Thursday, May 17, 2007
STRUGGLING ON THE SCREE SLOPES
These sufferings bring patience, as we know, and patience brings perseverance, and perseverance brings hope, and this hope is not deceptive, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given us.
The Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from evil... May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.
We prove we are servants of God by great fortitude in times of suffering, in times of hardship and distress.
You will need endurance to do God's will and gain what he has promised.
This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God's commandments and remain faithful to Jesus.
Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.
All I can say is that I forget the past and I strain ahead for what is still to come; I am racing ahead for the finish, for the prize to which God calls us upwards to receive in Christ Jesus.
For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is [God's] steadfast love toward those who fear him.
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendents may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him.
'Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your mind to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard and I have come because of your words.'
'Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask anything of the Father, he will give it to you in my name. Hitherto you have asked nothing in my name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.'
Thus says the Lord: 'Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.'
(Romans 5: 4-5, JB; 2 Thessalonians 3:3 and 5, RSV; 2 Corinthians 6: 4, JB; Hebrews 10: 36, JB; Revelation 14: 12, NIV; 1 Corinthians 16: 13-14, RSV; Philippians 3: 13, JB; Psalm 103:11, RSV; Deuteronomy 30: 19-20, RSV; Daniel 10: 12, RSV; John 16: 23-24, RSV; Jeremiah 6: 16, RSV)
Life is not all peaks or valleys; there is a lot of trudging and sweating on the tracks in between, and not infrequent slipping-back on the scree slopes of mundane life. Sometimes the rubble of outer pressures and criticisms, or inner frustrations and uncertainties, not only block our journey, but leave us feeling powerless, thwarted by the trivia as much as by the bigger 'humps' of life.
The problem is (to vary Kipling's words) 'to keep your feet when all about you are losing theirs', especially on the scree slopes of fragile human relationships and personal hopes and goals. Israel as a nation, and individuals in the Old Testament, knew the desolation of Yahweh's seeming absence; we can identify readily with their thoughts of discouragement, gloom and sadness, the deep-felt need to tap again into a reservoir of faith and hope and love. There are times when we wish Paul would visit us, to impart some spiritual gift to strengthen us. We would then know the mutual encouragement of each other's faith and a new-found confidence that life is indeed going somewhere. Yet God often breaks into our slippery, disconsolate uncertain territory with his gift of patience, endurance, perseverance and steadfastness. Christ's consoling presence renews again our peace and joy, despite external circumstances and inner doubts. Discouragement then withers and dies of malnutrition.
According to William Barclay, the term hupomone was used in classical Greek for the ability of a plant to live in a harsh environment -- literally in the deserts and rocky slopes. In later Greek and Jewish literature it was used to refer to the 'spiritual staying power' which enabled the faithful to die for their God. In the New Testament, the noun or its corresponding verb are used forty-five times, commonly in the context of patience and endurance in times of suffering, distress and hardship.
The steadfastness that God gives his people is the spirit 'which can bear things, not simply with resignation, but with blazing hope; it is not the spirit which sits statically enduring in the one place, but the spirit which bears things because it knows that these things are leading to a goal of glory... Chrysostom calls hupomone a... fruit that never withers, a fortress that is never taken.' It is the quality which keeps a man or woman on their feet, their face to the wind, when troubles and trials abound, because beyond the pain and impotence it sees the goal and purpose of the Christ-centred life. It is pure gift, simply of God's grace; it is waiting to be appropriated and, in God's great mystery, this is especially so when we feel most helpless.
Still the question:
Shall I ever get there?
There where life resounds,
A clear pure note
In the silence...
Forward! Thy orders are given in secret. May
I always hear them -- and obey.
Forward! Whatever distance I have covered,
it does not give me the right to halt.
Forward! It is the attention given to the last
steps before the summit which decides the value
of all that went before.
Dag Hammarskjold, Markings
No... climber among the precipices purposely exposes himself to stormy wind... But spiritual mountaineers must; and at such an hour there must be 'some perseverance when we are tired, some resoluteness not to let ourselves off easily', something akin to the spirit of the world's mountaineers, 'a spirit firm and tenacious and ambitious enough to drive on the body to its seemingly last extremity'. There is no such thing as an easy or sheltered climb.
Amy Carmichael, Gold by Moonlight
My search is further.
There's still to name and know
beyond the flowers I gather
that one that does not wither -
the truth from which they grow.
Judith Wright, 'The Forest'
Say not the struggle naught availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as many things have been, things remain.
If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
It may be, in yon smoke concealed,
Your comrades chase e'en now the fliers,
And, but for you, possess the field.
For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.
Arthur Hugh Clough, 'Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth'
Archimedes said, 'lf I can find a fulcrum for my lever I can lift the universe', and in the same way we can lift the burden of this... deterministic world as long as we have the lever of self-determinism. As Romain Rolland said, 'Determinism in the world exists only when one has released one's hold upon one's self'.
Toyohiko Kagawa, The Practising Christian
Not a word of praise is given to the disciple for obeying the call [Mark 2: 14]. We are not expected to contemplate the disciple, but only him who calls, and his absolute authority... there is no other road to faith or discipleship -- only obedience to the call of Jesus... The cross is laid on every Christian. It begins With the call to abandon the attachments of this world... We surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
Sometimes it is a matter of total perplexity as to just what God is doing with us... We reach... assurance in the same way that Paul and Jacob reached it - by hanging onto the God with whom we wrestle and refusing to let him go until he pours out on us his sustaining power and his comfort in every perplexity... One thing Jacob knew -- that he fought with the one person who could give him all life and good. And he hung onto God and cried out in his struggle, 'I will not let you go until you bless me!'
Elizabeth Achtemeier, Preaching as Theology and Art
...There is really only the way forward, which does not seem a way and which no-one wants to tread. There is no way out; no escape which is more than a mirage, illusory. Go on. It has to be 'in faith'... and that faith in God, because human help whether medical, psychological or counselling fails... I can just with the tip of my finger touch the sense that God can and does so trust us that he leaves us to shoulder the load in a way which is appropriate to us and the world of our time.
Oh my Lord! Your help is necessary here; without it one can do nothing. In your mercy do not consent to allow this soul to suffer deception and give up what was begun . .. Let the soul always heed the warning not to be conquered... if you should at times fall, don't become discouraged and stop striving to advance. For even from this fall God will draw out good.
Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle
God, how we need your help!
Without you, life is like the Stony Desert;
with you, life is like the Channel Country after abundant rains.
If we have become bare and unfruitful,
like a neglected paddock,
be to us as a plough in hard ground.
If we have wandered in waste places,
becoming lost and blinded in sandstorms,
lead us to some quiet, verdant gully,
where there is living water to refresh us...
Bruce Prewer, 'Without you, life is desert'
I don't know why my friend and neighbour is sick and dying and in constant pain... I can only tell him that the God I believe in did not send the disease and does not have a miraculous cure that he is witholding. But in a world in which we all possess immortal spirits in fragile and vulnerable bodies, the God I believe in gives strength and courage to those who, unfairly and through no fault of their own, suffer pain and the fear of death.
Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People
...Have you ever considered that if you want absolute certainty you must give up freedom, love and hope?
Freedom means making choices and allowing other people to make choices.
Love arises spontaneously and is freely given. It cannot be coerced into being and produced on demand.
Hope can only exist where there is uncertainty. Absolute certainty means complete hopelessness... Life must be an uncertain business. That is what makes it worthwhile.
Dorothy Rowe, Depression
I go back to the one perfect summary of man's Godward life and call -- the Lord's Prayer. Consider how dynamic and purposive is its character. Thy will be done -- Thy kingdom come! There is energy, drive, purpose in these words; an intensity of desire for the coming of perfection into life. Not the limp resignation that lies devoutly in the road for the steamroller; but a total concentration on the total interests of God, which must be expressed in action.
Evelyn Underhill, The Spiritual Life
Where two or three come together and symphonlse ('agree' comes from the word 'symphonise'), asking anything in his name, their prayers will be answered, even to the extent of lifting a mountain and casting it into the sea. And remember that mountains of hate and fear are as gigantic and apparently immovable as rock and soft.
Glenn Clark, Windows of Heaven
Incarnate Word, in whom all nature lives,
Cast flame upon the earth: raise up contemplatives
Among us, men who walk within the fire
Of ceaseless prayer, impetuous desire.
Set pools of silence in this thirsty land:
Distracted men that sow their hopes in sand
Will sometimes feel an evanescent sense
Of questioning, they do not know from whence.
Prayer has an influence we cannot mark,
It works unseen like radium in the dark.
And next to prayer, the outward words of grace:
Humility that takes the lower place,
Serene content that does not ask for more,
And simple joy, the treasure of the poor,
And active charity that knocks on any door.
It's easy said -- I wish my words might chime
With fitting deeds as easily as they rhyme
Yet somehow, between prayer and commonsense,
Hearts may be touched, and lives have influence.
And when the heart is once disposed to see,
Then reason can unlock faith's treasury.
To rapt astonishment is then displayed
A cosmic map Mercator never made.
James McAuley, 'A letter to John Dryden'
Lord, there are times when my life, and my prayers, are like a scree slope in the mountains -- disconnected fragments, rubble without cohesion or foundation -- and progress with you seems hard indeed. Forgive me for slipping back, complaining, feeling forsaken, directionless. My head says I can't blame you, but my soul is like sparse mountain grass, and my spirit a dried-up creek.
'Patience' and 'endurance' sound like alien words for foreign people, yet others ladle them upon me, laced with judgment, and etch my mind with guilt.
And yet... and yet you're still the Lord of life and hope, steadfast in your love beyond all my comprehension. You send soil and seed to bind the crumbling path, and sustenance for my struggling life. Thank you!
And almost before I realise it, you're calling me to pray for other wandering souls -- those disinherited long ago, or recently lost in grief. Strange, to feel drawn to pray for others when I'm so weak... but perhaps that's your way. It leaves room for you to encourage my soul's sincere desire, for you to inject me with your staying power, so I can work along with you, not on my own. Once more I see that you surely are the way, the truth, and the life.
God keep you safe when the cliffs are sheer
God keep you safe when the night is drear
God keep you safe on the path you tread
God keep and be with you at your head.
David Adam, The Edge of Glory
Rowland Croucher ed., High Mountains Deep Valleys (Albatross/Lion) chapter 43.