the shadow side of life, then God is not a refuge for us. If the Advent focus is too much on Christmas and not enough expressing a longing for the kingdom of God, we do ourselves and our spiritual formation a great disservice.

I always take Advent seriously, but this year, my Advent is more than simply sober, it is also somber. It is a time in which I can rejoice because Christ has come and I can mourn because the restoration is not complete. I can hope because the Kingdom of God is at hand, and I can despair because there is so much to the world which is in need of redemption. I can look back to celebrate the birth of Jesus, and I can look forward to Christ’s return.

This Advent, I am living in the tension of in-between the two comings of Christ, the tension of joy and sorrow, of hope and despair, of celebration and mourning.

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This post is in the Deeply Loved Advent Blog Hop Series hosted by Angie Mabry-Nauta

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Being faithful with my little

I often find myself frustrated. I have been given very little.  I have very little in terms of number of people in my congregation, very little in terms of my facilities, exceptionally little in terms of financial resources, and little in terms of other resources in my congregation and community.

I don’t want to have little, I want to have much. I want to have a resourceful congregation. I want to have a big and beautiful building that will make people want to stop in if nothing other than to see the facility. I want to have a church which has a large endowment so that I can have some sort of stability and that we can follow God’s leading without having to worry about from where the money for the electric bill will come. I want to have a community in which people want to live, and where people have jobs and some sort of stability.

I often find myself dissatisfied and think about moving on to somewhere else. This is one of the problems with our governance. I am not placed, I interview and accept a call, if offered. As such, it feels much like looking for secular employment. I decide where I want to apply to. I interview, if they like me, they will extend a call which I can decide whether or not to accept.  While these procedures do have to pass through the regional assemblies, in practice, the bulk of the processes reflect secular employment. I have no term of service, I was not obviously placed here by the church.

Because of this, I feel like I can sometimes just leave and go to greener pastures.  To those type of churches in which I always imagined I would pastor. However, this is not just dependent on me. I have to believe that God placed me where I am for a reason. I am a servant of the sanctuary, after all.

“‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much'” (Luke 16:10, NRSV).

This is a sobering verse.

A judgement, almost.

“Whoever is faithful in a very little…”

Perhaps it is not a mistake that I am here. Perhaps my desires have run rampant. Perhaps my desires for more, my desires for much are too much too soon. Perhaps I am not fit, at least right now, for much.

I find myself sometimes jealous of others who have much. This makes me want to search the parish openings, freshen up my profile, and try to move somewhere else with much.

Perhaps, however, I am not in the wrong place. Perhaps I am in precisely the right place. Perhaps what is wrong is my pining for more. Perhaps I desire more than I ought to. Perhaps I have little because that is all I can have now. Perhaps God is actually smarter than I, and knows that I am not yet ready for much. Perhaps I am being taught how to be faithful with little.

Please, O God, help me to be faithful with my very little, and banish my desire for much.

Living with what used to be

It was a large square brick building painted grey, about six stories high. It used to be some sort of a manufacturing company, at least that is what I gathered from the remnants of the painted sign on the facade. The days for productivity for this building are over, at least that is what I gathered from the boards over all of the windows, or at least where the windows used to be.

I wondered what was inside this old building. Was it completely empty, or where there still remnants of its previous life? Was there still equipment that could tell stories about how materials were transformed into something useful?

Living in a hard-hit rust-belt city, I have learned a new vocabulary. The vocabulary of “used to be”. This used to be a factory. That used to be a warehouse. Those used to be railroad tracks. There used to be jobs. We used to have hope.

The language of “used to be” is the language of no longer. It is the language of the past, it is the language without much of a future.

People also use this language about themselves. I used to have a job. I used to have a home. I used to have a family. I used to have a future. It is language of despair. Of things gone wrong.

I wonder exactly what this building used to be, and who used to be there.

I continued walking by many other used-to-be’s. This looked like it used to be a beautiful house. That looks like is used to be a corner store.

I walked down the next block and I saw what I thought were used-to-be’s but as I came closer, I saw that they are the “are-nows” — things which used to be something useful and have been transformed into something else useful. I stopped and looked at the new-found sight. I saw was used to be a tannery complex, but is now refurbished space for offices, social service agencies, and commercial space. All of this just a few blocks down from a sea of used-to-be’s.

I think about myself, and I see a lot of used-to-be. It’s hard to identify as a used-to-be. It cuts deep into one’s soul as one reflects on what and who one used to be, but is no longer. It is a great sense of loss, it involves grief, and it can involve a bleak future. Many days I feel like I am running in a hamster wheel forced to watch a never ending film of all that I used to be.

I begin to wonder if perhaps the used-to-be’s are more than just this. Perhaps they are actually “could-be’s.” Those things which used to be something but are simply waiting to be transformed into something else useful.

This is why I identify as a Christian. When I read scripture, I hear one message over and over: God telling the used-to-be’s that they are actually the could-be’s and that one day they will be the are-nows.

Marginalia of a Past Life

Formerly, I had a habit of making notes in the books that I was reading. This was a way for me to reflect on what I had read and would allow me the opportunity, in a way, to engage in a conversation with the author. It was also a time at which I was young and arrogant enough to believe that I had something to say which was valuable enough to place next to the words of the author.

It is a practice which I abandoned when I came to a realization of my own mortality.

I noticed that my marginalia tracked my intellectual development, and I realized that one day I was going to die. My library would be split up and it would go to a variety of places, hopefully to someone who could use my books. I imagined that, in the course of reading one of my books, someone would come across a rather dull margin note, wonder who would write something so uninspired, turn to the front endpaper and see my name. Thus would be my legacy. So, I stopped making margin notes.

A couple of years ago, I even went through what I refer to as “the great purge,” when I went through many of my books and erased any margin notes that existed (as I only write in pencil). Some books, however, survived the great purge, some by oversight, others because I ran out of time. I was flipping through one of these books recently, and I came across a margin note that was, in its entirety, intact.

It was in Richard Lischer’s book Open Secrets. I read this book while in seminary at a time when I was quite confident I was never going to serve a local church. At the end of the book, the author left his church after nearly three years, this was my note (complete with all of the poor sentence structure):

Sometimes the most affirmation and gratitude comes at the end of a stay. God doesn’t always make everything pleasant, but God does work [in it]. We don’t always see the effects right away — but we have to trust that God works through us to change the lives of people. Even when we don’t see it at the time.

It was quite strange to read these words, written in my hand a few years ago, although the impact of the time has been great. I was a different person then. It was more than just a voice from the past, it was a voice from a past life.

I could almost picture myself, sitting in Holland, Michigan at my favorite coffee shop grasping a bright yellow mug which contrasted well with the black of the coffee that it contained. I typically looked out the window to a white church over a century old and built in gorgeous Greek revival architectural style. Wondering what my life would look like in a few short years, I wrote this note in a moment of seeming clarity and inspiration, hoping to hold onto this insight for the future.

I began to wonder what my past self would think of my present self. What would my hopeful past self think of my despairing present self? What would my faith-filled and idealist past self think of the cold-calculating rationality of my present self? What would the tender-heartedness of my past self think of the cynicism of my present self?

I wonder if my past self would be disappointed in the person that I am now, in the fact that although I am an urban pastor, I spend more time doing budgetary calculations and financial projections than I do telling people about Jesus, in the fact that I traded in my radical hope in the providence of God for planning the future solely based upon what I can see and “realistically expect,” or the fact that I have transformed from believing that communities could be transformed into this-worldly places of hope and peace to simply resigning to the idea that things which are will likely be until the parousia.

I wonder what happened to the “me” who could see through struggles to see that God was at work, who could see through difficult situations and see that God is in the process of transforming, who could see suffering and understand that it was just a trip through the wilderness, and that the wilderness does not last forever. I feel as though I do not even know that individual that wrote those words in the margin of that book.

Perhaps I can learn something from the margin-notes of a past life, perhaps I can reclaim that past self who felt so strongly called to ministry, who wept when he would reflect on the church as the body of Christ. Perhaps I can find something of that past self that could see the spark of God within each person and tempered the doctrine of total depravity with the fact that the Holy Spirit is continually sanctifying us. Perhaps I can reclaim something of that past self that wanted nothing more than to serve the church even though he didn’t know where exactly that would take him.

Perhaps this was a gift, that a few books unintentionally survived the great purge. Perhaps my present self can learn something from my past self and shed this jaded cynicism and return to a faithful hope than in God anything and everything is possible, and that God is always forming and transforming things for the better.

“…With Sighs Too Deep for Words”

prayer..

By Aronki (Dae Ho Lee) on Flickr

I had an out-of-town meeting yesterday, about an hour away.  On my way to this meeting, the distance provided me with one full hour of unstructured alone time.  I was not reading, I was not making telephone calls, I was not having people stop by my office, and I was not writing.

I had an hour of uninterrupted time to spend some time praying.  I had a lot on my mind, after all.  I was worried about a family in our church that just had their power shut off, I was wondering where the new leaders in our church would arise from, I was wondering if we would have enough money to be able to finish the year, I was concerned that violence continues to cast a dark cloud over our neighborhood.  I felt a weighty burden on my shoulders.  Often times, the only thing that I am able to do is to pray.

The words would not come out.  I could not even think the words that I wanted to say.  I knew what I was thinking, I knew what I was feeling, and I knew the type of things that I wanted to express, but I could not.  In my desperation I let out a big sigh.

It was then that I remembered a verse from the Letter to the Romans, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26, NRSV).

I wondered, perhaps, if this is the experience to which this passage refers.  There are times in which we feel an oppressive weight upon our shoulders, when our hearts are burdened.  When we find it difficult to focus or concentrate, or even make words.  There are always times in which we feel as though we are barely treading water and as though our pockets are filled with stones.  These are times in which praying can be difficult.

How ironic that there are some very difficult times, times in which we most need to pray, that it is difficult to do so. This is particularly difficult for me, as words are the way in which I make my living and the way in which I live out my calling.  I interpret the words of scripture, and I use words to explain scripture and why it matters to those in my congregation.  I use words to offer up common prayers with and on behalf of my congregation.  I use words to comfort those who are sick, I use words to celebrate the sacraments, I use words to help those entrusted to my care to try to make sense of God, their lives, and how God impacts their lives.  Words are what I do.

There are, however, times in which words are never enough.  When people grieve, sometimes the ministry of being is more important than the ministry of words.  Words are useful only insofar as they communicate something which needs to be communicated.  There is something, though, of the human condition which is ineffable, which cannot be expressed within the limits of language. Sometimes there is something so beautiful and wonderful that words cannot do it justice; other times there is so much burden and that words cannot express the depths of despair.

At these times, perhaps, it is best simply to remain silent knowing what is on one’s heart and mind.  Perhaps, at these times, when words cannot suffice, words need not be necessary because presence with another person and/or presence with God is enough.  When something limited like language cannot express what we need to express, there is a communication which is far deeper than words.

How the Teacher Becomes the Student

The highest assembly of my denomination, the General Synod, meets annually in June. There are delegates which are elders and ministers, and there are corresponding delegates which can speak but not vote. Corresponding delegates are often people with particular expertise or particular experiences that make them valuable additions to General Synod and the denomination values their input. Among these corresponding delegates are those from the three colleges of the Reformed Church in America and from each of the regional synods.

These students are part of a program called “Call Waiting”. This is a program which guides them through the process of General Synod, but also guides them through an exploratory process of call — how and where they feel God calling them and leading them. It is a lofty goal to attain, but it is a process in which we seek to engage as deeply and authentically as possible. For the second year, I have had the privilege of leading the Call Waiting group.

I was recently asked what I enjoy about directing this program. My first response was that I appreciate General Synod and I enjoy helping others to appreciate it as well. While this is true, I do not think that this adequately describes why I truly enjoy directing this program. My true enjoyment comes from the other focus of the program: helping the participants to explore their call.

In order to do this, I choose various “calling” stories from scripture and invite them to reflect upon those stories, first bringing their life close to the story and eventually bring the story to their life. I never cease to be amazed at their insight, self-reflection, and grace. Many of these students have a faith which is very alive and which is very passionate. Some of these students were not raised in the faith but were gifted with faith later, others were born children of the covenant and have recently had the fire of faith rekindled within them, and still others of them have always felt near to the divine.

I am certainly not arrogant or self-centered enough to suppose that I help them to discover or understand their callings; rather, I try to create an environment where we invite God to do this for them. It is a privilege to be able to witness “light bulb moments,” when it is evident that something has “clicked” or that they experienced a revelation of some sort. It is also a great privilege to witness their struggling and wrestling, often things which are so personal and private.

I enjoy facilitating this program not only so that I can see the sparks of their faith, but because they also build up my faith.  At times my faith can be shopworn, and I find cynicism and lack of hope to be easy paths to go down.  However, when I work with these students, I find myself getting pulled back to a road of hope and I find my faith being restored.  It is by witnessing God working in these young people that I can sense God working in my own life as well.  It is seeing these young people who are so passionate about God, that I have a hope for not only our denomination, but also for the church in general.

I enjoy facilitating this program, not only because I have an opportunity to share my knowledge, my experience, and my passion, but I am also able to receive much more than I could ever offer.  I may offer these students some historical perspective, some basic operations of our church order and parliamentary procedure; however, these students, likely without realizing it, offer me hope and they do amazing things to restore and build up my faith.