Monday, June 18, 2007
Hi! This blog is part of a series attempting to answer the most important 300 + questions I've been asked in roughly 18,000 hours of counseling/ talking to people - and learnings from 70 years of a fulfilling life. Here we will take a journey through 30 devotional chapters from the best-selling Still Waters Deep Waters series of books.
Other Blogs in this series:
1 Month to Meet the Baptists
1 Month of Books you should Read
1 Month to Learn About the Internet
1 Month to Understand your Local Church
1 Month of Answers to Tough Questions
1 Month to Change Your Life
1 Month to Meet Some Interesting People
1 Month to Become a Christian
1 Month To Meet Jesus
Basic idea: you read one of the 30 posts each day and complete one 'mini-course' in a month. (I might even organize a certificate for those who complete the 300 units!)
Some of the material will be adapted from the 20,000 articles on the John Mark Ministries website. It's a big site, (although many of the 100,000+ unique visitors a month tell me it's easy to navigate).
If you've read all these devotions and want some more, put the titles of any of my devotional books (Still Waters Deep Waters etc.) into the 'search this site' facility at the John Mark Ministries website, and you'll find a couple of hundred more. Or you can visit this blog for a year's supply (eventually)!
I look forward to journeying with you!
'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?... O, my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.'
'I have been allotted months of futility, and nights of misery have been assigned to me. When I lie down I think, "How long before I get up?" The night drags on, and I toss till dawn.'
'Your words have supported those who stumbled; you have strengthened faltering knees. But now trouble comes to you, and you are discouraged... Should not your piety be your confidence and your blameless ways your hope?'
Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them... when the Lord binds up the bruises of his people and heals the wounds he inflicted.
Now if we are children, then we are heirs... if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
(Psalm 22:1 and 2; Job 7:3 and 4; Job 4: 4-6; Isaiah 30:20 and 26; Romans 8:17 -- all NIV)
Dear Adam... A letter to South Africa
This letter is a reflection on the struggles that both the writer and reader share in being people-helpers:
Dear Adam, I feel so strange writing this letter to you, a person I don't know in a situation I know so little about, thousands of miles away. All we have is a mutual caring friend, who asked me to write to you, a mutual profession and a mutual dark night of the soul.
I don't really know what to say as the same words at different times by well-meaning friends have injured or uplifted me, as I have dragged myself through the blackness of depression.
All I can do is sit in the 'dust and ashes' with you, and place my shaking hand on your boil-infested body and quietly share your pain and cry for justice. Words are so inadequate, those around us are threatened by our cries and God seems deaf to our pleas.
In my own room I have cursed the night as once more, like clockwork, my troubled spirit awakens at 2.00 am. I have lain there tossing, turning, shaking and sweating as wave after wave of fear and despair rolled over me like the fever of malaria. My God, what had I done to deserve this, night after night?
The texts on the wall mocked me as they became readable in the growing light: 'Be joyful always...' 'they are new every morning...'
I just want to turn my face to the wall and die.
Yet 1 am still here, and have found out that I am not the only one like this. In some strange way I can begin to understand a little of what Paul means when he talks about sharing some of the sufferings and comfort of Christ so we can, in turn, comfort those experiencing similar valleys of shadows as we are.
I also gain some strange comfort in knowing that some of the great men and women of the past and of this century have gone through similar expenences. These indude Elijah, David, Job, John of the Cross, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Spurgeon, J.B. Phillips... to name a few.
But apart from this growing insight, I have few other answers, Adam, to your (our?) many questions. I don't know why, to quote you, God 'has brought together two people on different continents... two people sharing most of the inner distress of walking through a desert blindfolded...'
However, I do draw strength from the progress I can read in your letters, faltering as it may be. In your August letter, your feelings of anxiety and depression, the lethargy and lack of energy, your critical spirit were to the fore, while your November letter seemed to indicate some slow but positive re-integration and ability to face others.
Your January letter seems even to have some sense of excitement about 'the learnings that we are to discover and share with each other.' I hope I can catch that beginning sense of excitement. My feelings still fluctuate so much, yet I feel a little of the vision and energy returning, but for how long? I'm so afraid of being hurt further or of hurting those I love with my black moods and critical spirit.
Perhaps you are right in thinking that part of the problem lies in our being 'driven people' rather than 'called', to quote Gordon MacDonald. Like you, I have tried to control my goals and direction and have been disappointed and angered by those who didn't live up to my expectations or 'vision'.
I haven't been 'success-oriented' but, perhaps I have channelled such desires into my Christian life and ministry. Oh, how do I become called rather than driven? I suspect that the 'solutions' lie not only with me, but with the Christian Church as well.
Personally I'm sure I need to learn how to wait and abide more in Christ; to listen to what he is calling me to. Perhaps this is why I have been forced to slow down. In the meantime, I need to forgive and let go those who have unknowingly hurt me and not close off completely to others.
I need to spend more time with people that energise me and less with those who drain me. Gordon MacDonald's book Restoring Your Spiritual Passion has some good things to say about this.
Also I think the Church has a lot to account for in the way it hasn't enabled the laity to recognise and follow God's calling for them. Because of this, much of the work is left to the very busy few who, in turn, are resentful of the lack of participation by the majority. This often leads eventually to apathy, depression and 'burnout' in these few workers.
Finally, thankyou for sharing your thoughts with me; my attempting to reply has helped some things fall into place. Perhaps some of our questions will never be answered this side of heaven. Keep the faith, Shalom...
Tragically, when people who are accustomed to their role as helpers get depressed, they experience more difficulty than the average person in seeking professional help and in making good use of it when they find it.
John White, Masks of Melancholy
Spurgeon himself was quick to admit that he was not immune to periodic bouts of depression. He said that he knew 'by most painful experience what deep depression means, being visited there-with at seasons by no means few or far between'. He then went on to cite from the biographies of Martin Luther and John Wesley, which are full of reports about their own experiences of depression.
Arch Hart, Coping With Depression
'This evil will come upon us, we know not why, and then it is all the more difficult to drive away. Causeless depression is not to be reasoned with... If those who laugh at such melancholy did but feel the grief of it for one hour, their laughter would be sobered into compassion.' (Charles Spurgeon)
H. Norman Wright, Now I Know Why I Am Depressed
I have always been plagued by depression, which has often been so excessive that I could neither work nor relate to people... This was so extreme, that I wished to die.
Robert Girard, My Weakness: His Strength
Walter Trobisch, a Christian counsellor, notes that the word for depression in German is schwermut... It means the courage to be heavyhearted, the courage to live with what is difficult. Strange as it may seem, courage is part of depression...
Once I heard an experienced psychiatrist say, 'All people of worth and value have depressions.' Indeed, superficial people seldom have depressions. It requires a certain inner substance and depth of mind to be depressed.
H. Norman Wright, Now I Know Why I Am Depressed
Depression is a symptom which warns us that we're getting into deep water. It is, I believe, designed by God as an emotional reaction to slow us down, to remove us from the race, to pull us back so we can take stock... It is a protective device which removes us from further stress and gives us time to recover.
Arch Hart, Coping with Depression
There are many Christians -- true believers in the Lord Jesus, who are genuinely seeking to follow him -- who, like me, have, for too many years, been desperately lonely, and in great emotional distress, each thinking that he or she is the 'only one' who, as a believer, still struggles and fails so miserably against sin. Baffled by repeated defeat in areas where other Christians seem 'to have the victory', these miserable strugglers are on the point of giving up.
Robert Girard, My Weakness: His Strength
Friendship is born at the moment when one person says to another, 'What! You too! I thought I was the only one!' (C.S. Lewis)
Robert Girard, My Weakness: His Strength
Being fairly suddenly deprived of the ability to 'perform', my sense of security and of being useful deserted me and all kinds of nameless terrors swept over me, usually at night.
Vera Phillips & Edwina Robertson
..then we also should have an address book of our special friends... special friends are committed to helping each other discover and maintain spiritual passion.
Gordon MacDonald, Restoring Your Spiritual Passion
Dear Lord, at times I feel so tired and weary; I have so many questions to ask you, but I don't even have the strength to ask them now.
Please let me rest a while in your arms and be carried close to your heart. Let me cry and drain out all the pain I carry deep inside me for myself and others.
Lord, break me if you will, but do not crush me. ...Your Kingdom come, your will be done...! Amen.
Here I am, Lord. Here is my body, Here is my heart, Here is my soul. Grant that I may be big enough to reach the world, Strong enough to carry it, Pure enough to embrace it without wanting to keep it. Grant that I may be a meeting place, but a temporary one; A road that does not end in itself, because everything to be gathered there, everything human, leads towards you.
Michel Quoist, Prayers of Life
Rowland Croucher ed., High Mountains Deep Valleys, Albatross/Lion, chapter 17
Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage; yes, wait for the Lord.
For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.
It will be said on that day 'Lo this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.'
From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides thee, who works for those who wait for him.
Be ready for action with belts fastened and lamps alight. Be like men who wait for their master's return... ready to let him in the moment he knocks.
When he was abused he did not retort with abuse. When he suffered he uttered no threats, but committed his cause to the one who judges justly.
We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons.
For to us, our hope of attaining the righteousness which we eagerly await, is the work of the Spirit through faith.
Be patient my brothers until the Lord comes. The farmer looking for the precious crop his land may yield can only wait in patience, until the autumn and spring rains have fallen.
(Psalm 27:14, RSV; Psalm 62:5, RSV; Isaiah 25:9, RSV; Isaiah (34:4, RSV; Luke 12:35-36, NEB; 1 Peter 2:23, NEB; Romans 8:23, RSV; Galatians 5:5, NEB; James 5:7-8, NEB)
Between our work and the fruit of it there is always a distance, the time of waiting. We all know this and we all have found it hard to bear. Yet waiting is built into the structures of living.
Expectation of good is a joy that we could not have without waiting. Crises of courtship, birth, promotion, all make demands upon our patience. Would it have been better if these changes had fallen upon us, like Newton's apple? Would we have been better people? Something persuades us otherwise. We appreciate the good that has come to us the more when it comes, not by plain sailing, but through heavy seas; over the edge of the falls.
All the same, we do not like being keep waiting; for appointments, for service at stores, restaurants or government offices. This understanding of the importance of not having to wait is reinforced by what we experience in hospitals and nursing homes. Patients (by definition sufferers, those who must wait) have to wait for everything -- for food, drink, nursing; wait even to be moved. Unemployed people are 'waiters'. People who work are 'doers'. The unemployed lack this apparent worth.
We notice in the Scriptures that there is a premium set upon waiting for God. Waiting is a form of faithfulness, of endurance. It is the other side of seeking him. Waiting is so important that its demands are placed upon Jesus, who carries it up to the Father. He works steadily, patiently, in the day God has given him. He has time for people, time for God. When he is handed over to the Jews and to Pilate he accepts for himself exactly those marks of waiting which we see in the hospital and nursing-home patient. He waits for others, others serve him as they will move him, push him, give him food or drink or not, as they decide. Waiting thus is hallowed by God who voluntarily sets aside his rule over us and in Christ comes under its rule. So he encourages and blesses our waiting, our patience, our endurance.
When our experience of waiting... comes home to us we speak of our frustration and, in doing so disclose our assumption that the waiting role, the condition of dependence, the status of patient, is improper to us, a diminution of our true function or status in the world, an affront to our human dignity.
V.H. Vanstone, The Stature of Waiting
Faith means just that blessed unrest, deep and strong, which so urges the believer onward that he cannot settle at ease in the world, and anyone who was quite at ease would cease to be a believer.
Soren Kierkegaard, Gospel of Sufferings
Perhaps, indeed, the better the gift we pray for, the more time is necessary for its arrival. To give us the spiritual gift we desire, God may have to begin far back in our spirit... He may be approaching our consciousness from behind, coming forward through regions of our darkness into our light, long before we begin to be aware that he is answering our request -- has answered it and is visiting his child.
George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons Second series
'Passion' does not mean exclusively or even primarily 'pain': it means dependence, exposure, waiting, being no longer in control of one's own situation, being the object of what is done... If the truth of God is disclosed and the glory of God is manifest in Jesus, then the truth of God must be this, and the glory of God must appear in this -- that God so initiates and acts that he destines himself to enter into passion, to wait and to receive.
W.H. Vanstone, The Stature of Waiting
God himself cuts himself off from himself, he gives himself away to his people, he suffers with their sufferings, he goes with them into the misery of the foreign land, he wanders with their wanderings.
Fritz Rosenweig, quoted by Jurgen Moltmann in Experiences of God
Christ is our hope because Christ is our future. That means that we are waiting and hoping for his second coming, praying 'Come, Lord Jesus, come to the world, come to us'. Without the expectation of Christ's second coming there is no hope.
Jurgen Moltmann, Experiences of God
(With the example of Christ) before my mind, I will begin to desire with all the power of my will to practise this same patience according to my capacity in my own trials. Knowing at the same time the weakness and imperfection of my own soul lettered by attachments, I will above all pray earnestly and humbly for the grace without which I can never hope to conquer my impatience, irritability, aggressiveness and self-righteous impulses to judge and punish others.
Thomas Merton, Spiritual Direction and Meditation
When we love we hand ourselves over to receive from another our own triumph or our own tragedy.
W.H. Vanstone, The Stature of Waiting
Father, thank you for the hope you give me in Jesus, which makes me restless to go on and upwards in his calling of me, and impatient for change among the people with whom I work. May more of them come to love and serve you. I confess, Lord, that there are times when my impatience with them makes me judgmental. I forget how patient you have been with me, watching and waiting for me through times of dullness and rebellion and loss, waiting for me to grow up in all things into Christ.
Because you love us you hand yourself over to us, giving us power over you. Help me to be modest, humble, and patient with them all.
I go on today, Lord, singing and making melody to you in my heart, ready to do and to suffer all that you ask of me, in Jesus Christ. I seek you in all things, I wait for you so. Amen.
>From Rowland Croucher ed., Still Waters Deep Waters (Albatross/Lion), chapter five.
Sunday, June 17, 2007
You have learnt how it was said 'Eye for eye and tooth for tooth'. But I say this to you: offer the wicked man no resistance. On the contrary, if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well; if a man takes you to law and would have your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole. And with his stripes we are healed.
You have learnt how it was said 'you must love your neighbour and hate your enemy'. But I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
For Christ suffered for you and left you a personal example, and wants you to follow in his steps. He was guilty of no sin, nor of the slightest prevarication. Yet when he was insulted he offered no insult in return. When he suffered he made no threats of revenge.
Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.
(Matthew 5:38-40, JB; Isaiah 53:4-5, RSV; Matthew 5:43-44, JB; Peter 2:21-23, Phillips; Luke 23:34, NEB)
Should we permit the behaviour of others towards us to change our standards, ideals and behaviour?
In fact, the behaviour of others towards us does evoke changes within us. If we respond to our highest ideals and insights, we try to act patiently, tolerantly and lovingly. But when we receive in return nothing but misunderstanding, indifference, accusations of insincerity, and hostility, then we begin to change. We lose patience, we become defensive. Like Peter, we think it's a big deal to forgive up to seven times. But seventy times seven? No way.
The change in us is the consequence of our allowing the attitudes and actions of another to gain power over us.
We may even rationalise. We argue that it is in their interests that we do not allow them to get away with it.
We may also argue that whilst Jesus' teaching is ideal, we've got to be practical and realistic.
Jesus' prayer, 'Father, forgive them, they don't know what they're doing,' exemplifies his characteristic reaction to hostility and violence throughout his life. He dared to stake his whole being on the veracity and ultimate power of love. He refused at any point to allow the abuse and attacks of others to change one whit his attitudes or reaction towards them.
Never once did he change his nature -- which was to save those who reviled him -- to accommodate or adjust himself to others.
The cross is foolish not only to the unbelieving world. In his personal life the Christian also has a struggle with the foolishness of the cross -- the symbol of the uncompromising and unconditional love demonstrated by Jesus and demanded of his disciple.
Yet it is the way the Master went. And a cross-less Christianity is a distortion and a travesty.
An old man in India sat down in the shade of an ancient banyan tree whose roots disappeared far away in a swamp. Presently he discerned a commotion where the roots entered the water. Concentrating his attention, he saw that a scorpion had become helplessly entangled in the roots. Pulling himself to his feet, he made his way carefully along the tops of the roots to the place where the scorpion was trapped. He reached down to extricate it. But each time he touched the scorpion, it lashed his hand with its tail, stinging him painfully. Finally his hand was so swollen he could no longer close his fingers, so he withdrew to the shade of the tree to wait for the swelling to go down. As he arrived at the trunk, he saw a young man standing above him on the road laughing at him. 'You're a fool,' said the young man, 'wasting your time trying to help a scorpion that can only do you harm.' The old man replied, 'Simply because it is in the nature of the scorpion to sting, should I change my nature, which is to save?'
William Sloane Coffin, The Courage to Love
Love will conquer hate.
Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done, or putting a false label on an evil act. It means rather that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst which creates the atmosphere necessary for a new beginning. Agape is sheer unqualified, creative and redemptive goodwill for all people. Love alone is capable of transforming with redemptive power.
I have lived with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive. There are some who still find the cross a stumbling block, others consider it foolishness. But I am more convinced than ever that it is the power of God to social and individual salvation.
Martin Luther King, Strength to Love
The meek only inherit abuse!
The spirit of self-denial and the spirit of service coming together produce a new being: the most formidable being on earth -- the Terrible Meek! They are terrible in that they demand nothing, and hence cannot be bought or tempted, and that there are no lengths they are not prepared to go for others. Christ in the presence of Pilate is a picture of the terrible meek. He could not be bullied -- he could not be changed. Nothing could make him love less. He wanted nothing, except to give his life for the very people who were crucifying him. The future of the world will be in the hands of those who serve the world, suffer for the world, and so save the world.
E. Stanley Jones, The Christ of the Mount
Lord, in my head, and deep in my heart, I know that the way of Jesus is unquestionably right. The purity of his love leaves me wondering. But, Lord, you also know, better than I understand it, the struggle I have inside. The sheer practicalities of daily human interaction all tell me it won't work. I want to save myself. But then, didn't Jesus? The difference between us is that his final choices -- not to save himself -- were always the right ones. Mine almost never are. My natural impulse, Lord, is to defend myself, to protect myself, to refuse to become vulnerable to the hostility of others.
The cross is so much heavier than I thought. In the first flush of discipleship, and the glow of my young faith, I picked it up readily. But now? I've discovered that the cross is not a comfortable symbol. It impinges on almost every decision I have to make -- even the small ones. I Want to choose against the path of pain, involvement, personal cost. I can easily love my friends -- and forgive them when necessary. But my enemies? Those who hurt me? Every day I let the attitudes of others determine my reactions.
Lord, I see all this. And I know that your way, not mine, is right. Please help me, however stumblingly, to pick up the cross -- in little things and big -- until, by your grace, I become a little more like Jesus. Please help me. Amen.
O Holy Spirit, who so deeply disturbs our peace, continue, we pray, your probings and promptings and goad us until we go your way, to our own greater blessing and deeper peace. In Jesus Christ our Lord.
George Appleton, Journey for a Soul
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ make us gracious.
The love of God our Father make us loving
And the fellowship and power of the Holy Spirit fill and empower us
Until we show, in our lives, more of the spirit and the marks of Jesus Christ.
Still Waters, Deep Waters ed. By Rowland Croucher pp. 238-241
Thursday, June 14, 2007
He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering... He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth... After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied.
If they persecuted me, they will persecute you too... The time will come when anyone who kills you will think that by doing this they are serving God.
Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered... If we share Christ's sufferings, we will also share his glory... We rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope... You have been given the privilege of serving Christ, not only by believing in him, but also by suffering for him.
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ.
I reckon that the sufferings we now endure bear no comparison with the splendour, as yet unrevealed, which is in store for us... In everything, as we know, [the Spirit] co-operates for good with those who love God and are called according to his purpose.
Even if I go through the deepest darkness, I will not be afraid, Lord, for you are with me.
(Isaiah 53: 3,7,11, NIV; John 15: 20; 16: 2, GNB; Hebrews 5: 8, NIV; Romans 8: 17b, GNB; Romans 5: 3-4, NIV; Philippians 1: 29, GNB; 1 Peter 4: 12-13, NIV; Romans 8: 18, 28, NEB; Psalm 23: 4, GNB)
'I know that God will not let anything bad happen to me. I fully believe he has thrown a wall of protection around me.' It was the confident assertion of a new Christian. What she had not yet learned is that there have been those in every age who have claimed exemption from suffering and disaster, but have finally had to realise that these experiences are part of the fabric of life for every person -- the righteous, the wicked, the Christian, the non-Christian, the deserving, the undeserving.
The book of Job is a very ancient drama that tells of a very good man who was struck by disaster. We are led to envisage a conference taking place between God and heavenly beings, including the adversary, Satan. 'Of course Job worships you,' says Satan. 'You protect him and everything he owns. Take away everything he has and he will curse you.'
The idea persists in many circles. 'It pays to serve Jesus,' sings one. 'Do all the right things and God will give you prosperity,' says another. 'If people would only believe in God, bad things would not happen.'
People who have such expectations do not understand a basic teaching of Jesus and the New Testament. Those who respond to Christ's call to follow him, to be his disciples, learn that, not only are they not exempt from the difficulties and calamities that come to all humankind; they have the added prospect of persecution and suffering that come from being a follower.
Malcolm O. Tolbert says: 'A disciple is not a person who memorises vast amounts of religious tradition so that orthodox answers can be given to theological questions. The disciple is a person who follows after Jesus, gladly sharing in his redemptive suffering.'
'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?' (John 9: 2). The question of the disciples expressed an old accepted view that all suffering came as the result of sin and that blame could be assigned. The friends of Job had the same idea. Said Eliphaz: 'Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed?' (Job 4: 7).
But the lives of people such as Job and Jeremiah could not be explained in such a way. Their suffering needed a more adequate explanation.
The English historian Herbert Butterfield writes: 'The period associated with the Jewish Exile provides us with a remarkable example of the way in which the human spirit can ride disaster and wring victory out of the very extremity of defeat... Through a long period of other vicissitudes, the Old Testament people vindicated human freedom and the power of personality. They showed that using resources inside themselves, they might turn their catastrophe into a springboard for human achievement, even when the catastrophe was of that irresistible kind which breaks people's backs.'
Peter, writing to first century Christians, accepts that some of his readers were reacting with surprise that their Christian lives involved 'fiery ordeals'. He exhorted them to react positively, not in retaliation, but with acceptance in the name of Christ, making sure that the testimony of their lives did not give cause for reproach. His words must have challenged Christians in later centuries as churches increased in number and persecutions continued.
Tertullian, the early church apologist, said, 'The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.' Many men and women through the centuries were content to suffer patiently for Christ's sake. Some even courted persecution, thinking that thereby their testimony would be more real.
There is enough disaster and calamity in today's world without the need to look for it. Such trouble will not necessarily come in the form of persecution -- though that is not an impossibility in some countries. In a world where the popular belief is that life is meant to be easy, and the chief aims are affluence and ease, the Christian needs to be aware that no person is exempt from sorrow. As the writer O. Henry expressed it, 'Life is made up of sobs, sniffles and sighs, with sniffles predominating.'
So: what to do when sorrow, pain or suffering strike? Some people allow themselves to become peevish and bitter, while others are sweetened and refined by adverse circumstances. The latter result will come when people let God use their experiences to become the means to a closer relationship with him. C.S. Lewis has said, 'God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.'
Brian Hession, suffering from cancer, wrote: 'In our anguish we love that cry of Christ, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" We are glad he said it; we are glad that he was tempted in all points just as we are. In the midst of our dark tunnel of difficulties, depression or suffering, Christ is there. "My God, my God!" If he could cry that, so can we. If he could go through the barriers, the sound effects of suffering, and come out on the other side with God, so can we. It may not be in the wisdom of these things for us always to live. We have to learn to die gracefully or to live gracefully.'
The Christian can express faith in the words of the eighteenth century hymn:
When through the deep water he calls thee to go,
The rivers of grief shall not thee overflow;
For he will be with thee in trouble to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
The disciples wanted [Jesus] to save their lives. He said, 'Those who lose their lives for my sake shall find them.' This is a hard saying. It was hard for the disciples; they didn't want a suffering, dying, crucified God; they wanted a God alive and victorious, with priests and kings and Roman governors kneeling at his feet. It was hard for the martyrs; they didn't want a painful death; they wanted to be happy, ordinary citizens with wives and children and a small business.
And it is hard for us. We don't want a Christianity that demands we give up our lives; we'd prefer a Christianity that would show us an easy way of keeping them. Though we often couple death and resurrection in one phrase, we are seldom quite as sure of our promised resurrection as we are of our inevitable death. And we hesitate to gamble our lives on Jesus' promise.
Joy Davidman, Smoke on the Mountain
We speak of martyrs in the past tense; the tyrannies of our own time have seen the folly of making martyrs. What, indeed, could be more self-defeating than the measures of the old Roman government? To pick the most distinguished, or the most stubborn of the Christians, and do them to death in amphitheatres, before ten thousand eyes, with all the circumstance and drama of a Spanish bullfight -- was it surprising that the blood of the martyrs proved to be the seed of the church? No anti-Christian regime is likely to repeat the error.
Christians will be condemned for fiddling the currency, or leaguing with the national enemy; for economic sabotage or political subversion; not for loyalty to Christ. They will not be given the opportunity of attesting the faith they profess; they will be given the opportunity of confessing the crimes they have not committed; and they will do it; for they will be subjected to a technique of suspended torture and psychological persuasion capable of breaking any mind.
So there are to be no more martyrs, only involuntary apostates; and this depressing fact seems to some of us the greatest obstacle in the way of faith.
Austin Farrer, Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited
The problem of pain is always with us. And he' (Jesus) chose pain. He never said that pain is a good thing; he cured it. But he chose it. The ancient world stumbled on that very thing. God and a Godlike person, their philosophers said, are not susceptible to pain, to suffering... Then if Jesus suffered, he was not God; if he was God, he did not suffer. The church denied that... he chose pain, and he knew what he was choosing. Then let us be in no hurry about refusing it, but let us look into it. He chose it -- that is the greatest fact known to us about pain.
T.R. Glover, The Jesus of History
The Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world; but joy, pleasure and merriment he has broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun and some ecstasy.
It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God; a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bath or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.
C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
Pain, considered in isolation, is, no doubt, an evil. But we easily misconceive the problem of pain as it presents itself to a Christian mind. The world, starting from a crude notion of justice as consisting in a correlation of pain and guilt, as though so much pain could be regarded as wiping out so much guilt, is bewildered by the suffering of the innocent. The Christian has no interest in solving the problem as thus stated; we must begin by formulating it afresh. For the evil of sin is so great that no amount of pain could ever be regarded as a counter-weight...
Sin is the setting by us of our wills against God's -consciously (when guilt is also involved) or unconsciously. This is the essential evil; no pain is comparable to it... Pain is in fact evil only in a secondary sense; it is something which, other things being equal, it is right to avoid... it is harder to see the justification in the eyes of the righteous God of pain which degrades the sufferer, however guilty he may be, than of pain which ennobles the sufferer, however innocent she may be.
William Temple, Readings in John's Gospel
Amid my list of blessings infinite,
Stands this the foremost,
'That my heart has bled.'
Thou needest not to worry about me. I live my day through and it is never too long for me; and though on the surface it may be rough weather or a storm, at a depth of twenty fathoms it is quite calm. God has taken us thoroughly in hand and has cast us into his furnace, but telling us again and again, and proving to us, that he has our own good in mind. He will stop his bellows in good time, and we must let him carry on until he completes to his liking, in his wonderful wisdom, the whole of the work that has been such a care to thee.
Anonymous German pastor in prison, 1939
In the cross of Christ, God confronts the successful person with the sanctification of pain, sorrow, humility, failure, poverty, loneliness and despair. That does not mean that all this has a value in itself, but it receives its sanctification from the love of God, the love which takes all this upon itself as its just reward.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics
Take away out of our hearts, O Lord God, all self-confidence and boasting, all high and vain thoughts, all desire to excuse ourselves for our sins or to compare ourselves proudly with others; and grant us rather to take as Master and King him who chose to be crowned with thorns and to die in shame for others and for us all, thy Son our Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Oh thou whose strength sustains us without cease,
Bestow us patience all our load to bear
In lonely days, oppressed with gloom and fear;
Oh, fill our hearts for ever with thy peace.
Oh, make us free from our self-centred will
And ready thine own holy will to serve,
Then may we near thy goal, and never swerve,
Till thou dost rise before us great and still.
Anonymous German pastor in prison, 1939
We bring before you, O Lord, the troubles and perils of people and nations; the sighing of prisoners and captives; the sorrows of the bereaved; the necessities of strangers; the helplessness of the weak; the despondency of the weary; the failing powers of the aged. O Lord, teach them, in their hour of need, to draw near to you, and may they be conscious of your presence with
O God, my Father, I thank you for those who take up their cross and follow you; for those who tread the way of sorrow in the calm of faith; for those who battle for the right in your strength; for those who bear pain with grace and patience; for those who are enabled to teach the way of true life; for those who love unselfishly in you.
Enlarge my soul, O God, with a divine love, that I may hope all things and endure all things: and may I become a messenger of your healing mercy to the sorrows and sufferings of men and women. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
O Lord our God, teach us, we beseech thee, to ask thee aright for the right blessings. Steer thou the vessel of our life towards thyself, thou tranquil haven of all storm-tossed souls. Show us the course wherein we should go. Renew a willing spirit within us. Let thy spirit curb our wayward senses, and guide us into that which is our true good, to keep thy laws, and in all our works evermore to rejoice in thy glorious and gladdening presence. For thine is the glory and praise from all thy saints, for ever and ever.
May the grace of love, courage, gaiety and the quiet mind, which is the grace of the Lord Jesus, be with us now and always.
Robert Louis Stevenson (adapted)
Rivers in the Desert ed. By Rowland Croucher pp. 229-236
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Halfway through life
I was living in peace, but God took me by the throat and battered me and crushed me. God uses me for target practice and shoots arrows at me from every side - arrows that pierce and wound me; and even then he shows no pity. He wounds me again and again; he attacks like a soldier gone mad with hate. I mourn and wear clothes made of sackcloth, and I sit here in the dust defeated. I have cried until my face is red, and my eyes are swollen and circled with shadows, but I am not guilty of any violence, and my prayer to God is sincere.
You like your ancestors before you, have turned away from my laws and have not kept them. Turn back to me, and I will turn to you. But you ask, 'What must we do to turn back to you?'
The people of Judah had a song they sang: 'We grow weak carrying burdens; there's so much rubble to take away. How can we build the wall today?'
(Job 16: 12-17; Malachi 3: 7; Nehemiah 4:10 -- all GNB)
For the first twenty years or so of personal Christian pilgrimage, the 'high mountains' of experience keep us going: the weekend conference; the spiritual retreat; the inspiring preacher; the encouraging response to witness; the growth of the congregation. These high points give us sufficient stimulus to keep going through the boring and monotonous phases of life and of ministry.
But my observation is that, as the years go past, and as one's own mortality creeps up, the high points are less frequent and the deep valleys predominate. When one turns fifty (and it happens at different ages for different people!), it is possible for a Christian to enter a deep valley of experience which seems to have no end - a kind of spiritual desert.
It's hard even to remember the high points of experience of a few years back; external circumstances seem to press harder than ever; and one's own life-cycle catches up on one. Teenage children grow into adults and move away. The familiar worlds seem hostile instead of comforting; the secular environment seems hard against the gospel; and it is difficult to find something new about the Christian faith which gives stimulus and excitement any more.
What do you do if you get into this situation - especially if you are in a position of Christian leadership in a congregation? It's very hard to keep pretending that all is well, but there must be some clues in the scriptures and Christian experience to lead us out of this valley.
I look at Jesus in agony on the night before he died... I stand quite dose to him and watch him reaching out for human help... but no-one now can reach him; he is entirely on his own before he dies... As I watch I realise that man will ultimately come to terms with God, with destiny and with himself only when he dares to seek aloneness. I give myself a taste of what it means to be alone: I am living in a desert: no books... no occupation... no sound of human voice... -- for a whole day... a week... for months... I see how I react when I am thrown back on my own resources... when I am stripped of what I mostly use to run away from looking at myself: work and human company...
Then I see myself in a solitary prison cell: sound-proof walls, a narrow room, the dim light of a bulb all day... never the glimpse of a human face... or of any living thing... or sun or sky... never a sound of human voice or Nature... for weeks... for months on end... not knowing when it will end...
Finally -- I have lapsed into a coma: I can hear the words of people and feel their touch... but cannot reach them...
Now I return to life: to my worries and my work... my comforts and attachments... the world of human beings... but I realise that I am not the same from having been exposed to the rigours of aloneness...
Every now and then my heart returns to Jesus in his agony... I watch him as he grapples with God and with his destiny... and the sight gives me a wisdom that thinking never could.
So I linger there and look...
Anthony de Mello, 'The Desert'
Middle age -- that difficult period between juvenile delinquency and senior citizenship when you have to take care of yourself.
'I recently turned fifty,' America's most famous father, Bill Cosby, writes at the outset of his book Time Flies, 'which is young for a tree, midlife for an elephant, and ancient for a quarter-miler, whose son now says, "Dad, I just can't run the quarter with you any more unless I bring some thing to read"'.
It is said by Anthony Power that we date ourselves by the standards against which we rebel... The themes of great literature --' love, disappointment, the texture of time -- are the themes. of ordinary fife. Indeed, the older I get, the more I see the inexhaustible interestingness of the ordinary.
It is said that God gave us memory so we could have roses in winter. But it is also true that without memory we cannot have a self in any season. The more memories you have, the more 'you' you have. That is why, as Swift said, no wise person ever wished to be younger.
George E Will, 'On Turning 40'
The midlife crisis might be best understood as the 'crisis of limits'... the awareness of physical decline... the sense of one's own mortality. There is the sense of loss and limits in terms of one's role and relationships in the family, and in one's career...
People can remain locked in the experience of brokenness or they can reject these feelings, deny them and pretend they are not there. Alternatively, the negative ex perience may become the purgatorial environment through which people can confront and own their brokenness and their resistance to the sense of threat that the experience of physical decline precipitates... To understand that there is fellowship in human existence as well as in human achievement, that developing and maintaining a relation ship may be as important as being a success requires one to rework one's dream and vision even more radically than before.
Maryanne Conroy, 'Challenges to Faith in Life's Journey'
When everything takes on the taste of death and destruction then in actual fact it is the Holy Spirit who is at work in us. This then is the hour of his grace. Then the seem ingly uncanny, bottomless depth of our existence as experienced by us is the bottomless depth of his communicating himself to us, the dawning of his approaching infinity... which is tasted like nothing because it is infinity.
Karl Rahner, 'Reflections on the Experience of Grace'
Where my bitterness overflowed all bounds was at the sight of the rifts developing in the Order and the intestinal strife now raging between the innovators and those who wished to remain strictly faithful to the rule.
The disputes over the rule paralysed me. Unity was everything to me. Above all it was the sign of God's grace and loving response to our efforts to be faithful to him.
The sight of the divisions among us, the sound of gospel texts being mouthed without meaning and twisted from their original simplicity, left me helpless.
I really felt as though darkness had fallen on what I held most dear in the world -- my family.
At the Pentecost Chapter, held in May 1221, the very triumph of numbers increased my uneasiness. There were more than five thousand of us.
I no longer felt capable of guiding the Order. At the same time I wanted to keep a hand in everything.
Fortunately, I was thrust aside, and Fre Elias was nominated General.
Suddenly I felt better, relieved of a responsibility which had been weighing on me. But my peace did not last long.
The most intransigent, those who claimed to be 1oyalest to me, returned to the assault, and the divisions became more acute than ever.
'Francis, you must come back. You must take up the reins again. You must make your weight felt.'
'Father, you must expel the most dangerous brothers...' And on the other hand, those who thought themselves the pure, the spiritual ones, and who, making fidelity to the original rule their excuse, were becoming eccentric and unbalanced, living in such a way as to attract rebuke from the bishops by their inhuman penances and their wild and repulsive appearance. No, I had certainly ruined everything.
Carlo Carretto, I, Francis
Bernie was staying for a while at Martha's, an Anglican shelter for homeless women. The age of the twelve women at Martha's averaged about thirty years. Some women had fled marriages or relationships involving physical abuse, some had been put out of the family home, some had children being cared for elsewhere. One young woman of nineteen had come from hospital where she had undergone brief psychiatric treatment and then had been sent to a place for care where ninety per cent of patients were well over seventy years. For two weeks no-one spoke to her.
Bernie's life fell apart when her husband went off with someone else. Without children and under thirty years of age she was entitled to CAN$164 per month from welfare for her expenses. Even with an extra housing subsidy allowance, she could not make ends meet on her own. She seemed appalled at her homeless state:
This is the second time that I have ended up living on the street and going to the women's shelter and staying there for a while. This time I ended up at Martha's. I never thought that I would ever end up on the street and I don't think any of us think that. We all think that we will get through our hardships and we'll never be this way and I don't think anyone plans being on the street, just somehow that's the way circumstances go -- you know, bad timing, not being prepared.'
Joan Clarke, Motherhood Principles and Labour Pains: Women and Families
Lord, I move in a twilight zone between the harsh reality of life around me, personal dilemmas, relationship difficulties, anxiety about children, feeling overwhelmed at how secular the world is. I used to be in a black-and-white world, where you could identify the Christians, where we had the right attitudes about everything, and we knew where evil resided. Now, Lord, I know that life has become so much more complex than that: Christian people do bad things, even manipulate others; and there are good people right outside the Christian fold who sometimes act better than the Christians in caring for one another and for me.
In this twilight world, Lord, bring your light to bear on my life. Help my judgments to be clearer, my conscience to be forgiven, and my Christianity to be realistic. I ask this in the name of the greatest realist of all, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Lord Jesus, you went into the desert and survived. Help me to live through this desert experience, to learn new things, to find God afresh without the normal props and supports that comfort me, and get me through to the other side of the desert so that I can enjoy life again. Amen.
God, Father and Mother of us all, help me within the family and in my friendships to find a new vitality, a new energy, a greater capacity to forgive, new grace to face the next set of trials and difficulties. Lord, you lived on this earth in the context of an ordinary family which contained an extraordinary secret of divinity. Help me to live within my ordinary family with the extraordinary secret that God is with us, even though it may not be apparent to us or to others. Help us to know and experience your presence in the ordinary life-cycle that we are going through. In Jesus' name, Amen.
Let us pray that the Spirit of God will renew our lives: Lord, increase our eagerness to do your will and help us to know the saving power of your love.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Collect for Ordinary Sunday 34
Rowland Croucher ed., High Mountains Deep Valleys, Albatross/Lion chapter 21
(Note: I think the image used here is a painting of Job's Comforters by William Blake - can anyone confirm that?)
This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast [Passover] to the Lord: throughout your generations you shall observe it as an ordinance for ever.
You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.
By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion... How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you.
And when he had given thanks, he broke it and said: 'This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance Of me.'
'Why do you seek the living among the dead? Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise.' And they remembered his words.
As I remember your tears, I long night and day to see you, that I may be filled with joy.
(Exodus 12:14; Deuteronomy 5:15; Psalm 137:1,4-6; 1 Corinthians 11:24; Luke 24:5-8; 2 Timothy 1:4 -- all RSV)
The totality of our experience is stored in our memories, but, paradoxically, most of us spend an inordinate amount of energy trying to forget some of our past. We're prepared to linger over 'happy memories' but many of our memories appear to be too painful to recall. They remind us of past grief or loss; they evoke feelings of guilt or failure -- so we repress them.
To a certain extent, this way of dealing with painful memories is probably necessary. Without the use of defence mechanisms such as repression, the burdens of the past may become too difficult to bear. But indiscriminate repression is unhealthy. If we never come to grips with our hurtful memories, we fail to learn from the experiences which caused us pain, stunting our growth and development as persons. We become enslaved by the tyranny of our past and don't really live in the present. Feelings of anxiety and pain lie embedded in our subconscious and because we have suppressed the memories associated with them, we have forgotten the cause of those feelings. Unidentifiable painful feelings are more crippling than their original cause. They can even cause us to become afraid of the future, in case the future brings us further pain.
Henri Nouwen (The Living Reminder) points out that whilst good memories are visible in outer signs such as trophies, decorations, diplomas, gifts and portraits, painful memories tend to remain hidden, even from ourselves, in the corners of forgetfulness. It is only as we're prepared to make a conscious effort to remember them, as part of our life-story, that they again become available to us. Only as they are available to us can they be confronted and healed.
The Jewish concept of remembrance stressed that creative memory is able 'to make present' the past so that it could become contemporaneous. Normally, the closest we Christians come to acknowledging the validity of this concept is in our celebration of the Lord's Supper. Perhaps it's time to apply it to other aspects of our Christian lives. Perhaps it's time to use our God-given talent for creative memory, recalling our hurtful memories so that God can heal them.
When I use my memory, I ask it to produce whatever it is that I wish to remember. Some things it produces immediately; some are forthcoming only after a delay, as though they were being brought out from some inner hiding place; others come spilling from the memory thrusting themselves upon us when what we want is something quite different, as much as to say 'Perhaps we are what you want to remember?'... All this goes on inside me, in the vast cloisters of my memory. In it are the sky, the earth, and the sea, ready at my summons, together with everything that I have ever perceived in them by my senses... In it I meet myself as well. I remember myself and what I have done, when and where I did it, and the state of my mind at the time... The power of the memory is prodigious, my God. It is a vast immeasurable sanctuary. Who can plumb its depths? And yet it is a faculty of my soul. Augustine, Confessions
Most of our human emotions are closely related to our memory. Remorse is a biting memory, guilt is an accusing memory, gratitude is a joyful memory, and all such emotions are deeply influenced by the way we have integrated past events into our way of being in the world. In fact, we perceive our world with our memories.
Henri Nouwen, The Living Reminder
Enter into yourself, then, and see that your soul loves itself most fervently; that it could not love itself unless it knew itself, nor know itself unless it remembered itself, because our intellect grasps only what is present to our memory.
Bonaventure, The Soul's Journey into God
The personal unconscious contains lost memories, painful ideas that are repressed (i.e. forgotten on purpose).
Carl Jung, 'On the Psychology of the Unconscious'
Remembering is the beginning of freedom from the covert power of the remembered thing or occurrence.
Max Scheler, On the Eternal Man
Now there are some men who resemble the animal known as the lynx: according to Saint Jerome, they remember only what is before them, and once they turn their backs, they forget everything they cannot see. Then there are some we call idiots and fools because they wander about unaware with their mouths open wide to catch flies. Seneca says of them that they waste their lives because they do not think of the past... Memory is the place wherein is stored the treasure of the wise; it is the ark of truth, the living book of man, the womb where the soul cherishes her sons so that they are not killed by forgetfulness... Do not be a sickly stomach unable to digest what it has eaten, for if you are you will not retain the food of good teaching in the stomach of your memory and spiritually your life will be depleted.
Francisco de Osuna, "The Third Spiritual Alphabet'
For the past which we remember through Jesus Christ is not the serial but the enduring past. When we speak of the past in internal history we do not refer to events which no longer have reality in the world... Our past is what we are... Our past is our present in our conscious and unconscious memory. To understand such a present past is to understand one's self and, through understanding, to reconstruct.
H. Richard Neibuhr, The Meaning of Revelation
What is the ground for such faith in God's sovereignty and deliverance? As throughout the biblical record, it is memory. Remembrance of what God has done in the past gives rise to hopes for what he yet shall do to deliver his people. Just as Old Testament experience and faith grew out of reflection on memories of the exodus and covenant when God's mighty arm delivered his people from bondage to Egypt, so here God's great gift of himself and his forgiveness in Christ is the sufficient ground for confidence about what is really happening in present and future... Faith is grounded in memory but lives in hope.
Gordon D. Kaufman, commenting on Romans 8 in Systematic Theology: A Historicist Perspective
Memory came to my aid and made me feel God's presence; my heart, taking comfort, sought to embrace the cross.
Jacopone da Todi, The Lauds
Almighty God, right now I'm allowing my memory to wander haphazardly through the past events of my life. It's like retracing my footsteps through a long corridor, occasionally stopping outside a closed door, having forgotten what was in that particular room.
Somewhat timidly I'm opening the first door, Lord... I'm looking upon the experiences of my childhood... The next door is slightly ajar and as I peek in memories of my adolescence and young adulthood come flooding back... I had forgotten that those people ever existed. They were so much a part of my life then... How could I have forgotten?
I'm savouring the happy moments, Lord -- but one or two memories are a little painful. I'm not sure if I want to open any more doors, especially not the one in that dark part of the corridor. I have the feeling that it leads to a room with very hurtful memories. See, there's a big padlock with chains on that door!
Lord, give me the courage to open that door after all. I want you to help me to deal with whatever I have to confront... Where forgiveness is called for, may I have the assurance of your forgiveness. Where reconciliation needs to be effected, grant me your strength to approach the person whom I have allowed to become estranged. Where the loneliness of grief is re-awakened, may I be comforted by the knowledge that you share my grief.
Seek the Lord and his strength, seek his presence continually! Remember the wonderful works he has done, his miracles and the judgments he uttered. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God.
(Psalm 105:5; RSV; Philippians 4:6, RSV)
Still Waters, Deep Waters ed. By Rowland Croucher pp. 264-268