We must be consumed either by the anger of the storm god or by the love of the living God. There is no way around life and its sufferings. Our only choice is whether we will be consumed by the fire of our own heedless fears and passions or allow God to refine us in his fire and to shape us into a fitting instrument for his revelation.Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews
I was talking with a friend yesterday, and we were talking about the humbling experience of repeatedly forgetting the basics of how to live life. Regardless of whether you learn them in kindergarten or whenever, life in a way just isn’t all that complicated. I’ve repeated this to hundreds, if not thousands, of people over the years, and yet over and over again, I find myself either forgetting the simple truths or (more commonly) simply failing to live them out.
My friend and I were talking about what it’s like to stumble over and over again, and while we both recognized that it’s not like “starting over” on your education in life, it can be frustrating when you discover that you’re making the same mistake—either in thinking or behavior—that you made at 19, then again at 29, then again 39, and so on and so on.
Kind of like I did this weekend.
After a weekend of loss—my uncle David, my father’s youngest brother—passed away on Friday, I was struggling. Specifically I was struggling to give in to the grief, sorrow, and regret that was stirring around my soul (which is worth another blog post—and counseling sessions as well).
The storm of emotions kept building up throughout Saturday, and even overnight, as I tossed and turned and waited for a sleep that never really came.
I awoke on Sunday even more “sideways” than I was on Saturday (and now combined with a bit of sleep deprivation).
Eventually I broke down, and received the blessings of both tears as well as the prayers, support, and healing embrace of my faith community, and it was deeply effective in calming the turbulence inside my spirit.
But I still had a lot to learn.
Later on Sunday evening, I was still reflecting over the weekend, and it occurred to me that, alongside my general hesitancy to just “feel my feelings” was a perception I had saddled onto myself: I realized that I was not allowing myself to weep or grieve because somehow I had told myself that “As the point leader in this community I HAVE to ‘be strong’, which means I should NOT tell people about my sadness, and CERTAINLY not reveal my fragility.”
What’s more, I also realized in this moment that right alongside this statement about leadership was a (false) belief in what it meant to be “mature”: Namely, that a “mature (male?) leader handles loss and grief with a stoic, granite strength.”.
Don’t ask me where it all comes from; there’s really not enough time to process all the sources of that toxic brew.
Regardless of where it comes from, the bottom line is that at the depth of my being, in the TRUEST (holiest?) part of my being I AM NOT A STOIC.
I AM NOT GRANITE.
You know what?
I cry at Disney movies.
Tears well up in my eyes when I hear “Moonlight Mile”, the closing track on the Rolling Stones’ album STICKY FINGERS.
I derive significant joy from a beautiful morning. When the temperature is slightly brisk, and the sunrise is beautiful, and there is life and possibility and promise, my soul sings and smile is quick to come.
I was in the middle of a six mile run when I started balling to a song by Journey. BY JOURNEY!
I ache and break whenever I have to tell someone that they have failed me, or “missed the mark” in their job and/or ministry.
My heart hurts that I can’t see my daughter every day while she’s away at school, yet when she’s home I struggle to know what to say to her or how to have a deep, soul-revealing conversation with her.
If I’m honest, my heart is so open that it is on the verge of bursting and spilling over at virtually any part of any day.
However, it’s also so open that it is very easy—VERY EASY—to hurt me.
To put this in terms of the LORD OF THE RINGS movies (yes, I cry during them as well), though I definitely aspire to be (and in all honesty I have a little bit of in my personality) ARAGORN, the truth of the matter is I’m much more like Peregrin “Pippin” Took, or even Samwise, vulnerable figures who aren’t really cut out for the world they find themselves living in, much less for conflict and mission they must navigate.
Open, tender-hearted people.
The scene between Pippin and Gandalf—standing on a balcony in Minas Tirith before the great battle there—is more true of me and my relationship to God than you could ever know (though honestly I don’t even usually end up feeling as reassured as Pippin does).
I tell people—PARTICULARLY MEN—about being vulnerable, about being emotionally vulnerable, about living AND LEADING with heart and soul.
And yet I forgot it. Probably not for the first time.
How much do you rely on your spiritual life to “make” God love you?
How much do you rely on your worship, or your prayers, to earn God’s favor?
To put it another way, what happens when you can’t sing? Or when your prayer is just a silent desperation?
Sometimes, life is just too much, and it’s just too difficult to sing the songs, or to engage in your typical practices.
When that happens, listen to the voices that show up in your head; watch what tapes start to play: it’s entirely possible that what you will hear in that moment is some version of, “God is not pleased with you right now because you are not worshiping/praying/serving/etc.”
(This is a paraphrased, polite version of what they might sound like.)
But worship and prayer and other spiritual activities are never, EVER meant to “get God to love you”; He JUST LOVES YOU.
The thing that your spiritual efforts and disciplines are supposed to do is to open up space in your heart and soul in which God can dwell, to widen the conduit through which grace and Spirit can flow.
So when you don’t—or can’t—sing, don’t fall into the trap of self-condemnation. The voices that tell you that “God only likes you” if you somehow “perform” spiritually are not true, and a lie.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit”, indeed.
Neil Young said it well:
“But only love can break your heart;
Try to be sure right from the start.
Yes, only love can break your heart,
But if your world should fall apart…”
In your vocation—if you do it and live it right—your heart will be broken, sometimes over and over again.
Even though it’s not physical, as it was with Paul when Jesus told him in the Book of Acts, “I’ll show you how much you must suffer for my name,” it is painful nonetheless.
When you live life with an open heart, when you do your work open-handed and innocent, you will experience pain.
The cuts will come. Betrayals, sometime innocuous and sometimes devastating, are a simple part of living with other humans.
So be prepared to weep and moan.
But remember: “if your world should fall apart” (and it will), there is a deeper love that exists.
That of a Father who’s embrace never hesitates.
That of a faithful Brother who gave up everything for love, for you.
That of a Sister and Spirit, who is with you always as guide, comforter, counselor.
So love on, brother. Do your best. To be broken—to mourn and grieve—is to be human, but you can always drink from the deeper waters of eternity, and dwell INSIDE the protective, WOMB-LIKE love of the Great Mystery, the “Father-in-the-Heavens” whose love is DECIDEDLY and REFRESHINGLY UNLIKE human love.
(And a lot, lot better.)
First, this is worth quoting at length:
In saints you find that perfect humility and perfect integrity coincide. The two turn out to be practically the same thing. The saint is unlike everybody else precisely because he is humble… Humility consists in being precisely the person you actually are before God, and since no two people are like, if you have the humility to be yourself you will not be like anyone else in the whole universe. But this individuality will not necessarily assert itself on the surface of everyday life. It will not be a matter of mere appearances, or opinions, or tastes, or ways of doing things. It is something deep in the soul.Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
This is the essence of it: you get away because the truth of the matter is that, as much as you’d like to be otherwise, you really do not know yourself (yet).
You tell yourself in the busy-ness of life that you are your thoughts and your beliefs and your experiences and even your brokenness, but when you get quiet enough and humble enough, you realize that who you are is deeper than that.
You need to release all of the distractions, and go deeper than the surface. To hear the voice of God in that mysterious silence who will begin to tell you who you REALLY are: which starts with “BELOVED.”
From there, you can realize that so much of who you think you are in your day to day life is nothing but illusions and tapes installed by years of struggle and fear. The deeper water of true identity and humility linger underneath.
And so you begin to become yourself at last.
I was watching a YouTube video a few weeks ago. It was one of those “accidental” clicks, where I’m not REALLY interested in it but something tells me I SHOULD be.
It had a clever title—something about musical worship in church—and since that’s a world I used to know quite well, AND I was a bit bored, I loaded it up and started to watch and listen.
The two guys were requisitely hip. One introduced the other with nice credentials: he’d made it through to the << insert impressive number here >> round of American Idol, and led worship at << insert impressive church name here >> in Nashville.
I actually have no doubt about his talent, and I have no doubt about his sincerity either.
But as they got into the talk, he said something like this: “God is not impressed by your voice or talent.”
I imagine what he was trying to say was that we need heart and intention and integrity as much as we need talent and chops.
Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been living with the parable of the prodigal for 5-6 hours straight, or maybe it’s something else, but here’s the deal…
MY GOD DELIGHTS IN ME.
(And also in YOU.)
My voice (or my preaching, or my writing, or my whatever-talent-you-choose may not “impress Him” BUT HE LOVES TO WATCH AND HEAR ME.
He is not an American Idol judge; he’s the Father who runs down the road to see his long lost son.
It’s as if we’d like to say, “Yeah but that was about salvation; once that boy (the prodigal) got home, you can be darn sure the Father would be unimpressed with his bad decision-making.”
To put it another way, God is not FORCED to love us because of some theological trickery (“Man, that Jesus really made me tolerate these people…”); He CHOOSES to love us, to DELIGHT in us, JUST BECAUSE THAT’S WHO HE IS.
He not only LOVES us. HE LIKES US.
Either the Father delights, or He doesn’t.
He is the God who has heard every beautiful voice ever, every symphony ever made, every bird ever created, every note played anywhere, at any time…
AND YET IF I SANG TO HIM HE WOULD SMILE AND JUST SAY, “OH THAT’S BRILLIANT! PLEASE SING MORE!”
Is that “impressed”? Maybe not.
Would He be delighted?
And He’d ask for more.
(I am away on a personal silent retreat; however this was too good to pass up.)
The Hebrew Scriptures, along with many Rabbis, affirm both the need for repentance—turning around, or changing your mind—as well as the POWER of repenting. They understood YHWH as a god of radical grace and love, and so to them it was nothing to affirm (as the Babylonian Talmud does),
“Great is repentance, for it reaches up to the Throne of glory… Great is repentance, because it brings about redemption…
Great is repentance, for because of it premeditated sins are accounted as errors…”
A rabbi says this, “An arrow carries the width of a field; but repentance carries to the throne of God.”
So for Jesus to talk about repentance in a novel way, he had to somehow go BEYOND this understanding. Otherwise, very few people would have found his teachings novel, and CERTAINLY they would not have been worth arresting (and eventually killing) him.
But when Jesus tells a parable (with three parts) in Luke 15, the first image he uses of REPENTANCE is striking.
He tells the story of a “good shepherd” who leaves his 99 sheep goes after a lost, single animal. The text tells how the good shepherd (i.e., God/Jesus) is thrilled when he finds the sheep, and then comes home and celebrates with his friends.
But the punchline comes in verse 7.
Jesus tells his listeners (the Pharisees and legal experts), “In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over ONE SINNER WHO CHANGES BOTH HEART AND LIFE (read: “repents”) THAN OVER NINETY-NINE RIGHTEOUS PEOPLE…”
On the one hand, Jesus unambiguously tells his audience, “THIS IS ABOUT REPENTANCE…”
One the other hand, THE SHEEP NEVER REPENTS.
The sheep is merely “FOUND.”
In this story of repentance, Jesus seems to be saying that repentance is not always about DOING something; it’s about LETTING YOURSELF BE FOUND BY THE GOOD SHEPHERD.
Even “turning yourself around”, or “changing your view of reality” can be turned into performance, into making God happy.
But Jesus tells us RIGHT HERE that sometimes to repent just means to STOP and ALLOW the good shepherd to find you, pick you up, and carry you home.
THAT’S WHAT REPENTANCE IS.
(The Talmudic and Rabbinic quotes come from Kenneth Bailey, Jacob and the Prodigal, p 80-81.)