Faith in the Rear View Mirror

Faith in the Rear View Mirror

Throughout the Bible, God’s people are reminded – over and over and over – about all God did for them in the past, and as an encouragement to trust God in the present and future.  For instance, when time came for the Israelites to enter the Promised Land, they feared the Anakites, who were already living there.  Deuteronomy 1:29-33 says,

Don’t be terrified! Don’t be afraid of them!  The Lord your God is going before you. He will fight for you just as he fought for you in Egypt while you watched, and as you saw him do in the desert. Throughout your entire journey, until you reached this very place, the Lord your God has carried you just as a parent carries a child.  But you had no faith in the Lord your God about this matter, even though he went ahead of you, scouting places where you should camp, in fire by night, so you could see the road you were taking, and in cloud during the daytime. (CEB)

In spite of considerable evidence of God’s past faithfulness, the Israelites lacked sufficient faith to face the challenges before them.  And, if I’m honest, I’m exactly the same.

In a general sense, I believe all of the blessings I’ve received in life are gifts from God.  Marriage and family.  Friendship.  Ministry.  Life experiences.  Health.  Security.  Education.

And, in many, more specific ways, I’m keenly aware of the countless ways God has been faithful – more than I can possibly name.  Without a moments hesitation, I can share story after story of God’s particular faithfulness to me.  A quick glance in the rearview mirror of my life reveals God faithfully, consistently, generously present and working, time and again.  In the words of the great hymn…

“Great is thy faithfulness.  Great is thy faithfulness.  Morning by morning, new mercies I see.  All I have needed thy hand hath provided.  Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.”

Looking in the rearview mirror of my life, my faith is strong.  God HAS been faithful.  Even reflecting on past pains and struggles, I can see how God was working.

But, in any given moment – or looking ahead – fear, doubt, and uncertainty often take over.  Hebrews 11:1 says…

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”

But, SEEING makes it SO much easier than hoping for what we don’t see!

So, I doubt.  I worry and fret.  I get scared.  The “what if?” scenarios consume my thoughts, far more than my prayers.  My prayers, themselves, lack the confidence of a man whom God has blessed as much and as often as me.  I possess too little faith, and far too much fear and trembling.

The answer, of course, is surrendering our fears, and to possess more faith.  Wouldn’t it be nice if it was just that easy!?!  In reality, the best most of us can do is NOT act on our fears and doubts; acting instead on the flimsy faith we wish was stronger.  Perhaps, one day, faith will come more automatically.   But, it until it does, “fake it until you make it!”

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, once confessed to a Moravian pastor, Peter Bohler, thoughts of quitting the ministry.  Wesley felt he lacked sufficient faith to preach, thinking, How can you preach to others, who have not faith yourself?”   Bohler’s advice to Wesley was,“By no means.  Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

The truth is, I preach more faith than I actually possess sometimes.  I don’t mean to imply I don’t believe what I teach and preach – I do!  I’m confessing I may lack sufficient faith and courage to act on what I say I believe.  And, frankly, the acting on faith is far more important than the preaching of it!

The good news is, I’m not the first, only, or last to struggle with a meager or wavering faith.  Neither are you.  The Bible is full of weak-faithed servants of God, doing the best they can.  The good news is, we too have faith-filled rearview mirrors to remind us of God’s history of faithfulness, in each of our lives, if we’ll only remember to look back and notice.

But, remember: you can only stare into the rearview mirror for so long.  While it’s helpful to look back from time to time, life consistently moves forward, into the unknown.  The past reveals God’s PAST faithfulness.  The present and future is where we discover God’s continued faithfulness.  NOW and THEN are where we act on faith, whether we have it sufficiently, or not.

So, move forward with faith, even if its scary.  Move forward with faith, even if you don’t have enough.  Act on faith, even when it’s weak.  Then, maybe, we’ll discover what faith really is – confidence in what we hope for, and confidence in God.  We have every reason to believe, and every reason to act, and plenty of evidence to believe God will be faithful.

He was then.  He will be now.

What do you see in your rearview mirror?

 

 

You will see me…

You will see me…

I’m spending this week, away from the office, reading and researching for upcoming sermons and series (hopefully for the entire coming year!).  Among the books I am reading is Desmond and Mpho Tutu’s, Made for Goodness: and Why This Makes All the Difference.  Each chapter ends with a brief, moving meditation.  Though there’s much I could share from Made for Goodness, and will in upcoming sermons, I feel particularly moved to share a portion of a meditation I just read….

When you stop running from the pain

And turn to face it,

When you step into the agony and let it be,

When you can turn to your own suffering and know it by name, 

Then you will see me.

You will see me in the heart of it with you.

It doesn’t matter if your body is wracked by pain

Or your mind is spiraling through the aches and anguish.

When you stop running you will see me.

Though I certainly don’t wish you suffering or pain, both are realities we all face and endure at some point in our lives.  If that day is today, if this is your season of suffering, may you find some comfort and direction in these words.  More – may you find God in your suffering.  May you see God in your suffering.

God is with you.  You’re not alone.

Spiritual Insanity

Spiritual Insanity

I love the world of fantasy films and literature.  Ranging from comic books and movies, to the Arthurian legends, to Harry Potter; I love stories of superpowers, magic, and mythical creatures (especially dragons!).  Though I’m clear about the line between reality and fantasy, I find that an immersive story can blur the lines where the worlds of sorcerers and superheroes feel just as real as this one, at least for a moment.

I’m currently reading Wishsong, the third installment of the Sword of Shannara Trilogy, by Terry Brooks; a series of stories set in the far future, following Great Wars that annihilated the Earth as we know it, and the emergence of a world populated by humans, elves, dwarves, trolls, druids, evil… and magic.  Brooks is an excellent writer and, as with all great fiction, the characters and story-lines begin to feel “real.”

Yesterday, I saw “Avengers: Infinity War” in 3D.  Though I’m a sucker for superhero movies, and have never seen one I didn’t love, this particular movie, in my opinion, crosses new thresholds.  The storyline, cinematography, animation and special effects blended perfectly to create a truly immersive experience that felt like reality.  As 18 Marvel movies preceded “Infinity War,” the characters comprising the Avenger team have, for fans, become personal heroes and friends.  The shocking end of the movie (spoiler alert), for a true fan, felt utterly devastating – even if it’s only a fantasy story.

Then, this morning, I came across an interesting verse of Scripture…

“It is by faith that we understand that the ages were created by a word from God, so that from the invisible the visible world came to be.”  (Hebrews 11:3, New Jerusalem Bible)

The “Study Notes” in my New Jerusalem Bible add, “Creation seen with the human eye of faith reveals ‘unseen reality’: before creation everything real existed in God from whom everything comes.”

For a person of faith, talk of “unseen reality” seems completely reasonable and rationale.  We read passages like this without a nano-second of doubt.  Of course there’s a God.  Of course God created everything.  Of course there are unseen realities.”  But, try to imagine reading those words without faith, and they begin to sound a lot like fantasy.

In 10th grade, I had a teacher that talked about the difference between sanity, insanity, and unsanity.  Sanity, as she described it, is a 100% accurate perception of reality.  Insanity is a completely distorted perception of reality.  Unsanity falls somewhere between sanity and insanity.  She taught that we’re all unsane.  As evidenced by conflicting witness testimonies in court trials, and the vastly contradictory reporting by the news media, we all see “reality” from vastly different perspectives and interpretations.  No one is capable of 100% accuracy.

We’re all unsane – hopefully falling closer to sanity than insanity.  But, we’re unsane, nonetheless!

Saying I enjoy escaping into fantasy movies and literature should sound entirely sane, even if you don’t appreciate the genre.

On the other hand, if I say I believe the Avengers actually exist, in real life, you might think I’m insane, or at least very naive.

But, what do we do with faith?  Where does faith fall on the spectrum of reality and fantasy; sanity, insanity, and unsanity?  After all, to unbelievers, talk of a spiritual world – filled with angels, demons, prophets, and miracles – likely sounds like fantasy.  Belief in an unseen God, who is the invisible source of everything “real,” likely sounds insane!

But, what if Hebrews 11:3 is right?  What if reality includes both the visible and invisible, spiritual and material, ordinary and extraordinary?  What if ignoring or denying unseen spiritual realities is actually insane – a complete distortion of reality?  And, what if, most of us – including believers – spend most of our lives completely out-of touch and out-of-sync with the most important aspects of reality – the unseen and spiritual?

What if denying God, and unseen spiritual realities, is insanity?

What if believing in God, but rarely actually engaging the invisible world of the spirit, is unsanity?

And, what if those who deny the existence of God are actually insane?

I choose sanity.  I choose mystery.  I choose faith in a God I cannot see.  I choose to believe a man named Jesus was the “visible image of the invisible God.”  I choose to believe prayer and contemplation connect me with deeper spiritual realities.  I choose to believe the line between heaven and earth, seen and unseen, is quite “thin.”  I choose to believe that love, compassion, sacrifice, beauty, goodness and “Truth” are far more real than the distorted half-realities this world values so dearly.  I choose to embrace the fullness of reality; including faith and science, seen and unseen, reasonable and unexplainable.  I choose to believe that what I am only able see partially in this life, I will someday clearly see “face to face.”  I choose ALL reality.

I choose spiritual sanity.

So, what about you?  Sane, unsane, or insane?

 

 

God is seldom in charge…

God is seldom in charge…

“I’ve got no strings
So I have fun
I’m not tied up to anyone
They’ve got strings
But you can see
There are no strings on me”

Pinocchio

Of course, God is in charge.  I know God is sovereign, in control of his creation, and his plans will ultimately prevail.

But, I also believe in free will and the freedom God gives us to make our own choices and decisions – either in alignment with his will, or not.  God is NOT a puppet master, controlling our every move.  God let’s us choose, even when our choices are catastrophic.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”

The primary question I’ve wrestled with, since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting has been, “How do I reconcile the belief that God seems to work in the lives of some (including myself), but didn’t get involved in the life of anyone who could have averted Nicholas Cruz from his murderous plans?”  Or, more personally, “How can I believe God leads me, if there’s no evidence of God leading the dozens of ‘authorities’ in Nicholas Cruz’s life, who failed to see his brokenness and intent to do harm?” 

The root of the word “question” is “quest” – “a long or arduous search for something.”  Sometimes, we’re content to just lazily pose questions, without bothering to find the answers.  Not me.  Not this time.  My questions have led me on a difficult, arduous quest for answers.  I’ve sought wise counsel from friends and mentors.  I’ve prayed.  I’ve searched Scripture.  I’ve wrestled with my own beliefs.  I’ve read.  I’ve written, you may have noticed, as a way of processing what I’m thinking and feeling.

Today, I stumbled across the best answer I’ve found thus far, in Richard Rohr’s, Job and the Mystery of Suffering“God is very seldom in charge, it seems to me.  Only in the lives of saints, only in people who know themselves and love the Lord and one another is God possibly in charge.  In the rest of us, God is in charge maybe a few moments a day.”

While I still believe God is ultimately in charge, is it possible God only controls the events of this world to the degree we align our wills to his’?  Is it possible, we can only align ourselves, collectively, with God if we are truly seeking to know his’ will, and live accordingly?  Is it possibly God only controls the events of this world to the degree we relinquish control to him?  Is it possible our individual and collective pride, self-determinism, pettiness, busy-ness, and self-interest make us deaf and blind to much of what God wants us to see, hear, and do?

Could it be the Church’s fault?  Is it possible the Church is failing to shape and form disciples who actively and intentionally “seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33), through listening prayer, through self-surrender, and through sacrificial love and service?

Is it possible God was screaming in the ears of countless guardians, teachers, peers, mentors, investigators, neighbors, and law enforcement that Nickolas Cruz was a lethal bomb about to explode, but no one was listening?  Is it possible God is warning us about the next Nickolas Cruz, but no one is listening now, either?

Why did God allow this to happen?  Why did we allow this to happen!?!

“God is seldom in charge…”  How much more would God be in charge, if we actually wanted him to be?

Wrestling with God

Wrestling with God

Genesis 32 tells the story of Jacob wrestling all night with God.  When the morning came, God said, “You will no longer go by the name Jacob. From now on, your name will be Israel because you have wrestled with God and humanity, and you have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:28)

Of course, Jacob is a patriarch of the nation of Israel, from whom the nation received its name.  The name, Israel, means “wrestles with God.”

Besides the literal event in Genesis 32, isn’t it interesting God named his chosen people, “You will wrestle with me.”  And, Israel did.  God’s people have always wrestled with God.  We still do.

I’ve always enjoyed that little tid-bit.  As a son of the “New Israel,” I’ve appreciated God welcoming our wrestling, rather than squashing us like bugs when we challenge him.  In fact, God seems to initiate the wrestling, as life, and our ability to navigate it, is never easy.

I’ve relished digging at some deep theological question, some perplexing ethical dilemma, or some difficult passage of Scripture.  Even when I’m left dazed and confused, I’ve found the wrestling stimulating, and even enjoyable.

But, right now, I’m tired of wrestling.

A month after the terrible tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I continue to wrestle with questions I’ve never truly wrestled with before.  Even though terrible tragedies happen all of the time, and always have, this one has literally hit much closer to home.  Even though I’ve had neat theological answers in the past, they haven’t been working so easily for me lately.  I haven’t even been directly affected by this tragedy.  Yet, being a pastor in this community, at this moment, I feel an urgency to know what to say.

I don’t.  I’m wrestling.

Why does a good God allow evil and suffering?

If we believe God intervenes in the affairs of this world sometimes, why not this time?

Why does God allow the innocent to suffer?

Is it sufficient to say, “God suffers with us?”

Is it sufficient to say, “Someday, all suffering will end?”

I’m torn between knowing that the answers to such questions exist in the realm of mystery, and needing to know the answers to my questions NOW.  I’m torn between the reasonable theological answers I’ve been taught, and the lack of meaning they have for me at this particular moment.

I’m wrestling.  But, right now, I’m tired of wrestling.

Maybe that’s the point.

Maybe we’re meant to wrestle until we’re worn out.

Maybe we’re meant to wrestle until we can’t wrestle anymore.

Maybe we’re meant to wrestle until we find some kind of peace with the One we are wrestling with.

Maybe…

Until then, as tired as I am, I’ll keep on wrestling, whether I find my answers or not.

 

 

Taming Leviathan: in search of God, and an elusively acceptable explanation for suffering and evil

Taming Leviathan: in search of God, and an elusively acceptable explanation for suffering and evil

Among the ancient cultures referenced in the Christian Old Testament, a mythical sea monster, called “leviathan,” was believed to exist.

Leviathan were believed to be great sea serpents, living in the depths of the oceans, having fearsome teeth, impenetrable skin, and fiery breath.  Nothing conceivable could defeat the Leviathan; neither harpoons, spears, hooks, swords, arrows, or clubs.

“Nothing on earth is its equal— a creature without fear.”  (Job 41:33)

Leviathan falls in the same category of dragons, kraken, the Loch Ness Monster, the Abominable Snowman, and Big Foot; powerful, frightful creatures that never existed, but people have sincerely believed in at different times and places throughout human history.  I can imagine Hagrid, from the Harry Potter novels, keeping a pet leviathan in the lake outside of Hogwarts!  I can imagine a special leviathan episode of the old TV show, “In Search Of,” hosted by Leonard Nimoy.

In biblical times, the leviathan represented the most fearsome creature imaginable on the earth, and a good reason to keep your feet on dry land!  Whether or not leviathan literally existed is irrelevant to Scripture.  In biblical times, leviathan were believed to be real, and thus had significance.

The longest description of leviathan in Scripture is found in Job 41.  The book of Job describes the life of a man named Job, who experienced terrible tragedy, and questioned God’s fairness.  Most believe the book of Job was written to wrestle with the theological question of theodicy – why evil things happen to innocent people.

The Book of Job does NOT tell us why bad things happen to good people.  Instead, Job reveals the error and weaknesses of many of our pathetic theological explanations and rationalizations for why tragedies occur.  In the end, the book of Job simply describes a God that is beyond our ability to define, explain, predict, or control.

Today, I discovered a line in Job I’ve never noticed before.  God asks Job, “Will (a leviathan) make an agreement with you for you to take it as your slave for life?  Can you make a pet of (a leviathan) like a bird or put it on a leash for the young women in your house?” (Job 41:4-5)

In essence, God asks, Who can make the most fearsome creature known to man a house pet?  Who can train a leviathan to walk on a leash?  Who can teach it to sit on your shoulder, like a pet parrot?”  God’s implied answer, “I can.  Only, I can.”

Since the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I’ve been wrestling, a lot, with the question of why God allows evil and suffering the in the world.  Frankly, the comfortable theological explanations I’ve believed and preached in the past, have felt a bit thin, as of late.  Though I haven’t discovered any new explanations I like any better than the old ones, somehow the image of a tamed leviathan sitting on God’s shoulder provides some perspective.

Though leviathan are mythical – especially tamed ones – and the real-life tragedies of this world are definitely not, this image – literal or not – reminds me that God is not defined by my simplistic definitions of good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust, fair and unfair.  Though I still want to believe God is good, right, just and fair, who am I to call “foul” when God doesn’t act on my terms or schedule?

Thomas G. Long, in his book, What Shall We Say?:  Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith, asks, “Do we ultimately want to offer our own scheme of moral order, the very one we employ to determine that some human suffering is unjust, as a replacement for God?  Do we want in other words, to be God, or are we willing to move toward being the kind of human being who, even in the midst of inexplicable pain, trusts the One who is God?”

I love the contrast of Job 41:8, If you lay a hand on (a leviathan), you will remember the struggle and never do it again!” versus the image of God taming a leviathan to be a house pet.  Though it doesn’t explain “unfair” human suffering to my satisfaction, and though I can’t comprehend why a leviathan-training-God can’t or won’t intervene in human tragedies, and though leviathan aren’t even real, I sense that God is saying, “I’ve got this.  Even when evil things happen, even when the darkness seems to rule the day, even when you doubt me, I’ve got this.  You can trust me.”

Perhaps we aren’t suppose to trust God AFTER we understand why bad things happen, which we likely never will.  Perhaps, we have to trust God first, to find peace in our inability to understand.  Of course, that doesn’t make tragedy “ok.”  Perhaps it helps me to be more “ok” with God, even when I’m devastated, and can’t begin to understand.

If God can tame the one who, makes the depths churn like a boiling caldron and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment…” (Job 41:31), perhaps he is greater than the sum of our real world tragedies too.

 

What follows your “but”?

What follows your “but”?

Somewhere, along the way, I started thinking of the word “but” as an erasure.  Add “but” to any statement, and everything before it disappears…

“I think you’re really great, but...”

“I really appreciate the gesture, but…”

“Thanks for the kind offer, but…”

“I know you didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, but…”

“I’m sorry, but…”

Often, as soon as the “but” shows up, you know the jab is coming…

“…, but you’re just not my type.”

“…, but it’s just not good enough.”

“…, but I’m not interested.”

“… but I think you’re a jerk.”

“… but you deserved it.”

Etc., etc., etc.  “But” always seems to be followed by criticism, complaint, or rejection.

I need to confess, I’ve been saying a lot of “but” prayers lately.

“Lord, I know you are good, but…”

“Lord, I know you are in control, but…”

“Lord, I know I should trust you, but…”

It occurred to me, this morning, that the Biblical writers often reversed the “but.”  Often, in Scripture, the “but” follows the negative, instead of the positive.  Throughout the Psalms, for example, the negative precedes the “but,” followed by hope and trust in God…

“My enemy will say, ‘I have overcome him,’ and my foes will rejoice when I fall.  But I trust in your unfailing love.” (Psalm 13:4-5)

“Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)

“For I hear many whispering, ‘Terror on every side!’  They conspire against me and plot to take my life.  But I trust in you, Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.'” (Psalm 31:13-14)

“Many are the woes of the wicked, but the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the one who trusts in him.” (Psalm 32:10)

“My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”  (Psalm 73:26)

I’ve always appreciated that Scripture allows for lament.  Lament is a raw, honest, human form of prayer.  Lament cries out to God in anger, pain, anguish and despair.  Lament, often, is a complaint to God, against God, about perceived unfairness.  Lament, sometimes, even blames God for the complaint.

There are times, we all need to lament.  I’m thankful God is graciously willing and able to receive our laments, even when they are less than kind, respectful, or faith-filled, without holding our complaints against us.

In the wake of recent events, I’ve been lamenting a lot.  “But,” my laments have been mostly ranting and raving, without a lot of faith or hope.  What my laments have been missing is the properly placed “but.”

“…, but I will trust in you.”