Surrender

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Surrender

See, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of death. Those who stay in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence; but those who go out and surrender to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have their lives as a prize of war. Jeremiah 21:8b-9

Jerusalem was under siege from the king of Babylon and the Chaldeans. The Israelites asked the prophet Jeremiah to inquire of the Lord if God would kindly make them go away. Instead, the answer given through Jeremiah was for the Israelites, God’s chosen people, to surrender or die. Not only that, but God would join the Chaldeans to help assure the defeat and destruction of the Israelites if they did not surrender. Talk about a harsh message!  The lives of the people of Jerusalem had strayed far from God’s designs, and it was time for a reset. Either they could die holding fast to their stubborn ways, or they could surrender and live in Babylonian captivity.

Few of us like to surrender, but sometimes it is our best option. Sometimes, we are better off admitting we are beating our heads against a wall that will not fall. Sometimes we, like the Israelites, need a reset. The term surrender carries negative connotations, not all of which are fair. Particularly in the United States, we believe that if we try hard enough we can accomplish anything. In that sense, surrender is failure and evidence of a weak spirit. What happens when we struggle to climb to the top of the ladder, however, fighting through every challenge, temptation, and warning to descend, only to find the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall? Sometimes, life’s rules, frustrations, and warning signs are there for our own good. In the context of the story of the people of Jerusalem, saving them from the Chaldean siege to continue with the status quo would not have been in their best interest. God showed love by refusing to intervene on their behalf.

Far from a sign of failure, surrender is a necessary part of a spiritual life. We are not all-knowing. Our plans are not always the best way to get to where we wish to go, nor is where we wish to go always a good place for us to be. Being open to God’s guidance, as well as that of our mentors and teachers, is not surrender as in giving up, but is surrender in the sense of trusting in and submitting to the wisdom of another. Of course, God provides the free will to stubbornly follow our own desires – no doubt, at least some of the people of Jerusalem died in doing so – but I am certain God’s heart breaks on our behalf when we need to change course and refuse. I do not believe God wishes us to suffer more than necessary. When we learn and grow from life’s experiences and challenges, we become better equipped to discern when it is best to stop and change direction.

I do not mean to imply that God causes our suffering, or that by the conditions that cause us to suffer we have necessarily done anything wrong. When life puts barriers in our way, we must stop and discern whether this is something we should power through or whether a change of tactics is in order. The discernment process is not easy, nor is it a one-time event. When we push for something that is inconsistent with what is good for us or others, when we insist on making something happen that is best not to happen, we can be sure we will receive pushback. Perhaps even pushback from God. If and when that happens, it is not a sign that God is against us, only that God loves us too much to pave an easy path to our own self-destruction.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the familiar Serenity Prayer[1]:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

The Serenity Prayer is a wonderful summary of the type of surrender that does not deny the importance of hard work, resolve, and courage, but confesses that sometimes the mountains we believe should be moved are not going to budge. To blindly push forward with our own fruitless desires becomes, at some point, like praying with one eye open. What we believe to be faithfulness deconstructs into faithless obstinacy.

This is the 11th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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[1] https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/prayer/serenity-prayer-applying-3-truths-from-the-bible.html

God the Spirit, Part 1

God the Spirit, Part 1

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.

John 14:2-26

The three persons of the Trinity of God are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One can describe God the Father as the unembodied creative force, the impetus behind everything created. God the Son, the creation, is the resulting life formed by the outpouring – the Word – of the Father onto the substance of the earth. The progeny of the unbroken relationship between Father and Son – Creator and Created – is the Holy Spirit. For this reason, it is nearly impossible to have an insightful discussion about the Spirit, or God for that matter, except in the context of relationship.

Perhaps more than anything, the relational nature of the Trinity trips us up as we try to understand something discerning about the nature of God. Here are a few writings that help me imagine God as dynamically relational, as opposed to the static, distant being I learned in childhood. First, Meister Eckhart, a 13th Century mystic, wrote:

             …the Father laughs and gives birth to the Son.

            The Son laughs back at the Father and gives birth to the Spirit.

            The whole Trinity laughs and gives birth to us.1

Here we see the Spirit described as the product of a joyful relationship between the Father and the Son. Further, we live inside this dynamic, loving relationship between the Father, Son, and Spirit. Although most of us are unaware of it, we all – individually and corporately – exist in the Trinity of God. A second image is in Richard Rohr’s book, The Divine Dance2, where he writes, “the principle of one is lonely; the principle of two is oppositional…; the principle of three is inherently moving, dynamic, and generative.” Later, in the same book (p. 82), Rohr writes “…you can know and love God on at least three distinctly wonderful levels: the Transpersonal level (“Father”), the Personal level (“Jesus”), and the Impersonal level (“Holy Spirit”). Finally, on page 98, Rohr paraphrases Richard of St. Victor, writing, “For God to be good, God can be one. For God to be loving, God has to be two. Because love is always a relationship…But for God to ‘share excellent joy’ and ‘delight’…God has to be three, because supreme happiness is when two persons share their common delight in a third something – together.”

The initial manifestation of the Spirit grows out of the mutual love between the Father and Son within the totality of God. The Spirit within us is a product of our relationship to and in God, as well as a manifestation of our relationships with others. In John 14, Jesus tells his disciples the Father will send the Spirit after his departure. This means that while God was present in the bodily form of Jesus with the people of his time, God would continue to be eternally present within everyone in the person of the Spirit.

The reason the Spirit is so difficult to perceive, aside from the fact that it has no physical nature, is that it is the unembodied product of relationship. We tend to underestimate or ignore this third something that appears in all our encounters with others. As we open ourselves to a closer relationship to God, we sense a presence that never leaves us, that gives substance to our faith, and that gives hope when there is no tangible reason for optimism. That presence is the Holy Spirit, our divine teacher, spiritual companion, and Advocate.

The Spirit of God is also referred to as the Wisdom of God. In Proverbs 8, wisdom is described as something of immeasurable value that we should desire more than anything else. “For whoever finds me (wisdom) finds life and obtains favor from the Lord” (Proverbs 8:35). Our Trinitarian God imparts its wisdom through the Spirit dwelling within us. Of course, we must build a relationship with and an awareness and acknowledgement of that Spirit in order consciously to benefit from its presence.

Next week, I will explore familiar ways in which God the Spirit manifests to us.

Note: this is the 34th in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.

 1 Meister Eckhart, Meditations with Meister Eckhart, translated and edited by Matthew Fox (Bear and Company: 1983), 129.

2 Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance, Whitaker House, 2016. Page 28.

 

Love Hopes All Things

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Love Hopes All Things

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things… 1 Corinthians 13:4-7c

Just as love is other-focused, so hope is future-focused. True hope, however, is not wishful thinking or daydreaming. Hope looks forward with a knowledge and optimism rooted in actual experience – projecting the future from the past. When we make time to reflect on our experiences, when we look back over our lives, we recognize recurring patterns. Every time a situation looks dire, eventually, something (often unforeseen) happens to help the situation work out – not always in the way we wish, but always in a way that helps us grow. When we recognize this pattern of grace, we begin to develop – uneasily at times – a nebulous sense of hope. This hope is not rooted in a future vision we can specifically see or know, but in a faith that no matter what life brings, we will be loved and cared for, and we will come through the other side stronger and wiser. It is often easier for those of us in the second half of our lives to experience this hope simply because we have more years to learn from.

In Romans 8:24-25, Paul writes, “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” If I hope to experience a beautiful sunrise today after the sun has risen, that is not hope because it already happened. I can hope, however, to see another beautiful sunrise in the future because I know from experience there will be more sunrises that are beautiful. I do not know the specific days or the frequency with which those will occur, but I have confidence they will happen. I wait expectantly for them, even though I do not know when they will manifest.

My grandma Hildenbrand saw a version of me she knew I could become, rather than the person I saw as myself. She looked beyond my flawed exterior, saw and acknowledged a capacity that seldom matched the reality. Sometimes, I felt guilty and unworthy because I was not as good as she gave me credit for being – or was I? Perhaps it was my vision that was flawed. This is the amazing impact of hope on the object of our love – that we see beyond our petty failings to the image of God from which we were created. Someone who believes in us, who hopes for the best for us, who sees the heart God created and animated within us – these are the people who inspire us to greatness. These are the people who know the power of hope, and these are the people whose unfailing and unconditional love inspires us to love others with a similar hope for all things.

Let us make 2016 the year of love, as love was meant to be.

Strength

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Strength

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.

The Fingerprint of God

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The Fingerprint of God

But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this! In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being.  Job 12:7-10

The Old Testament book of Job begins with a conversation between God and the devil. They are observing Job, a prosperous man who, according to God, would remain faithful through any difficulty. The devil claims that if Job were stripped of his family and possessions, his faith would soon leave him. God agrees to put Job to the test. All of Job’s children, his crops and animals, his health, and all of his wealth are taken from him – all with the approval of God. Interestingly, Job’s faith does not waiver, but he does get extremely angry with God. In the passage above, Job claims that all of creation knows who caused his calamity because God’s fingerprints were all over it. Much of the book consists of discourses between a livid, desperate Job and his friends, and between Job and God.

In his book A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer writes:

The deeper our faith, the more doubt we must endure; the deeper our hope, the more prone we are to despair; the deeper our love, the more pain its loss will bring; these are a few of the paradoxes we must hold as human beings. If we refuse to hold them in hopes of living without doubt, despair, and pain, we also find ourselves living without faith, hope, and love.

Job’s reactions are interesting to me, as he falls into deep despair. He is in agonizing physical and emotional pain and begs for relief, but he never loses faith. His misfortune occurs over an extended period, with calamity piled upon calamity, each as bad as or worse than the previous one, yet he continues to believe God is in control. I fear I would abandon my faith in God under a fraction of the weight of Job’s condition.

We seem to have evolved a belief that only what we perceive as good is of God. The bad in our lives comes from something or someone else – an evil power, greedy humans, or the presence of sin. It seems to me if God is in control of anything in our lives, God must be in control of everything in our lives. That God sometimes intervenes in the apparent course of our lives is clear to me. How, when, and for what purposes God choses to intervene is a mystery. It seems arrogant on my part to assume God only intervenes in ways I will consider good. Who am I to judge what is good in God’s eyes? For me, at least, every challenging event in my life has led to an unexpected blessing. Even the animals, plants, birds, and fish declare God’s fingerprint on all of creation. Perhaps we are the ones most challenged to see it.

Come home to church this Sunday. Find God’s fingerprint on your life.

The Truth About Truth

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The Truth about Truth

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  John 8:31-32

When I first learned the truth about fertilizer, I was aghast. How could something so good and necessary for healthy plants come from such nasty raw materials? As our home was being built, I watched as the exposed lumber, nails, pipes, and wires that form the shell of our home were covered over, the dirt and debris removed, and a beautiful home took shape from its messy, ugly beginnings. In Government class, my instructor taught “If you love breakfast and love your country, never watch sausage or laws being made.” Having had the opportunity to witness the law-making process, I wholeheartedly agree.

We uncover truth not as a destination but as a journey. Parts of most worthwhile journeys are difficult, and often unpleasant, even though the end may be beautiful. Jesus says the truth will make us free. Just because we know the truth, however, and just because the truth makes us free does not mean knowing the truth makes our lives easier. In order to get beyond whatever holds us in bondage, we must first experience, understand, and acknowledge the sometimes-hurtful realities that lead us to truth.

In his booklet The Servant as Leader, Robert Greenleaf writes, “Awareness is not a giver of solace – it is just the opposite. It is a disturber and an awakener.” Becoming aware is not necessarily a freeing experience. It is, however, a necessary part of our growth. We cannot begin to understand human behavior without taking a deep dive into the complex and bothersome web of cause and effect that underlies our decision-making. Without acknowledging the good, bad, and ugly of human motivation, however, we will never comprehend the “truths” from which people act, particularly those closest to us.

While knowing the truth makes us free, in one sense, it obligates us to action in another. One can argue that if truth does not motivate us to action, then our understanding of truth is not complete. As we grasp the truth about our world, we can no longer not act. We cannot pretend not to see the desperate circumstances of some of our brothers and sisters.

Significantly, our truths evolve as we grow. My truths are more encompassing today than they once were. Holding lightly to our understanding of truth is a desirable trait. Jesus tells us to continue in the way of discipleship, and we will know the truth. That implies the journey to truth is a lifelong road. It requires an expansive perspective. The minutia of life blocks the view of truth because truth is a product of the forest, not the trees.

Come home to church this Sunday. Building a beautiful life can get ugly at times.

Beyond Words

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Beyond Words

Be still, and know that I am God!  Psalm 46:1a

Be StillI am a man of too many words. I think in words, I speak in words, and, too often, I experience life through the filter of words. I attempt to capture beauty in words and in doing so I invariably lose much of the wonder I try to describe. There is a saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. I experienced the sunset in this picture a couple of weeks ago at the Lake of the Ozarks. I would only detract from the splendor by trying to describe it. Even the picture does not capture the experience, however. A picture is a two-dimensional recreation of a single moment. A sunset occurs in four dimensions, the fourth being the 30 or so minutes it requires to manifest fully.

I enjoy using words to share the insights and wisdom I occasionally find. A part of me knows, however, that the more words I use, the farther I stray from the essence of what I attempt to share. Consider a finger pointing at the moon, where the moon is truth and the finger is its description. The purpose of the finger is to point, to lead others to experience the moon for themselves. Unfortunately, we too readily focus on the words – the finger – instead of the truth – the moon – to which they point. I fall into this trap regularly. I tell myself if I can only find the right combination of words, I will capture an experience for eternity. Certainly, the written word can be beautiful, inspiring, and artful. But words cannot capture the totality of a beautiful experience.

Words are symbols we create to represent something else. The word rock describes a part of creation. Adjectives can make it more precise: a small, smooth, round, brown rock. Even so, the rock and the description of the rock are not the same. We simply cannot capture reality in words. Reality is experiential, and words are just marks on paper. Like the sunset above, reality happens in space over a span of time. If we want a description of an experience, words are great. If we want the experience, however, we must be present. Words can lead us to believe we have experienced something we have only read about.

Saint Francis of Assisi, a 13th Century monk, wrote, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” In general, we talk too much, and our words can actually inhibit understanding. The Psalmist tells us to “Be still” if we wish to know God. We cannot find God in a dictionary. Neither does God live in books, including the Bible, even though that text is our primary resource for learning about God. We experience God by seeking and listening, not to the words of the voice in our head, but by responding to the pull on our heart. To find God, we must eventually move beyond words.

Come home to church this Sunday. Be still and know.