Friday, June 25, 2010

Not a Fairy Godmother!

     My continuing struggles during our long battle have led me to some shocking discoveries about how I think about God. I have been humbled again and again to discover that what I believe in my head, having read the right things in all the right books, is not what I believe in the deepest places. Thankfully, God is revealing this stuff to change me, but it is a journey of much brokenness along with unspeakable wonder as I discover who God really is.
     The discoveries have of late centered in themes that are wonderfully revealed in the following interchange between Jake and John in chapter 6, "Loving Father or Fairy Godmother?" in So You Don't Want to Go to Church Anymore, by Wayne Jacobsen and Dave Coleman.

John: "So you think God owes you better?"
Jake: "Doesn't he? Why should I try so hard to follow him if he won't watch out for me?"
"So that's it," John replied. "You grew up with the idea that your goodness would actually control the way God treats you. If you do your part, he has to do his."
"That's not true?"
“Jake, God’s doing his part all the time. He loves you more than anyone else ever will and will not keep his hands out of your life. Sometimes we cooperate and sometimes we don’t and that can affect how things sort out. But don’t think you can control God by your actions because it isn’t like that. If we could control God, he’d turn out like us. Wouldn’t it be better to let him have his way with us so we become like him?”

    I think you get what I was discovering. I have been amazed to discover that I STILL think like Jake at times, even though I know in my head that this is not the way God is nor how He works.
     Brennan Manning, in his wonderful classic, Abba's Child, puts this wrong thinking even more starkly, and I was arrested by his words as I read them last night. Commenting on Flannery O'Connor's sad character, Ruller, in The Turkey, Manning writes: "In Ruller, many of us Christians stand revealed, naked, exposed. Our God, it seems, is One who benevolently gives turkeys and capriciously takes them away. When He gives them, it signals His interest in and pleasure with us. We feel close to God and are spurred to generosity. When He takes them away, it signals His displeasure and rejection. We feel cast off by God. He is fickle, unpredictable, whimsical. He builds us up only to let us down. He remembers our past sins and retaliates by snatching the turkeys of health, wealth, inner peace, progeny, empire, success and joy.
     "And so we unwittingly project onto God our own attitudes and feelings toward ourselves. As Blaise Pascal wrote, 'God made man in his own image, and man returned the compliment.'"

     Ouch! Surely I don't really view God like that, do I? Perhaps not nearly as much as I used to, but I have discovered that pain and emotional pressure expose remnants of such thinking in us. If things get bad enough, my mind is at least tempted to run to such thinking. But now let me share the rest of what God has been showing me.
     In a word, God has once again revealed His patient loving pursuit of me in my blackest moods and darkest thoughts. In ways that are beyond description His goodness continues to chase me down, wrestling me to the ground again and again so that He can embrace me and quiet me with His love. Yes, I can and will delay the effects of His pursuit, but He is relentless in His kindness in the midst of our pain. As the patient Father He is, He holds His squirming, distracted and frightened child until the child quiets down. Any of you who are parents can picture what I am describing.
     And then there is a revelation even beyond this one. I have found myself horrified at times that I can still be so broken, selfish, willful, etc. Put enough pressure on me, it seems, and I will default to self-orientation! But instead of finding God staring at me in disapproval with His arms crossed, I find Him inviting me into His embrace. And so I find myself on a deeper journey into something we all assent to but barely grasp. Brennan Manning (Abba's Child) describes this as real conversion, and his words describe what I have been experiencing in much deeper ways of late. "It takes a profound conversion to accept that God is relentlessly tender and compassionate toward us just as we are--not in spite of our sins and faults (that would not be total acceptance), but with them. Though God does not condone or sanction evil, He does not withhold His love because there is evil in us."
     And so I am continuing to discover the Abba I thought I knew. Pressures, as Scripture often tells us, refine and purify. This process is painful beyond belief, and humbling in the best sense, but the revelation of who God is in the middle of it is not only what sustains us but awes us into silent wonder.
     My prayer is that my transparency in this post will serve you in some way. As Brennan Manning says, "If we conceal our wounds out of fear and shame, our inner darkness can neither be illuminated nor become a light for others." (Abba's Child). As one whose inner "creepy crawlies" have been exposed more than once only to be transformed by His illumination, my prayer is that your own wounds may be healed in some small way as you are encouraged to run into Father's embrace, even in the midst of questions, pain and sin.
     I conclude with a quote from Brother Lawrence that I have shared before (from one of his letters). It captures well the wonder of this ever deeper journey into living loved. "I consider myself as the most wretched of men, full of sores and corruption, and who has committed all sorts of crimes against his King; touched with a sensible regret I confess to Him all my wickedness, I ask His forgiveness, I abandon myself in His hands, that He may do what He pleases with me. This King, full of mercy and goodness, very far from chastising me, embraces me with love, makes me eat at His table, serves me with His own hands, gives me the key of His treasures; He converses and delights Himself with me incessantly, in a thousand and a thousand ways, and treats me in all respects as His favorite. It is thus I consider myself from time to time in His holy presence."

Marveling at His love,
Tom, one of Abba's children

Friday, June 18, 2010

Justify or Redeem?

     "I just can't imagine any final outcome that would justify all of this (pain)." "Mackenzie...we aren't justifying it. We are redeeming it." (Papa to Mack, The Shack, p. 127)
     Last week I closed with the question, "Would God allow pain into our lives?" and suggested that the "yes" answer to that was beyond our understanding. Those words have come back to haunt me for a number of reasons but mostly because of the slippery slope that attaches itself to misunderstanding the phrase "God allows." As least for me, if I picture God as acting like some kind of gatekeeper who routes some painful things away from me and some towards me "for my good" (which the term "God allows" can suggest), I find it hard to trust Him. So...here's what I have been thinking and reflecting on. Perhaps some of it will be helpful to you.
     I find it easier to trust God if I remember that He is a loving Father, not a disciplinarian or despot. As a Father whose children live in a fallen world where evil abounds, He dare not shield us from all of it, lest we be unable to cope with life in such a broken world. Just as a good parent allows his/her children to learn by experience even in the context of pain, so God as the perfect Parent does the same. And because He is loving, totally loving, it is possible to trust even when we don't understand (I didn't say easy, but possible!).
     Second, it helps me a great deal to remember that "God allows" things only in the sense that His overall purpose requires that His creatures exercise free will. This free will, exercised in the "first rebellion" by Adam and Eve, has "allowed" all kinds of evil and pain to enter our current world. This would be a rather gloomy thought if we didn't also remember that in His sovereign purpose God will somehow redeem everything in a way that will astound us all. In other words, in some way that is beyond our comprehension, God will indeed work things out in a way that will be undeniably and totally good without violating the free (and often stupid) choices of His creatures. This hope is what keeps us "sane" when hell breaks loose all around us, and only in clinging to God in this hope are we able to make sense of the horrific things that we sometimes see and even experience. Some day..., some day...
     Third, it has been remarkably clear to me during our terrible/wonderful journey to realize that God does indeed "shout in our pain" as C. S. Lewis suggested. I cannot tell you how loudly and persistently God has been shouting His love, His promises, His affection, etc., to Jettie and me over and over again during this journey. And there has been a constancy in Him so that He has reached out to and supported and shown grace to no matter how I was behaving at the time. This is quite remarkable, really, but makes perfectly good sense because the greatest good that God brings out of anything is a further revelation of who He is (and He is blinding us with His goodness at times, especially when He shouts in our pain!).
     I close with some thoughts from The Shack (p. 185), which I have been re-reading of late to help me regain perspective. In response to Mack's question about his little girl, Missy, having to die in order for him (Mack) to experience God's love, Papa says, "Mack, just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn't mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don't ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead you to false notions about me. Grace doesn't depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors."

Finding grace, amazing grace in many colors, in the midst of pain, whining, worrying and some moments of trust,

Tom, one of Abba's children

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Naive About Pain

     One thing the painful journey Jettie and I have been on has revealed to me is how naive I have been about pain. In my head, of course, I knew that pain is a part of life but somehow I kept thinking that it wouldn't really touch my family, my life! I suppose the American myth of a pain free life somehow crept into my psyche, but whatever the reason for this, I have had this naive assumption ripped out of my life by this recent season of testing, and now things that I had in my head are finding their way into my experience and therefore my heart.
     Most of these things, though, are too raw to try to write about. I am now more aware of what Jesus meant when He said we would have tribulation in this world, and I am also more aware of the many scriptures that speak about trouble, testing, trials, etc., but I dare not try to express what I am learning at this point--it's too fragile, too raw and needs to be further rooted in my heart and experience before I really have anything to say to others about it!
     But I do want to help head off any naivete you may have about pain in this life. How to do that? I am choosing to share a few lines from a book that has been helpful to us in our pain: A Prayer That Moves Heaven by Ron Mehl (based on the 2 Chronicles 20 story about King Jehoshapat). In the chapter entitled "Truths About Testing" Ron gives three helpful principles about testing (read "pain") that can assist us in facing the reality of the pain that will inevitably come into our lives at times. And Ron Mehl wrote from a perspective of pain (26 years of leukemia before he died from it a few years back) that gives him great authority. Consider these three simple but profound principles (from pages 27-32).
     First, Ron writes, "You can plan on tests from God. In his book The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck makes this point: 'Once we truly know that life is difficult--once we truly understand and accept it--then life is no longer difficult.' It's the same with the Christian life. Scripture assures us over and over again that we will experience trials and testings in our lives--difficult circumstances allowed by the hand of our Father." TW's comment: Ouch! I don't like being reminded of this, but when I read the quote from M. Scott Peck, it drilled me to the core because I realized that I had been naive about painful stuff. No, God doesn't send it, but because this world has been given over to the destroyer, bad stuff happens to good people. Pretending otherwise doesn't help us in any shape, form or fashion!
     Second, Ron writes, "You need to prepare your heart NOW for those inevitable tests....Nobody can be completely ready for devastating news...Yet if your heart is fixed and fastened on the faithfulness of God, and if you are daily delighting in His presence, His Spirit, and His Word, those tests will not crush you. You will turn immediately to God for help...and find it!" TW's comment: My response to this is to marvel that God has indeed been preparing me/us for what we face, even when we don't know it. His gracious working in my life up to this point has indeed enabled me to seek His face, even when I was angry with Him or feeling totally lost. A few years ago, that wouldn't have been my experience. So yes, press into Him now and always, and when trouble comes you will be amazed at His provision for you.
     Third, Ron writes, "When the tests do come, focus on God's promises. In this account, that's exactly what happened. Jehoshaphat didn't weep and wail before the Lord, he zeroed in immediately on the promises of God's Word. Faith doesn't demand explanations from God, but rests on His promises." TW's comment: Yes, I know everyone says this, and it has often been used as a club on people who were in so much pain that they couldn't find any promises at the time, but there is a steadying and sustaining power that God gives as we listen for His specific promises about our situation and then meditate on these and review them often, trusting them not just because they are "in the Bible" but more importantly because of the character of the One who gave them to us. And we have certainly had a flood of promises given to us from Scripture and prophetically that God has used to shout assurance to us in the darkest times. Ron's words to folks in pain are good ones in that regard, I think: "get alone, get a promise, and get serious." Hang onto God and His promises as best you can, dear ones, and you will discover that He is hanging onto you much more tightly that you are hanging onto Him!
     Would a good God allow pain into our lives? Yes, but not for reasons any of us could understand. So I choose not to ask that question nor demand that God explain Himself. Instead I look for His fingerprints, cling to His hand and discover His hand gripping mine even when I am slipping away. I am not quite as naive about pain as I once was, I guess...

Whining at times, trusting at times, sustained all of the time.

Tom, one of Abba's children

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Destructiveness of Self-effort

As our journey into healing continues, I have become increasingly aware of how easy it is to revert back to relying on my understanding and from there moving back into striving and self-effort. The pull to self-reliance can be remarkably subtle--even when I think I am trusting in God God in His kindness often reveals otherwise :-) The truth is, anytime I am evaluating, making judgments, etc., independently of Him, I am at least to some extent leaning on my understanding and not His wisdom.

The good news in all this is that God is hanging onto us very tightly and continues to pursue us with a tenacity that is unparalleled in the Universe! And when He catches us, He gently but firmly pries our hands off the controls and woos us back to trustful surrender.

But why is it so important to run from self-effort? I suppose there are many reasons, but a couple that have come to mind of late are worth sharing, I think. First, when I started this journey into intimacy with Papa about 6 years ago, one of the first things He told me was that any return to self-effort would make me vulnerable to the enemy's tactics because I would then be trusting in me and not Him. Those words from Him really got my attention at the time, but I am still learning to live this out. And recently I have learned this lesson in powerful new ways. The slightest movement towards self-reliance, striving, etc., immediately exposes me to fear which in turn leads me into even more self-focus--you can see that this leads to a vicious cycle (which Papa in His kindness always interrupts at some point!). The truth is that faith is the total transfer of trust from me to God, and any trace of striving or self-trust moves me away from faith in Papa God. Note well, though, my reference to God reaching out to me when I revert to self--I recognize more than ever that I cannot "do faith" by fixing myself even when I discover that I have again chosen to rely on my judgment! Faith really is, I think, more collapse and rest than anything else.

But there is a second reason that self-effort is to be abhorred, and this one strikes at the heart of things. Self-effort is a declaration of independence from the One who loves us most. When I choose to "lean on my own understanding" I am by default turning away from the face of the One who loves me most. When I first started this journey, my concern about self-reliance was far more focused on me, but 6 years down the road my pain now comes at the thought of bringing harm to the One who loves me so well. True, God needs nothing but He is a Person who loves and rejoices and cares about us. This means that we can bring Him joy and pleasure by our loving responsiveness to Him. It also means that I can "hurt His heart" by turning from Him. And so my horror at self-effort/self-reliance grows as my love for Him grows.

Does this make sense? I think of something Brother Lawrence wrote long ago in which he compared the inward turning away from God as the same kind of an affront that would come to a friend in our living room from whom we simply walked away. That picture from Brother Lawrence has always stuck with me. The One who loves me most and whom I can constantly communicate with, invites, even compels, my full attention, something that I cannot give when I turn to self! Yet apart from His help, I will indeed find myself turning from Him to self, leaving my Friend and Father in my living room while I attend to less important things. But always He is inviting me back!

Thank you, my Abba, for so often wooing me back into the "River of your delights," out of the desert of my self-effort and self-reliance!

Learning to lean on Him...

Tom, one of Abba's little children