The Certainty of Uncertainty
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! Romans 11:33
What does it take to feel confident in or comfortable with our life in this world? If God loves us; indeed, if God is love, why is life so unpredictable? Why all the violence, sickness, injustice, insecurity, and misery? Why does the earth seem to be falling apart from earthquakes, fires, climate change, glacier melt, species extinction, and other incomprehensible disasters? Everyone I know suffers in some way, consistent with their cultural, ethnic, and socio-economic status. No one gets out of here alive. Can we ever be certain about anything in life? The answer is an emphatic YES! We can always be certain that life will remain uncertain.
A portion of our uncertainty centers around the concept of fairness. One absolute truth about life is that life is not fair. Another truth is that life is absolutely fair. How can both be true? Can life be fairer to some than others? There seems to be ample evidence of that possibility. Unfortunately, we are poorly equipped to determine what is and is not fair. Our human perspective is too limited. Being human is about experiencing life’s nuances in excruciating detail. We lose ourselves so deeply into the forest that all we see are trees. We cannot conceive of a larger picture or a unifying purpose.
When we lack the ability to judge what should or should not happen in the grand scheme of events, then our perception of fairness is always out of kilter, making life appear uncertain. In the scope of the eternal life of the soul, our life on earth is but a grain of sand on a vast beach; but we cannot view the beach. What can we possibly know about fairness, about justice, about love in the eternal scheme of God’s creation? What if a particular soul – a specific manifestation of God – chooses to embody in a third world country in order to experience starvation or apartheid or a brutal civil war? That possibility puts fairness in a completely different context. If God experiences in and through all of creation, why would God not want to experience the good, bad, and ugly of creation? Certainly, every stage of human creation has painful parts of the process required for completion – childbirth, for instance. Our problem is that we judge the pain of the contractions as separate from the life of the person.
Even if a soul does choose to manifest in a certain time and space in order to experience a particular stage of creation, that does not relieve the rest of us from the obligation to do what we can about the injustice, the oppression, or the unfortunate circumstance. Part of the grace, perhaps the only grace in being a victim of unspeakable tragedy is to have another child of God notice and do whatever he or she can to ease that suffering. We need to realize that the disadvantaged provide opportunities to allow God’s grace to flow through us. One soul suffers, another soul relieves suffering – all is part of the experience of God through us.
One additional certainty, aside from the certainty of uncertainty, is that we cannot fall out of God’s love and care. God did not spare Jesus from his ghastly earthly suffering, so why would we expect God to spare ours? God did not leave Jesus alone on the cross, nor will God leave us alone on ours. God did not allow the pain of the cross to last forever, nor will God allow our pain to last forever. God took the pain of the crucifixion and birthed something good for humankind, just as God will transform our suffering into good. Of course, none of this happens according to our desires or our timeline. We are not in a position to make those judgments.
Our world is full of uncertainty because we are incapable of perceiving or fully trusting the fairness of God’s unfolding plan. Yes, we should absolutely make every effort to do all the good we can in every situation we can, but we cannot tie our willingness to work to the results we believe should immediately follow. That is God’s business, not ours. The ultimate success of God’s ceaseless workings will seem uncertain to us. Contemplative practices help us accept the certainty of uncertainty, release our attachment to results, and free us to live, move, and have our being in and as the part of God’s greater life we were created to manifest.
This is the 10th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.
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Your Will Be Done
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Matthew 6:10
This passage comes from the Lord’s Prayer. Many of us repeat it, often mindlessly, on Sundays in church. The sentiment for God’s will to be done is found throughout the Bible. One memorable usage occurs when Jesus, praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, asks God to spare him the agony of the crucifixion. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). The traditional understanding of this thought is that circumstances can go either our way or God’s way. In this sense, when we say “Your will be done,” we affirm that we want God to turn events as God would have them, not necessarily the way we prefer.
There is another way to interpret these words, however, which is to treat them as an acknowledgement that God’s will will be done, instead of as our willing submission to God’s wisdom. In other words, it does not matter what we desire, what we plead for, God’s will will be done, regardless. If God’s will is what is, then God’s will is playing out all of the time. If God’s will is always being done, then what we experience, moment by moment, is the unfolding of that will, although not necessarily the completion of that will. I do not believe it is God’s will that we suffer, whether from cancer, depression, or a broken heart. Rather, hurting is a natural part of our human condition, as is joy, and we cannot have one without the other. Likewise, death is a natural part of life in an earthly body. Everything on earth is born, lives, and dies, and its earth-bound elements are remade into something new. Death must happen to allow new life because the earth is a closed system. Whatever and whomever we have or love that is of the earth will deteriorate and die. Only the spirit that animates life is immortal.
Accepting that pain is a natural part of life, particularly in the context of God’s will relentlessly being done, it is helpful to distinguish between pain and suffering. Pain happens to all of us at various times throughout our lives. Physical and emotional wounds are part of our being. Suffering is different, however. How much we suffer from our pain is, at least in part, a choice we make. We often exacerbate our pain by mentally and emotionally focusing on a perceived loss of control because of the pain. We feel someone else is pulling the strings of our lives; we get frustrated, we feel life is not fair, and we suffer. Indeed, someone else is pulling the strings. Rather than a fatalistic fact, however, the good news is that God invites us to co-create the direction and experience of our lives, but we must first submit to co-creating in a way consistent with the will that we are resisting. Our resistance causes us to suffer.
Discerning God’s will in our lives is a challenge for anyone seeking to align their desires to God’s. We can discern the unfolding of God’s will by what we see happening around us. We cannot, however, so easily discern the direction of the unfolding, nor the specifics of how the course of events will develop. That is where we can step in as co-participants – in the specifics of the unfolding of God’s will. A daily prayer practice is vital in aligning our will with God’s. A significant portion of that practice may be spent in silence – not petitioning God for what we want, but opening ourselves to God, surrendering to God’s purposes, and listening for God’s subtle guidance. We may not be in ultimate control, but we can become intimate participants in what is becoming, as opposed to being a helpless victim.
It is inconceivable that a loving God would will us to be miserable – we do that to ourselves. When we can place our painful moments in a larger context, trusting that this too is God’s will unfolding into something new and beautiful, we can reduce our suffering. As Paul writes in Romans 8:28, “…all things work together for good for those who love God.” As we learn to surrender to and recognize God’s will working all things together for good, we honor and acknowledge the place where God resides within us. We reveal who we truly are in Christ.
God’s will will be done, with or without our conscious participation.
This is the 30th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”
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Those Persecuted for Righteousness
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:10-12
Persecution takes many forms, none of them pleasant. Sometimes it is physical, as in a beating, lynching, or other act of violence. Other times, persecution is emotional, such as being devalued, made to feel insignificant, or misunderstood. Persecution can also be social, as in bullying, gossiping, or otherwise isolating someone from a group. Although we all suffer, not all suffering is persecution. Much of what we suffer from cannot be controlled. For example, if we are genetically disposed to cancer or heart disease, we may suffer a serious physical ailment regardless of how well we attend to our health. Persecution can occur from things we have little control over. Particularly in bullying, someone may be persecuted because of the way they look. Perhaps a speech impediment or birthmark brings the unwelcome and hurtful ridicule of others. On the other hand, there were kids from my school days who seemed to invite persecution for no obvious reason. They seemed to annoy others for the sole purpose of getting attention, even when the attention they received was negative. Regardless of the cause or motivation, persecution is painful.
Jesus refers to a specific type of persecution in this passage, however; one that is consciously chosen. This is a persecution brought about by the overt practice of one’s sincerely held beliefs. In Jesus’ words, it is being “persecuted for righteousness sake,” meaning suffering condemnation for what one believes is right. In a sense, this type of suffering is self-inflicted, for if one backed away from their expressed beliefs, at least in theory, the persecutors would stop persecuting. This suffering is consciously chosen in service of advocating for a position that is not in line with those in power. The act of speaking truth to power is an example – standing up to those in authority to point out injustice or the unethical use of authority. This type of suffering requires a dedication to a cause or a position that overrides one’s concern for one’s own safety and comfort. It is entirely selfless and can be dangerous.
It is wholly consistent with Jesus’ teachings and life that we would be encouraged to stand up for the disenfranchised, the oppressed, the poor, and the sick. And when our dedication to these groups comes at a personal cost to us, when our actions on their behalf causes us to suffer persecution, Jesus assures us of our reward. In this case, our reward is the kingdom of heaven. As I have expressed elsewhere, receiving the kingdom of heaven may or may not be an after-death experience. I believe Jesus refers to a state of being here and now, so the obvious question is this: If persecution is so unpleasant, what sort of compensating reward could override the pain?
This question cannot be answered in the same way we answer most questions because, as is typical of spiritual mysteries, words cannot adequately explain the reality. The kingdom of heaven is a real and present reality (for example, see Matthew 4:17), but we cannot experience it at the same level of consciousness where most of us live our lives. In our everyday reality, doing something that invites persecution is disagreeable, at best. We must experience life at a level deep enough to get beyond the unpleasantries at the surface, however, to the forces at work at a more foundational level. At this level we see and serve Christ by seeing and serving the disenfranchised. If we are persecuted as a result, so be it. In other words, when all we experience is pain from our acts of righteousness, we are likely not present to the state of conscious reality in which Christ exists and works in and on our world. Underneath our surface-level suffering is rejoicing and gladness because the righteous are working with God. God is working through the righteous to put the world on a more just and honorable path, making all things new.
As Jesus tells us, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” The prophets knew it, and so can we.
This is the 18th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”
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By Bread Alone
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Luke 4:1-4
Accounts of the temptation of Jesus are recorded in Matthew (4:1-11), Mark (1:12-13), and Luke (4:1-13). After Jesus had been baptized by John, he went into the wilderness for 40 days. Matthew and Luke record that Jesus was fasting during that time. The devil met Jesus there and issued three temptations when Jesus was at his weakest from the extended fast. The first challenge was to turn a stone into bread. The second was to receive authority over all the kingdoms of the world in return for worshiping the devil. Finally, Jesus was encouraged to throw himself onto the rocks from the pinnacle of the Temple, knowing that God would protect him. Jesus refused each of the temptations, left the wilderness, and began his public ministry.
Whether one reads this account as a factual or a metaphorical account is beyond the purpose of this Life Note. What I address here is how the temptations of Jesus are about the use of personal power, and how these are temptations we too face, in endless variations, throughout our lives. If the life of Jesus is the standard for our life, we have much to learn from how he used, and refused to use, the power at his disposal.
Although scripture does not give a reason for the fast, it seems safe to assume it was a part of Jesus’ preparation for his ministry. The first challenge was to use his power to turn a stone into bread and end his fast. On the one hand, if I were hungry and had such power, it would be difficult not to use it in that way. Unfortunately, that would betray his purpose for fasting and nullify the benefits from the difficulties he had already endured. Jesus’ response is “One does not live by bread alone” (Luke 4:4).
The second temptation was to betray his lineage, as revealed by God at his baptism (“You are my son, the Beloved”). By reflecting anything less than the Father, Jesus could not fulfill his purpose of making God known to us. We are frequently encouraged to settle for something less than what we strive for, and we are given the power to settle through our free will. It is not that God will no longer love us if we settle for less, it is that we will disappoint ourselves for giving in, as well as failing to accomplish that which we set out to achieve. Jesus’ response is “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only” (Luke 4:8).
The third temptation was to do damage to his physical body on the assumption God would keep him safe. After all, God had a huge purpose for Jesus in the world. We know God takes us where we are, in whatever shape we are in, and uses us for purposes beyond our comprehension. Even if angels did not save Jesus from the rocks below, surely God would find a way to use him. This temptation was about showing how low we can sink and still have God lift us up. Jesus’ response is “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Luke 4:13).
It is in our most vulnerable moments when we are tempted to use whatever means are available to ease our suffering, regardless of whether we believe we are tempted by the devil, by human nature, or our own personal weakness. The end does not justify the means when it comes to personal holiness. Patience, trust, and faith are required. The way out is by going through the difficulty, not by taking shortcuts around it. Inevitably, at some point or points in our lives, we will find ourselves in a metaphorical wilderness: hungry, alone, and tempted. In our weakest moments, it is helpful to remember how Jesus handled temptation: by persisting after our prayerfully-determined aims, by being as faithful to God as God is to us, and by treating our bodies as God’s temple. God’s strength manifests in our weakness.
This is the 9th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”
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Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen. 1 Peter 4:11
My father received a book from his home church when he joined the military during World War II. The book contains devotions for each day of the year written by the pastors of churches throughout the United States. Harold Cooke Phillips, from the First Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio, wrote the devotion for September 29, titled The Strong Soldier. In part, Reverend Phillips wrote:
There are two types of strength. There is the strength of the wind that sways the mighty oak, and there is the strength of the oak that withstands the power of the wind. There is the strength of the locomotive that pulls the heavy train across the bridge, and there is the strength of the bridge that holds up the weight of the train. One is active strength, the other is passive strength; one is the power to keep going, the other is the power to keep still; one is the strength by which we overcome, the other is the strength by which we endure.
Different situations in life call for different types of strength. Sometimes, our best option is to suffer through a situation with all the patient endurance we can muster. For time-bound suffering – cancer treatments, broken relationships, and grief – healing requires the passage of time, and no amount of active strength is going to hasten the process. Other times we must supply the power to actively move something out of our lives. Often, both types of strength are required at different stages of a life situation.
There are those who confuse the power of endurance with weakness. They feel the need to always be proactive, to fight fire with fire, to enter the fray with every ounce of force they possess. Certainly, some situations call for that sort of determination. Other times, however, such raw and blind power leaves a path of utter destruction in its wake with little to show for the devastation. A bull in a china closet comes to mind.
The author of the first letter of Peter says, “…whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies.” Some days we need to be the train, other days the bridge; one day the wind, the next day the oak. Our challenge is to discern the type of strength required for a given situation and know that God will supply the strength needed.
Come home to church this Sunday. Remain calm and power on.
Cures That Do not Heal
Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Matthew 10:8
On the afternoons of my recent mission trip to Honduras, several of us led Vacation Bible School for the kids. It was a blessing to have fun with the children, even though we could not understand most of what they said. For my daughter, Grace, and me, the interactions with the children were among the most enjoyable.
The picture on the left is of three Honduran homes located beside the church where we worked. On the left, above and below, are two homes, with a third under the tin roof on the right. More homes are in the background. Although the condition of these homes is worse than some we saw, this scene is common. There were two boys in Bible School who lived next door to these houses. Angel and Daniel, aged about 6 and 4, were happy, cute, well-behaved, slightly ornery boys, not unlike typical youngsters in my hometown. They did not appear undernourished or under-loved, and I have no reason to believe they were. They lived in conditions like those pictured, however. I did not see the inside of their home, but it is likely they had little of the “stuff” we consider necessary for a normal upbringing in the U.S. Did they have TVs or Internet access? Could they watch movies or play video games?
Grace and I talked about how easy it would be to “rescue” one or more of these children into our home, where they would have access to our abundance. Wouldn’t their lives be improved? As the week progressed, the answer seemed clear: No, probably not. Different, yes; better, no. One of the many realizations I made in Honduras is that our “first world” lives are largely lived vicariously in the past and the future. We relive the past and dream of the future, often missing the present moment. Many Hondurans do not have that luxury. The realities of their environment force them to live in the moment, focusing on the needs of now – food, water, work, togetherness, etc. – so there is little energy left to regret the past or ponder the future.
We worry about the future of Angel, Daniel, and the other children. Will they become victims of the prevalent gang violence? Will they be sold into sex trafficking? Will they live their entire lives in housing conditions like these? We cannot know. We also rejoice, however, in the pure joy Angel, Daniel, and the other kids found in the moments of Bible School. Singing, coloring, jumping rope, kicking a soccer ball – they savored moments fully. Their depth of being and their joy in fellowship with us and the other children was beautiful and inspiring. I doubt that could be duplicated here.
I am convinced the solution to the dilemmas in Honduras is not to (north) “Americanize” the people. Rather, we must find ways to preserve the uniquely beautiful parts of their lives and culture, while moderating the violence and poverty that so endanger them. Otherwise, the cures we export may be worse than the illnesses we attempt to heal.
Come home to church this Sunday. Join with others to heal our broken world.