I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal about making and sustaining friendships in middle age.
The article included advice such as just ask, create a routine, schedule time, and even try a friendship matchmaking site.
It made me think of my own friendships, the new ones and the old ones, the ones were good for a season but then faded away and the ones that have lasted over many seasons of life.
Jesus called us friends. Did you know that? I had been a Jesus follower for an embarrassingly long time before I knew that.
No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.
Friendship with God, however, does not mean comfort and ease. True friendship, even earthly friendship, does not mean that you indulge your friend or always give him or her what they want. A true friend will sometimes tell you things you don’t want to hear, will do things that seem painful to you because they want to help you be the best you you can be.
When I look in Scripture at those who have been called a friend of God, this is the kind of friendship I see.
Who in Scripture has been called a friend of God?
Abraham and Moses.
What do we see when we look at the lives of both Abraham and Moses?
Definitely not comfort and ease.
I see uncertainty, hardship, loss, sacrifice …
God didn’t call Abraham to go lie in a hammock under a palm tree but to leave his home on an uncertain, dangerous journey towards an already occupied land.
God didn’t call Moses to continue living a life of ease in the palace, secure in his position of power, but to challenge that power and then leave on an uncertain, dangerous journey (while leading a gaggle of cranky, complaining people) towards an already occupied land.
God demands a lot of his friends.
In the verse before the one where Jesus calls us friends instead of servants, he says that we are his friends if we do what he commands us.
Expectations color our experience, and we need to know what to expect as friends of God.
Jesus warned us to expect trouble in this world, and we need to be careful not to expect things of God that he has not promised.
Scripture is so important. We must know what God means when he says that we are his friend.
It is a dangerous thing to be a friend of God.
And at the same time, even while God demands everything of us, he also has given us everything.
The verse before Jesus instructs us to obey his commands?
Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.
Before he demanded anything of us, before we were friends of God, while we were still set against him,
Christ died for us.
What do I see when I look at the lives of Abraham and Moses?
I see intimacy, companionship, purpose, hope, …
And that is what the friendship of God and Abraham is all about. Abraham was in touch with the God who was in touch with him. He accepted God’s concern for him as the reality of his life, and he returned it by making God the center of his life. (maybe end quote there or maybe this bit too:) He obeyed, he journeyed, he prayed, he believed, and he built altars. He did none of this perfectly. But perfect is not a word we use to describe friendship relationships. Perfect is a word that refers to inanimate things – a perfect circle, say, or a perfectly straight line. With persons we talk of response, growth, listening, and acting. Abraham did all of that in relation with God, whom he was convinced was determined to be a good friend to him.”~ Eugene Peterson in As Kingfishers Catch Fire
It is a glorious and beautiful thing to be a friend of God.
When we are hurting, when we are grieving, when we are stumbling in the dark, God doesn’t usually come down in a blaze of holy fire.
He doesn’t usually appear with trumpets blaring to take away what hurts us.
We can feel as though he is silent, feel as though we are thoroughly abandoned by our Maker. Yet I have discovered that God does answer us in the darkness.
He answers us, as Sarah Clarkson puts it, in the language of presence.
Our Father comes to us in our world through his Son, he is closer than our breath through his Spirit,
and also he comes to us through beauty.
Sometimes it is the way the light falls across a fragile petal.
Sometimes it is a bar of intricate music.
Sometimes it is a stroke of color in a painting.
This beauty catches my breath, it startles up tears, it pulls an ache and a longing up from the depths of my heart. It is God himself, “clothed in countless tangible moments of beauty.”
What beauty reveals is the intimacy of the divine in our grief. God gives us beauty … as his offering — a gift that immerses us in something that allows us to touch hope, to taste healing, to tangibly encounter something opposite to disintegration and destruction. ~ Sarah Clarkson
Beauty reminds us of what we hope for.
Beauty reminds us that even though we still walk through the valley of the shadow of death, even though we live in a fallen world and reside in frail bodies, we have not yet arrived at the end of the story.
Beauty reminds us of what we hope for and beauty tells us about this God who made us.
Beauty teaches us not just that God exists but that he is lovely and good. Beauty tells us that we were created for joy and summoned to healing. ~ Hans Urs von Balthasar
When we experience moments of beauty in our darkness, we are experiencing a reality that is deeper and truer than our darkness.
In those moments of beauty we experience the nature of God’s created reality, and it is oh so lovely.
So very often I am unable to imagine any way out of my darkness other than God swooping down in his mighty power.
What I need in these times is for God to heal my imagination.
I need is God to heal my imagination so that I can picture a slow and quiet, but no less mighty, power, a power that does not discard the brokenness but makes of it something beautiful and new.
What we need is the healed capacity to imagine and believe the profound goodness of the future, to stand in the light of a happy ending whose power reaches into our present and draws us forward in hope. ~ Sarah Clarkson
God promises in Scripture that the struggles of this life will somehow be redeemed, that the ugliness in our world will be molded by the hands of a loving, powerful God into a thing of beauty.
In the face of the horrors this world can hold, this promise is hard to trust. It is difficult to imagine or even hope that it might possibly be true.
Like Abraham, we are asked to keep trusting in the face of apparent impossibility. Trusting that what God said to Abraham is truth for all: “is anything too hard for the Lord?”
One of the ways I learn how to trust is gazing at the way God fulfilled this redemption promise once before in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Practicing the story of Lent leading into Easter is one way to do this. Practicing the story is a way to catch a glimmer of how this promise could be true. Lent fills us with the sorrow of this broken world and leads us in a physical way through the story of that sorrow into the story of the glory of resurrection, of new creation.
God created us as physical beings and he knows how much we need physical rhythms and habits to ground us in what is true. The Old Testament is full of feasts and festivals, sacrifices and rituals, to keep reminding Israel of who she was and who God is. There is an embodiment to the Lenten practices that has done much to steep my heart in the theological truth of God’s promise to restore our locust-eaten years.
One of the habits that has pulled me into God’s story is fasting.
I know it is popular lately to fast from any number of things — social media, sugar, screens — but there is something deeply good about embracing our given physicality and fasting from food.
The practice of fasting from a substance you truly need for life roots your entire being down into the reality of brokenness, both the brokenness of our world and the brokenness of our own selves. It tugs me back into the reality of my utter dependence on God, reminds me that the control I think I have over my life is really just an illusion.
Fasting reminds me that God is the only one who truly controls anything.
Fasting reminds me that I am safe in his hands.
Another reason for fasting is to practice Christ’s command to deny ourselves, to die to ourselves. It is a way to build up our spiritual muscle in a small thing so that when the more consequential temptations come we are strong enough to resist.
… misuse of food is an equal-opportunity temptation available three times a day to everyone from nine to ninety. Those who overcome this most basic temptation gain spiritual strength to battle all the rest. Of course, almost no one does. Frederica Mathewes-Green in At the Corner of East and Now
Of all the spiritual disciplines, fasting is probably one of the least talked about these days. It didn’t used to be so. There were regular times of fasting in the Old Testament, times when fasting was commanded and times when it was voluntary. In the New Testament, when Jesus spoke of fasting he didn’t say if you fast but when you fast.
Normally fasting is a private discipline, one you don’t go around talking about. When Jesus taught about fasting, he specifically told his followers not to go around with ashes on their heads and mournful looks on their faces but to live their outward lives as normally as possible.
As I have thought about the way fasting has faded into the background these days, however, I have felt the Holy Spirit nudging me to fast in community during Lent this year. If you would like to join me, we can humble ourselves together before God, encouraging each other and allowing the Spirit to teach us how to use this discipline to grow in our dependence on him.
Here is what I will do: I have committed to fasting for a 24 hour period each week during Lent, from Thursday after supper to Friday supper. I will set up a Facebook group for anyone who would like to be in that kind of community while practicing your fast. If you would like to join, just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, telling me so.
You could also just join on your own, knowing that there is a community who is fasting with you. There is strength in that kind of knowing. You can send me an email, letting me know that you are joining us. Or you can not.
Whether or not you join me in this specific fast, I hope you will spend time praying about and studying fasting. Tell God what you wonder about fasting. Ask him what he wants to say to you about fasting.
“Even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Joel 2.12-13
Children have control over so little in their lives.
We grownups like to think that we have control over our lives, but perhaps that is only illusion.
Daddies and Mommies tell them when to get up and when to lie down, when to eat and when to play, what to wear and where to go. Children will often grasp at anything that will give them more power over their lives.
One of the things I’ve noticed that children use to gain a little control is knowing what name to call things, especially when that thing frightens them a little. When she was smaller, my eldest daughter’s constant response to a loud noise was That was? That was? Even when she was a little older, she still asked What was that? That noise? Knowing the name of something gave her power over it, made it seem a little less scary.
She sought to know.
Perhaps she is not very different from many adults.
Scientists, medical researchers, geneticists, stay-at-home moms who like to learn…people want to know what name to call things, want to know about things, because that gives them power over those things, those ideas. If we know how something was put together or how something works or even just what to call it, we feel as though we have power over our world.
We seek to know.
A long time ago, in a land far away, around the beginning of the Christian Church (perhaps even earlier), there lived a group of people we call Gnostics who believed (among other things) that matter, the material universe, was bad and that deliverance from our material form could only come through special knowledge.
Not long ago at all, in a land not at all far away, there lived a group of people who believed that their minds were all-powerful, that the dying of their flesh was bad, that through knowledge they could overcome all physical limitations. They could eat poorly and take vitamin supplements. They could ignore their children and send them to therapists. They could extend life and choose the sort of life that they procreated through the technology they created. They believed that saving our natural resources wasn’t important because their minds, human ingenuity in the form of science and technology, could surely take care of that problem as well.
There is nothing new under the sun…
In C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man (in 1943!), he said that mankind’s power to do exactly what it wants seems to be growing all the time through humanity’s so-called “conquest of Nature” – the progress of applied science. However, “each new power won by man is a power over man as well.” We can throw bombs from airplanes but can also be bombed ourselves; a race of birth-controllers is a race whose own birth has been controlled.
We seek to know. We seek to control.
Why do we feel that Nature is bad, that the material world needs to be conquered? Even as Christ-followers we seek knowledge because we fear. We want to know and to name so that we can control that which is uncontrollable.
Is the pursuit of knowledge wrong? Not at all.
Paul says in Philippians:
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. ~Philippians 1.9-11 (Italics mine)
Paul seeks to know.
Paul also said this:
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. ~Philippians 4.12-13
Paul is definitely not in control, nor does he seek to be.
Is this a Faustian-like power, this power of knowledge? A power that gives away everything good that God created in order to gain power and control over His creation?
It can be.
As Christ-followers, do we seek knowledge because we are fearful of the future and wish to wrest control of His creation from the One Who set it all in motion?
Sometimes I do.
Perhaps instead we can seek knowledge in order to praise God with our minds. Perhaps we can seek knowledge in gratitude for our imagination and intelligence, in gratitude for the complexity of His creation.
I suppose that, as with most that God has created, the goodness or evil of the pursuit of knowledge depends upon the heart of His creation.
May our hearts and minds seek to know out of thanksgiving rather than out of fear.
I don’t usually track the books I read, but this year I decided to use Goodreads to keep a record of my reading.
I finished 95 books this year.
Yes, I was tempted to speed-read five more to make it an even 100. I decided that probably wasn’t in the spirit of the thing.
I did include chapter books I read aloud to my children. I did not include picture books I read.
As I looked over the list, I noticed that my list was more fiction-heavy than usual. It was just that kind of a year.
My normal reading diet of theology and spiritual formation sorts of books just seemed to take more effort to get through and I felt more drawn to losing myself in a good story.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with this. A good story can sometimes reveal deeper truth than the thickest theological tome.
I want to get back to more of a balance this year. And if it’s another story-filled year, I won’t berate myself.
I thought I would share with you a few of my favorite books from the year.
Acedia and Me – Kathleen Norris
This book named a feeling I have fairly regularly. I wrote about it here: I Don’t Care
The Magnificent Defeat – Frederick Buechner
I love Buechner’s style of writing and the way he speaks of theological matters.
The World According to Narnia – Jonathan Rogers
I have always loved the Narnia stories, and Rogers’ book showed me even more of the truth contained within them.
This Beautiful Truth: How God’s Goodness Breaks into our Darkness – Sarah Clarkson
Clarkson writes of the beauty is God with us in the middle of suffering. As someone who struggles with mental illnesses and studies theology, she is well equipped to speak to this. She also writes beautifully.
The World Ending Fire – Wendell Berry
Wendell Berry keeps me rooted in this good world God has made and in the common sense we all need. This book of his essays addressed everything from caring for our earth to the importance of place in our physical and spiritual lives.
For My Kids
Growly series – Philip and Erin Ulrich
A fun book series that all of my kids (ages 6-13) loved about a bear and a monkey and a sweeping adventure.
Just David – Eleanor H. Porter
This is by the author of the more famous book, Pollyanna. A really good story that also shows the importance of beauty and art.
Piranesi – Susanna Clarke
Absolutely my favorite fiction book I read this year. It was beautifully written, had a completely unique setting, and contained such depth in its plot.
The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
I read several this year by this author and loved all of them. This particular book was a beautiful example of the way a story about one thing can really be a story about something completely different.
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek – Kim Michele Richardson
I always love historical fiction. This one tells the story of a blue-skinned (true!) librarian who rides all over the hills of rural Kentucky in 1936, delivering books and more to the impoverished mountain folk.
The Gown – Jennifer Robson
Another book of historical fiction. This one weaves together a couple of different time periods (1947 and 2016) with the creation of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown. I loved learning about the way these famous gowns were made.
The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern
A beautifully written story full to the brim with magic and enchantment.
Madness of Crowds – Louise Penny
I love everything written by this author, and this is her most recent book in the Inspector Gamache series. It is rare to find a current author who is skilled at beautiful writing, interesting plots, and character development all at the same time. I will give one warning: this story is set in a post-Covid world, when everything has gone back to normal, so if that seems too hard to read, you might want to wait.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January – Alix E. Harrow
This story pulled me into a world that was so real it felt like a memory when I emerged. Another book where the writing, characters, and plot are all so very well done.
Crossing to Safety – Wallace Stegner
A story about life and friendship and marriage. Wonderfully written in a way that made me care deeply about the characters.
Every once in a great while he comes in the earthquake, the fire, the lightning flash of glory.
Which is, is it not, the way we most often pray for him to show up? We pray for him to reveal his presence in a miraculous, unmistakable way.
We plead for the glory of a healing, not the glory of a sunrise.
The miraculous presence is not usually what any of us receive, and when he does not show up in the way we hope desperately for, we feel abandoned.
Sarah Clarkson writes of this feeling of abandonment in her struggles with mental illness:
But he never arrived in the shattering display of strength that I thought was the only way he could answer my prayer. So I felt betrayed. … I assumed God was absent because he didn’t come in the way I thought he would. I didn’t yet have an imagination that was healed enough to picture a power that could cherish and heal me as I was — not discarding what was broken in me, but making of it something precious and new.
Jesus is God enfleshed, the perfect image of the invisible God, and when I read the stories of Jesus after the resurrection to find out how God comes to us, I most often see him coming into life in its real and inescapably common places.
I see Mary at the empty tomb desperately pleading with a gardener.
I see two men meeting a stranger while walking down the road.
I see Jesus making breakfast on the shore after a night of fruitless fishing.
Jesus doesn’t approach from on high, but always in the midst of people, of real life. He approaches in the midst of the questions that come out of real life.
The sacred moments, the moments that pull back the veil and reveal God with us, are often the everyday moments.
God most often comes to us not on high, but in the fragile and often hidden beauty of our everyday moments.
It is these very everyday moments which,
if we do not look with more than our eyes or listen with more than our ears, reveal only … the gardener, a stranger coming down the road behind us, a meal like any other meal. But if we look with our hearts, if we listen with all of our being and our imagination — if we live our lives not from vacation to vacation, from escape to escape, but from the miracle of one instant of our precious lives to the miracle of the next — what we may see is Jesus himself. ~ Frederick Buechner
This is my prayer for you as you read this: that in the glimpses of beauty that come to you in your darkness, you will be able to see the kindness of God who does not often zap away the bad pieces of your life but who instead died to bind them all up in his love.
There have been times when my hurt and grief overwhelmed me and turned my face away from God.
Times when sorrow turned my inmost thoughts to darkness and I “blamed God for it with fierce, hot breath and yet ached for his touch at the same time.”
We all wrestle with God at times, shoving against him in the darkness of our pain and doubt.
We wrestle like Jacob by the river. We wrestle, hurling our accusations while at the same time refusing to let go until he blesses us.
And isn’t this what most often happens? We fight against God without being able to let go of him.
I strike at him with my pain while being unable to rid myself of my anguished desire for his love.
He was the cause of my grief, the opponent, and the peace I craved all in one enigmatic, awful Beloved. I could no more walk away from his existence than I could walk away from my own desire for breath. ~ Sarah Clarkson in This Beautiful Truth
Do you know the story?
Jacob, deceiver, heir to God’s covenant promises, is heading home after twenty years in exile. Home to the land God promised him.
He sends his family and servants across the river Jabbok, but stays behind to spend the night on the shore alone. We don’t know why.
Suddenly, out of the darkness, a stranger leaps at Jacob and they fall to the ground, wrestling through the darkness. All night they struggle until just before dawn when Jacob realizes who it is that he has been grappling with.
God is the enemy whom Jacob fought there by the river, of course, and whom in one way or another we all of us fight — God, the beloved enemy. ~ Frederick Buechner in The Magnificent Defeat
In the realization that it is God who is wrestling with him, Jacob refuses to release his grip, just as he has refused to release his grip all night, but in his pleading for a blessing, his grip of violence becomes a grip of desperate need.
God is our beloved enemy because he promises us everything, but before he gives us everything, he demands of us everything. “Before giving us life, he demands our lives — our selves, our wills, our treasure …” Buechner
Will we give them, you and I? I do not know.
Only remember Jacob, limping home against the growing light of dawn, a shadow of one to come.
Remember Jesus of Nazareth, staggering on broken feet out of the tomb toward the Resurrection, bearing on his body the proud insignia of the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God. ~ Buechner