An Invitation

I've found myself in lighter days, days with shining, luminous edges. Silver linings are real, I've found, and I can say this with some certainty--this life ain't so bad. I suppose I've found my way through a hole of sorts. It's a hole that took a while to dig, one that involved a marriage, a career, the slow realization of the unimportance of a life, a little sickness, a little liquor, and a hell of a lot of my own stupidity. The odd thing about the hole I dug was that I dug it--for the most part--without realizing it. Is this the way we all do? Does anyone set out to lose themselves six-feet-under, buried by their own ambition, or pain, or penchants for addiction? I don't suppose. I suppose most of us die by way of involuntary diggery.

You know this, right?

There's an equal and opposite truth, though. I don't suppose I pulled myself back into the light. Sure, I showed up; I did the work--yadda, yadda, yadda. But how was it that I climbed up the slickery, mudden sides of my own hole? If I'm honest, I feel as if I were pulled from it, predestined as that may sound. I feel scooped, maybe like the way God scooped the first man from the earth. Who knows. And though I call this the hand of God, a few of you might not believe in God the way I do; you can call it the long reach of the universe, or karma, or whatever, so long as you realize that I'm writing of the transcendent grace, that grace I find myself incapable of. Wherever you are and whatever you call this pulling, this grace, doesn't so much matter to me. What matters is that I extend a little invitation to you. (Please know you're all invited.) The invitation goes something like this:

Come and see. 

That's how all the good stories start, and I started telling this story yesterday in my bi-monthly Tiny Letter. Here's the introduction:

There is a disquieting stillness when you sit with a holy man, a proverbial oracle. There—in his office, on his back porch, in his bedroom, wherever—stillness is acute, sharp, maybe a needle point. It's the stillness that pushes through skin, muscle, bone, and marrow into the very center of something (The heart? The soul?). The holy man, the oracle, he knows who he is, and he rests in the way and shape of his life. The student, or novice, or receiver (in this instance, me) does not know the way or shape but instead fumbles to hold the weight of any wisdom. Holy men and oracles smile at this fumbling. They know that fumbling leads to holding, at least over time.

“Remember the child?” they ask.

I could have started the first Newsletter of 2017 two thousand and seventeen different ways, but this is the only way that seemed right. I broke words for weeks before scattering them on the page like breadcrumbs. Breadcrumbs seem about right. How else should I lead you to my friend—my friend—John Paine?

If you'd like to meet the man who's acted as a sort of rope and pulley in my life, I hope you'll read the full piece by signing up to receive my bi-monthly Tiny Letter. I'll be letting this story unfold in serial fashion over the coming months, and only my monthly newsletter subscribers will have the opportunity to follow along. I hope to see you there.

***The Practice of Prayer: Thanksgiving***

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What God promises: Comfort to the Suffering

We’re continuing our series on the creeping prosperity gospel. This week, we’re exploring “what God promises,” and today, John Ray has agreed to share. I've watched John and his family wrestle with suffering through the loss of his daughter Olivia. You can read more about her story here. Consider his words and join us in the comments as we work this out.

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." ~Matthew 5:4

It starts around the time school kicks back into gear. As summer days slowly shorten and as fall starts to move in, so does the gathering grief. It comes, like a large rough stone dragged by a chain over a rutted road. Heave. Clunk. Heave. Clunk. Heave...a smothering panic blankets our home; oppressive, suffocating, inescapable.

In many ways the anticipation of the anniversary is worse than the actual day itself. Maybe it is because there seems to be grace for making it through the day we lost our young Olivia, just like there was grace in the weeks and months following her passing. There was revelation. There was comfort that matched the terror. There was peace of a potency that matched the poison. There was news that was truly good, shattering in it’s incarnation, utterly disorienting in its clarity, news that was sufficient to counter even death.

It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t nice, it wasn’t happy, but it was real.

Looking back I see everything that is important in my life has been shaped by suffering. This suffering--whether inflicted through pain and death, insult and loss--is the thing that has opened me to understanding, to experience, to really value the beauty of the Gospel.

And I have found no other way to experience it.

I know I am not the first to grasp this. I know I still really don’t understand it. But I do know we are a society drunk on manipulating promises of peace, joy, health, wealth and comfort in ways that avoid the very thing necessary to truly understand and experience them. Our constant pursuit of comfort through safety and control prevents us from understanding the one necessary element to obtain it. Not only do we avoid suffering, run from it, we also demonize it. We treat suffering as if it is not the evidence of obedience or an opportunity for grace; instead, we treat it as a sure sign of sin, faithlessness, or ignorance. It is the thing to be avoided at all cost. “It which shall not be named”.

We run from being the kind of people who hear the Good News as it is intended to be heard; comfort for those who mourn, satisfaction for those who hunger, reward for those who suffer. Instead we make the Good News into a promise of the Good Life here and now, a way of having Jesus “pimp” out our already overstuffed lives.

I write this knowing there are many who deeply suffer and feel this promise must not apply to them. There are those who fight through every day and the comfort of which I write seems so far away and impossible to find. There are those for whom no amount of assuaging can compensate for the pain, the loss. To you I offer no formula or instruction, only my own witness and presence and the acknowledgement that your pain is real.

And I offer the testimony that as I emptied every ounce of pain and anger and terror into the hands of God, those hands held and hold me still. That is his promise. That his hands will hold you still.

Cover photo by D.Boyarrin, via Creative Commons.

God's Goodness in Question (What do you believe?)

But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all your works. ~Psalm 73:28

There are rumblings among some of my friends. Now in they're thirties and forties, they're finding things to be wholly other than they thought in the post-college, eyes-wide shut days. To them, God's goodness is in question, it being inadvertently linked to their everyday circumstance. Promising careers have turned into laborious drudgery. There are houses high-centered on the market, families struggling to make ends meet. The family illness, the church split, the separation, the divorce--it's all got them running amok. Living in a carnival of uncertainty, they point to proof after proof of a failing god, of an impotent gospel.

But there are others who see God's grace is deep and wide, less like a fountain and more like the mighty Mississippi. They live in this river, the one whose streams make glad cities, homes, and hearts.  They haven't been spared the troubles or sorrows of this world. In fact some of them have suffered a double-barreled blast.

Consider John Ray.  I sat on his porch last week while the first cold front blew across the Ozarks.  October  is especially stark for him, it being the month he lost his youngest daughter. John reminisced a bit, shared good memories, painful ones, too. But in the end he affirmed the truth--God is good in security, he says, but he's equally good in insecurity.  God is good outside of circumstance because that's his nature.

It's a gutsy affirmation, I know. I wonder whether I believe it. Really? In earnest? Do you?

Starting next week, we're going to be exploring some themes here. What doesn't God promise? What does he promise? How do we hold the two in tension, recognizing His goodness?  Is it possible to see God in the failing circumstance?

I hope you'll visit. But in the meantime, tell me: what do you believe about God? Really? No holds barred. And if you need to hold a bar or two, feel free to comment anonymously.

Be Transfigured

This is a sort of continuation of the Double Edged Sword posts.  Follow the links to Part I and Part II. Yesterday, by, through, and in unity with the power of modern technology, I listened to an eclectic mix of sermon podcasts. A preacher with a southern dialectical swagger spoke more of football than he did of Jesus. He summarized the Gospel as if it were some kind of post-game victory dance. A Jesus jitterbug. He said Jesus came to free us from the drudgery of life, the pain of failure.

He was not alone. Sermon after sermon, preacher after preacher, the messages continued. "Are you living in blessing?" they asked. Some were more covert--"are you walking in obedience to Christ; have you ever walked in His favor?" For the most part, the preachers failed to define either obedience or favor. Instead, they resorted to emotional, tautological double-speak.

As if Christ the transfigured can be summed up without proper effort.

Even with proper effort, I reckon the summing up of Christ will have to wait until I see the fire in his heart. Or maybe just the nail-scars in his hands.

*****

I snuck from the office with a good friend. He's a linear fella, a logical man who knows when to speak and when to hold his tongue. He's had a spiritual awakening of sorts and it's come at the perfect time. He's on the uptick and dragging me with him.

We talked about modern preaching and the fundamental shifts in the expressions of the church. "Did you hear about the church meeting in the bar that straddles the Florida/Alabama state line?" he asked. I told him I hadn't. "The bar tender says that some congregants order bloody Marys as soon as they walk into the sanctua... er... bar. Oddly, they serve grape juice for communion."

"Of course they do," I said. "I reckon we over-contextualize everything."

We sat for a few minutes and he read to me from his journal. "I'm not a writer," he said, "so don't hold the style against me." He then proceeded to read one of the most thoughtful and well-written pieces about prayer and suffering. "What if God's best for me is not the 'best' as I see it," he read, "will I still give God glory and see him as good?"

When he finished, I put words to the practicalities of that kind of theology. "The way I see it, there are two God-options. Either God is completely and all-together good--whether in loss or victory--or He is heedless and improvident."

I thought about that statement on the drive home last night. I'll choose to believe in God's goodness, even when my life doesn't seem victorious. I'd rather serve a God of purpose than one of occasional and perfunctory niceties.

*****

The boys greeted me at the door with their usual "Daddy" war-cry. I fought my way through hugs and clamorous day-long narrations and found Amber on the far side of the kitchen. She hugged me. I patted her rear.

On my way to the closet, my phone alerted me of a waiting email. I changed clothes and checked the message. It was from Jordan and Keri Clark, friends of ours from college. Emails from them are holy experiences, moments that require a pause and a deep breath.

Jordan and Keri have lost two children to a rare genetic disease. We've followed news of their losses over the years, watched as they've patiently and faithfully served the God who could have healed, but didn't. The substance of the email is personal, but I will tell you this--Jordan and Keri see God as abiding in love, kind, and merciful.

Some might lament their lot, say it's tragic. I see their lot, the way they've used it to become more conformed into the recognizable image of Christ, and I say they are beautiful.

If only I had the courage to ask for that kind of conformity.

*****

Modern preacher, don't talk to me about victorious living. I'm done with that pipe-dream.  Speak of contentment in plenty and want, pain and suffering. Preach Christ-esteem, conformity, sanctification. Show me mercy, grace in action. Bring me a cup of cold water. Share your journal with me. Send me an encouraging email.

Be transfigured.

Then, I'll listen.

The Unintended Double-Edged Sword

Proclaiming God’s favor can be a double-edged sword. I’ve heard the creeping theology of prosperity in the averted tragedies of others. They spill wonder-filled, mystical stories, recounting God’s graciousness in piecing together the impossible jig-saw puzzles of life.

It’s a familiar story. We've all heard it.

My son was sick and hopelessly so. A miracle of providence brought us to a particular doctor who knew just the right answer. God orchestrated every move, ordained the whole thing to bring healing, and ultimately greater glory. God will bring you an answer in good time.

If you listen carefully, if you follow the logic, you will see it. God’s favor associated with the outcome. Perhaps that’s comfort to the healed and their families. Perhaps it’s a good story for the Sunday morning meeting. But one man’s salve is another man’s sore.

What if God fails to orchestrate the proper cure at the proper time? What if he stands to the side, seemingly idle, while the innocent go to the grave? What if the proper providential miracle is conspicuously absent? Does that mean that God was absent, that his hand was too short to save?

A word of caution to the would be story tellers: prosperity does not necessarily implicate providence, nor does it always bring comfort. Sometimes, the providence is in the pain.

How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorry in my heart all the day? … But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me. ~Psalm 13:2, 5-6

*Photo by FaceMePLS; used under Creative Commons license.