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"We have nothing to offer each other, except a haven." — K. Nafziger

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Faith

Living with the Now and the Not Yet

(The thoughts and links in this post have probably made appearances before on my blog. However, I’ve been processing and arranging them again, so I figured that they could make another appearance.)


There is a tension that Christians encounter: the push and pull of what is and what will be. Or, to put it another way, there are things we would like to do and ways we would like to act; and we find that those are not consistent with what we actually do and how we actually act.

We encounter this tension in ourselves. I understand Paul completely when he says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Or maybe I think about the letter of James where he writes that we demonstrate the reality of our faith by what we do. When I am judged by that standard, do I have any faith at all? As Peter Rollins answered when he was asked if he believes in God:

Do I believe in God? Well, while I am drawn to the idea that there is a Supreme Being I must confess that I don’t believe in God, at least most of the time.

But if you ask me whether I aspire to believing in God then, with all of my being I say yes, yes and again yes…

So here we are – struggling with sin, and yet adopted as God’s children; made holy by God, and yet longing for freedom from the weights that we still carry; the now, and the not yet.

This tension fascinates me. It is a thin place where sinfulness meets grace, where doubt meets faith, and where hurt and injury meet healing and hope. And I believe that God asks us to embrace this place, not just within ourselves, but also when (maybe even especially when!) we encounter it in others…

I’m recalling a number of times in the last year when friends have deeply grieved or injured other friends. I was never the one directly offended (which I count as a blessing) and usually I didn’t witness the offense – I only heard the pain from those who had been hurt. But I was left asking questions. How could my friends have acted in ways that hurt others? And I’m left holding two contradictory things. On one hand, an offense has been committed. On the other hand, the person that I know – the beloved child of God – wouldn’t act that way.

Increasingly, I’ve been trying to live with that tension – to allow the tension to be unresolved. Or maybe even to bring these opposing beliefs and convictions together, because ultimately what I desire to see is reconciliation. I haven’t found this to be easy, and frankly it might be impossible sometimes. It might be like trying to force magnets together when they really want to turn around and go the other way. So be it. I’ll just keep holding. I can be stubborn.

Parker Palmer talks about this in a beautiful essay entitled, “The Broken-Open Heart“. In it, he refers to this place of tension as the “tragic gap”, and he writes:

To live in this world, we must learn how to stand in the tragic gap with faith and hope. By “the tragic gap”, I mean the gap between what is and what could and should be; the gap between the reality of a given situation and an alternative reality we know to be possible because we have experienced it.

So – now we find ourselves in the Easter season. We are like Mary. Standing in the garden, we are met by Christ, and suddenly we know what is real and what is possible. Christ asks us to go to others – to speak into the “now”, to share the hope of what is “not yet”.

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The Prayer of St. Francis

Lord,

Make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, union;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.

Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive,
In pardoning that we are pardoned,
And in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Amen

Jesus’ humanity

Let me preface this whole post by acknowledging that I don’t understand the mystery of Jesus’ dual human/divine nature.  I might make the mistake in this particular blog of ascribing too much to his humanity.  On the other hand, I think that there also might be a tendency by Christians to downplay Jesus’ human side of things when his deity seems to be under attack in our pluralistic society.  Nevertheless, I think that there is something to be learned from stories where Jesus seems to be a bit too human for our own comfort – stories like the cleansing of the temple, for example, or the story I’ll discuss below.  Maybe we’ll learn a little about the nature of sin; about what God regards as sin; and about what masquerades as sin, but which really only offends our sense of politeness, social propriety, or political correctness.

Anyway, this morning I was reading this coming Sunday’s lectionary passage from the gospel of Mark.  At the end of Chapter 7, I have the impression that Jesus is just really exhausted and would like to get away from it all and go on a little vacation.  He’s gone to Tyre, which is on the Mediterranean Sea, and the scripture says…

He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.

Sounds like me sometimes.  (Well, actually I probably want to take a vacation at the slightest hint of weariness.  I have the impression that Jesus got a whole lot wearier than I do.)

So Jesus is off on vacation, but he isn’t even able to rest there.  He’s found by some Gentile woman who has heard about the kinds of amazing things that he has been doing and wants him to heal her daughter.  At this point, Jesus seems to be a bit exasperated (and that’s putting it gently).  He tells her that his work is with the Jews and not the Gentiles, but he’s a bit more gruff than that (at least to my ear)…

Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.

But check out this reply:

Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.

Now this is where I don’t quite know how to understand Jesus’  humanity.  I wouldn’t suggest that Jesus needs grace, at least not in the sense that the rest of us do.  But doesn’t it seem like that’s just what he’s received in this woman’s response?  Hasn’t he just called her a dog?  And didn’t she just let that one slip by?  I know I’m interpreting this one from a 21st century middle-class North America cultural viewpoint, but still…

Anyway, maybe the woman has ministered to Jesus’ need.  Perhaps, in this time when he’s on vacation for some rest, she has reminded him of the faith that he inspires in people, and perhaps that is an inspiration to his own faith, as well.  (I do think that Jesus needed faith in his Father to achieve his work on earth.   I don’t think that is too much of a stretch or a threat to his divinity.)

Ok – let me move on to take a quick look at the next story.  Jesus is on his way home from vacation, and some people bring him a man who is deaf and who also has a speech impediment.  Jesus takes the man aside to pray for him and only utters one word, “Ephphatha”, which means, “Be opened.”  But look at what else he does – he sighs.  I’m not a scholar of Greek, but my understanding is that this is the same word found in Romans 8 where Paul describes how the Holy Spirit intercedes for us.

What is happening here?  Does Jesus sigh because of lingering tiredness?  Does he not know what words to pray, or does he express a deeper prayer from the depths of his soul?  Does the Holy Spirit also intercede with the Father on behalf of the Son?  Do we learn that at times there are prayers that reflect the heart of God that just can’t be expressed with the words that we have?

Today, I’m reminded that Jesus’ humanity was not an impediment to his ministry, but rather a vital part of it.  It was only by becoming human that Jesus was able to show us the way back to God.

Wrestling with God

I love stories of people who wrestle with God – stories about people who have great faith and who walk closely with God; people who aren’t afraid to name injustice when they see it; people who are willing to say, “God, how can you let this happen?”  In some sense, it might seem presumptuous to question God.   Job’s friends certainly thought so.  But I think that a deeper look reveals that people who wrestle with God have moved past outward appearances and are working on an intimate friendship.

Here are some of my favorite stories…

Jacob – Of course, I need to start with Jacob, the original wrestler.  He was involved in the ultimate all-nighter (Genesis 32) and would have prevailed, except for what seems to be a dirty trick by God.  (What’s up with that, anyway?)  Nevertheless, Jacob still hangs on and demands a blessing from his previously unknown adversary before letting him go.  Anna Maria Johnson has reflected more on this story in an article in The Mennonite.

Habakkuk – I learned to love the Hebrew prophets during a class that I took from Jo-Ann Brant at Goshen College.  The prophets were all wrestlers, although some were more willing than others, it would seem.  Habakkuk begins his prophecy with this complaint:

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you ‘Violence!’
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble? (Hab 1.2-3, NRSV)

So God answers Habakkuk, and when Habakkuk doesn’t like the answer he complains again.  And then he has the audacity to insist on an answer:

I will stand at my watch-post,
and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
and what he will answer concerning my complaint. (Hab 2.1)

A Canaanite woman – Matthew 15 records the story of a woman whose daughter was  tormented by a demon.  She wanted help, she knew Jesus could provide that help, and she wasn’t willing to stop her shouting until she got that help.  (And she didn’t care one bit if the disciples were bothered or not.)  Jesus tested her, saying that his ministry was to Israel, but she (in faith) anticipated the broader reach of his work to the nations.  And so, her faith was rewarded.

Abraham – In Genesis 18, God shares with Abraham the judgement that he has declared against Sodom and Gomorrah.  In response, Abraham questions whether God would carry out his judgement against the wicked even if there were righteous ones present.  God relents, and says that he wouldn’t execute justice if fifty righteous people were found.  Abraham proceeds to question God further, and the number is reduced: forty-five, then forty, then thirty, then twenty, then ten.  Philip Yancey points out that Abraham stops asking for mercy before God stops granting it!  He further wonders,

Was God, so quick to concede each point, actually looking for an advocate, a human being bold enough to express God’s own deepest instinct of mercy?

It is a question we should each ask ourselves.  Let the wrestling begin.

Maintain the unity of the Spirit

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.  (Ephesians 4.1-6, NRSV)

A couple days ago, I wrote about bearing with one another in love.  Since then, I have been trying to envision what “maintaining the unity of the Spirit” might look like.  In other words, how do we go beyond an uncomfortable existence to actually living a Spirit-filled life with those with whom we disagree?  There’s nothing new here, but I find it helpful to come to some of my own conclusions, so I’ve brainstormed a few ideas…

  • Fundamentally, we should agree not to question the authenticity of another’s salvation, faith, or beliefs.
  • We should honor the other’s gifts.  This might involve gifts offered in a worship or study setting, for example.
  • Do not neglect the difficult discussions…
  • But conduct those discussions at safe, mutually acceptable times.  Find respected people to help facilitate or mediate.
  • Pray for one another…
  • But don’t pray in a way that you wouldn’t pray for yourself.
  • The Church isn’t a democracy.  The well-being of the minority should be vigorously defended.

There are some initial ideas.  Let the discussion begin.

Some thoughts on Grace

(A few months ago, I shared some personal reflections on grace with my congregation.  Since grace is such a central part of my faith (or at least I’m trying to make it that way) and since the intersection of faith and life in suburbia is on-topic here, I thought maybe I should post my reflections here, too…)

Roughly eight years ago, I read Philip Yancey’s book “What’s So Amazing About Grace”.  It has possibly had more effect on how I approach Christian faith than any other influence since.  Grace, says Yancey, is our “last best word”.  I have found this to be the case.  I ask myself, “What do I have to offer to the world?  Or, what evidence do I have that Christian belief is authentic?”  (And those are valid questions, because unfortunately there is a lot of stuff that originates with the church that isn’t very pretty.)  When I have little faith left, I ask similar questioins:  “Why should I believe any of this Christian stuff?  What keeps me from walking away?”  The answer is Grace.

Here, you have to understand a little of where my mind is coming from.  I’m a scientist.  I weigh evidence.  I dissect arguments.  I’ve been trained to doubt.  And for some reason that I can’t fully explain, Grace withstands my scrutiny.  In my mind, I can tear down just about everything about Christianity.  Not Grace.  Perhaps, it’s because I see Grace as the only thing that can keep humanity from ripping the world apart.  Even if the Church doesn’t do it well, I haven’t found it anywhere else.

Well – that’s a glimpse of the dark, doubting corner of my mind.  When I’m operating there, it may be because I’m going through a faith crisis, so let’s move on from the darkness to being amazed by Grace.

One area where Grace has amazed me is prayer.  I love prayer.  I’m not very good at it, but I love it anyway.  I love stories about people who wrestle in prayer – who have the audacity to wrestle with God in prayer.  Consider this Psalm:

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
Praise him in the heights!

Now consider that it was brought to us by the same people who gave us:

O daughter Babylon, you devastator! 
Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! 
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

How do you pray something like that?  And how do you get it included in Scripture?  I cringe when I hear that.  But I’ve come to realize that God knows that we have this darkness in our hearts whether we speak it or not.  And God, in God’s Grace, is big enough to sort through our junk (insert your own more colorful word), especially when we’re honest with it.  The end result is that Grace purifies our prayers.  Amazing.

Jim Croegaert has a song that says:

Here by the water
I’ll build an altar to praise You
Out of the stones that I’ve found here
I’ll set them down here
Rough as they are
Knowing You can make them holy

I’ve seen these stones that he’s talking about.  There’s a stream near our house where my girls like to play.  They find shells and crayfish and even snakes.  And they turn over all the rocks – all the slimy, mucky, muddy rocks.  It’s not pretty.  But this is what God makes holy.  It’s Grace.

I’ve come to realize it’s how God relates to us, and it’s how we’re to relate to the world.  Sometimes, I think we Christians (and by we, I mean me) are hesitant to interact with the world for fear of getting stained with the muck and sin of the world.  But I think God might prefer if I trust in the cleansing power of Grace a bit more and dare to get a little dirty in the process of sharing his love.  As Martin Luther said, “Sin boldly.”  Allow Grace to be amazing.

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