Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Prayer of Tears

With Rachel refusing comfort from beyond the grave,
with all those who weep ahead for a world they do not yet see ...

With those who sat and wept by the rivers of Babylon
and all those who spend their days as exiles and strangers in the land ...

With barren women waiting to be remembered
and tortured kings mourning losses through the night ...

With the kneeling Christ alone in the garden
and the hopeless disciples after his death ...

I bring my tears as a prayer for all that is in me saying:
we were not made for this,
for all that protests against the seemingly endless night ...

And before there is hope of resurrection or even light,
there is only this:
a flood of tears, an empty sky, and a willingness to remember.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Something from Nothing

In their Sunday school class, my kids were learning how God made something out of nothing. They were given the chance to make something from blocks, from clay, and then there was nothing but an empty box. No one could make something from that.

I have been reading Michael Card’s book about lament, The Hidden Face of God. He describes the darkest place of pain as being when one has completely given up hope of being comforted:

“[T]here is no hope. It simply does not exist … anywhere…. At this darkest stage—in order for comfort to exist—it must be created out of the nothingness that smothers the sufferer. Comfort ex nihilo, which is to say, a comfort that can only come from the God who alone can create something out of nothing” (p. 38).

I wonder what it would look like for God to create comfort out of nothingness? As that moment when the light first ripped through the darkness (“And God said …”) how would comfort be spread through the lonely vigil of suffering? Whatever that comfort looks like, there is creativity in that moment, where something previously unimagined comes into being. When I am lost in darkness, I am least able to be creative and find myself again and again being drawn into a hopeless spiral of nothingness and I can’t begin to imagine something strong enough to pull me away from its vortex. And I also can’t imagine that I would know how to share myself with others in that state or that they would even want me to if I could.

But maybe it’s not so complicated as I always want to make it. Maybe it’s as simple as someone walking into a room and speaking my name, someone holding my eyes a moment longer than is needed, someone who offers a hug and with it a deep and healing acceptance. When the darkness threatens to overtake me still, I am praying and hoping and begging to be reminded: into that space of suffering, there is a God whose imagination is never-ending, a God with ongoing power to create something from nothing—whether the very world itself or hope from the deepest despair.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Risk of Surrender

I came to know the hymn “I Surrender All” in the small Baptist church my dad was pastor of during my childhood years. We’d stand at the end of the evening service, the stained glass windows muted black with night and sing. The mood of the song was tired, gentle, even peaceful at the end of a long Sunday. But what I have come to think about surrender is far more unsettling.

Surrender is always a choice with unknown result, and so of necessity must involve risk. Whether I surrender to a feeling, such as grief, or to my husband of fifteen years, I am surrendering at least in some part to the unknown. No matter how many times I’ve grieved, I will never completely know its depths. No matter how long I’ve known someone I will never know them fully. There is always the risk that this particular time, my giving will not be wanted, or that things will interfere and it will not be received as I intended.

In An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis describes the risk in surrendering without a guaranteed result, in this case to a work of art.
The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)
In the case of God, I can at least know that he deserves my surrender. And maybe I can think of my life as a work of art to which I must surrender. My task as Lewis describes is to look, listen, receive, and get out of the way. And, even with trembling hands, my task is to learn surrender: to surrender my past and my dreams for the future, to surrender my children to the violence of an unpredictable world, to surrender myself to the unknown depths of grief, to the fears of new relationships, new work, new routines, to the confusing mystery of an inscrutable God. But even as I surrender with fear and self-doubt and sometimes even anger, I pray that I will discover the God who deserves it, singing presence and comfort into my life like a song in an old church at night.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Of Impatience, Intolerance, and Intensity

If patience were the only fruit of the Spirit, I would likely spend my life in a decidedly fruitless state. One definition of impatience is intolerance, as in “impatient of delay.” Another definition is “eagerly desirous,” as in an intensity of yearning. So I ask myself in my current impatient state: where is the place where my intolerance meets my eager intensity?

I am intolerant of pain, and so I try to be busy enough to not have to notice it. I am eagerly desirous of doing something meaningful with my life. Perhaps the place where intolerance meets intensity is the place those two desires are in conflict. What if my way of doing something meaningful throws me into the path of pain (as it almost certainly will)? Or what if I am not able to do something meaningful until I slow down enough to accept, even welcome, the pain or the lack of purpose I sometimes feel?

I love to write about the redemption of suffering, love to write about doubt and darkness and the search for meaning within it. But the fact is, for all my many words, I find myself so often feeling bewildered by life and confused about what to do next. Maybe in the end, what I’m most impatient with is myself. But you can’t will yourself to be less intense, can’t will yourself to be less critical of yourself—or at least if you can, I’m lousy at it. So what do I do? Today, I found an answer in my dog.

One minute, his entire being is focused on finding a way through the fence to see what is on the other side and he is totally and completely intolerant of delay. But all I need to do is call his name, even softly, and in a split-second it’s as if the fence never existed and all he can see is me, his joy expressed in an eager thrashing of his tail as he jumps up to greet me. His intensity is focused, but also amazingly flexible. There will always be something else. Whether the depths are of pain or purpose, why not find your patience in what is most present and stay with it as long as you can?

Monday, October 8, 2007


There are some who advocate an “attitude of gratitude” because of the benefits it offers for one’s emotional health. The more grateful you are, goes the thinking, the happier you will be. And I’m sure this is at least partly true. Recognizing the things that often go unnoticed and giving thanks for them surely deepens our sense of wonder and our joy at what it means to be human. But what about giving thanks when things are hard? Giving thanks when we don’t get what we want, when we are lonely, when we despair?

There is a song by Nicole Nordeman called “Gratitude” in which she describes giving thanks if we never get rain, daily bread, safety, peace—giving thanks for lessons learned in hungering and thirsting after God. A friend recently told me that anyone who hungers and thirsts after righteousness will find herself restless and ill at ease much of the time. But what other way is there to be?

The joy of this kind of restlessness comes in the times when in spite of circumstances, we find ourselves drawn in to caring conversation, find ourselves unaccountably moved to tears by the gentleness of men singing, find ourselves filled with the sense that though we are thirsty and hungry, we are not alone.

So this Canadian Thanksgiving day, I am grateful for brothers and sisters on the journey. I am grateful for times of absence and how they make me appreciate presence more. I am grateful for tears. And if nothing else, I am grateful for a heart still alive enough to burn.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

(Not) Knowing God

“When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.” (John 2:13-15)

Jesus made a whip out of cords. How did it happen? He took in the scene and was enraged. He stopped, sat down maybe, turned his fingers over and formed knots, one after another, to make a whip. Before his hands touched blind eyes with mud to make them see, before his hands broke bread to feed the hungry, his hands worked leather (or whatever the cords were made of) and created a whip.

What I realize thinking about this passage is I don’t know the first thing about God. I want him to be tame, to be someone I can understand, someone who talks to me and makes me feel good about who I am and what I am doing. But other times I think God’s not interested in making me feel good, but making me, simply … less. Less of me. More of him. Less of my own self-preoccupation and fretfulness with pleasing people and more of that nameless beauty I find but do not understand in rare moments of pure grace. More of the one who, with his own hands, makes whips but who also later gives his back to be struck with them on our behalf. What kind of terrifying mystery is that God?

For me, that is a God who asks you to follow even if you never see, never understand why terrible things happen—who asks you to follow even without anything like some big thing that makes it all “worth” it. A God who asks you to face up to the very worst of who you are, but who also leaves you with the hope of finding the very best of who he is. I guess lately I am thinking how much I don’t want to underestimate God, to tuck him in my back pocket and thank him for making me happy in precisely the way I wanted. Maybe I get closer to thanking him for making me unhappy if it means it grows me and shapes me to be more than I ever could be without him. There are times when it hurts like hell, but I can’t abide the alternative—being stuck in my own self with no way of escape.

A friend gave me an article from the web site of Fleming Rutledge, an Episcopal Priest, about Mother Teresa’s faith and doubt. The article (worth reading for its own merits), also contains following quote from Flannery O’Connor:

"What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God…You arrive at enough certainty to be able to make your way, but it is making it in darkness. Don’t expect faith to clear things up for you. It is trust, not certainty." (The Habit of Being, p. 354)

The God who makes whips, the God who is not at all an electric blanket but more of a cross … that God is the one I reach after in the darkness. And though terrifying, he is much more satisfying than the God I fashion after myself and fit in my back pocket. The 17th century poet John Donne addresses God thus in Holy Sonnet XIV: “Batter my heart, three personed God.” Batter indeed. And teach me not fight it when you do.

Monday, October 1, 2007


When I was a child, I was painfully shy and quiet. Not many people who know me now would believe it, but it is true. I remember horrible times in class when I would erase so hard I’d make a hole in the paper and would need another one, but I was too afraid to ask the teacher. I would sit and hope, I suppose, for something like mercy—for the teacher to walk by and notice my need and so provide for it.

For one definition of mercy, there must be some kind of power relationship. The person with the power shows mercy; the one without power receives it. In the Bible, the Pharisees had power and a whole lot of rules; they did not have mercy. There is a way of looking down on someone that would seem to have the air of compassion, but it in fact maintains the power relationship. I am here looking down on you in pity, and I, the one who has it together and understands how things should go, will lower myself to help you. It feels great to give that kind of mercy, but utterly lousy to receive it. Biblical mercy, it seems to me, is something different:

“Chesed, mercy, means the ability to get right inside the other person's skin until we can see things with his eyes, think things with his mind, and feel things with his feelings” (William Barclay, Daily Study Bible, commentary on Matthew).

Blessed are the ones that can get inside someone’s skin so much that they are able to show grace without power getting in the way. I am usually so preoccupied with what is going on in my own skin that I am half-hearted at best in my attention to those around me. And even the times when I am able to break past my self-consciousness and try to focus on another’s experience, I find myself filled with despair. There is so much sadness in me, so much more in other people. Where is God in all this? Where, indeed, is mercy?

Maybe mercy is found in that very moment of letting down your guard to another person, in having someone you can trust with your weakness. Maybe mercy is found in recognizing that though we suffer deeply, we are not the only ones. Mercy is all about relationship, not power. Mercy is what God shows to us and what we show to each other when we best live up to the example of Christ. In this way, mercy is not just a noun but a verb—not a thing, but an action. So my prayer today and always is for me to “mercy” others and for God to “mercy” me.