Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Walking with God

“He took me by the hand and walked me
into pitch-black darkness.”
—Lamentations 3:3, The Message

“When life is heavy and hard to take, go off by yourself. Enter the silence. Bow in prayer. Don't ask questions: Wait for hope to appear. Don't run from trouble. Take it full-face. The ‘worst’ is never the worst. Why? Because the Master won't ever walk out and fail to return.”
—Lamentations 3:28-31, The Message

There is a great old song “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,” and in my mind I can hear it being sung in rich, resonant tones with a touch of melancholy yearning. Reading through the book of Lamentations in The Message version, I have been struck again how little I really understand about God. And some of the stuff I read there makes me think about this more: Do I really want Jesus to walk with me? Do I want the God who takes me by the hand and leads me into pitch-black darkness to walk with me? I suppose if I have to go into pitch-black darkness, I want him with me, but “walking with God” is maybe not the saccharine, moralistic, clearly defined road some of us want it to be. Instead walking with God might mean taking one step and another and another into the pitch-black night.

So what do I do in the darkness? Lamentations assures me God won’t ever walk out and fail to return; but that implies he does walk out. He takes me by the hand and leads me into pitch-black darkness. And he walks out.

I want Jesus to walk with me. But I’m terrified of him sometimes.

Monday, November 26, 2007


“I need you for my priest, and while we are at it, I’m available to you as your priest.”
—Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way
“This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”
—1 Corinthians 4:1

I think everyone wants to have someone be a step above them, willing to provide support or give direction. For most people, that would be parents or maybe a teacher. And there is a kind of safety in knowing there is some last resort you can turn to, someone with whom you will always be welcome. But what happens when that step above is suddenly gone? When a parent dies or is unavailable, when a teacher moves on to other things? When there is no one but you at the top of the ladder with lots of others below looking up. There is an aching sense of loneliness, of being cut off and unprotected in the world that no amount of other good things can take away.

This Sunday, the pastor of the church I visited talked about tears as the only way the soul can express the love it needs to express. So tears are about something that was loved and is lost. Or something that was needed and did not come. Tears are about parents who are gone too soon or even in good time, about innocence lost and loving the girl who lost it. As the sermon Sunday explained, God never says, “stop crying,” but he does say “stop doubting.” When the God who raised people to life seems so far off, when grief and sadness seem so near, how can I stop doubting?

I need you to be my priest. I need you to keep hope when I can’t, and then I need you to know that even in my weakness I will be a priest for you. And what I get from that is not the protection of knowing there is someone a step up from me, but recognition that it’s normal for things to be hard sometimes and now it’s me but maybe later it will be you. I get the revelation that it’s not about some place to stop where things are just as I always wanted them to be, but it’s about walking and keeping on walking until I am home. And the only way I can do that is with you. Maybe it is in the long process of walking that I finally come to approach the mysteries of God, that I begin to see even dimly what it means to have a God who does not often stop death but is able to raise the dead.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Tears and the Limits of Darkness

I have come to the somewhat obvious but long-coming conclusion that I can’t outrun sadness. I can’t leave it behind moving 2,000 miles away; I can’t convince it by doing all the right things that I am no longer deserving of its presence.

I am struggling to accept both the inevitability of sorrow and the necessity that it be limited. When I spent an afternoon at my silent retreat in tears, my spiritual director asked what my soul was telling me. Without thinking, I said: “This is what it feels like to breathe.” This is what it feels like to feel the limits of your humanity, this is what it feels like to know where your edges are, this is what it feels like to join with others in the Bible and ever since who grieve deeply but not without end, this is what it feels like to touch the edges of the mystery and the suffering of Christ. This is what it feels like to breathe.

Perhaps a measure of my habit in wanting to be “fine” or writing happy endings is that when I considered how to tell about this I right away wanted to say “Since I’ve learned to embrace my tears, my life has been great.” The fact is since I’ve tried to embrace my sadness, I have cried a lot, sometimes without anything like hope. I have asked questions with no answers and the pain of it feels nearly impossible to live with. But what has also happened is I have shared more of myself with others, I have prayed perhaps more authentically, realizing that if God can’t take my questions, no one can. I have experienced more of myself—having wept my way all the way to the edges of who I am. But still, it hurts. A lot.

At the same time I worry about endlessly indulging in a kind of morose recitation of my sorrows. Because then what happens is the dark things take too much place in my life and I am no longer able (or even willing) to fight them. A friend suggested I read something Eugene Peterson wrote in Five Smooth Stones about Lamentations. In it, Peterson talks about the need for limits to grief:
“Let the tears flow, but let them also cease! … Evil is not inexhaustible. It is not infinite. It is not worthy of a lifetime of attention…. Suffering assumes its place as one among other things. It is not everything. It is not the whole world” (pp. 123ff).
Without limits to the suffering, without locating it in place and time and naming it, the sorrow is not open to grace, which Peterson notes operates in history in the actual details of specific events. This has given me words with which to name both the exact things that cause me sorrow and also to name the seemingly irresistible darkness that threatens to overtake me at times. When sorrow is specific, when it is shared, it is not infinite, not everything, not the whole world. And when it is shared, it saves me from mercilessly blaming myself for its presence—something I do so completely and from such deep habit I hardly realize it. I need all these truths so much: accept the tears; name the sorrow but know its limits; it's not your fault.

I don’t know if these scattered words are enough to explain the deep effect this has had on me—is still having on me. I am trying both to be sad and at the same time to not be overwhelmed by darkness. The prayer of my heart comes best from Frederick Buechner in The Hungering Dark (p. 125):
“Lord Jesus Christ,
Help us not to fall in love with the night that covers us but through the darkness to watch for you as well as to work for you; to dream and hunger in the dark for the light of you. Help us to know that the madness of God is saner than men and that nothing God has wrought in this world was ever possible.

Give us back the great hope again that the future is yours, that not even the world can hide you from us forever, that at the end the One who came will come back in power to work joy in us stronger even than death. Amen.”

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Day I'm Waiting For

“I’ve been there and am going back. Make of it what you will.”
—Leif Enger, Peace Like a River

I walk up a long hill and I know—even before I get to the top I know what the river will be like because I can already hear it singing. And there it is at last, running clear and bright and irresistible in the warm white of that day. Without thinking I am drawn to it; I know at once it is the place I’ve always been going. When I get to the river’s edge I take the robe, full of dirt and torn with many sorrows, and sink it into the river—sink it with both hands pushing down until it touches all the way to the stones at the bottom.

For a moment it is just a crumpled pile of rags, then all at once the current catches and the robe is unfurled beside me. There is one place near the collar that I hold while the rest is pulled in time to the rhythm of the waters. And there at the bottom of the river just above the rocks, there in beauty of the light and crystal water I see my sorrows dance like the morning sun. The robe waves and trembles caught in the river’s pull, and I want to laugh to see how it is so quickly washed white, how it is so completely mended. It is pure and shining in the light and even after all that happened, even after so many things broke apart, there it is all the same but better—one and whole and soaked through with the glory of God.

I pull it out heavy and wet, and as I do a gust of wind billows the robe full and light and floats it gently through the air. I put it on and look around me at the others who have come. Now we know. Now we can say at last that we survived the great ordeal. And there is nothing left but to sing, to dance, to laugh, to delight in the new-making tears and the river of the blood of the Lamb.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Sabbath Breath

I am not sure I know how to breathe. If I’m aware of my breath at all, it is almost always too shallow and anxious. Even when I make a conscious effort to slow my breathing down, I still never feel like I’ve gotten that one big draught of air that would fill all my pores with oxygen and renew me with energy and life. In so many ways, I am dying for lack of breath.

Today the kids have school and Will and I are off work. This rare blessed event has dropped like an unexpected gift into the usual busy-ness of our days. And so I drink tea, have long conversations, remember again how much I love my husband, write, read, pet the cats, and in it all I breathe deeply.

I was reading the section in Eugene Peterson’s Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places about Sabbath. He talks about how our work can easily give us the wrong perspective about ourselves:
“When we work we are most god-like, which means that it is in our work that it is easiest to develop god-pretensions. Un-sabbathed, our work becomes the entire context in which we define our lives. We lose God-consciousness, God-awareness, sightings of resurrection.” (p. 117)
Going back again to the gifts of my silent retreat, I realize paradoxically that the weakness I so often fight against is itself a call to deeper breath, to an awareness of my own limitations and my deep need for God. So often I think I simply have to try harder, be more organized, do more stuff. But those thoughts merely perpetuate the lie that I am the one who is keeping everything going. Sabbath breath means I breathe in all the fear and uncertainty of my own limitations, and breathe out the ultimately comforting revelation that it is not I, but God who is in charge. And that is the breath in which I find life—the humility of recognizing it’s not up to me, and the peace of knowing it never was.

Sunday, November 4, 2007


I ended the “prayer of tears” (see below) that I wrote on my silent retreat with the phrase “willingness to remember.” For me willingness has to do not only with a willingness to call to mind the things that cause me sadness, but a willingness to stay with them long enough to see what I might learn from them. It has been my habit to avoid simply sitting and feeling something. I’d rather fill my head with all the reasons I should not be feeling it or the reasons I must be pathological for feeling it, or at the very least a detailed intellectual and poetic explanation of why I should be happy enough to not feel it any more. You get the picture.

But one of the things that has really stuck with me after the retreat this weekend is a comment made by my spiritual director. He said, “Until you embrace your own suffering, the suffering of Christ will mean nothing to you—nothing more than an intellectual exercise.” What does it mean to embrace my suffering? I have spent enough time with my sorrows to think that I have embraced them. But the fact is, while they are very familiar to me, I am still embarrassed by them. I bite back tears even when there’s no good reason I shouldn’t share them with the person I am sitting with. Does embracing my suffering mean, in part, that I stop trying to push the part of me full of tears back out into the snow like an unruly aunt who keeps showing up drunk at family holidays?

I don’t think embracing suffering means that I spend my time wallowing endlessly in sadness. For me, at least, it means a willingness to go to those places where there are no answers and let my tears speak. It means embracing all of the ways I am broken, failing, and flawed. It means recognizing the limits of my own humanity. I do not know what will happen if I even come close to understanding what it means to embrace my suffering, or what I will discover about God in the depths of it. For now, let me find courage to simply stay with the prayer that I am willing to find out. I am willing …