Friday, October 14, 2016

Cloud of Unkowing

In the late 14 century an anonymous monk in England wrote a book called Cloud of Unkowing.  Its premise, the way I understand it, is that true faith brings with it - and rests on - pure, emotional love for God.

"But no man can think of God Himself. Because He can certainly be loved, but not thought. He can be taken and held by love, but not by thought.", he writes.

When push comes to shove, when a leisurely Bible study becomes impossible because life is just too hard and when a cup of coffee with friends is no longer enough, my love for God is all I have. It is that love that will protect my faith in hard times, and it is that love that will allow God to reach my heart and be there... not as some spiritual, cosmic, out-there entity but as the living, real and tangible Christ. My friend, my protector, my guide, my love.

"Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10) takes on a whole new meaning. It is not about me taking the time to pray, and it is not about me being still enough for God to answer me. Prayer is not a to-do list from me to God, nor is it the means for God to hand me His to-do list in return. Being still and knowing that He is God means to stop thinking, stop analyzing, stop asking, stop searching, stop quoting Scripture, stop singing... stop using words altogether. Speechless love. "He can be taken and held my love, but not by thought." Stop thinking, start feeling.

All of this sounds very mystical, I know. It reminds you of the 60s, doesn't it? I was born in '65, too young to catch the groove, and I cannot speak from personal experience. But I do understand what made the 60s so unique: people stopped thinking and acted on emotion instead. Granted, they used drugs to do that - and I am not condoning nor suggesting the use of drugs - but when I  manage to turn  off my brain and just feel, that is when God's magic happens. God's peace, God's love, God's strength, God's courage, God's joy and so much more are available to me if I only shut up and just feel. Try it sometime. It is hard! And if a 14th century monk thought that life got in the way too much, imagine what he would think today. Around-the-clock news coverage, most of it negative, social media, countless ways to stay connected and be reached... when are we ever still?

Faith, per definition, has a component of the supernatural. It cannot be proven, it cannot be explained, it cannot be comprehended. Otherwise it would be fact, not faith. The only way that lets me bridge the gap, the only way I can take that leap of faith is emotional love. Cut that out of the equation and faith will die. When John says, "God is love" (John 4:8) He doesn't only mean that God loves us or that we should love one another. He also means that we can only find God through love. Love for Him, not for His character, not for His power, not for His actions. The minute you start thinking of these things you start thinking in terms of words. Words again... how they get in the way of emotional love.

"But no man can think of God Himself. Because He can certainly be loved but not thought." I told you this was hard.

Back to basics, back to love - personally, as a church, as a country, as the world... don't get me started. If only we could be still and know that He is God. Can you imagine? Can you feel it?

Monday, September 12, 2016

Yo-Yo Faith

I am sure you have heard of yo-yo diets. You may have been on one or two yourself. Let me just state the obvious and get it over with: they do not work! They take you to a temporary high, but ultimately they leave you feeling deflated and discouraged.

Yo-yo faith does the exact same thing.

So God has seen you through a tough time. You have felt His love and provision, and you can't stop singing His praises. And then reality kicks in again, you are busy and preoccupied with a thousand things, and before you know it, the singing stops and the high evaporates. 

You may say, "That is just because of the crazy time we live in. So many demands, so fast-moving, so hectic, and it gets worse the older I get."

Not so. Robert Robinson wrote a hymn about this in 1757, at the tender age of 22.

Come, Thou fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace,
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise,
While the hope of endless glory
Fills my heart with joy and love...

Verse after verse he praises God's grace. And then he throws in this:

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love.
Here's my heart, oh, take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

Yo-yo faith is not an issue of our modern times. It is an issue of our fickle hearts.

The way God takes and seals my heart is by filling it with love for others. No religious fervor, no amount of academic Bible study, not a minute of volunteer hours will tie my heart to Him. They will just keep me busy and feeling good about myself... for a while. Yo-yo faith indeed. Why do you think Christ keeps telling us to love our neighbor, love our brother, love our enemy - and whoever else we can think of, love them too? He doesn't want our hearts on temporary highs followed by periods of deflation and a sense of failure - He can't build His kingdom on so shaky a ground!

Easy as pie, once I figured it out. 

For example, I co-lead a weekly women's Bible study. I prep the lesson, I set up the room, I keep the study running and on target. But I know for sure that the only way for my faith to be visible to the group is through my love, not my Bible knowledge, not my personality, not my table runners, not my prayer emails. Are the women in the group in my heart, truly and consistently? If so, I am close to Christ. If not, my heart wanders off and the farther it goes, the quicker I lose all joy and purpose. 

The difference between "doing it" and "doing it right" is the love that drives me. I go from "prone to wander" to "here's my heart, o, take and seal it" because of that love and compassion. Christ tells us to love one another not just for the benefit of the one on the receiving end. He tells us to love one another because the very act of caring puts our hearts firmly in His hand; the most solid, unchanging, reliable and save hand there is.

As I said, easy as pie. This doesn't mean that I always get it right. But it certainly means that I know how to change course when I don't. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

God's Perpetual Motion Machine

Empty-nesting does wonders for your prayer life. I can't remember the last time I have prayed so much, if ever.

What a crazy summer it has been. There hardly seemed time to breathe. But now there are three empty bedrooms upstairs where noise and chaos used to reign, and I had big plans for doing a whole lot of nothing for a while. Take a few days off and start fresh in a week or two. A week or two? Who was I kidding? My sons' beds were still warm when I started to clean up, wash sheets, vacuum carpet space that hadn't seen the light of day in years and finally - finally! - find the matching pairs in their sock drawers that have eluded me thus far. Missing socks is a mystery I cannot wait to solve.

Withdrawing into inactivity comes as naturally to me as flying does to a fish. Can't do it. And while the Bible is full of verses on hope, trust, faith, and the promise of a perfect ending, I always look for something more tangible, something I can do here and now. It is how I am wired.

For example, I had tendonitis in my arm a little while ago. Months and months of debilitating pain. The doctor said it would heal eventually, all I had to do was wait and be patient. My consternation must have shown clearly because he quickly added that physical therapy and stretching exercises would speed up the process. Now that's more like it! Give me something to do that helps the healing process and I can deal with most anything.

I approach faith the same way. "Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit." (Psalm 51:12)

Salvation, joy and a willing spirt and inseparable for me. Salvation is the basis on which my joy and my willing spirt propel each other forward, so to speak. One leads to the other, in either direction. Joy that comes from faith will overflow into active love for others. Getting out of my potential misery by focusing on the needs of others restores my joy. Back and forth it goes, the perfect perpetual motion machine - which, by the way, does not exist in the world of physics as we understand it today. But it does exist in the world of faith!

Withdrawal is not an option. Asking God to blow on my empty-nester-booboos while I wait for them to heal is only half the picture. Healing cannot be for my benefit only or else the Psalm would end with "Restore to me the joy of your salvation". But it is a willing spirit that upholds me, and a willing spirit is a spirit that obeys... and loves doing it.

So this is Day 1 of my new life, 6 AM, and I am ready. My sons' bedrooms are all set for them to come home at Thanksgiving and I have places to go and things to do. Offer God a willing spirit and He won't waste any time.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Pray - Do - Talk - Trust

I can't remember the last time I have worked so hard on so difficult a question only to come up with so simple an answer. I am not sure whether to be thrilled or deflated.

The question: How do I live my faith completely? What are the components and what is their order? Or, more to the point, when and how do I transition from being Christ's love to being Christ's witness? I focus so much on the washing of feet that I neglect the sharing of Christ. Where should that come in and how does it all fit together?

The answer: Four words. Short, precise, idiot-proof... just the way I like it:


Let me illustrate with the example of my time at hospice.

PRAY: Never, ever do I visit patients without having prayed for them, every single time. I pray that they will see a glimpse of Christ in me so that they recognize Him when they meet Him - and I pray that they will run to Him then, no matter where they stand today.

DO: I simply show up and I stick around. I listen, I laugh, I cry, I read, I hug, I kiss, I feed, I wash. Sometimes I just sit and watch. Whatever it takes and none of it glamorous.

TALK: And then, of course, I talk. I have no problem weaving my faith into my relationships at hospice. They all know I am a Christian. They all know I am there because I am a Christian. Telling about my faith is the easy part, asking about theirs is a bit more tricky. But I have to find the courage to talk to my patients about their faith, not just mine. I have to find the courage to ask what they are scared of and do they want to hear what Christ has to say about that? Some already know, some want to know and some want nothing to do with it... in which case I pray all the harder. Either way, I should assume that they want to hear about Christ and back off if they don't instead of the other, cowardly way around.

Now don't get me wrong, I do not have a savior complex. I do not believe that God's entire plan of salvation rests on my shoulders. Nor do I believe that souls are lost because I fail to ask the right questions at the right time. Which is where the final step comes in:

TRUST:  As our pastor says, God is working on the other side of my obedience. I do my part, He does His - and His is the lion share! He has conquered death, nothing in me believes that He will let any of us die alone. Nothing in me believes that He is not right there, offering a very last shot at eternity with Him. I may not see the how and when, but I trust that He is working on the other side of my obedience. I could not go on otherwise.

In many ways hospice work comes naturally to me. I do not shrink from the pain and loneliness that comes with dying. I do not shrink from the fear and grief that comes with loss. I can wash a broken body and see Christ, not because I am a saint but because I know that He is right there with me. I count on Him to take my flawed and incomplete acts of love and to do something far greater with them.

PRAY - DO - TALK - TRUST... how hard can it be? Yet I tend to focus on the steps I am comfortable with and neglect the ones that scare me. Worse, I polish my halo with the ones that come easy and conveniently forget to mention the ones I fall short on. But if I am to trust Jesus on the other side of my obedience, my obedience has to be complete. Three out of four is not good enough! And really, how hard can it be?

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

You First!

“I’ll jump if you jump!” Have you ever stood at the edge of a pool, wheeling and dealing with a friend? “You first!” “No, you go first!” “Okay then, let’s jump together, on three! One... two... three...” Inevitably one would cheat. One would jump and the other would be standing on dry ground laughing as my blue lips shivered from the cold water. Did I say my blue lips? I can’t seem to hide the scars of my childhood. I was such a rule follower, so straightforward and trusting, I always was the one in the water. Always.

“Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.” (James 5:20).  “You first” God says. And the best part: He won’t cheat.

God loved us first, that is a given. His love surrounds us like the air that we breathe. It is the crystal clear pool we can jump into -  or not, that is our call. It is because of this love that He can now look at us and say, “I’ll jump if you jump, but you go first!”

“Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.” God wants your heart, but He is not going to pry it out of your ice-cold hands. Open your heart and amazing things will happen. Shut your heart and nothing much will happen initially. The sky will not erupt with thunder, the earth will not swallow you whole. You will go on with your life as usual. You may even feel intellectually superior, confident in your own power and smarts to control your destiny.

God will let you stand at the edge of that pool, if that is what you want. He will not force Himself on you. He will not coax, threaten or bribe you into His presence. “You first.” All He wants is for you to draw near, just one step closer to the edge. He doesn’t expect a triple summersault perfectly executed or a powerful canon ball splashing water every which way. No dramatic conversion needed. Just an open and humble heart that searches for Him. The nearer you draw, the nearer He will draw to you. Surrender completely and He will take over in ways you could never imagine standing there by the pool. Have you ever tired to describe the bliss of clean, fresh water hitting your sweaty and exhausted body? No words can ever do it justice, you have to jump in to know.

“I don’t need God” you may say. Well then, God doesn’t need you either. His plan does not depend on you. He'll get done what needs to get done, if not by you then by somebody else.

Of course if you say, “I don’t want God” the picture changes. God wants you! Always, under any circumstance, no matter when, how or why. But let’s not forget that He is God – and you are not. “You first!”

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

French Press

The crown jewel in my kitchen is the coffee maker. A fancy machine of wonders that takes fragrant coffee beans, grinds them fresh for each cup, presses hot water through the grind - no dripping action here! - and out comes the most perfect cup you coffee you will ever taste. Smooth aroma, fragrant, slight foam on top. What a way to start the day.

Above mentioned coffee maker is now leaking and on the verge of complete shut-down, I beg it each morning for just one more cup but one of these days it will send me away empty-handed. 'Be prepared' is my motto and I have dusted off  our old staple, the frech press. Slightly more work than the push of a button, but the coffee is almost as good and there is something therapeutic about the process. And the smell! Nothing, not even my fancy coffee maker, can beat the smell of slowly brewing coffee.

How many times have you read the words "faith is like that" in my blogposts? I equate faith to most everything, even the most mundane. It keeps me grounded and out of spiritual trouble. So here I go: faith is like a french press.

Take the word of God (coffee), let is sit for a while and work in you through prayer, study, discussion, meditation, fellowship or any combination thereof and then gently push it downward from your head to your heart for a strong and fragrant faith. Let is seep too long and it will get bitter, don't let it seep long enough and it will be weak and ineffective.

If I live my faith through my mind, I rob myself of all certainty and joy. The simplest question becomes a stumbling block and before I know it I end up with "well then, why pray?" or "well then, why study?". When I get to that point, it is time to push my faith down to my heart before it becomes unpalatable.

On the other hand, if I don't invest the least bit of brain power, if I don't let God do His work in me,  my faith will never reach its full potential. It may add a bit of color but it won't infuse nor change me. It will be too weak to do what it is meant to do: shake me up and get me going.

I like my faith the way I like my coffee: invigorating, perfectly balanced, fragrant and strong. Just right.

Of course what is "just right" for me may be too strong or too weak for you. I am sure C.S. Lewis let his thoughts seep for a lot longer before he started pushing them down. Children don't even take a second to let anything seep, they are much too busy acting on faith to be analyzing it. I am somewhere in the middle. I don't like to see the bottom of my coffee cup through a muddy-brown liquid but the taste of dark espresso makes me shiver. As long as it does the trick! As long as it gives me comfort and energy at the same time. As long as it works in me the way it should.

And my taste for coffee has changed over the years. I didn't like it at all when I was younger and now I like it stronger and stronger. I may graduate to espresso yet.

Of course the best part of a wonderfully steaming cup of coffee is sharing it. Few things in my week top Friday mornings spent with friends, coffee and prayer. No matter what questions or struggles we bring to the table, by noon on Fridays fellowship, prayer, tears and laughter will have pushed them all down and we end up with cups of perfect faith to see us through another week.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Performance Review

God led the Israelites through the desert for decades. The reason it took so long was only partially due to the distance they had to travel. They also had to conquer tribe after tribe which slowed them down. And then there was the question of their disobedience and an extra few miles added to their journey as  punishment from God. Through all their whining and complaining, God heard their prayers. He performed miracle after miracle on their behalf. He provided for them every step of the way and He told them to build small altars to commemorate His presence in their lives. "Remember how I took care of you then and believe me when I tell you that I will take care of you now!"

This must be the backdrop to the ever-present call to keep a prayer journal. Keep track of answered prayers, they say, it will strengthen your faith.

I haven't kept a prayer journal yet and I don't expect to keep one ever. The depth of my faith is not depended on God's track record, who am I to review His performance in the first place? And if answered prayers deepen my faith, doesn't it follow logically that unanswered prayers weaken it?

To add a dash of humor, I have a kitchen towel that says, "God answers all prayers. Sometime He says yes. Sometimes He says no. But mostly He says, "you gotta be kidding!" Paul writes that half the time we don't even know how to pray, His suggestion is to let the Holy Spirit take over if our hearts are too heavy to find the words. (Romans 8:26) Whether or not we get what we pray for depends in part on the prayer itself. Which makes keeping a record of answered prayer inconclusive to say the least, not to mention that it is potentially unfair to God.

And here is my final point, the winning argument: Jesus teaches us to end our prayers with "thy will be done" - if we do that and mean it, we'll have to check every single prayer as answered. So why bother keeping a list?

I appreciate that Jesus is my friend, but I really appreciate that He is my God. I look at the world I live in, a world my sons' generation is about to take over, and I long for a big God. A powerful God. A God much too awesome for me to ever fully grasp. But instead of reducing Him to a level my mind can understand, I am happy to let Him be so big that only my heart can fathom. You see, to truly understand God is to not understand much and still feel blessed. Such is faith.

Getting what I pray for is an entirely inadequate measure of God's faithfulness and power. It also does not reflect the level of His love for me. God wants us to pray, no doubt, but to keep track of how well He seems to follow through is presumptuous in my book. And heaven help me if He was to sharpen His pencil and keep track of my record!