Belief, Spiritual Formation

When mountains loom large but faith trickles slow

Narnia

I had thought that my doubts were spectacular obstacles to my faith and was confused but intrigued when an old monk blithely stated that doubt is merely the seed of faith, a sign that faith is alive and ready to grow. I am grateful now for his wisdom and grateful to the community for teaching me about the power of liturgy. They seemed to believe that if I just kept coming back to worship, kept coming home, things would eventuallyfall into place. – Kathleen Norris

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Our Sunday began with a hike to a waterfall at the top of a local mountain. When we arrived at the base of the trail, we quickly realized we would be hiking straight uphill in a local wind tunnel with 50-60 mph winds. Like any sensible non-hiker, I immediately suggested we head back down, but all the other crazies (a.k.a. my family and best friends) thought it sounded like a memory-making experience, so away we went.

With hair flailing and dust in our face, we trod one foot in front of another up and up and up.

And up some more.

The younger kids wrapped arms around each other, shielding themselves from the dust walls while discussing which Hobbit character they were. We shared sunglasses to keep the dirt out of our eyes, tightened our hoods, and paused to catch our breath more than a few times. When we made finally it to the top, the waterfall did not disappoint. The trees provided a respite from the winds for the playful among us to climb on the rocks and jump in the stream. They became a momentary refuge under which we paused to speak the things that matter – sharing stories, perseverance in hard times, anticipating beauty even when we couldn’t quite see it yet.

Even though I never enjoy the active process of it, I learn a lot when I climb a mountain. Usually the last person huffing-and-puffing my way up the path, I’ve been known to feel slightly resentful toward the zippy people in the front of the pack who lead the way. It’s hard for me when their strength highlights my weakness. Yet this climb was different. I still brought up the rear, but with a different kind of fortitude than previous treks. At one point, I put my head down, leaned into the wind, and told myself, “Just keep going.”

It was like my own little sermon on that gusty Sunday morning.

I’m slow at faith, and the older I grow, the slower my faith sometimes seems. As a result, it can be easy for me to feel spiritually weak when compared to the faith-filled-but-overwhelming-Jesus enthusiasts whose faith drips off their chins. When I come to Jesus, I often bring equal parts of doubt and faith. Yet as I climb more of my own mountains of faith, I find a steadying strength in taking the journey one step at a time, especially in those moments when the wind feels it might blow me completely off the mountain.

 

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Belief

Lenses of a Faithful Follower

It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt. — Fyodor Dostoyevski

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I do not often feel full of faith. As a matter of fact, I am far more frequently filled with questions of hows and whys and whens and what ifs. I have known those who walk away from faith in the face of such seeming unbelief. I, too, have had my moments wondering if my lack of belief equated an insurmountable lack of faith. When I reflect on what I have found faith to be, however, I am astounded by how much more there is to being a faithful follower of Christ than merely belief.

What creates a faithful follower? I ponder in the margins of my days. Is it unwavering belief? Unquenchable joy? Overwhelming emotion? While I have frequently seen these experiences defined as faith, none of them are especially familiar to the ever-so-rational-and-logical me. Some days, this leaves me concluding that surely I hold no faith within. Other days, however, I wonder at the full-bodied nature that this faith thing might actually entail.

Indeed, belief, joy, emotion are significant components of faith, ones that the rational-and-logical should not easily dismiss, but to view faith solely through these lenses is an incomplete understanding. When I consider how my faith has grown, there is wide array of lenses through which I see it in my life:

Steadiness. Musician Josh Garrel‘s song Farther Along explores the realities of doubt, belief, wonder and mystery:

Tempted and tried, I wondered why
The good man died, the bad man thrives
And Jesus cries because he loves em’ both
We’re all cast-aways in need of ropes
Hangin’ on by the last threads of our hope
In a house of mirrors full of smoke
Confusing illusions I’ve seen

As I listened one day, I noticed that the song begins with an organ chord that is sustained in the background – without ever resting – throughout the whole song. It struck me as the perfect metaphor for God’s constancy – always there, steadily playing in the background while we create all sorts of other noise in our attempts to understand. Listen for yourself:

God’s steady presence in life leaves me asking how my faith could mirror the same. How can I be a faithful friend? spouse? parent? colleague? Through pursuing such steadiness, I’m reminded how my faith flourishes.

Tolerance for ambiguity. Perhaps one of the most striking realizations I have had in life is that I am not God. I suspect some of you are now thinking, “Wow, she’s a little dense.” You’re probably right, but humor me while I explain further.

Hard things that I do not fully understand happen on a regular basis. They are large things – war, natural disaster, senseless violence, human corruption, destructive disease. But they are also small things that touch my life far more frequently than the large things – struggles finding a satisfying job, dear friends moving away, marriages fighting to thrive, children with hard-questions or strong-wills.

I struggle most with belief when I think that I’m actually capable of understanding completely. Recognizing that the ability to fully understand is beyond my mind’s grasp – in other words, accepting that I am not God – helps me trust a Creator who understands what I do not.

I saw this recently in a conversation with our 11 year old daughter. We were attempting to explain our reasoning on a certain decision that she disagreed with. Between adults, I’ll share that this decision was influenced by things adults understand far better than kids – sticky things like people being power-hungry, manipulative, and passive aggressive. However, we simply could not explain these things to her because she wouldn’t fully understand.

“We’re not telling you the whole story on purpose,” we told her. “It’s too much for you and would overwhelm you because you wouldn’t be able to understand it all. Just trust us – one day you will understand.”

I grinned to hear myself repeating the same exact conversation I’ve had so many times with my Father-in-heaven. Just wait, says the Father-God who knows I couldn’t possibly understand completely. It’s ok not to know everything right now. Trust me.

Humility. It is out of this tolerance for the unknown that humility grows in my life. I awake after a night of tossing and turning about those-freaking-teenagers and my heart says, “This is where you have placed me. I will lean into this because it is what you have given.”

I miss the immigrants, the college students, the big ideas, the stimulating conversations, the quiet offices of my former career, but it is not where I am. Humility sinks deep as I accept the reality that what-I-think-I-want may not be what-should-be. This, too, is faith.

Dignity. The internet has spent the week marveling at the final days of Kara Tippett, the 38-year-old mother of four who has taught us all remarkable lessons about joy in suffering. “The only way to ever really die with dignity,” wrote Ann Voskamp, “is to have lived with dignity. It’s our living well that determines our dying well.”

Tears slide at these words for I know this is my end goal in spite of all the distractions that get in the way – a life of quiet dignity, of loving well, of living deep, and of holding fiercely to hope that lies beyond the grave.

Connection to others. I just spent the weekend with deep-and-old friends, the kind who know you all the way back to your stupid-days and have loved you for decades anyway. We don’t see each other like we used to anymore – our lives are now filled-to-the-brim with studies and careers and families and dogs and neighbors. Yet we had the gift of pausing to sit with one other for a few days, to ask endless questions, to walk alongside one another by the sea and to listen intently to the ups and downs of the years.

While I mourn that we don’t share our daily lives anymore, I rejoice that the connection remains, that there are spaces in the world where I am known, and that who I am is valuable to others. Having moved 7 times in 14 years means that it takes some effort to make these connections, but I am reminded of the restoration they bring to my faith every time I do. Being with soul-friends reconnects me to faith because I am able to tell my whole story to them and they hold that naked soul with gentle hands.

Gratefulness.  I paused in the shadow of the foothills this morning after dropping my kids to school. As the days go, there is always noise tumbling through my head – a worry-here and a to-do-list-there. The mountains though, they sit steady. I whisper a thank you for this steadiness before me and it calms my spirit. From there, I spend my morning noticing all the little moments I am grateful for – a walk with a friend, the warmth of home, a soft-hearted husband, curious kids, kind strangers, loving parents, a healthy body, food in my cupboards. When my eyes are turned toward goodness, the list never ends.

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Living out faith through these lenses right sizes my doubts, allowing them to walk alongside each other rather than completely dismissing all the ways that I do practice faith. It leaves even the skeptic in me humming the quiet hosana of a faithful follower.

He leadeth me: O blessed thought!
O words with heavenly comfort fraught!
Whate’er I do, where’er I be,
still ’tis God’s hand that leadeth me.

Refrain:
He leadeth me, he leadeth me;
by his own hand he leadeth me:
his faithful follower I would be,
for by his hand he leadeth me.

Sometimes mid scenes of deepest gloom,
sometimes where Eden’s flowers bloom,
by waters calm, o’er troubled sea,
still ’tis God’s hand that leadeth me.

Lord, I would clasp thy hand in mine,
nor ever murmur nor repine;
content, whatever lot I see,
since ’tis my God that leadeth me.

And when my task on earth is done,
when, by thy grace, the victory’s won,
e’en death’s cold wave I will not flee,
since God through Jordan leadeth me.

Belief, Spiritual Formation

When what you thought would happen doesn’t

Holiness

One of the great joys of working with young people is hearing their dreams.

“I’m going to be an artist.”
“I’ll be a basketball star.”
“I want to travel the world.”
“I’ll be a famous musician.”

Youth can have such hope. The challenge for the older and wiser in their lives, however, is helping them develop the character to maintain their hope if their dreams don’t pan out. I’m forever grateful for the models in my own life who have helped me learn this lesson for it, too, has been a series of dreams, readjusted.

I went to the college of my dreams. I thought it would be the highlight of my life – four years rich with faith and fun in a thriving community. Instead, those years grew dark. Faith walked out the door and the “thriving community” felt a whole lot more like “brainless group-think” to my skeptical soul.

I married the man of my dreams. Deep down, I expected our marriage would be a candlelit-fairytale-just-like-the-movies. Instead, we stumbled over ourselves painfully in our early years of marriage.

We moved to the east coast when we got married. We thought we’d be there a year or two before heading overseas to live-and-save-the-world. Instead, those doors shut and we got a crash course in learning to save ourselves.

Dreams die hard, and even with doors clearly shut, we hoped and pursued overseas work again.  Instead, we landed in a Midwestern cornfield.

I planned to stay home with our young kids. My own mom had been home when we were young and it seemed like a path I would enjoy. Instead, I nearly lost my mind from diapers and tantrums and I found a job-outside-the-house just to maintain some measure of sanity.

I grew to love my-job-outside-the-house. It was life-giving and perfect for me. I thought I’d found a lifelong career path. Instead, our family needs grew more important than my career ones and I walked away.

I wish I could say that each one of these changes-in-plan came with a steady faith and assurance of God’s guidance in my life. That is not, however, the case. With every instead also came moments of confused and desperate questions like Where are you, God? and Why me?  As time passed, I began to see a bigger picture, but in the midst of the little-moments, I could see nothing but the very next step.

During one of the more difficult insteads years ago, a soul-friend encouraged me to write a letter to God with my honest feelings, not the ones I thought I was supposed to have. After detailing the injustices I’d felt, I ended my letter with these words:

In Your mystery, You were gracious to me. At least, this is what I tell myself. But that’s not what I really feel. What I really feel is resentment toward you for what is happening. I’m angry that you didn’t lead me to a different way. I’m bitter that you let the water boil over to burn me, leaving my soul blistered and raw. I’m ashamed that I am not the perfect little child I’d chalked myself up to be. I’m grieving the life that I had so glorified and dreading the life that you are preparing for me.

I feel a little guilty that I don’t have the ‘right’ attitude about this. But I’ve spent far too long faking it, and can’t muster up even one more mask. I doubt it would do much good anyway. What I’m looking for now, father-god, is the real thing. I feel like I’ve been slowly shedding the fake stuff for years now, and am desperate for the real.

So here I am, my blistered, raw and aching soul ripped wide open.

Do with me as you will.

Through quiet tears, I read the letter aloud to my soul-friend. When I finished, she gave me words that I will carry in my heart forever, “I’ve just witnessed a holy moment.”

It was the breaking of the dam for me, the first moment when I saw that holiness is not merely doing-the-right-things but rather living-fully-into-what-is. I look back now and see that the insteads were deeply holy years, ripe with moments that stripped me of all notions of what I thought should be and gave me the gift of living into what actually is.

Truth is, the insteads will always be part of life. Whether dramatic-and-life-changing or small-and-seemingly-insignificant, my well-constructed plan may not always be the one that actually goes into effect.

The relationship will be hard.

The job will not go smoothly.

The dog will try to eat the tortoise.

The move will be lonely.

The children will make broken choices.

While these years don’t hold near the drama or angst of my twenties, I find them equally intense, filled to the brim with holy-and-breathtaking-moments that I don’t notice as often as I should. As life tumbles day after day into a series of completing to-do lists, pursuing long-term goals, navigating career choices, guiding little-souls and deepening friendships, the holy moments feel far more like holy days, holy weeks, holy years. And very few of those moments are happening exactly-how-I-thought-they-would, thank God. (Who knows where I’d be left entirely to my own devices?!?)

When what you thought would happen doesn’t, everything shifts. Questions surface. Anxieties bubble. Hope teeters. This is when the holy begins, for it is in the moments where our grip is loose enough for our fingers to actually let go that we begin to grasp the real meaning of faith. While the moments don’t feel particularly holy, they require a level of honesty, courage, hope, perseverance and wisdom that I had no idea how much I needed when I tearfully whispered those words that broke open the holy-moments, “Do with me as you will.”


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Belief, Spiritual Formation

When practicing creativity doesn’t feel much like creating art

It is finally Saturday, and in the slow, I sit with these long-loved questions from Annie Dillard’s classic Holy the Firm:

What can any artist set on fire but his world? What can any people bring to the altar but all it has ever owned in the thin towns or over the desolate plains? What can an artist use but materials, such as they are? What can he light but the short string of his gut, and when that’s burnt out, any muck ready to hand?

I don’t feel much like an artist anymore – this quiet soul returning to the noise of the teenagers and desks and hallways and lunch periods. My feet feel like clay. My voice rasps. My back begs for relief.

Where is the art in the nitty-gritty day-to-day of the classroom? I wonder. The materials I’m working with are attitudes and hormones and distractedness and way-too-much-chatting. It feels reminiscent to the first time I threw clay on a wheel, feebly attempting to shape it into something useful. It had a mind of its own and my hands had no clue how to shape it. Returning to the adolescent classroom after a decade away feels much the same way.

I come back to sit again with Annie’s words:

[The artists’s] face is flame like a seraph’s, lighting the kingdom of God for the people to see; his life goes up in the works; his feet are waxen and salt. He is holy and he is firm, spanning all the long gap with the length of his love, in flawed imitation of Christ on the cross stretched both ways unbroken and thorned. So must the work be also, in touch with, in touch with, in touch with; spanning the gap, from here to eternity, home.

My life – it is aflame, I muse. It is certainly ‘up in the works’. This artist’s waxen and oh-so-flawed feet are on the move once again, stumbling over themselves as they learn a new way. I miss my kind and grateful immigrant-students. I do not yet understand these loud teenager-ones.

I breathe deep and slow, knowing that these steps, too, are holy and firm, spanning long gaps filled with depths of flawed, broken, but redeemed love. This, too, in all of its gritty mundane, is the kingdom of God, needing lit for the people to see. The raw material in this new phase is no less than any other path I have walked. It may, in fact, be even more given the nature of adolescents.

“You’re better than this,” I say to the boy-too-cool-for-school quietly in the hall. “I see so much more than what you let on. You’re a leader, talented and overflowing with potential. Don’t hide it just to impress others. That’s no way to live.”

I know he hears me. I don’t know if it will change him for today, but I can only hope it sinks in by tomorrow. I realize as I speak to him that he’s not the only raw material I’m working with.

The creativity needed to span the gap of my own flaws shows up far more than I’d like in times of transition. It calls me to be an artist with my own self, to bring my thin and desolate places to the altar and lay them down, trusting that even in the gaps, there is a holy and firm place to stand.


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Belief, Restoration & Reconciliation

A skeptic falls off her soap box

dillardWhile ultimately my faith sits at the feet of Christ, the steps that got me there were ‘friends’ who took the time to sort out their faith on paper: Phil Yancey, Cornel West, Frederick Buechner, CS Lewis, Anne Lamott, NT Wright.  My heart holds Annie Dillard in a special little corner though, for she was the one who broke the final straw of my resistance to faith.

In her essay The Book of Luke, Annie Dillard captured my reconversion perfectly.  To this day, I cannot read it with dry eyes.  She draws her observations on Luke to a close by describing how it ends with the disciples enthusiastically ‘praising and blessing God,’ moving the fledging church forward.  A skeptic reading her words, I rejoiced at her unexpected critique of the developments that followed Christ’s crucifixion:

“What a pity, that so hard on the heels of Christ come the Christians.  There is no breather.  The disciples turn into early Christians between one rushed verse and another.  What a dismaying pity, that here come the Christians already, flawed to the core, full of wild ideas and hurried self-importance.

Internally, I cheered her on, “Yeah! Those Christians…crazy, arrogant, obsessed.”  She continued her rant:

For who can believe in the Christians?  They are, we know by hindsight, suddenly not at all peripheral.  They set out immediately to take over the world, and they pretty much did it.  They converted emperors, raised armies, lined their pockets with real money, and did evil things large and small, in century after century, including this one.  They are smug and busy, just like us, and who could believe in them?  They are not innocent, they are not shepherds and fishermen in rustic period costume, they are men and women just like us, in polyester.  Who could believe salvation is for these rogues?  That God is for these rogues.

I’d now climbed right up on my own soapbox behind Annie, fully entrenched in my private choruses of “You go, girl!”  She’d hit the nail on the head.  These rogues – they were crazy.  They converted unethically, didn’t think about anything critically, and threw their Bibles around carelessly defending their narrow-minded political causes.

But then – unexpectedly – she inserted the words

Unless, of course – 

I paused my internal pep rally and furrowed my brow, feeling the winds shift slightly,

Unless Christ’s washing the disciples’ feet, their dirty toes, means what it could, possibly, mean: that it is all right to be human. That God knows we are human, and full of evil, all of us, and we are his people anyway, and the sheep of his pasture.

Tears brimmed. I was human, wasn’t I?  I was not merely brain or body or achievement-after-achievement.  Sometimes I stumbled and didn’t know how to get back up.  Sometimes I failed to love those who I claimed I would give my life for.  Sometimes I failed to love myself.

She wasn’t just talking about them; she was talking about me, too.  The breeze shifted again and I read on:

Unless those colorful scamps and scalawags who populate Jesus’ parables were just as evil as we are, and evil in the same lazy, cowardly, and scheming ways. Unless those pure disicples themselves and those watercolor women – who so disconcertingly turned themselves into The Christians overnight – were complex and selfish humans also, who lived in the material world, and whose errors and evils were not pretty but ugly, and had real consequences.  If they were just like us, then Christ’s words to them are addressed to us, in full and merciful knowledge – and we are lost.  There is no place to hide.

We are lost.  There is no place to hide.

Those last words, they undid me permanently for they exposed the truth that every one of us tries to hide from our humanity with our adherence to traditions or non-traditions or skepticisms or fanaticisms.  Plain and simple, we’re not all that different from one another when you strip us straight-down to our skivvies. Underneath the masks we don, we’re all just broken, bumbling, and beautiful creatures, a-little-found and a whole-lot-lost, sitting broken and bare at the feet of the One who made us, whether we know it or not.

Belief, Spiritual Formation

Why I still believe

cross

Sick of endless choruses of ‘Shine, Jesus, Shine’ echoing through my Christian college chapel, I snuck away to a quiet corner of campus with a blanket and my tears. It was my sophomore year and not only had the exciting newness of college worn off, I wasn’t sure where I fit, and my lifelong faith was crumbling beneath me.

I don’t see you shine, God.  Heck, I don’t even know if you’re there at all.  This Bible business makes no freaking sense to me.

A thought bubbled up that I was terrified to admit, but I didn’t have the energy to suppress it any longer.

I don’t want to be a Christian anymore.  I’m tired of this.

I looked around, wondering if I might be instantly struck by lightning, but the only thing that happened was that I felt instant relief.  My sentiment had been a long time coming after years of fighting quiet disappointments, fears, questions, and doubts.  Residing in the midst of Christian college student singing praises to a far away God didn’t help either.  I couldn’t sing with them.  If I joined them at all, I stood silently, hands in my pockets, heart cold.  I’d resolved that I wouldn’t fake it any more, that words were too important to say if I didn’t really mean them.

My only prayer for nearly a year, the only words I could actually sing were these lines from an old hymn:

Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;

I tried on atheism, but found it hollow and meaningless.  I looked into other religions, but found no satisfactory answers to the questions that were nagging at my soul: Where is God when the world hurts?  Why is life so disappointing sometimes?

Growing up in the church, I hadn’t noticed anyone ever highlighting these questions as a critical part of the spiritual journey.  Doubt meant weakness. Faith meant strength.  Left without faith, I curled up in my blanket and cried, feeling lost and alone.

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A chat with a friend asking many of the same questions I asked all those years ago got me thinking.  She’d found a book on the stages of faith development and was intrigued by the premise that many churches only nurture the first three stages of faith which focus on belief, learning, and belonging.  After progressing through these stages, it is common to hit a wall of confusion and unanswered questions.  Many often walk away from faith completely because the church isn’t a welcoming environment to this stage of faith.  Together, my friend and I wondered why Christians are encouraged to live in the shallow stages of faith – ones without questions, doubts, grappling.

“You’ve asked these same questions, but you didn’t walk away,” she observed.  “Why?”

Tears sprung to my eyes as internally, the words from another part of that old hymn echoed quietly within,

Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood.

To be honest, I told her, some of my questions and doubts haven’t ever gone away.  They linger quietly, jumping out suddenly at me from behind tragic situations, social injustices, philosophical dilemmas and unhealed wounds.   But as the years have passed, I’ve discovered ways of walking with God that offer more sustenance than my questions.  These paths are why I’ve stayed, and why I continue to seek life in Jesus even when I don’t fully know all the answers.

Embracing Mystery

“It is unfortunate that evangelicals have quit building sanctuaries and began building auditoriums,” writes Calvin Miller.  “It seems to make a statement about our trading mystery for lectureships.  We were never good at mystery, smoking incense, towering glass rituals, or veiled entreaties…  So we have become the plain, pragmatic people…  We must quit making God a practical deity who exists to help us succeed.

Or, as my brother wittily observes, we need to stop treating the Bible like a Harry Potter spell book.

As an intellectual type who has spent much of my life immersed in analytic and critical thought, one of the hardest truths for me to accept was that I was not God.  I realize this makes me sound a little dense, but it was a life-changing revelation to me.  While much of my previous understanding of faith was rooted in attempts to control outcomes by measuring up spiritually, accepting my powerlessness in a fallen world has humbled me like nothing else.

Acknowledging that God knows, sees, and understands more than I do allows the mystery to intrigue my mind.  It leaves me with curiosity, wondering how I can understand more about who this good and mysterious God is.  Instead of rejecting faith for the lack of answers I find, I am compelled to search more diligently, embracing new questions as opportunities to learn and grow.  The answers rarely come easily or quickly, but when they do, they are both rich and satisfying.

Being Quiet

Much of my previous faith experience was based on noise: prayers, songs, sermons.  While I don’t decry any of these things, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find deep peace through seeking out quiet places. Sometimes, I just need to sit with a scripture, walk out a question, or cry for an unmet longing.  Sitting in quietness allows my soul to settle and root itself in what is firm and unchanging.  I don’t empty my mind as some traditions promote; I just let it be. I don’t force it to think ‘right’ thoughts, push away ‘wrong’ thoughts or even focus on what its ‘supposed’ to. I simply listen for the direction that might come and let my spirit rest.

Walking Humbly

Intellectuals aren’t well known for our humility.  We know a lot, and even if we don’t say it directly, we take great pride in displaying that knowledge.  The danger in this, of course, is that all minds have their limits.

God’s questions to a suffering Job (chapter 39) spoke directly to my pride, for I knew I could not so much as begin to answer any questions like this:

  • Where were you when I created the earth?  
  • Who decided on its size? 
  • Do you know the first thing about death?  

But it was the tender display of love in God’s questions to Job that followed that broke me:

  • Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place?
  • Do you know where Light comes from and where Darkness lives so you can take them by the hand and lead them home when they get lost?
  • Do you know the month when mountain goats give birth?

Beginning to understand this kind of humility helped me see evidences of God in places I’d never seen before: the indescribable connection between lovers, the haunting beauty of classical music, the fascinating complexity of the created order, the fierce devotion of motherly love.  There are no scientific proofs for these sorts of things, but their power over us is undeniable.

Loving Mercy

Sadly, I have known many situations where judgment flowed much more freely than mercy.  These days, I try not to be too hard on such actions for I’ve since learned for myself that judgment is much easier to offer than mercy.  Just watch the news – criticism of others sells. The worse the twerk, the more attention it gets – of course it does, for it lets us feel like we’ve got it waaay more together than the next guy.

Judging others is human.  Mercy, however, is nothing of the sort.

Mercy – when we don’t get what we deserve. It’s not nearly as newsworthy as Jerry Falwell soundbites, but it’s much more deeply Christian.  Learning about unmerited acts of forgiveness within tragic moments of history like apartheid, the civil rights movement and the holocaust disrupted my anger with ‘hypocritical’ Christians. Tales of authentic faith chased me as I tried my best to walk away.  Observing quiet lives, healed and well lived, painted a very different picture of faith than the headlines and the church buildings.

After encountering these stories, I began to see the mark Jesus in every one of them, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” he prayed as they crucified him. Mercy.

The soundbite faith was easier to find, but the merciful faith was far more convincing.  

Living Justly

Raw from both my first exposure to extreme global poverty and my mother surviving cancer, one of my primary intellectual and emotional struggles through my college years became “Where is God in the pain?”  While my faith development had focused rightly on the value of a personal relationship with God, it had not helped me understand a Christian’s role in the kingdom of God past evangelization.  I didn’t understand how someone could grasp a need to know Jesus when they didn’t even have food.  “Bread for myself is a material problem,” Norman Bowie’s observation voiced my internal conflict. “Bread for other people is a spiritual problem.”

The hyper-emphasis on an eternal future in heaven or hell overshadowed the need to live as God’s hands and feet in the story that God is telling here on earth.  In short, a gospel of ‘Jesus-for-sinners’ only didn’t tell the whole story.  It was also a message of ‘Jesus-for-the-hungry’, ‘Jesus-for-the-oppressed’, ‘Jesus-for-the-broken-systems’, and ‘Jesus-for-president‘ (thanks, Shane Claibourne 🙂 )  While my childhood tradition had emphasized that Jesus was for our hearts alone, I was captivated to learn that the Bible speaks to a much broader redemption of our bodies, systems and communities as well.  

As I encountered people living lives of Biblical justice by caring for the poor and the abandoned, advocating for just laws and business practices, and fighting to free the oppressed, their actions spoke loudly of another world, a higher ethic that I could not easily dismiss.  While I questioned the cultural imperialism of the historical missionary movement, I could not deny the goodness that these same Christians created worldwide through networks of hospitals, schools, and relief agencies.

One of our family goals is to live in light of global – not American – reality.  Living in suburban Los Angeles, it is a win-again-lose-again battle.  But the gospel calls us to pursue the path of justice for the least of these, and I’ve grown to understand this path as a vital component of a faith that sustains.

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So yes, I still believe in Jesus – a belief that stems in large part from a shift of an either-or to a both-and faith.

I believe both in spite of the questions that linger and because of the mystery that beckons, “Come and see.”

I believe both in spite of the painful silence that numbs and because of the silent goodness that heals.

I believe both in spite of the pride that lingers in my heart and because of the humility that breaks it.

I believe both in spite of the bleakness of the headlines and because of the mercy that reverberates in the moments that follow them.

I believe both in spite of the brokenness that so often overwhelms and because of the justice that always hopes.

Some may call me crazy, perhaps rightfully so, but the paradox within the Christian faith is no longer a show stopper for me.  It is, in fact, a deeply orthodox part of the Christian faith, one that G.K. Chesterton explains so well in the classic Orthodoxy, “Buddhism is centripetal, but Christianity is centrifugal:  it breaks out.  For the circle is perfect and infinite in its nature;  but it is fixed forever in size;  it can never be larger or smaller.  But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms forever without altering its shape.  Because it has a paradox in its center, it can grow without changing.  The circle returns upon itself and is bound.  The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travelers.”

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