Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Satisfying Coda

Discombobulated.  It’s a word that passes in and out of trendiness (out at the moment) but perfectly characterizes my state of being right now. I chuckled at the dictionary definition, which is amusingly alliterative. Synonyms include:  bemusement, bedevilment, bewilderment and befuddlement. That describes the ebb and flow of feelings I have experienced lately and which I have had to acknowledge and then wrestle into their rightful places as passing acquaintances rather than lifelong friends.

That’s the thing about feelings. They come and go as life unfolds, waxing and waning in tune with our experiences.  Some alert us to problems we must solve, others to dangers we must avoid. Some help us to enjoy our blessings, others to grieve over losses. We embrace some with pleasure and want to boot others out the door as soon as possible.  Whatever our view of feelings and how useful (or not) they may be as guides along life’s way, they are a foundational part of being human. 

My own particular challenge is to recognize how they skew my view of reality. I tend to judge how life is going based upon how I feel about it at any one time. Thus, emotions tend to become the guides leading my faith along instead of the other way around. Jesus could be holding my hand and chatting with me along the way, but I’d be enacting little dramas with Mr. Fear or Ms. Happy-Clappy and forget he’s even there. Thankfully, he seems to know how to get my attention back to our own relationship again and these brief dalliances with passing acquaintances fade away into insignificance. Well, they do until another day dawns with all its unexpected twists and turns.

Lately though, discombobulation has been a constant and enduring companion. I can’t get rid of it because life will not settle down into any predictable pattern, neither in its circumstances nor in my head. Since I like to feel that I’m in control of at least a few important areas of my existence, I kind of flail around trying to make something settle down and submit itself to my little ministrations. If there are titanic eruptions of anger and violence in the Middle East, then at least I can arrange my house just so. If rumblings of change approach in my living situation, I can borrow from the future and dream about how things might be in a better city, in a different job. If storms batter a relationship, I can spend hours reading novels or watching programs where good triumphs over evil or someone else’s life is a train wreck compared to mine. In short, my heart cries out for stability in an increasingly volatile world. Do you ever think or feel this way?

If my Twitter feed is any indication, there are lots of people who are experiencing a similar sense of unrest. Some are disturbed by political situations, some by traumas brewing in different parts of the world, some by personal experiences. A wide variety of pundits present many and varied answers to the problems. It can be quite unsettling to listen to all the competing voices out there shouting, “This is the way – follow me”.

In this vein, I’ve noticed that Christians too are having some heated discussions on-line, in cafes, in denominational meetings – anywhere that two or three are gathered. Some are old fights, brought out and dusted off for one more go-around, while others are newer issues arising out of challenges from the surrounding culture. Whatever the issues, the whole thing can be very unsettling for all concerned. Even those who enjoy the stimulation of a good argument are starting to sound a bit frazzled around the edges. The push is on to bring about change or to resist it, depending on one’s point of reference, but most of all we want resolution. We want the clashing chords to resolve into a satisfying coda that releases the tensions and allows us to rest from our struggles. 

Is it wrong to want stability in the midst of disruption? I think it’s a natural thing for we human beings to seek after security and peace in our lives and in the world around us. Why shouldn’t we yearn for solid answers to ring like clarion calls through the cacophony of opinions out there? When circumstances of life change unexpectedly or relationships falter, it can feel like the ground under us is shifting and we need something immovable to grab on to so we don’t fall and get hurt. It makes sense to want to protect ourselves from pain, loss and disappointment. But if the instability in the world is reflected in the Church as well, what on earth can we rely upon to get us through the shaking and shifting? 

I think that, as Christians, this is where a paradox arises.  We know in our heads that we are to trust in God through all circumstances and yet God doesn’t always stop the shaking or rescue us from painful trials. We may believe that knowing God’s Word is foundational to a life well lived, but we can still get confused about how we should proceed along our own particular way. God doesn’t always make the answers perfectly clear and it doesn’t help that there are so many competing voices out there, both secular and Christian.

So, if keeping my house in order, my daydreams lively and my theological ducks in a row is not enough to stabilize me in today’s world, what am I to do? I could quit looking at the Twitter feed. What I don’t know won’t worry me, right?  Next, I could barricade myself behind a strong doctrinal position and tell all challengers to “talk to the hand”. I might dispense with daydreams – any dreams, really – and hunker down in my safe job in my safe town in my strong and free country.

In theory, that sounds good, but in practice I’ve found that trouble is kind of like a water torrent. It eventually finds a way to breech the barriers. I can do as much as possible to ensure a peaceful, uneventful life, but I’ve been learning that the more I try to be in control of my life, the less I enjoy it. Eventually, I start to shrivel inside, like the addict whose world shrinks as she becomes more and more focused upon getting the next fix. The paradox is that the more destruction I ward off, the more I have to concentrate on keeping it that way and the less free I am to live the “abundant life” that Jesus talked about (John 10:10).

I don’t think that God appreciates this type of siege mentality. Jesus told his followers not to fret, not to be anxious, not to worry. They were not to allow feelings like that to dictate how they lived. Instead, they were to “have faith” and trust that God would provide for all their needs. 

How do we have such faith? We can forget about training ourselves into it. It doesn’t work that way. Apostle Paul says that faith is a gift from God – a matter of grace. We don’t earn it and we can’t follow “10 easy steps” to improve it.  According to the book of Hebrews, faith grows and develops through looking at Jesus. We can’t hide ourselves away from every trial, every disaster in the world or every upset to our understanding of how things work. What we can do is remember who walks with us through it all and rely upon him to be the one in control. 

There is something about focusing on Jesus that widens our outlook and frees us to live as we are meant to. That sounds a lot better to me than cowering in a corner. So, I’ve decided to nod and wave at feelings as they come and go, but keep looking ahead, at the one who goes before me and lets me hold his hand for stability.

As I was thinking about all this one day, I came across a little nugget of encouragement while browsing my Twitter feed (ironic, I know). A fellow Christian quoted Richard Rohr, who said: 

“Paradox keeps you a little insecure and when you can’t keep yourself balanced, that is when you fall into the grace of God.”

I can’t think of a safer place to land. Can you?

For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:13)


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Thursday, September 13, 2012


In my last blog post, I was pondering the nature of reality, particularly as it relates to the passionate relationship between God and His people. I spoke of surfaces and shadows and how they reflect what lies beneath, hidden from the perceptions of our physical senses. I’d like to carry on from there and push a little further into our perceptions of God. What kind of Being is this who loves us and who inspires our love in return? Our only tangible connections with him are through his Book, his created world, the sacraments and each other. These we can touch and see and there is something about them that reflects the reality of God, albeit in a shadowy kind of way. For the rest, we must rely on our minds and our spiritual sensibilities.

Now you see it, now you don’t
As far as I can tell, our minds can grasp only a fraction of what lies under the surface, in the spiritual realm. We do catch glimpses now and then, for human beings are both flesh and spirit, after all. These aren’t clear perceptions, for the most part, and might be compared to seeing something in our peripheral vision. There are times when I perceive a movement out of the corner of my eye and when I turn to look, it has disappeared or is different than the initial glimpse led me to believe. 

Police officers taking down witness statements have found that three witnesses to the same crime may report three different versions of what happened or what the perpetrator looked like. Things like distractions (other elements in the scenario that impact the senses), personal perceptions, expectations, or judgements can affect how they make sense of what they see. Also, It is common for witnesses to add “after-thought” additional details to fill in the gaps in their mental pictures of events. For the most part, these are not purposeful attempts to sully the truth, but rather glitches in how the human mind perceives and processes reality.

I believe this is how it is with our perceptions of the spiritual realm. I mean, who on earth ever has a clear picture or idea of God? For one thing, God told Moses long ago that no one could ever see God and live. We get a glimpse into the shattering effects of God’s presence when we read Isaiah. When the prophet was transported mysteriously into the presence of God through a vision, he was completely undone by the experience. He fell down as if dead. Surrounded as he was by the holiness of God, he was intensely aware of and shamed by his own sinfulness. He needed the intervention of an angel, who swooped down to “cleanse” him so he could survive the encounter. It’s a strange story.

Beyond description
Isaiah wrote down what happened in this vision of God and we may be awed, encouraged or even confused and frightened by his description. When I read that passage in Isaiah 6, I sense that Isaiah may have struggled a bit to record the incident. Perhaps he found that words were not adequate to describe something so deeply spiritual – so Real. And then here we come, centuries later, and try to picture it in our own minds. We are limited to what our imaginations and intellects are able to fathom of something totally outside our own experience.

I’d like to fast forward a few centuries to the phenomenon that the Apostle John encountered and which he recorded in Revelation 1. He was an old man at this time, exiled to a distant island for preaching the Gospel once too often. One day, during his devotional time on the beach, John had a vision. He writes that, while he was “worshiping in the spirit”, he heard a voice speaking and saw someone who was “like the Son of Man”. John describes him as having “…hair white like wool, as white as snow. And his eyes were like flames of fire. His feet were like polished bronze refined in a furnace and his voice thundered like mighty ocean waves.” 

This amazing Being then made it clear that he was the resurrected Jesus. John could not get up from where he had fallen to the sand, in some sort of daze, until Jesus reached down and touched him. Can you picture Jesus as John depicts him? I think I’d have fainted too!

These recorded encounters with Divinity are important because they remind us that we are not dealing with a God that can be fully understood by our probing intellects. Theology is part of understanding, of course. God gave us reasoning minds and we need to comprehend him and his ways on that level. Isaiah had visions, but he also heard God speaking to him in words and recorded what he heard so people could read it and grasp the things God wanted to communicate. A gifted theologian can help us to navigate through text that was written thousands of years ago, in an ancient language within the context of an unfamiliar culture.

Having said that, I do think that language and reasoning – the underpinnings of theology - are limited when it comes to answering the question, “Who is God and what is he like?” Intellectual perception is good, but if we stop with that, we lose our grip on Reality. Why would I say that? I think that, when we rely solely upon our intellects, we tend to reduce God to what we can understand through reasoning. As a result, we are unable to see anything outside of our mental constructs. In a different chapter of Isaiah, God says to the people:

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
    “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so my ways are higher than your ways
    and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” (55:8-9)

How do I get there from here?
Our thoughts, it would seem, are not able to fully appreciate the thoughts and ways of God. Well then, how else are we to perceive truth about a rather mysterious God, if not with our reasoning minds? The way in which the Bible was written is a clue. There are lots of theological bits and bites, to be sure, but those aren’t the main course. In addition to theology, we find poetry, allegory, prophetic visions, stories, biographies, narrative description, parables and more. This reveals a God of variety who will not stick to one genre in his desire to communicate with us. 

Some parts of the Bible march in directly through the intellect, while others creep in at the periphery of conscious understanding. Some inspire; others touch our hearts; some strike us as tedious; others are rip-roaring exciting. We may be offended at the picture that some sections paint of an angry or jealous God. Or we may be stunned and delighted at his love and kindness toward the weak and weary. All of the chapters in all of the books reveal something of God and the grand story of his relationship with human beings.

This is not always easy to accept. Intellectually, we may not be able to understand how to integrate the seemingly conflicting pictures of God that come through in various parts of the Bible. Theologians can help, but even they disagree at times - not only about the Bible, but also how God is revealed in the world. What are we to do?

It isn’t as if we are alone in our quest. Jesus made it clear that his Spirit resides in his followers, and is busy teaching, counseling and revealing truth to them. God’s Book comes alive in a way no other does because the author is sitting right there with us, showing us things we can’t take in through reason alone. It’s the same with the natural world, the sacraments and the people we meet along the way. God makes himself known beyond shadows and surfaces, even though it may be a glimpse from the periphery or a grainy snapshot. A little unclear, but very, very real nonetheless.