Neverthless

(First published on: mountainhomecompanion.com/blogspot.com Dec. 4, 2009)

So many hurting people and a faith tradition that I don’t believe answers sufficiently the trials and troubles we face in this life. How is it that our expectations became so distant from the truth of scripture? I have had people tell me that God will step in, that he will heal, that he will change the circumstance, that he will lift us out of trouble. I have puzzled over that for years.

The Bible that I read says that Stephen was stoned, that sometimes a prophet was beaten, imprisoned, stoned, one was sawn in pieces. Most of the apostles were martyred, many of the first century Christians as well–Nero was known for using Christians as torches. Every one that I can think of who was mightily used of God led lives of suffering. Not everyone mentioned in Scripture, but the mighty ones.

How does this mesh with our belief that God is in the business of making our lives okay? Even when our theology disagrees with this belief, our internals are set (at least here in America) for rescue, earthly reward, etc. We buy into the beliefs that all we have to do is work hard, live cleanly, go to church, watch our tongues and try to clean up the behavior of society and our lives will go well. Our careers will flourish, our bank accounts increase and our later years will be easy.

We struggle when people have problems. We struggle when their children go astray, and we find all the reasons why, usually things that blame the parents and make us feel better because, since we are doing everything right, our children will not fall into the same things. We struggle when someone suffers from cancer, or when a friend becomes a young widow and we comfort with the lamest offerings we have–God means it for the best, and God has better things for you, or just look at what God will teach you! We don’t suffer with them, we recoil from their trouble. It messes with our safety. If we acknowledge that these things aren’t the result of their individual failings, or that they aren’t some wonderful path they are on, then we acknowledge that we may have to suffer as well.

We turn from the family who is underemployed when they have to turn to social services for help. Well, they shouldn’t have to go to social services for help. They should be taken care of by the church! The early church did just that. “And there were no needy persons among them.” Read Acts 4.

The thing is, we were promised suffering. We were promised the difficult path. The Joel Osteen’s of the world want you to believe that there is something wrong in that. They deny what scripture teaches and their words make me want to puke! Seriously. They are a vile distortion of scripture.

We are promised suffering. We are promised trials. Not, ohmygosh, I couldn’t find a decent parking space at the mall today kind of trials, but real soul-wrenching, faith-stretching difficulties.

Some of us will have God step in and rearrange the circumstances. He provides some with miraculous healings, some with that tremendous job at just the right time. He provides those Lifetime Movie moments for some. But sometimes (and for me it seems more often than not) he does not intervene. God allows the bad thing. He allows the failures, the loss, the discouragement, the cruelty of others. He allows the loss of possession, the failure of the family or the church, the financial devastation, the job loss, the humiliation of government or charitable assistance. He allows the loss of a precious daughter, that special friend, the husband and provider. He allows a man to walk out on his wife for another woman or for a man. He allows a mother to walk out on her children. He allows parents to abuse their children and children to torment their parents. So very often he does not step in. What then?

Seriously, what then?

If you are a reasonably serious student of scripture I think these things should not surprise us. We should not be surprised by trials of various description. We were promised them. We were promised that the testing of our faith would produce endurance. We were promised the endurance would complete the work. We are promised that we will suffer many things for Christ’s sake.

That’s not what we want. Heck, it’s not what I want. So often I look at others and see God rescue them when he is not rescuing me and I wonder, “why?” It’s not a mildly curious question, it is a gut-wrenching, depth-of-my-soul question.

I used to beat myself up for those questions, and for asking God to deliver me out of my trials when it appeared he wanted me to walk through them. Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane asked to be rescued from his upcoming suffering. He asked over and over in a torment that we are told made him sweat as it were drops of blood. That’s some serious torment. That’s some serious praying. We are told that after hours of this praying–alone, because his friends couldn’t be bothered to stay awake while he is suffering so–he says, ‘nevertheless, not my will but yours.’

And that’s the key. I do not understand suffering. I can’t explain it. I still prefer the miraculous saves. I know God could have stepped in and healed 18-year-old Alyssa even at the moment of her death. He did not. Why? I don’t know. But I know my faith is tested through it.

My faith is not tested when God steps in and does the miraculous Lifetime Movie Moment save. It’s joyous and I celebrate his goodness with everyone else, but God is good when he doesn’t step in, just as he is when he does. God’s love is no less when he elects to allow our suffering than when he elects to lift us out of it.

I need to remember this. My faith is useless unless it can deal with the bad things. It is useless to me and useless to others.

When Uncle Robb was dying of pancreatic cancer, he had been suffering for a long time, but really doing much better than I expected. I visited him one day in one of those moments where I just knew I was supposed to go right then. Things were falling apart. It was a cold snap and the window guys were there replacing the old, drafty windows. He seemed rattled. We were standing in his kitchen. The power snapped off in half of his house (I still don’t understand this one) and it was the half with the furnace. At that moment, he crumpled. I don’t know how I saw it, because his outward posture didn’t change, but I saw it anyway. He said, “I’ve lost hope.” I knew what he meant, and for a change I had the right words.

I reached out and wrapped my arms around him, after all, I knew he was dying from the moment I heard his diagnosis. Don’t ask me how, but I felt that this time God wasn’t stepping in. And there were signs along the way that told me to prepare for his death. Anyway, with my arms around him, I smiled and said, “You haven’t lost hope. You’ve only lost hope for healing in this world. You still have every hope for healing in the next.” Robb died fairly peacefully. He was in hospice around two weeks, and in that time was cheerful and sweet and unfailingly appreciative of everything people did to care for him. He was precious.

I miss him and may never stop missing him. I cannot explain his suffering away. I will not try to. I accept that this was an awful thing. Horrible. Terrible. Many things in life are. I have two friends my age and younger who are suffering from cancer. My neighbor back home is just finishing up her final round of chemo from this bout of cancer (it’s her second.) Alyssa went home to be with the Lord a short time ago, and God has allowed us to lose our house. I cannot explain these things. I cannot explain away or put a happy face on the suffering that my friends are going through.

What I cling to and come back to is that God says he loves us. He says he is good. If I believe anything it is that he is who he says he is and that my understanding of that does not change it. If I need evidence, the cross should be all the evidence I need, but I am weak and sometimes (okay, usually) require more. God being God, there is no shortage of evidence of his might, his power, his glory and his love.

When I get messed up is when I expect God to step in and stop people from doing terrible things to each other. I get messed up when I assume that we are supposed to live a financially successful, disease-free and trouble-free life, or that because God can do something means that he is required to do it–for me.

Let me never try to encourage someone by telling them that God will rescue them. From experience I know that God can and sometimes does rescue us. From experience I also know that sometimes he does not. May I never tell someone that they just need to believe, as if their faith is the issue, not God’s will. When I give false promises, when I tell people that, I am stealing the faith and hope that is real. I deny the truth of scripture.

I hear such nonsense and I want to spit. Ptuey! I was once told that our car breaking down was not “the abundant life that God promised” and that if I had faith it would not happen. “Don’t you believe God loves you?” the prayer line lady asked. I thought of Stephen at that moment. I mean gimme a break. Was Stephen stoned because of a lack of faith? Was it because God did not love him enough? Was Jesus crucified because he wasn’t grasping hold of the abundant life? Or is that faith sad and weak and useless for the reality of life?

Your life and my life will have trials. God may miraculously carry you out of yours. Excellent! God may not. Praise him anyway. He is worthy of praise, not just because of what he does for us day by day, but because of who he is! God may part the Red Sea, or dry the river Jordan, or he may hold us in the midst of the flood. He may rescue us or walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death. He may heal or he may not. Nevertheless, not my will, but his. It was good enough for Jesus.

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Christianity by Plaque

I was listening to a sermon last night and while listening the point really hit home and I remembered a verse that said the same thing. It’s one of those verses I can quote readily. It’s always on my tongue. I started to write an email to someone later relating that verse to the point made, but decided I would look it up, as I could not remember the context. Remember context? It’s kinda important.

II Timothy 2:13 “When we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot disown Himself.” Fantastic, right? Even when I am faithless, when I doubt and do not live in trusting obedience, what happens? God is still faithful. He cannot disown Himself. God cannot act contrary to his nature. His nature is faithful.

That’s awesome, right? It’s all true. Taken as it is, it might be a proof verse for eternal salvation. Taken in context, however, the passage is somewhat disturbing.

You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others. Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer. Similarly, anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules. The hardworking farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops. Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this.

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.

Here is a trustworthy saying:

If we died with him,
we will also live with him;
if we endure,
we will also reign with him.
If we disown him,
he will also disown us;
if we are faithless,
he remains faithful,
for he cannot disown himself.)

Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have departed from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some. Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.”  2 Timothy 2: 1-19 (NIV)

Wow. What is all that about “if we die with him”, “If we endure?” What about this: “If we disown him, he will disown us?” This means we need to dig deeper if we are to understand what this is saying. If we endure, it says, we will reign with him, but it also says if we disown him, he will disown us. That makes me think. That makes me want to dig deeper, to know more, to compare what he is saying to the rest of scripture to try to understand.

I guess my point here is that the verse stands on it’s own, in that it is truth all by itself, but without the context, we might read things into the statement that are not there, or we might miss something huge that is there. The truth I know in this is that God is faithful. He is true to his character and couldn’t be faithless if he tried. That’s a huge aspect of God’s character. That’s wonderful. Praise God that he is faithful through and through. His faithfulness is to all generations.

So let’s search Scripture to see what the rest of the passage means.

Dog-in-a-box

I don’t know why I picked up my cell phone at work, usually I don’t pick up any calls but my husband’s. Today was different, perhaps because I was working sooooooo hard and getting things accomplished without interruption because it was so quiet at work. Two-thirds of the people in my work area were out today, so it felt like I was there alone most of the day.

A hushed voice on the other end of the line said, “…Happy’s remains are back. We’re open ’til 7.” I hung up and started crying. I’ve been doing a fairly good job at pushing away the reality that she is gone. Truly gone. But those words, and even her gentle quiet voice reminded me.

I was on the phone with the vet, staring at her lifeless body. Slowly she began to breath and her eye opened. “I can’t believe it!” I told the vet. “She’s alive again!” I looked beyond where she lay, looking at me with her upward facing eye. There she was, walking around! For a moment I was overjoyed, then I realized that she could not be at once laying there quietly breathing and staring at me and walking around three feet away. “Oh, nevermind,” I told the vet. “I’m hallucinating.”

Yes. I was hallucinating in my dream. What? There are moments when I feel like I’m just about to go into full panic attack mode, or what feels like that. Like the grief will overcome me and I will shake and cry and hyperventilate and collapse on the ground until any sane person would lock me away for 72 hours. I forced that away at work, willing the panicky overwhelming grief to leave me so that I could work and could drive to go get her. It’s all awful. I couldn’t stop crying, but I wasn’t hiccuping, panic-attacking, so I managed to drive to the vet. I did a semi-okay job parking (I didn’t hit any other cars and left enough room between us that a wraith could get through.) I walked into the vet and waited my turn at the reception desk, while a long-haired German Shepherd type dog stared at me. With them there, with this bright-eyed, healthy dog standing in front of me, I was hoping they would conclude their business and leave before someone followed them and stood behind me while I asked for my dogs remains. I didn’t want to make them uncomfortable, reminding them of this sad fact of pet ownership. Of course, they were still standing there at the counter when a second lady came to help me. I quietly told her why I was there. It felt wrong somehow to bring the specter of death into the room. She handed me the green box from the Cemetery and Crematorium and gently said, “I’m so sorry.” She started to say something else, but I cut her off. “Please don’t say anything nice. I’m trying not to be a basket case and I still need to make it home.” She smiled sadly, understandingly and I carried my dog-in-a-box to the car.

Some who don’t know me (and some who do) may find it distasteful that I call it dog-in-a-box as if I’m making light of it. Those who REALLY know me know that this is how I deal. I make light of the unbelievable, the horrid, the painful, the too hard to accept. I have to. It isn’t making light of it, so much as it is putting a light coat over the darkness. It is dark humor. I say dog-in-a-box so that I don’t let loose the depth of grief that is waiting inside me. I am incapable of that expression. I feel it, but I cannot express it. I can’t.

I have many things in life that are dreadfully painful, things that when I tell them, counselors stop and stare at me slack-jawed when I tell the tale. I cannot say those things with the gravity that some feel they deserve. Because they happened to me, I am not certain I understand the full extent of the horror that others show when they hear the tales, but I do know that for me to bear the weight of these things, I must bear them lightly. I cannot grip them in a white knuckle-grip, nor carry them chained to my ankle at all times, I must give them buoyancy by tying the helium balloons of humor to them to help carry the load. I would never make it a step with the full weight of these things on me.

This is, I suppose, what I do with my grief. I tell happy tales, so that those happy tales may carry a portion of the load of grief. I make morbid jokes, attaching more helium balloons to my pain so that they are bearable.

I’m embarrassed to say that I am crushed to have lost my dogs. A few years back it was Barney, oh my beloved Barney, and now it is his companion and mine, Happy. I feel these odd desires to hold onto her things, even though I know it’s crazy. I want to keep her bed. What for? What possible use do I have for it? Am I going to move her empty bed and place it next to the window in our next place? I’m tempted. Oh, I’m tempted. Crazy, yes? What, am I going to put her now empty bowls in the kitchen there, for us to trip over? Amazing the odd thoughts that run through my head. I never thought I would be the kind of person who would go buy a special shelf for the pets remains, nor sentimentally hold onto her coat, to hang on the wall by her boxed remains. NEVER. But, here I am. Barney has been through two moves already in his white box, and now he’ll go through another.

I don’t know whether to hope the dreams stop or to hope they continue. It’s nice to see her breathing, looking at me, walking around, even if it’s a hallucination in a dream. Maybe next time I dream of her, she’ll be running up a trail, or riding in the car with her ears flapping out the window. Maybe I’ll see them both together, on an adventure together where there are no more fences to try to contain their wandering hearts.

The Name of God

I have been thinking lately about the name of God, the one that the Israelites would not speak. I, on the other hand, grew up hearing that name spoken in sermons all the time, singing it in our praise songs and choruses and never thinking a thing about it.

Lately though…and for many years at various times, it has bothered me, with varying degrees of discomfort, that we speak this name so casually. I wonder…should we? Are we lacking in reverence for a God whose majesty is beyond our comprehension? Do we lack…no, do I lack proper reverence? I have seen this name represented as “YHWH” or “Yahweh”, and יהוה in the Hebrew. I have heard various explanations of this name, but never an explanation of how it came to be spoken aloud, though the ancient church would not. I have no answers, but I do not wish to speak lightly the name of God Almighty if his name should inspire better reverence, or rather that better reverence for Him should inspire more reverence for His name.

Ancient Faith

I have begun contemplating our faith, my faith and yours, and the joint faith of the Church, the historical, universal, body of Christ, bride of Christ, Church.  I feel at times somewhat lost in the church (to be clear, I will use church, small c, for the local church, and Church, capital C, for the Church as a whole, the body to which all true Christians are a part.)  I feel lost because I see so many things that are lacking, whether in practice or in doctrine, in seriousness, or in trivializing the sacred.  I long for a reverence that is without the legalism I grew up with, I long for a church that gives and loves, AND has the depth in teaching.

So often it seems that the church is about silly things, concerning itself with how people dress, but not concerning itself with the spiritual growth of its people. The church is more concerned with outward things, it seems.  I know many people who are more concerned about whether someone has a glass of wine, than whether people gossip, with whether someone smokes, than whether they love their children, with someone’s politics rather than their theology and with whether we are becoming more like Christ.

I struggle with these things.  I’m selfish (no, really, ask my husband and my kids), I can be short-tempered and irritable, I let loose with a swear word or three on occasion, and I’m not as careful about what I watch as I ought to be.  In my younger years I never swore, was super careful about what I watched and read, but my heart toward people was often cold and bitter.  I had no real concept of my own sin and need of a savior.  Oh, I HAD a savior, but in a lot of ways, I did not really recognize my need of him.  I knew I needed fire insurance, and I was pretty sure I was an awful person, but in the day to day living of life, I thought I was doing okay.  I didn’t drink, I didn’t swear, I didn’t have anything to do with people who didn’t live pristine lives…I was a jerk.  I was a holier-than-thou, self-righteous JERK.

I could not see my own sin and my own errors for my mind was twisted.  I’m sure there are parts that are still twisted, but God has graciously been untwisting my thoughts, my attitudes, my heart and my doctrine.  He seems to untwist a bit at a time, probably because to untwist it all at once would be too much of a shock to the system.  “How did she die, doctor?” “Well, she got her mind all straightened out in a single second and it was simply too much for her heart.”  Plus, I must assent to each bit of untwisting of my thoughts.  God points out my errors, my sins and I must repent and change, I must give up the past, the wrong-headed thinking and choose a new path.

I’m not sure if this is making sense to anyone but me, but I had a seriously twisted mind.  There are many reasons, but the result was a helpless, hopeless, nearly incoherent mess of an individual, so warped and misshapen that I could rearrange any person and any situation in my own thoughts and find their evil intent and motive.  I could logically explain to you why the seemingly normal and innocuous things  person did were evil and corrupt, mean and vindictive.  I was unaware that I was doing this, but God showed me and then he gently began unraveling my thoughts.  Each thought had to be examined whether it be the truth or a lie.  It was exhausting and took a long time.  This is why I think I probably still have some thoughts to make straight.

You probably do too.  Most of the time, we are too afraid to do this work, to look at our thoughts, to examine ourselves in this way.  It’s painful, it’s difficult, and so worth it.  The legalism I grew up with did not untwist the thoughts, but allowed me to twist into knots of epic proportions.  It allowed me to look good on the outside but to be awful on the inside.  It allowed me to look like a person of faith without BEING a person of faith.

This brings me back to my opening thoughts about the church.  If the church is to be relevant, it cannot give up the reverence for the treasure we have been given.  We must not try to be so relevant that we become nothing but lukewarm pablum, tasteless, useless and without merit.  Our merit is in Christ.  He is our Head.  He is our Life.  Far too often we mention Christ as a bullet point, and do not treat God our Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, somehow three in one, as meriting our worship, our devotion, our preaching, our teaching, our thoughts and our service.  We mention God, but do not reverence God.  We mention Easter, but do not devote even the single Sunday to the telling of the great mystery that is Christ and his death, burial and resurrection.  Many churches do not treat communion with reverence and respect, missing the greatness, the holiness, the mystery in the sacrament.

I do not want to devote myself to the outward expressions of religion and of things which please the church, but I want my inward being to be aware of God at all times, to commune with him, to know his promptings, to hear his voice, to be comforted by his Spirit, to be conformed to the very likeness of Jesus Christ, the Son.  I want to be in reverence to his holiness, to be humble enough to request his mercy, be thankful for his kindness, and patient with the trials that come my way.  I want to ponder the meaning of the cross, the meaning of the sacrifice, the meaning of the incarnation, the meaning of the resurrection, the meaning of Jesus life here on earth, the meaning of the Old Testament, to understand how I am to behave toward God and toward others and to know how to allow His power to reign in me so that I might be more disciplined, more holy, more righteous, and have victory over sin.  That I may know Him and the Power of His Resurrection and the fellowship of His suffering…without too much of the suffering, please.

So I am wondering about the Church through the ages and how it came to exist as it is today, disjointed, in pieces, fractured, so full of doctrinal differences that it could make one wonder if the church truly exists at all, or if the Scripture can possibly be true, given the way it’s followers behave.

But in it all, through it all, in the midst of doubts, I am convinced of this thing: That God Is, that God Saves, That His Son is Jesus the Christ who is also God, that he was born of a Virgin, that he died, was buried and rose on the third day and is now seated at the right hand of God the Father. I am CONVINCED of the existence of God.  I believe he is who he says he is.  My difficulty begins after that.  It begins with the arguing, the schisms, the conflicting doctrines.  I am content with mysteries.  I am not troubled by mysteries.  I am troubled by us.  I am troubled by interpretations that I cannot see when I read Scripture.  I am troubled by falsehoods taught as truth, but more than all of that, I am troubled by the lack of reverence in the church and in my own heart.

I pray that God will teach me proper reverence and will forgive me where I lack, and I mourn that the church often does not teach PROPER reverence, but simply a form of it.  I want the real deal.

Why I Won’t be Dyeing My Hair Purple

So I was in Wendy’s eating my salad (11 points!!!!!, horrors!) and this couple came in with their friend.  She had long, long, hair, just hanging there, but the perfect shade of purple.  Still, she looked frumpy and…dare I say it…kind of odd, furtive, and strange.  I kept glancing at her, because, after all, it was the PERFECT shade of purple, but I realized that it just looked…WEIRD.  Freakishly, abnormally, unbelievably WEIRD.  I got to thinking about what kind of an impression I would be giving to the world (sigh) and it was at this point that I noticed that the wild socks she was wearing under her TEVA sandals, weren’t socks at all, but tattoos!  Horrors.

 I can no longer envision a me that doesn’t look freaky and weird in purple hair.
Okay, so that’s a really dumb way to begin a blog, but then again, even though I want to address bigger issues of faith and life interacting, sometimes, we’re all just silly humans, thinking about trivialities, like dyeing my hair purple or the latest Transformer movie.  This is part of who we are.

I put my dog to sleep last Thursday.  I’m grieving and yet, I am laughing and enjoying things, but every good thing has the dye of sadness seeping into it.  My grief is dyed with happiness.  I love my dog, more than I can say, and if I had to do it all over again, I would (selfishly) keep her alive as long as possible.  After all, she is my first thought upon waking up (well, second, right after ‘oh, crap does my [insert body part here] hurt.’  After my morning ouch, I reach out with my toe outstretched, gingerly searching for her so that I don’t step on her, sleeping next to the bed.  I awaken with grief.  I come home to grief, knowing she is not waiting for me.

These griefs are common to us all, and I have friends and co-workers who have been very kind.  I have cards from thoughtful friends.  Did you know there are cards about losing a pet?  I didn’t either!  It helps that people are thoughtful like this.  How kind!

Ah, the old girl let me peek into the future, her aches, her pains and difficulties, her incontinence, hinting at what may be in store for me in my later years.  We thought about putting her in doggie diapers, but decided to spare her dignity.  I wish we had wrapped her in doggie depends and still had her here to stare longingly at the scraps on our plates.  The pain in my husband’s face makes me feel bad…guilty, regretful.  I’m filled with second-thoughts, third thoughts, fourth and fifth thoughts… I know if I had allowed her to go on like she was that I could not have done this, and would have let her suffer ’til the bitter end.  I probably would have felt guilty about that too.  Had she been an outside dog, no doubt she would have crawled off long ago.  Or maybe not.

So these are the thoughts.  This is the beginning of this blog, a new start.  I may transfer some of my stuff from my other blog, from my private writing and from my Facebook Notes, but while this may feel random, it is not.  Underlying and underpinning my thoughts, are deeper things, truer things, the significance in the trivialities, as it were.  Every moment, every thought has deeper meaning, deeper lessons to be learned.  Our lives are small, but important, insignificant but magnificent.  Hopefully as we go on, we’ll flesh out some of those seemingly contradictory statements.