Category Archives: God

Broken

Wracked with pain, miserable, and so weak and exhausted that standing could only be done for a few minutes and if I positioned myself just so and held on, I was still called to sing. You could say called by the choirmaster, who happened to have chosen “Holy, holy, holy,” but I would say called by God, who knew perfectly well what I was going through and wanted to know if I would still stand up and declare Him holy. I did; but it is what I can only call “a broken and holy hallelujah.” Or, as I text messaged a friend later in that evening, with tears streaming down my face, sometimes the harder it is to say something, the more true it is.

I have been facing a growing frustration with how many people and places I see touting that horrible things are gift. Most recent was a post I read entitled “The Gift of Lack: Infertility, Miscarriage, Singleness and the Long Wait.” Maybe, as I grow in maturity, discernment and perspective, I will grow to agree with this view point. But also, maybe not. While I understand the quest to find God holy in every situation, I’m not sure that I can reconcile myself to understanding “the emptiness” as a gift. The broken and the holy hallelujah seems to have fallen somewhat out of favor in preference to giving thanks FOR all things (which I see as very much different understanding than my reading of giving thanks IN all things).

Maybe, perhaps, Job was supposed to sit there in his loss and misery and say, “Thank you, God, for the gift of emptiness and loss and loneliness.” Or maybe he was just supposed to give exactly what God pulled out of him in the end: that broken and holy hallelujah, the one that says, “This isn’t fair, this is horrible, I see no goodness in this at all. Yet You have declared Yourself to be good, and I must acknowledge it as truth for no other reason than that You are holy.

For no other reason.

I see people (not just the post I mentioned above) tying themselves in knots trying to explain how all the hard and horrible things are gifts. I had people trying to tell me that I would look back on the time when I was sick and would see the gift of it all. But you know what? No. Listen–this world sucks. This cursed world is full of things it was never meant to be full of, including sin and death and suffering and lack and betrayal. And while God is at work to redeem, it doesn’t come to its fullness in this age, and we still have it all–sin, death, suffering, misery, grief, and much more. He can work in those things, and through those things and in spite of those things, but I, personally, cannot find the grounds to call those things gifts. Jesus, hanging on the cross, did not say “Father, thank you for the gift of all of my friends running away from me at my hour of greatest need.” He said, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?”

He was quoting a psalm, of course; the psalms are full of people crying out from the darkness, from the pit, from their loss and their lack and their heartache and their wretched loneliness. And they didn’t call that wretchedness a gift. That He often sends a blessing in the midst of the darkness does not make the darkness in itself a gift. That He uses a curse to redeem those under a curse does not make the curse any less of a curse, even though He paradoxically works beyond it to bring great blessing.

Maybe perhaps you think I am splitting hairs. Maybe perhaps you think there is no wrongness to mashing together the two concepts of praising God in spite of everything, from a low and shattered existence, and praising God for everything, since He can use anything for our good and so it must be a gift. Maybe I am not pious enough, like Corrie Ten Boom and her sister giving thanks for head lice, and maybe, if I just got my spiritual act together, I could begin to see that my times of grief and longing are in fact, their actual selves, gifts.

But I am not yet ready to yield that. Because what I see reinforced and encouraged by that view point is the condemnation of suffering. The teaching that if you are truly miserable, and the holiness of God is a hard thing to find on your lips, then it is no one’s fault but your own that you are incapable of accepting God’s gifts. Now, God does give good gifts; but that is not the entirety of our relationship to God, anymore than it is always Christmas or always your birthday, and all of life is never anything but happiness and presents.

It would be an easy jump to point out that God also gives discipline, which is true, but I mean more than that. I mean that it is not a one way street, and God also requires things of us. He describes Himself as a jealous God, and His anger when we chase after other things; He requires faithfulness. Faithfulness is not a property of a response to gifts; faithfulness is a property of a response to kill your own son, to have your children and your possessions stripped from you and your friends to tell you it’s all your fault, to declare the truth of God even when you know it will result in hell-in-a-stove or death by stones. And God also requires holy fear — awe and silence that come from recognizing the vastness of God’s greatness and the tiny pitifulness of our own smallness. You can’t have a broken and holy hallelujah without first being broken.

To condemn suffering is also to condemn those who cry out to be delivered. Because to consider it as a gift means to be grateful for it, and to be grateful for it means that you should have no need to beg for it to be taken away. I see that nowhere, least of all in the psalms. And I sure don’t see Abraham or Hannah or many of the other devastatingly childless people in the Bible sweetly sitting there saying, “thanks for no kids!” They cry out. “Be fruitful and multiply,” says the Lord, and in this broken, busted world that doesn’t work the way it ought, some do not get to have part of “be fruitful and multiply.” God answers some of their pleas, like Hannah, but the list of people who have died childless is soberingly long, and grievous.

Is God always working good works? Yes. Does God give good gifts? Yes. Ergo, is every black and empty thing a gift? No! No. That God can work redemption through even black and empty things does not mean that we’ve reached the fullness of redemption and that all things ARE good. He created all things as good, and then sin entered the world, and all thing are NOT good, even though God Himself remains good. It is by faith, and only by faith, that it can be said that God is good, when it becomes devastatingly impossible to see good in the horrors around you. And faith is pleasing to God. And being broken is pleasing to God, who values broken and contrite hearts more than the sacrifice of the cattle on a thousand hills. And recognizing the holiness of God is pleasing to God, who stoops to reach down to us but is by no means lowered to our meager depths. And the broken and the holy hallelujah rings true, in His ear and in the cloud of witnesses.

I will not, like so many I’ve seen, stand up and make a smarmy (if perhaps heartfelt or well intended) pledge on Facebook about how I’m accepting God’s gift of singleness and will live joyfully before the world with this beautiful blessing of singleness. It’s not true; I don’t believe it. Instead I will sit here, and say much more quietly, that sometimes in my longing I think maybe I understand better what God means when He says He is longing for the wedding feast of the Lamb. Aha! you say, see! Singleness is a gift — see what you understand better? No, I say; it’s not the gift OF singleness, it’s a gift found IN singleness, a gift given in spite of the longing and the empty. You don’t wish a gift to be over; and yet isn’t it described as God Himself wanting the time of waiting and longing to be over?

Maybe I am lacking in piety. Maybe I am lacking spiritual maturity. Maybe I lack perspective. Or maybe God is drawing out from me that which He wants to receive: The broken–and the holy–Hallelujah.

Go On.

This is the part I didn’t want to think about.

Not because I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. Because I did know, and I didn’t want to suffer through it twice, once imagining it and again when it happened. There was nothing I could do to change it or influence it or cut it shorter. It was part of the deal when I first signed up, and there was no mitigating it.

I’ve only got a few weeks left, but I swear, every single day is harder. I keep looking for ways to soften it, ways to carry on, but nothing seems to work. Except with startling frequency, when I open my Bible, it is speaking of endurance or perseverance. Which means that even though I want to turn around and leave, right now, yesterday, before that, I can’t.

And I suppose that in itself is part of the reason why I’m here. When things get hard is when you find out what you cling to. I don’t cling to the thought of the glory of the degree or of the power of the paycheck. I can’t even cling to being done, as all around me the world whispers “just what until you see what you have to do next!” The only thing I can cling to is that it is God who brought me here, will bring me through here, and will take me away from here.

But it keeps getting harder, and I don’t understand why I just can’t be done already. I can’t understand what could possibly make the next few weeks worth it. No deal. No choice. Or at the very least, certainly not enough faith to even ask for what I most want, which is to somehow be done sooner. Done now.

Maranatha

Void.

It is not sadness. It is not fear. It is not dread. It is not reluctance. It is not refusal. It is nothing.

The eyes are open now, but nothing is there. The body will move, but out of habit, and the habit is not so strong. If there is any motivation at all, it is to be not found out. Make no ripples. Make no waves. Clothes must go on; absence today would be noted. Breakfast? No one will know. What to do instead?

Just sit.

And look.

Stare, really.

No movement, except to glance at the watch. How long can nothing happen before it is found out?

Odd how the mechanical motions seem to be almost observed instead of directed.

There are problems with the car. This is bad. This should mean emotions. No, this is good. No one will ask now what is wrong. The car is wrong, of course. Just the car.

The nothingness is wrong. Very wrong. This place has been visited before. It is not okay. It was not like this last night. It was like this in the morning. Try being in the bed again; maybe, with sleep, the nothingness will go away.

Now there are tears. No words behind the tears. No problem to be fixed. Just tears. The numbness was preferable.

But pretending is always an option. Shelve it. No one needs to see that. Smile. Nod. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. There is something about young children who want attention. They want attention, so they don’t give it. They want attention, and they distract. Count change – pennies and nickles and quarters. Children are distracted by pennies; when does that lose its hold? The void is there. Sitting and staring, though the person to the side tries to make conversation. But talking is hard, in the void. There is nothing to say.

It is time to go again, so go. Laying in the pew, listening to the people making music. There is no point to being here. The people making music laugh. That is good for the people who still can laugh. But there is no point to being here.

More people come. They try to ask questions. They try to be nice. The tears come back, and this time the will not be quelled. They keep leaking out. The people are singing, getting ready for Sunday. There is no point to being here. Lying in the pew, tears coming onto the face. Not all children want attention. Some understand there are things that are beyond words. A little hand awkwardly pats, strokes. Everyone knows. There is shame in public humiliation. Why be here? A way should have been found to not be here. The people sing. The evening will never end.

The singing is stopping.

The people are coming down, coming close. Hunching over the pew. Hands. Hands on the shoulder, hands on the elbow, hands on the back. Large hands and smaller hands, warm hands, still hands, comforting hands. Voices rising to heaven, carrying petitions for the suffering. The angels are watching this holy convocation, to learn the work of their Lord. Another petition. Then, poignant, slow, almost a lullaby–a soprano leads, but others join the music:

“The Lord bless you and keep you;
The Lord make His face to shine upon you
To shine upon you and be gracious
And be gracious unto you

The Lord bless you and keep you
The Lord lift up the light of His countenance upon you,
The Lord lift up the light of His countenance upon you
And give you peace, and give you peace;
And give you peace, and give you peace. . .”

Amen and amen.

All of the people–all of the people–go up to sing. Good Friday is coming.

Sing:

“Where you there. . .when they crucified my Lord?
Where you there. . .when they laid Him in the tomb?

Tears. Suffering.

Sing:

“. . .they laughed and scorned Him as He died.
The humble king, they named a fraud. . .”

Public humiliation.

Easter is coming. Sing:

“. . .Were you there when He rose up from the grave?
Were you there when He rose up from the grave?. . .”

“. . .for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
The kingdom of this world
is become the kingdom of our Lord
and of His Christ, and of His Christ!
And He shall reign for ever and ever. . .”

Comfort.

There are many days left to prepare for. Sing:

“. . .What is man, that you are mindful of him?
You have given man a crown of glory and honor
and have made him a little lower than the angels. . .”

Reverence.

The darkness has receded. There will be sleep tonight. There will be inexplicable new mercies tomorrow morning.

The prayers of the saints are a pleasing aroma to the Lord.

Amen.

Subjugation

I can’t find it now, of course, but this past season I saw a picture of “cool Santa.” I’m pretty sure he was advertising something, though I have no idea what. His beard was trimmed; he’d lost some weight. He had a motorcycle, and was dressed pretty spiffy. Also, he had a smartphone.

Also, he was in “the smartphone stance.”

Do you know that stance? It’s similar to, and nearly as common now, as the glamorous cigarette shot of yester-year. Don’t look at the cigarette/smartphone. Hold in such a way to show that, yes, you own it, but deign to give your attention elsewhere.

Know what I’m talking about? No? That’s okay. Even if you aren’t tracking with me about iconic photo trends, we’ve all heard (ad nauseam, probably) the comparisons between smartphone use and addictions. About how in fifty years we’ll be horrified–smoking at the dinner table! Smoking in bed right before falling asleep! Smoking in restaurants! Smoking while you walk, smoking while you drive, smoking while you study, smoking while you work!

But the fact that smartphone use is addicting is not what I found notable. It just reminded me of the thoughts I’ve been having lately that it seems to me that society’s relationship to addictions are changing. There was a time there when being “addicted” was something I heard talked about in horrible, hushed tones. Now, I hear people talking about how they’re addicted to pumpkin spice, about “crack” pie or other “crack” food, because it’s so addicting. People talk with delight about their obsessions, make light of alcoholism, “can’t even” live without the latest tacky trend.

Yes, we all get addicted. Is it something to be ashamed of, something to be managed, something to take almost childish delight in?

I think it is a good question. For but one example, I live in a nation that has sometimes been described as being addicted to their rat race, for their long hours and high stress and career expectations. I’ve heard many admittances that this does horrible things for us. Sometimes I hear pride about it anyhow, like an anorexic proud of how skinny they are. Sometimes I hear some sadness, but mostly I hear a lot of talk about balance. Life-work balance, don’t you know. If we can just get the balance right. . .

But you know, I don’t know, I don’t read much in the Bible about a life-work balance. I mostly read, yes, you will be obsessed. Make sure you are totally and wholly obsessed with the right thing. And this is a hard thing. Because while we sometimes like the idea that we aren’t don’t have to have self-control, we also really do not like the idea that we’re supposed to be committed to just One. We want endless lattes AND skinny jeans; fame and glory AND leisure; family AND power. Serving two (or forty-three) masters is what we’re all about. Serving just One is disturbing and distasteful.

People often try to express that about “religion,” too. It’s okay if it’s “part” of your life, and it’s kind of quaint if you go to church on Sundays. But be religious in moderation, okay? Nothing too weird.

I think people have tried to talk about this before, but not in any way that resonated to me. Jesus Freak. Magnificent Obsession. I guess part of what I find distasteful in that is it’s still the “haha, isn’t it cute? I’m, like, totally addicted to God!” There’s such an ‘oopsy’ there. I just can’t help myself. It just happened. Maybe that’s good enough for the gods of the world, but what I understand God to be looking for is much more deliberate, conscious, and insistent. We aren’t getting our “fix” of God, because to serve God is to serve Him even if it means getting thrown into the fiery furnace, not because serving God gives us our “high” of the day.

It’s hard because it’s singular. It’s hard because it means saying no to other things. It’s hard, because we don’t own God, and because we can’t just trade out one drug for another if we decide it isn’t working. And it’s hard because we can’t throw in any ‘and’s. No God AND safety. God AND predictability. God AND glamour. God AND rationality. Just God. Only God. And there’s no sequestering, no God over there, and something else over here.

I don’t think addiction used to be okay. I think we used to use the language of duty and responsibility and maybe even loyalty. And I think those concepts have gone almost entirely out of fashion. It’s not that using the concepts of responsibility makes things better; one can be responsible to the wrong things just as easily as addicted to the wrong thing. But addictions being viewed and frivolous and indiscriminate and harmless makes it harder to convey the sobriety of the situation. It’s not something you do on your own time that you pretend doesn’t have an effect on your real life or your relationships. It’s a commitment entered into seriously, a level of devotion that far overcomes “preference” or “taste.” And it doesn’t photograph as cool, not by a long shot. Addictions are style points; God is not.

The problem is that while some of us would like to think that we could be the centurion that declared the presence of the Son of God, the humble man who prayed for forgiveness, the rich soil that bore fruit a hundred-fold–it’s still really, really hard to pray, “Not what I want, but what You will.” The lists of what we want are easier to write, and re-write when things change. And it’s hard to say, “none of this really matters,” and walk away from it all. It’s hard to accept, sometimes, what surrender really looks like.

And the problem with Santa with a cellphone is that I see myself there, as odd as it may seem. Rationalizing my addictions, holding out plans for self-improvement or shaping of my own life. In the flinch-and-look-away is the whisper of truth: I struggle so with my own lack of self-control; how can I be dedicated to my God?

How often it is forgotten: There is sorrow leading to death and there is sorrow leading to life. There is a point to see such things, and it’s not in wallowing in self-condemnation. It is so that when there are those tempting lists of self-improvements and life plans, we remember something more true. The God who created us, fearfully and wonderfully, is eternal. His song is for ages past and for all the tomorrows. For now, for this time, He is outside the camp. Let us go to Him.

Appetizer

Lutheran Church

Pros:
– Pastor actually knew everyone in the church (greeted people personally) and welcomed you without implication (that you would or should be there ever after). Followed up with email WHEN WARRANTED (e.g. no “form letter” just because you showed up, but when I shared difficulties I was having, he followed up on them through the following weeks).
– Bible study wasn’t scripted (no “answer these questions” forms), and the pastor demonstrated quite a bit of respect for what was said. He did try to gently guide back people who were trying to bring something into the text that just wasn’t there, but especially seemed to have a lot of respect for the older/more mature members.
– Holy reverence would be a word I wold feel comfortable using to describe this setting.

Cons:
– Terrible exegesis. I wish I could say something more constructive than this, but it just often seemed if the thoughts presented were only very tangentially related to the Scripture at hand, and often times seemed to miss the point of the passage entirely.
– Pew warmers. Almost entirely elderly people, and for the most part everyone showed up at that last minute and left in a hurry. There was little to no opportunity to gather with people outside of the service.
– Party-liner’s. These people weren’t “Christians” they were “Lutherans”. It was unsettling at times.

Notable moments:
– The pastor asking an infant child if it renounced all the ways of the Devil. Derrrr. . . I struggle with all views of infant baptism, but I really didn’t get the point of pretending to ask a writhing infant if it would declare a renunciation of all the ways of the evil one.
– Speaking during Bible study about something I thought was going on in the text and having an elderly member of the church whirl around with pointed finger and declare, “Now THAT is some excellent Lutheran theology!” There were quite a few very intelligent, well-studied/educated gentlemen there, who I miss, but I never was making a Lutheran point and I never was prepared to be congratulated on it.
– When the pastor realized I wasn’t showing up (and hadn’t mentioned going home, etc) he sent a very nice follow up email, just letting me know that I was missed and that he hoped nothing more disastrous had come upon me (it had been a very disastrous Summer; he had right to be worried). I explained I was troubled by some of the persistent Lutheran beliefs, and he simply offered that if I wanted to, he’d be glad to meet with me and discuss them. I never took him up on it, but I find I regret it.

Baptist church:

Pros:
– much better exegesis, e.g. recognizing the centrality of Christ throughout the entire Bible.
– much more diverse congregation, and many more opportunities to gather besides Sunday service.

Cons:
– FEAR. GUILT. SHAME. FEAR. GUILT. If nothing else, you should repent of not feeling ashamed enough. All interactions with people should be based out of FEAR they might not get to heaven.
– Canned gatherings. When you meet, you need a church approved agenda. Your homegroup leaders will be reporting back to leadership.
– Face. Let’s keep it all looking good. Including with neat little shows of “humility”. Everyone should be involved in everything. Heaven help us if the sinners don’t see us being joyful enough. I began to feel that God got a lot of lip service but began to doubt how hallowed He was.
– Pride and false humility. It is at times subtle, but pervades everything. The church is run like a business, with leaders being personally invested in the success riding on them and their name. It needs to be ever expanding. References to authority are not to “Luther” but rather to “the pulpit.”
– An emphasis on the “gospel” that leaves the “church” in the cold. I met so many people who said they’d been going to that church for over 5 years and still didn’t know most people; meantime, we are “church planting” on the other side of the world.
– Money. It requires frequent mentioning from the pulpit. Everyone should be giving sacrificially, and more sacrificially. It is part of the constitution. If you become a member, you have to agree to give regularly, reliably and sacrificially.

Notable Moments:
– I went the Lutheran church for about 2 months. The pastor, I am confident will still remember me. I have attended the Baptist church for over 6 months. I’ve never actually met the ring-leader. Although I suspect he has heard several reports on me.
– The conversation in which the homegroup leader asked me what I thought about church going, now that I was. I answered honestly that I thought there was a problem with any arrangement which didn’t allow for members of the body to be ministering to one another, and that it was boring and meaningless to just show up, shut up, and sit down. He said that I was right, but that in order to support the mission, the church had to get bigger–and still must get bigger yet!–and logistically, there was just no way to have meaningful interactions with such a large group. He then tried to convince me I just needed to get more involved with scripted activities and “serving”.
– The financial meeting in which the ring-leader said that the churches main responsibility was first the church and then to the unsaved, and the preceded to cut funding to anyone who wasn’t on board enough with saving sinners.
– Watching a women attempt to share a concern for THREE WEEKS in a row, but being sidelined every week because there “wasn’t enough time”–there needing to be time for the pastor to read the announcements of “ministry” happenings, and lecture us all ad nauseam of the subject of his choosing. (Her son had a concussion from which he was not recovering well from.)
– The hands and feet of homegroup: people were there when I needed prayers, there when I needed to talk, there to feed me meals and send me home with leftovers, there to help me with car problems, there to invite me over at times when I should be with family that was too far away. How I needed that – and how sad when I realized it wasn’t ever getting any deeper than that, and that I felt more comfortable discussing spiritual matters with friends who had no professed religion than I did with homegroup, who’s thoughts were not their own.

Methodist Church:

Only went once, so only some off the cuff observations:
– Like the Lutheran Church, it is a very peaceful sit-through. This was a smaller gathering, and the church was older (it was a good deal scenic), but like the Lutheran Church, it was full of grey heads and not much else. This perplexes me. I would think if you didn’t really care, you would want to show up some place pleasant that doesn’t make your head hurt, but of which the Lutheran and Methodist Churches were and the Baptist Church decidedly was not (plus, the Baptist service is at least a full twice as long).
– Because it was such a small gathering, literally anyone and EVERYone who wanted to add prayers to the congregation could and did. The pastor would repeat them aloud so that everyone could hear the request or praise, and then say, “Lord in your mercy–” and the congregation “hear our prayers.” I really liked that part of it. It was a good way to share prayer with a large gathering. (And much better than listening to someone go on long-windedly and still managing to tie in guilt and fear and shame and pride.)
-Exegesis was still pretty mediocre, but that was one sermon, so it’s hard to know. At least he got to his point quickly.
-Apparently (e.g. everyone else knows this but only now do I), most “high” churches are “in communion” which they use to mean, among other things, that everyone uses the same “lectionary” or system of readings from the bible. The more “higher” you are, the more special circumstance you need to deviate from the pre-chosen text; in the Episcopal Church, you need the Bishop’s approval. In the Methodist church, you can choose to follow it or not, but usually do. I can’t help but wonder if this part of the reason why so far every “high” sermon I’ve heard has been very superficial and flat – following a script of readings can be limiting.

Episcopal Church:

Again, only went once, so just some brief thoughts.

-Life is a play, and everyone played their part. Granted, it was an Easter service, but the pomp, ritual and ceremony was so grand to the point it was hard to take it serious. At least for me. It was like a caricature, making you want to giggle; or, if you took it seriously, creepy. Very tall Bishop with his very tall hat, and even taller and more majestic shepherds crook which is obviously beyond the symbolic and into “likely has hidden powers.” Lots of singing in Latin, and even though it was a modern concrete structure, they’d done the architecture right to get that echo-y church sound.
-It was neat that they were explicit in their programs that kids were free to wander. There was no expectation that the kids should get shipped away, nor that little kids were expected to be statues for the entire time.
– The Choir Master clearly loved his job, and loved leading us in a round – truly, a round with over lapping parts – of joy and thanksgiving. In Latin.
– When communion was handed out, everyone gathered at the front loosely, and the people handing out the elements circulated around. I liked this arrangement better than the Lutheran “come up and kneel while I hand it to you” and even more than the Baptist “let’s all sit twiddling our thumbs while we pass everything through the whole seated congregation.” Granted, we would have been twiddling our thumbs while the people passed out the elements to the gathered people, but, hey, if you were bored, you could sing the Latin refrain.
– The sermon was lame. Truly. If this is what passes for leading the flock, you can understand why it seems like anyone and everyone should be allowed to teach and lead. Nothin’ to it. Say a few words. Try to look holy. Remember to look up a lot.

Some over all thoughts:

– Passion does not equal truth. I think the people at the Baptist church were more passionate (maybe that’s what brought people there, not the long service times and the moral to be fearful and ashamed?). I got the feeling that a lot of people liked the feeling of always being busy with church things, that by their activity and emotion they were “doing something” about it and were more real and true and RIGHT. It is said, though, not that we will be known by our emotion or activity, but by our fruit. To which I am sure at the Baptist church I would be pointed to head-count and church-plants as evidence of said fruit, but it no where says, “by your head-count they will know I am among you.” Far from it.

– The Episcopal church was one of the places my landlady had me take her while she was unable to drive. Sometimes she and I talk about spiritual or religious things. One of our differences is that community is VERY important to me, but she feels the opposite. She doesn’t need a community. She says she just needs a place to come in holy reverence. We’re both introverts, and to a certain extent, I understand what she means. We don’t need people, people, people. But the difference is, I don’t need to go to a structure with a figure up in the front to feel like I’m satisfying being in the presence of God. (I am hesitant to write how she feels, since our conversations are often all over the place and not delving too deeply in a certain area.) When I am coming to a church, it’s not because I need or want the administration of a religion; it’s because I want to find other people who are seeking and worshiping God, and to have fellowship with them. It doesn’t mean I want to be doing it every day of the week, morning and evening, because I am and introvert, and I am wearied by people, people, people. All of these endless “ministry” gatherings just make me want to cry. I’m interested in the people and God, not doing “churchy” things and listening to endless strings of speakers and spiritual small talk of how we can notice God more by making craft boards we write things down on. And I’m not really interested in pomp and circumstance, although if you made me choose, I’d pick the solemnity of the Lutheran and Methodist settings over the self-righteous and false-humility I see in the Baptist setting.

– I feel like I have a better understanding of how people get pulled into cults and some of the reasons why people find religion and churches to be creepy. People say all of these nice things and do all of these nice things, and maybe you don’t have anyone else in your life who is doing nice things or saying nice things to you. At the end of it all, though, most people seem ungenuine, and you start feeling more and more like you’re someone’s project. But you want to make it work, and who else do you have? I don’t feel like that is my position, but I feel like it so easily could have been me, had my situation be just a little different.

– I am not done looking/visiting/going to churches, but I feel like I have been reminded that in many ways, this is an academic/experiential activity. I’m not likely to find what I’m really looking for in established churches, any more than one is likely to find a good hearty meal in a pastry shop. I may find other individual Christians I can grow with, but not any institution, and I would do well to remember that.

– “home church” or “non-denominational” is in no way a sign that things are better. Every “non-denominational” I’ve looked into so far is hardly related to the original word “Christian.” Someone who was well intention added me to a “home church” group on Facebook, which has been hair-raising. I’ve been watching things go past in the spirit of academic awareness, but if all I knew about home gatherings was what I saw there, I would run far, far away and never come back. I expect to be removing myself from that group shortly.

– There has been a massive logical fallacy committed on a huge scale that since “church” in the NT usually refers to a “local gathering”, you need to pick a church and stick with it. I think the point was that you are in fellowship with the people who were around you, since the only way to discuss a more global church was by these long letters called epistles or by hazardous and unreliable travel plans. Considering that sectarianism was explicitly condemned, using the call for “local gathering” to justify why you need to consistently gather at one of the 20+ power-struggling denominational gatherings is beyond absurd. It’s also an absurd fallacy to assume that since we are told not to forsake gathering together, there must be something magical about sitting silently in pews saying nothing together for hours on end. Besides the end of the verse (and the previous verse and THE WHOLE DARN BOOK) that implies there is more about it than just existing in the same physical space, there is also the reminder that “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am also.” The point is not where the gathering is, who is “in charge of” the gathering, or how perfunctorily the gathering is attended. The point is not forsaking one another. And to my understanding, sitting coldly in a pew listening to one man talk counts as forsaking one another.

I am always a bit hesitant to post these sorts of things, as since they can be deeply touchy and personal subjects, an off-the-cuff handling of them can lead to a lot of misunderstandings. Still, I need a place to think about and consider these things, and right now. . .I’ve yet to find local people I can do that with.

losing, lost and looking

“Not all who wander are lost. . .”

I was rather surprised when this quote went viral, showing up on everything from t-shirts to decorative couch pillows to almost anything else you could think of. It’s been interesting reflecting on it; at first they included the line, “all that is gold does not glitter”, but they lost that in a hurry. I guess people liked the defiance in “not all who wander are lost” but were much less interested in “the old that is strong does not wither” or “deep roots are not reached by the frost.”

Like most of Tolkien’s writing, the original poem was full of much weariness, much longing, and the real complexity of “bittersweet” that has now been so overused on extravagant chocolate desserts that the word has begun to lose the depths of real heartache mingled with true joy. By snipping out that one little line, they’ve lost so much; what remains is a superficial arrogance. What was a mourning has been turned into an anthem.

Becoming one that wanders, while not being lost, is not really a goal. The point isn’t that you want to be a loner, distancing yourself from others, thinking yourself above, different, better than. It’s really a lament. Not being lost, yet still having to wander.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

It’s not the goal, and it’s not pleasant. It’s something to be endured until the fullness, and in the meantime, it’s lonely. And it might be pleasant to not be wandering alone, but “all that is gold does not glitter.” People aren’t really attracted to just being lonely and pining for things being restored. They want to get comfortable–and by comfortable, I don’t necessarily mean no hardship. I just mean a certain level of predictability, certain levels of challenge, certain levels of control and choice.

When you come along beside someone, metaphorically, and say, “Come, let us walk this journey together!” and they respond by saying, “Journey? My butt is planted right here; if you need help figuring out how to sit down, I’ll teach you,” well, there can be little doubt there is not much in the way of fellowship. I think it is the rejection of fellowship that hurts worse than the traveling in different directions.

I realize this is all rather vague, and I don’t mean to be obtuse. It’s just that I am wary to pinning it all down on one circumstance, when I see echos of it through all of life. When we’re kids and no one wants to play hide-and-go-seek with us, it’s not that we had a dire need to play hide-and-go-seek.The desire was the togetherness. Debates that turn into debates are unfulfilling, because unless there actually is a desire to come together, in fondness if not in agreement, there is no accomplishment. Being right in a context devoid of relationship is pointless.

To wander is to admit there is no place to sit down and be settled, at least for now. To say that you are not lost, however, is to say that you know that it is meaningful to keep searching and waiting and looking and knocking and asking and longing. It is not at all about spurning others; but not everyone wants to wander. It doesn’t glitter. And to endure the wandering, there must be deep roots. The greatest joy is not in wandering, but only in knowing that one day, we will be reforged.

Marana tha

The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going. . .

The sky is a steely, depressing grey and I remember why I named this blog what I did. So often the cover of clouds make me stare out the window and grasp to find the words to explain what is–almost as though, without sunlight or happenings to distract, all that really remains are the thoughts inside of me.

There is an aching and a pining that goes along with listening to the wind. I don’t know if it is from a desire to know where the wind is coming from and going to, or from a longing to have the wind blowing always, or maybe even just wishing it was more tangible and holdable than it is.

I feel like the wind is blowing now, and like all creation I turn into the wind, trying to smell what the wind carries on it. There is movement, but what does it mean? I can’t make it happen sooner, or more slowly; I cannot control it. I cannot pretend it doesn’t exist, but I cannot pretend to fully comprehend it either.

Don’t you know that curious joy? When a storm is blowing in, and you are standing out in that pulling, pushing, pulsing wind–and you can’t stop grinning like an idiot, even though you don’t know why? It’s exciting–and kind of scary–and silly–and wonderful–and fleeting–and imprinted inside of you–and has nothing to do with anything and is the most important thing that’s happened all week.

Sometimes I feel swept along, gasping and out of control. Sometimes I feel impatient, waiting for the next gust. Sometimes, like today, I feel like I can hear the howling in the trees. It is coming, I can hear it. But where is it coming from? Where is it going to? How much of what I hear is my own echo, leaving my mouth and then bouncing back to me like new words? Or is it the fore-runners of the wind, telling me were to stand so my wings will be filled?

There is a long and a hungering for more, and that’s good and true and right and will never be satiated in this life. The tension between those two things drives me crazy sometimes. I want resolution. I want to work toward resolution. What can I do to make this happen? But the wind comes and goes without any clear beginning or end, with a direction that seems always to shift.

Am I ready for the storm? No. Goodness, no. I never will be, but I want it to come, anyway. Come, Lord Jesus.

The Artist

“T.T., I want to talk to you about something.”

I stop in my tracks and turn around. This happened maybe 4 years ago now, but I still remember this part clearly. It’s the secretary at work, who I’ve always gotten along with very well–and yet she sounds concerned. Maybe even upset.

“I keep hearing you tell people that you’re just an aide. You’re not ‘just’ an aide! You’re not ‘just’ anything. . .”

I don’t remember how she finished her thought. Something about me being valuable or something. I don’t remember how I responded; I think maybe I kind of laughed it off, at least in my attitude. The conversation niggled in and stuck in my craw, but the point–I told the niggling thought–was that patients were asking me clinical questions, and I was appropriately clarifying that I wasn’t a clinician: I was “just an aide.” Why was the conversation getting stuck in my head, then? Because–I knew she was right. I knew I said Just all the time about myself. I knew she was picking up on my attitude. I belittle my role, and she was right to call me out on it.

And now, 4 years later, God is reminding me I wasn’t listening hard enough, as Emily P. Freeman says almost the exact same thing, word for word. I was so startled to find Emily’s writing because it so neatly coincided with my own (I thought) private world of thoughts. One of the things I was thinking about this summer was art: about how my actions showed that I devalued it–threw it out the door in favor of “responsibilities” and “duty” and “things that had to be done.” Now, my mind was being prodded into remembering another facet of who God was: The Creator. The Artist.

In my mind, responsibility and duty superseded art. But was this God’s construct, or mine? Was God more concerned that I finished my homework than engage in creative endeavors? Was God more worried about the unswept floor than the rich form of expression we call “art”? I found that it was my construct. What I was worried about. What I was afraid of. I found that in creating, I better understood God. I would look at my art, my unique and peculiar expression, and feel so fondly about it–and in a moment that comes suddenly but lasts longer than the clock would claim, I understand God looking fondly on His creation. I found that God had a joy in creating, a joy which He was pleased to have us share in.

I dismissed art, because it was fun. It was pleasurable. Therefore, somehow, it must take second fiddle to the things which are odious, burdensome. Work before play, right? It seemed so virtuous. But God made fleeting lilies of the field, Just to be beautiful. Just to be Art. What I thought was important was not necessarily what God thought was important. What I thought I had to do was not necessarily what God wanted to do through me.

Emily writes about living art. Emily writes about turning everything you do into art. Emily writes about acknowledging art–and about not sticking a “Just” in front of it. Emily and I, I think, are talking about the same thing, even if we are finding different words for talking about it.

We are art, because we are the creation of The Artist. And that means we are not “Just” anything. You can try to cram that “Just” in there somehow, but if you ask me, “we’re Just made in the image of the Living and Holy God” sounds like a pretty lame use of the word “just.”

But somehow, we think we can. We think we can say that our declared list of things to do is more important than responding to reverberating Voice within us that says “Create!” We think we can use the word “Just” to refer to ourselves, somehow forgetting that what we are really doing is using the word “just” on the handiwork and design of God, the Alpha and Omega.

And I am sitting quietly under this rebuke, because I have been again speaking “just” over myself. But in the quietness that remains, there is now room for hope to grow. I am not, my situation is not, life is not Just. And I do not have to labor or work hard over being “Not-Just.” I am Not-Just because of the One who created me, and continues to pour through me His vision and His delight. I don’t need to make sure that I’m being properly and dutifully Not-Just in whatever role I’m in; I need to quietly sit back and recognize that I am Not-Just in those roles because He is the one who called me to those roles, to show a reflection of Himself through the expression of putting me where I am. I need to delight in what He is pouring through me, not think that I have right to dismiss my existence as Just.

One of the problems I had transition from work back to being in school was the Just. When I was working as a physical therapist assistant, I could see, I felt, so much more clearly, how God was using me. He was using me to pour out His healing, His comfort, His expression of love on His creations. But when I went back to school, I became “Just a student.” What was the point? What was I doing? What was I accomplishing? In effect, I was promoting the opinion that God had no use for students. In effect, I was saying that God could make anything beautiful out of academia. In effect, I was saying that since I had declared the whole system a farce, God must not care about any of it or any one in it, either. I was declaring it all a waste of time to be Just a student, and then despondently asking God why He had called me to such a worthless position.

But God did not call me to be Just a student–and indeed, I cannot be Just a student, even if I wanted to be, with God pouring out His own idea of how He would choose to express Himself through a student–and not even “a” student–through me. He could use any student; He chose me, knowing how He created me and how He would use me. And He was busy making me Not-Just a student, whether I was going to open my eyes to that fact or not.

This is a curious thing, because it means, among other things, that it’s not about you. Trust me, I have plenty of prayers about what I think, what I want, what I need. What I think I want or need. But God didn’t make only me, and, even curiouser, I am not the only person on the campus, either. So self-absorbed I can easily become, that it seems quite odd that God could have sent me where He did, when He did, not because of me. I could have the teacher I have, not because I need the teacher, but because the teacher needs me as a student.

One might think this idea could have crossed my mind before–or at the very least, that I would not be so caught off guard by it. No; it is a testament to my narrow-mindedness that I have been much more busy thinking “Dear God, please have mercy on me in the teachers that you send my way” instead of recognizing that there could be teachers He is having mercy on.

Those who know how very frustrated I can and do get with certain teachers are probably thinking that my teachers do need prayers for mercy shown them; well, I don’t blame you (that is another can of words, my friends, and a topic not to be addressed at already 10pm and 13,000 words. A little focus is needed, here). What I have been struck with in the last few weeks, though, is the utter discouragement of my physics professor. He seems to have such a desire to teach and to be making such an effort to teach–and it is seeming to be so lacking in effecaciousness and so utterly vain. His posture, his voice, his expression–all of it speaks of being so weary of fighting this battle.

I have seen it all change, in flashes, in bits and pieces, glimpses here and there that go by so quickly that it only increases the wonder of having seen it at all. Did you see what you thought you saw? That flash of light across the heavens? It was unmistakable, what you saw, but it’s gone already. I haven’t been often able to put into words what it is that I see, and yet it lodges within me like the words of my co-worker 4 years ago. I wasn’t sure what what it was, when he said of course he remembered me. I was totally caught off guard by the evident relief and–was it pride?–in his voice when he said that my exam was the last one he’d gotten in his hands, but the first one he’d graded–and that I’d done quite well.

I kept trying to find the words for it, and I would draw up blank, set the matter aside–and then come back to it again. It wasn’t until last Friday that I finally realized what I was seeing. I told him that I’d taken him up on his recommendation to be a tutor for one of his other classes with many struggling students, and now–there was more of a spring in his step, he was standing a little straighter, his eyes were a little brighter, there was more of smile on his face. He had the demeanor of a man who’s had a weight lifted off his shoulders, and the realization was so sudden I lost my train of thought and had to start my sentence over. This teacher is nearly at the end of his rope.

That seemed so much like the role of a student, not the teacher–but then, when had I considered what it was like to try to reach row after blank row of students? It never occurred to me that God could look down and say, “Oh, teacher, you need the encouragement of a student who actually wants to learn. I will send one.” Not Just a student; the one He sent. Or say, “Oh, teacher, you need someone to help you bridge the chasm between you and your students who say, ‘you can tell he wants to help you learn and that he’s trying to help you and trying to be accommodating, but he can’t explain things to you, because he’s just too smart!'” That’s what she said, when she came to me for help on Friday, and I laughed, only because I could see the picture so clearly in my minds eye. Her, floundering, overwhelmed; him, aware she was drowning but struggling to find any possible way to make it any simpler than he already had. Both of them, frustrated.

It’s a rather odd sensation when you realize that while you’ve been preoccupied about one thing, God has been merrily going about something else in a steady sort of a way without you ever realizing. It makes you just a tad more aware of how unaware you are. I certainly did not return to school with the intent of finding professors to help; indeed, the idea never crossed my mind. But I walked off of campus on Friday thinking, with some wonder, that I really am not Just a student. Not because of me, but because God has been busy scheming things I didn’t know needed to be schemed. I was looking for work, not art. He was saying they were one and the same, and He had every intention of making something beautiful here. The “just-ness” that I was clinging too was dissipating in the face of design of God, who created rocks and trees and me; who set course for the water, the path of flight for the birds, and me, here. It could not be “Just” when it was God who ordained it.

I can neither dismiss the work of The Artist, nor undo it. If I stop and consider, I may catch of a glimpse of the colors He is painting out through me, and in that is joy. And hope. And beauty.

The Making Of The World

Sometimes, when I get to thinking, I think about the making of the world. Of what’s under the hood and what can be designed and planned for and what can’t.

Like planning cities, for example. It sounds so very interesting, and then it makes my head hurt too badly, and I have to stop thinking about it. As a little aside at the end of the last class, my physics teacher threw something out there about a Mexico City earthquake and how the mid-range height buildings (like hospitals) were completely devastated, worse than the tallest buildings or the shortest buildings; he explained the physical reason behind it (which made my head hurt), but mostly cautioned that you have to plan about these things. How confounding. So many things to plan for.

I categorize peoples’ styles. I step into their house or apartment, and I take a visual snapshot of the inside of their head. I look around my living space and wonder if I’m representing who I am, and if I’m not, what should I do instead? We build ourselves by accident, mostly. I walk through stores, and I look for people. Abby needs that mug; Marianne would love that clock. The cake platter would be in my kitchen, if I had my own kitchen. I don’t see things, because things break and wear out. I see stories, and pictures of homes, growing up around objects.

We talk about technology, and what is changing and what is not. I say technology is just a tool to get you where you want to go; and then people ask me where I want to go. It’s a good question, but I don’t see where it could take me that I want to go. I want to work with my hands. I want feel things–sound deep inside my chest, taste every ingredient in my food, colors without the luminous glow of a screen. Technology can do my laundry, maybe.

I think about genres, about scenes and setting throughout time. Some people decide they don’t like the scene and setting they’re in, and they mimic a different one–a different time, a different style. Why? What do they not like about their current setting that they think they’ve found a solution to in their pretend world? If I made an alter ego, who would she be and why?

I hear a lot of people say we need to live more simply, or it was a more simple time. I wonder what they think changed, or what feels complicated to them–but I know what they mean, too, when I make simple food. It’s more satisfying. But what would you get rid of, to make it simple? I heard another story–I’m sure there are many–of a woman who sold almost all of her belongings and spent a year living out of her car, driving around the nation. She wanted to see what she really needed, I guess. I’m no good at playing those games, because there’s so little you really need. What would you want the most to keep with you is a different question than what you need.

Somebody else talked about how in his writing class, he makes everyone go through their pockets and bags and wallets, or if they’re so horrible as to not carry things around with them, their memories of the things they have on windowsills and desks. Then he makes them choose the most irreplaceable thing, and write about it and what it means to them. I thought about it briefly and felt very odd that I couldn’t answer it. I don’t carry anything around with me, except for replaceable things. The irreplaceable things–family photos, projects I spent years working on–can’t be carried with me. If you got rid of those things and I never knew it, would I notice? So many things tucked away for safe keeping; but it is it bad I don’t have meaning in the small things?

I went down for an almost week long trip, and I took a plane. I packed everything in a carry on bag and an over-head piece of luggage. It was plenty livable; I would miss having my own kitchen and my own bed, and if I was going to do it for long, I would have to find some way of bringing along my creativity. My sewing machine and my keyboard were investments for me that I hoped would last me a huge portion of my life. I paid more for my car, of course, and it will need to be replaced sooner.

I’ve started a stone wall out by my garden. I love stone walls. I don’t know how meaningful that stone wall will be for me, but I need to build it, so I can build other stone walls–more and more. I need to put making stone walls inside of me, so I can always make them wherever I go. I feel sad when I see good architecture, old architecture–falling away to time. Who will make the beautiful things now? Are we loosing them all? How do you make beautiful things? I want to make the beautiful things that people want to hold onto.

Staring around my grandmothers house, I see her hand everywhere. I don’t agree with her style or her taste, but I see her hands. I think about houses, and I wonder how many people live in them, and I wonder what that means. What is living? Is it worth the time it takes to have your fingerprints on everything? If you’re living, will you have something meaningful crammed into your purse? Someone once said that she always carried around a little bottle of bubble soap in her purse, to blow bubbles with. I loved the whimsy of that; I almost wanted to go out and buy bubbles for my purse. But I would never use them, and I know that, and it makes me kind of sad. I put band-aids and safety pins in my purse, but I never use them, either. Just my wallet, phone and keys, mostly. And a pen and a piece of paper and a small tape measure.

There’s a tree that’s fallen down, just across the road, and I wonder why. God started a tree and then smote it. He destroyed the Moabites, and it grieved Him. He loves His creation, even the tree that fell across the road. The world and the history it contains–He planned it all. All of it. He created a hole in this history and creation shaped just like me, and made me to fill it, and I don’t understand that, either, any more than the tree.

In our makings and shapings, we do reveal ourselves and what we value. God did, too, and we’re a testimony to his presence as much as the fake flower wrapped around my grandmother’s curtains reveals her. Sometimes it seems like an impossible burden; how could God ever be reflected in me? The only answer I’ve found so far is to delight in His creative vision, in the hole in history He shaped for me.

To stop walking by when the old lady by the side of the road wants to talk. To wear striped shoes, and to sit in front of the physics class, making eye contact with the teacher and trying to understand. To paint bad paintings and take pictures of broccoli. To let a duckling hide in my hair, and to sing songs about the Moon River, and to drink water out of a glass pitcher. To paint my bedroom green and the bathroom yellow and forget to make my bed. To write, even when no one is listening, and smile at the people who walk by you in the library, even when you don’t know them. To feel silent and invisible and to leave your mark on every thing you touch.

“We are, we are the visible invisible
We are the flesh and bone
Of Your redeeming love
We are, we are Your kingdom unshakeable
Jesus Christ alive in us
The visible invisible. . .”

More Than Rubies, Visible Invisible.

Yes or No?

Yesterday I read a lot of posts from people on the Mercy Ship writing about Selection Day–a day where they tell as many people as possible ‘Yes’ and an alarmingly huge number of people ‘No.’

I don’t get all in fits of “eek, eek, how could you live in Africa? On a ship?” But I can’t possibly imagine how a human could survive crushing so many people in one day, saying “no” over and over and over again. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t. I would break down half-way through the day–sooner, more likely–and abandon my post in tears and someone else would have to take over for me.

It bothers me a lot.

I went to bed last night thinking about it. I finally blurted out, “God, how can You say no? All those people–and so many turned away because there was no more time, and You knew that and You let them stand in lines for hours with hope You knew wouldn’t be filled. How can You say no?”

“I don’t say No, I say Yes,” was blurted back into my mind.

I don’t understand.

What is better than that? Why was it allowed for some of them and not for others? It sure looks like You say Yes and No. They say there’s no partiality with You, but then, what is this?

The truth is that God’s will is best. The truth is that He alone knows what best is. The truth is that He is a loving God, and looks down on His creation with mercy–mercy enough He sacrificed His own son, made the Innocent One tormented for guilt not His own. The truth is He is right, and true, and consistent.

But it doesn’t look like it, and if that’s not faith, I don’t know what is.