“I have no idea where I am going…”

Another does of wisdom for the coming New Year.

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Thomas Merton (1915-1968), Thoughts in Solitude

New Year’s Wisdom – the Unknown Path

I suppose I will be resurrecting this blog.  Call it a New Year’s resolution.

 

As I am facing a New Year (and a major move in my life) I’ve needed the sort of wisdom articulated below by René Castellano.  Life has been in flux and great uncertainty in life has been the theme of the last half year of my life.  A new pastoral position, moving to a new city across the country, and all my perceived plans having to fall to the ground and die…   But that is a good place to meet the Lord and follow him wherever he leads.  Though he seldom (never?) shows the destination. Following a known God down an unknown path.

rene castellanoGod only illumines the next step, not long distances ahead. We would prefer God to illumine the way for a long distance ahead, but the flickering light of the Word shows only the next step. God called Abram, “Leave Ur. I will then tell you where you are going.” To Paul the Spirit said, “Go to Macedonia. I will tell you there what next.” The risen Lord said to His disciples, “Go to Galilee. You will find me there.” It is humbling for the pilgrim to not know what is over the hill, to have no more foreknowledge than the next person. But this is a part of our spiritual growth: to take small steps without knowing what is ahead but trusting God to bring good out of evil.

René Castellano (1914-2011), Cuban theologian

via Thomas Oden’s memoir A Change of Heart

Free in Limits

limits

 

‘Tis within limits that the master shows.”  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832)

 

Goethe wrote that line to illustrate how strict forms of writing poetry, like the sonnet, helped show who were the real gifted poets. Basically being to Germans what Shakespeare is to the English speaking world, he should know. Being confined within the parameters forced them to refine, distill, and perfect their poetic intentions. It was in the limitations that they find their strength. American poet and artist Julia Cameron expresses the same, updated for the twentieth century: “in limits there is freedom. Creativity thrives within structure.”

This may grate against us at first. How can being confined be a freeing thing? Aren’t all limits restrictive? The fact that the idea grates is evidence at just how counter-cultural it is in a world where any restraint upon us is felt to be an injustice. But only within restraint can we be truly free.

But having rules on the field which restrict play free everyone enjoy the game.

A society which has no laws, customs, or social virtues may permit one to do whatever they want to anyone else. But would such freedom really feel like freedom if you were living in it?

Staying faithful in marriage limits intimacy to one partner. But it also frees us to enjoy the extended, long-term, committed love that only such an exclusive relationship can bring.

With God, it is the same. As as a well-known worship song says it’s only in Your will that I am free.  And that idea does not come from nowhere. It comes from God, who desires us to be more free than we would even choose to be on our own.

The Psalmist in Psalm 119, that massive meditation on God’s word, says: I will run in the way of your commandments, when you enlarge my heart… (v 32). The image is one of running free yet while being held within God’s desires for us expressed in His word. A heart set truly free is one within limits.

 

 

Doubters

Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 3.05.00 PM

and have mercy on those who doubt  Jude 22

Doubts are real.  Some have doubts that keep them from faith. Others have doubts that continually nag their faith. Doubt need not prevent or corrode true faith but it needs the right prescription. True doubt is predicated upon faith in that it would not be possible to doubt unless there were something out there which is worth believing. And so “doubt comes into the world through faith” as Kierkegaard once scrawled in one of his journals.

Doubt ought not to be condemned.  It is not necessarily corrosive to Christian faith to ask tough questions, wrestle with what we read in the Bible, or even swallow hard on some difficult aspects. Often doubts are stepping stones on the path to greater faith. We even have an Apostle know for his doubts (although he recovered and made a great confession). So doubt ought not to be condemned or the doubter vilified.

 

But neither should doubt be congratulated. Living in the “age of authenticity” as we do, often to doubt is to appear deep, real, or true to yourself. Wrestling with difficult questions of faith is a normal part of growing up as a Christian disciple. But to indefinitely chew upon questions is often a cover for a desire to not make commitments we ought to, or to pay the price for true maturity.  (what better way to not take steps God wants us to take – in the realm of our sexual behaviour, our wealth, or our ambitions or the surrender of our self-interested autonomy – than to perpetually wonder if he can be known or heard from?)

Doubters are neither to be condemned as faithless nor congratulated as the authentically deep.  They need mercy.  That’s Jude prescription. And why not turn our doubtfulness upon itself.  Why not doubt our doubts?  Or better yet, doubt our own desires that may form hidden motivations for doubts?  True and responsible doubting always leads to true and responsible searching. Undertaken in good faith such searching carries with it a promise that ought not to be doubted.  Seek, and you shall find… 

 

 

 

 

 

Knowing the times – and the Lord of History

 

 

history

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans what may be to some Christians a well-known passage:

…present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12:1-2

The giving of ourselves to God’s purpose (a sacrifice) and to worship Him requires us to know the times we live in. In order to be transformed by mind renewal like the Apostle wants us to be, we must not be conformed to the world. The end goal is to know the will of God, and then presumably to do it. We have to first know what not to believe and how not to live and this is behind the not being conformed to this world part.

The “world” doesn’t get an admiring treatment in the New Testament.  Jesus and John both speak at lengths about it – negatively.  It is the sinful system in which we live. The world referenced here by Paul, though, does not mean quite the same thing. The word used is probably best translated as “the times we live in” rather than “world” (the word is where we get our English word eon meaning an era of time).  In short, we’re not encouraged to just reject the world in a general sense.  We’re to resist conforming to the very specific and culturally unique ways our times and culture go against God’s Kingdom rule.

We need to know our times.  We need to know in order to resist just “going with the flow” or “following the current” of our day.  We need to be uniquely aware of our culture and be non-conformist.

In our late-modern, 21st Century, Western world self-autonomy is king.  No one can/should tell you what to do/not do is you “feel” otherwise. Individual achievement, gaining of comfort and personal affluence, and unhindered consumption are the order of the day.  Work, buy, consume your way to the True You. Unhindered ability to choose is demanded as we are certainly the most consumeristic people to ever walk this earth.  Even the spiritual is atomized and packaged for the market.  Virtue, the kind that requires long and intense cultivation and self-denial, is looked down upon.  Fulfillment replaces it.  We don;t know what it means to be human anymore, or even who is to be considered human.  Anything we feel inside we must give life to. Truth is whatever seems true to us (usually what is most convenient).

These and more are the ‘spirit of the age’.  It was not always this way.  Not that other times/cultures were better – they just had different failings.  We must know where/when we live in history and resist everything that runs counter to the Kingdom of God.  How do we live in line with the Kingdom of God?  Paul describes it in short order.

Know where you live.  Know when you live.  And also know that there is a Lord of History who is over every time and place.  He has appointed his people to live in our time and his will can be discerned.

 

Have Doubt? Mercy!

The Incredulity of St Thomas - Caravaggio, 1601-1602

The Incredulity of St Thomas – Caravaggio, 1601-1602

Everyone has doubts.  Believers have doubts of all kinds whether they admit them or not.  I have doubts even about some of the strongest convictions I possess. As in many things, there are two ditches on either side to fall into.

Often, doubt is seen as the deadly enemy of true faith.  If we have uncertainty then our faith is not strong or it is failing.  The existence of doubt, however, is not what makes or breaks true discipleship.  Rather it is how doubt is walked through, handled, wrestled with.  After the Lord’s rising, Thomas famously doubted the truth of it.  Instead of wallowing in doubt, Thomas sought after truth and ended up making an amazing confession:  My Lord and my God!  Doubt was not the antithesis of his faith but was part of his path of discipleship.  Doubting Thomas becomes Saint Thomas after all.  So we need not avoid or deny struggles with doubt we may have.  The struggling part, though, is not to be overlooked.

Jesus does not condemn Thomas’ uncertainty, but neither does he commend it.  The second ditch to fall into is a notion that to doubt or be uncertain is somehow to be more authentic or “real”.  Sometimes an aura of depth is cast upon the one who is perpetually in doubt – that’s depth as in, “oh that’s so deep, man!”  Christian books are written lionizing doubt, and a virtue is made of never being certain of God or truth.  These books are trendy (or at least were in 2008 or so).  I fear, though, that this is a false virtue and a cheap illusion of depth.  Thomas’ virtue is in his confession after doubt – not in perpetually staying in it.  As Matthew Milliner pointed out (in probably the best blog post ever – READ IT!) wrestling with difficult questions is “…called normative Christian maturation” but “perpetuating those questions indefinitely, however, is another thing entirely: Frozen adolescence.” 

The Bible does not condemn doubt and Thomas’ path shows that.  But neither does it commend it as though it were,  in and of itself  a mystical state.

The apostle James has nothing nice to say about doubt:  But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord;  he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. (James 1:6-8).

And what does the Apostle Jude prescribe for doubt and doubters?  Mercy. (v22)  As a pastor who chats with those, inside and outside my congregation, I always must remember to be merciful on doubts, uncertainty, and wrestling matches with difficult questions.  Always reminding myself that this could be someone’s path to greater maturity or to the loss of vibrant faith.  And that I could be wrestle with the same sort in my own walk with God.

Does it ever occur to us though, when we doubt, to ask for mercy?  Rather than condemn or congratulate ourselves for it?

No Hiding

Looks like he found a good church.  But it wasn't the one of his dreams.

A community of Jesus which seeks to hide itself has ceased to follow him. “Neither do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on the stand.” … The bushel may be the fear of men, or perhaps deliberate conformity to the world for some ulterior motive.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer