I watch my littlest follow her sisters around like a puppy. She is desperate to be big enough to join in with their play. She is willing to try anything to keep up with them and to feel a part of their games and, more importantly, their friendship.
I see myself all too well in her. I, too, find myself following after others with whom I desire friendship. I will do things that I don’t enjoy or participate in too many activities just to feel as though I belong.
I find it hard to understand why I do this, to figure out what lies behind this quiet, desperate feeling. Part of the trouble is that there have been too many occasions of friends drifting away as though I weren’t quite worth the effort. I think, though, that an even bigger part of the trouble is my disbelief of what God has told me, of what He has told all of us.
I don’t truly, deep down inside, believe that I am worth being loved.
If I did, it wouldn’t matter how many friendships ended quietly, I would still be ready once again to make myself vulnerable for another.
I don’t believe that I am valuable and that all I truly need is Him. So I chase after other people, trying to prove my worth to them and to myself. I think that I need other people more than I need the approval of my God.
I forget, you see, that I already belong. I belong to the One who tossed the stars into their orbits and who crafted the sweet violet. I belong and I am worth more to Him than all the birds in the air.
Maybe someday I will do a better job of believing it.
There sometimes comes into the heart of all of us a desire to be sure. A sudden longing for certainty about that which we profess to believe.
We wish to be able to say I believe with no niggling of doubt that causes us to draw back from the ringing shout we had wanted to pronounce.
Doubt is that persistent shadow that startles us now and again just when we’d thought we’d left it behind for good. It is that small voice that sometimes lingers and sometimes only whispers and is gone.
We want it to disappear for always. We long to be certain, to be troubled no longer by questions.
Yet I am beginning to discover that certainty is not faith. Certainty is based on evidence, on proof, on concrete and unassailable fact. Faith, however, is relationship. It is risk and it is vulnerability.
Certainty is about control, about predicting behavior. Faith is a gift from me to you, a gift of myself placed into your hands.
I have read about certainty and faith in the context of a marriage. Certainty in marriage is secretly reading all of your spouse’s emails and texts and journals. Certainty in marriage is hiring a detective to follow your spouse to be sure he is being faithful. Certainty in marriage is tapping the phones to be sure of the trustworthiness of your spouse.
Faith in marriage is a gift. It is an offering of myself, of my vulnerability and my heart, to you as one whom I believe to be faithful.
When I trust you, I take a little piece of myself…and put it into your hands. And then I’m vulnerable. Then you respond, and I find out whether you are trustworthy…I give you the gift of my trust, and you give me the gift of your faithfulness. ~ John Ortberg in Faith and Doubt
Perhaps, after all, certainty is not what we truly long for.
If by it (the intellect) we could prove there is a God, it would be of small avail indeed. We must see Him and know Him. ~ George MacDonald in The Curate’s Awakening
Perhaps, after all, certainty is not such a prize to be pursued. Perhaps, after all, God is more pleased with the vulnerable gift of faith than He is by the chasing after an elusive proof of His existence.
May He be pleased by my trust.
Art Credit: Photographs of light by Kirk Sewell
We love a God of beauty.
We worship a God of art, of music, of literature.
We serve a God of perfection.
We adore a God Who gives us only His best.
Why, oh why, then do we consistently offer Him art that is, to put it bluntly, junk?
Why do we think that music that is dull and overly simple is what is best for inspiring our hearts to worship? Why do we think that literature that is bland and is bad storytelling will turn our minds toward thoughts of God? Why do we think that art that is commercialized and overly sentimental will cause our imaginations to soar to the heavens?
Perhaps this is harsh. I will fully admit that there are artists (in the full sense of the word) out there who inspire awe in the hearts of all those who come across it. But this is not the norm. Not anymore, that is.
It used to be that Christians artists were at the top of their craft. They were respected and admired throughout the world. Think Bach. Think Correggio. Think Milton and Tolstoy.
It is not this way anymore. The secular world no longer looks up to Christian art to lead the way. Instead it sneers at Christian art and views it as subpar, something to be shunned rather than something to inspire.
To paraphrase James: my brothers, this should not be! The lack of excellence in our art indicates to the world that we serve a God who is less than excellent.
Much so-called religious art is in fact bad art, and therefore bad religion. ~ Madeleine L’Engle
Oh, we could do so much better. We could open ourselves up to the power of the Holy Spirit rather than to the power of the market.
Fellow artists, let God inspire you. Open yourself to that which you cannot control. Ignore the sale; ignore what you think people want. Listen instead to the Spirit. Listen to what God is showing you through your work: “my proper place is as a servant struggling to be faithful to the work, the work which slowly and gently tries to teach me some of what it knows.” (L’Engle)
Let your art sing. Let it soar.
Those who are not artists, be discerning. If it is good art, if it inspires you and sets your imagination soaring toward God, then support it. If it is bad art, don’t support and sustain it simply because it involved the name or image of Christ.
I know that my words do not reach many, but I dream of a day when those who claim to follow a God of beauty and excellence are once again those who produce that art which leads the entire world in soaring to the heights, are once again those who produce the art which therefore points the way to God.
I sit in the early morning, looking out the window at the wind making shimmery the leaves of our cottonwood, and remember Kristina. It is the third anniversary of her death (link), and it sometimes still feels as though we are stumbling through the dark. So much hurt and fear back then, so much hurt and fear all around us now. In this world, it will always be so. There are glimpses of light that keep us going, slight breaths of a hope that keeps our eyes searching the gloom for that bright and beautiful future that is promised, but it is easy to get distracted by the ugliness all around. I am drawn back to a post I wrote soon after Kristina’s death.
In the middle of this pain common to all of us who live in this world, as we sit surrounded by those who love us, it is tempting to add a veneer of softness, to speak in clichés that turn raw, ripped-open pain into a lie. Sometimes this is even encouraged among those of us who follow Christ. Yet to do this denies that we are real, that our hearts can be ripped in two, that our pain and loss can suffocate and almost overwhelm us. To do this denies that Christ is real, that His body and heart were also ripped apart.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
When God seems not to place much importance on whether we are free from pain or suffering, it is difficult not to live in a state of paralysis. It seems a formidable task both to acknowledge the depth of pain we feel and also to acknowledge the depth of God’s love for us.
We see this pain in the world around us. We see it all throughout the Bible. Abel. Abraham. Joseph. Moses. Uriah the prophet…murdered for prophesying while Jeremiah was allowed to live. John the Baptist…Jesus’ cousin. All of the apostles…Jesus’ closest friends.
Understanding why Kristina had to die is hard. I might never know the reason.
What can we do when everything inside of us wants to turn tail and run from the painful possibility of God’s loving best? Can we truly trust in the heart of God?
We often learn best through story. One story that helps to show us what to do is written in C.S. Lewis’ story of Narnia, The Silver Chair. Two children (Jill and Scrubb) and one Marsh-wiggle (Puddleglum) are given by Aslan (the Christ-figure) four signs with which to find the lost prince of Narnia. They completely botch the first three signs which leads to their imprisonment with a madman who is chained to a silver chair. The fourth and last sign is that someone “will ask you to do something in my name, in the name of Aslan”. The madman entreats the three travelers to free him, who says:
“Once and for all, I adjure you to set me free. By all fears and all loves, by the bright skies of Overland, by the great Lion, by Aslan himself, I charge you –”
“Oh!” said the three travelers as though they had been hurt. “It’s the sign,” said Puddleglum. “It was the words of the sign,” said Scrubb more cautiously. “Oh, what are we to do?” said Jill.
It was a dreadful question. What had been the use of promising one another that they would not on any account set the Knight free, if they were now to do so the first time he happened to call upon a name they really cared about? On the other hand, what had been the use of learning the signs if they weren’t going to obey them? Yet could Aslan have really meant them to unbind anyone – even a lunatic – who asked it in his name? … They had muffed three already; they daren’t muff the fourth.
“Oh, if only we knew!” said Jill. “I think we do know,” said Puddleglum. “Do you mean you think everything will come right if we do untie him?” said Scrubb.
“I don’t know about that,” said Puddleglum. “You see, Aslan didn’t tell (Jill) what would happen. He only told her what to do. That fellow will be the death of us once he’s up, I shouldn’t wonder. But that doesn’t let us off following the sign.”
That doesn’t let us off following the sign.
We aren’t guaranteed that anything here on earth will turn out all right. We try so hard to grasp at that security, to bring it into existence, but it simply is not there. Instead, if we have nothing else (and we do have so much else!), if we can turn to and trust nothing else, we have the cross.
After his wife of only four years had died of cancer, C. S. Lewis said, “If only I could bear it, or the worst of it, or any of it, instead of her…But is it ever allowed? It was allowed to One, we are told, and I find I can now believe again, that He has done vicariously whatever can be so done. He replies to our babble, ‘You cannot and you dare not. I could and dared.’”
And so we find that perhaps, after all, it does not matter why. It does not matter whence came the hard thing or even that it may be painfully hard. If God ever had to prove anything, at the cross He proved His love, His promise to work for the best of all He created.
It is not a bad thing to seek for the why’s and how’s and from where’s. God is able to handle our questions, our fears. Yet if we never get any answers, if we never know the reasons, if we never understand, then we who have chosen to follow Christ, who have allowed Jesus to be the Lord of our lives, we who have embraced His sacrifice of love…
We aren’t let off following the signs.
Sketch is Rembrandt’s The Three Crosses
Sometimes it is a hiding in the two a.m. darkness.
Sometimes it is a wrestling with something only partly known.
Sometimes it is a stumbling around in the dusk that is almost nightfall.
It is a doubt about God that is common to all who are awake and alive. Whether you believe in God and at times doubt His existence or you disbelieve in God and at times doubt His absence, it is an experience of humanity.
Frederick Buechner speaks of head doubt and stomach doubt.
Head doubt can happen at any time and about anything at all. I can doubt the existence of God, the true fabric of reality, even the evidence of my own senses if the mood is right. When these doubts descend, I usually keep living my life as I have been living, continue to act as though I still believe, and in the end it eventually comes out right.
I have never experienced stomach doubt. Perhaps only those who whose faith is the strongest, the saints among us, have experienced this kind of doubt.
I believe that Jesus did. When He cried out “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” I believe that He was engulfed in stomach doubt. He had, as Buechner said, “looked into the abyss itself and found there a darkness that spiritually, viscerally, totally engulfed Him.”
I don’t know that I am strong enough to withstand that kind of doubt.
It seems hard to pray that someday I might be.
Christianity is frightening. It is not for the timid.
The ancients knew they could not control their world and thus offered sacrifices to the gods in an attempt to exert some control.
We moderns have deceived ourselves. We think that we control ourselves, our environment, the things and even the people that surround us.
It is this, our self-deception, which makes Christianity so wild and dangerous.
That faith can be only the gift of God emphasizes the scandal of our human condition ~ the scandal of our absolute dependence on Him. I have to depend completely upon what very largely I do not know and cannot control. ~ H.A. Williams
This giving up of ourselves to that which we cannot control is terrifying. It is a blind leap into the void.
Yet our belief that we can have some control over our own lives is really just a shutting of our eyes to reality, a whistling in the dark.
We cannot control what happens to us. We are able to control only our response to what happens, and a giving over of ourselves to that which we cannot understand means giving over the only thing we are capable of controlling.
It is a giving up of all control. And in return, it is a wild kind of freedom, a dangerous adventure to which the ending is known but not all of the steps along the way.
It is invigorating, lavish, and exhilarating.
It is abundant.
Listen to them argue. Watch as each shakes her head and smiles condescendingly while the other is speaking passionately about what she thinks is right. It often seems that surface level respect doesn’t go very far. Those who support each group seem to vilify the other, speaking out ugly words of disrespect and hate. There will always be someone with whom we disagree, someone we are vehemently sure is wrong.
What do we do with this? What do we do when we disagree, both with those we call brother and sister and with those who do not believe? We are exhorted by our leaders and our culture to be tolerant to those around us. Everywhere we turn we are pleaded with to show tolerance to anyone who is different, anyone who thinks or behaves differently than we do.
And what does that tolerance look like? We are told by our world that we are to stay open-minded, that we are to live and let live, that we should not put up any claim to truth. We are told by the world surrounding us that we can disagree with anyone we want, can believe anything we like, as long as we keep it to ourselves.
This is what our world says. But what about us? Is this what we who are Christ followers are called to be? Tolerant? Is this really all that we can manage, all that we can aspire to do? Tolerance is easy. It doesn’t require anything of either party. It relieves us of all responsibility. It costs us nothing. Tolerance shrugs its shoulders and walks away, leaving you to your own devices. Tolerance doesn’t care.
“And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” ~ Matthew 22.39
Love is much harder. Love costs our comfort and our time. Love affirms the reality of the other person, culture and way of life. Love takes the trouble to get to know the other person and find out what makes them beautiful. Love wants what is best for that person or culture.
It was love that brought the world to oppose an apartheid regime in South Africa, not tolerance. It was love that lead Martin Luther King to pursue civil rights, not tolerance. It was love that drove William Wilberforce to lead the British parliamentary campaign to abolish the slave trade, not tolerance.
It was love that sent Jesus to the cross on our behalf, not tolerance.
We live our lives in contact with people who are different. We are surrounded by those who look, dream, think, and believe differently than we. We therefore must pray for strength to choose the harder way. If we are to be Jesus to those around us, if we are to make a difference for Him in this world, we must have the strength to choose love rather than tolerance.
“Love must confront Tolerance and insist, as it has always done, on a better way.” ~ Tim Keller in Generous Justice
Why is love so much harder than tolerance? Why does it require more from us? Part of the reason is that love is asks us to be discerning. Love sometimes asks us to work toward change yet sometimes asks us to see the gray in others rather than viewing the world in black and white alone. It is difficult to see in gray. Life gets harder when you see things from other points of view. Straight lines get hijacked and carry you off to the unknown. Solid perspectives grow a little blurry and you begin to take a softer view of those you disagree with.
The more we meet people who were raised differently and the more we read authors from other places and times and faith traditions, the more we begin to catch a glimpse of how much our view of God, of the Bible, of the world around us is colored by our own place and time and faith tradition.
Just as with every place and time and faith tradition, there is truth to be found and there is misunderstanding. Tolerance allows us to be lazy, to choose what we believe and let others walk on their own path. Love requires that we listen, that we look at those before us with wisdom. As we take the time to know another and love them, we begin to realize that there is something even more important than figuring out what is right and what is wrong.
No human here on earth is my enemy. We who claim the name of Christ are all trying to love Jesus and obey God’s words. Rather than those who disagree with us being the enemy, being one who is deliberately misinterpreting God’s words, being one who picks and chooses what they will believe, those who see things in a different light are mostly just trying their best to follow Jesus.
Just like we are.
Perhaps they are interpreting Scripture incorrectly, but perhaps we are the ones who are wrong. Grace. It is easy to receive and devilishly difficult to dole out freely. We spend so much time either being determined to get it right at the expense of our relationships or trying so hard to tolerate the differences around us that we quit looking at the person with whom we differ. Yet when we look closely and intently we can see the gray shades of Jesus in the face of the person before us.
And then it is easier to love.
Edited from the archives
My older two girls have been a little crazy lately. Their emotions have been all over the map and they bounce from playing beautifully together to screaming and crying and hitting in less than a nanosecond. I’m not sure why it has been so extreme lately, but one thing I’m learning as a parent is that often the thing behind the wildly veering emotions is their goal for the moment.
A child’s main goal, as well as a major goal for the rest of us if we are honest enough to admit it, is to please themselves. They haven’t yet learned the paradoxical truth that when playing with others, if you want to keep the pleasure of the play, the goal must be pleasing the other person. If a child continues to aim toward their goal of pleasing themselves, they instead begin aiming crazily at different targets every few minutes, and end up not hitting any of their goals but hitting their sister instead.
It seems as though staying focused on your main goal in life should be easy. Yet as often as we adults act like children, we quickly discover that it most definitely is not easy. Instead of continually aiming at the goal of pleasing God, we aim instead too often at the pleasing of ourselves and begin careening from thing to thing, from emotion to emotion, and we end up hitting those we love best.
I love how one of our Church Fathers, Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296–298 – 2 May 373), describes this as a charioteer who forgets where he is supposed to be driving his horse and instead simply drives as fast and as hard as he can. He says that such a charioteer would “often drive against those he met, and often down steep places…thinking that thus running he has not missed the goal – for he regards the running only, and does not see that he has passed wide of the goal.”
Athanasius says that this is the source of all evil: the changing of our goal. We turn away from God and drive ourselves toward other things, often not even seeing that we have missed the way.
When I am careening from one activity to another, seeking after success for my children; when I am veering from one emotion to the other, leaving my family as casualties in my wake; when I am uncertain of what I should do next, then I have changed my goal and am not even aware that I have done so.
I am more like my children than I like to admit. I have trouble keeping to my goal, to my purpose in life, but often I can see the signs and often those signs help me to raise up my head, look for how far away from my goal I have strayed, and ask God to carry me back into the race again.
Hopefully I can teach my girls how to do likewise.
I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead. I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. ~ Philippians 3.12-14