“…You Shall Be a Miracle…By the Grace of God”

“Do not pray for easy lives; pray to be stronger people!  Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers; pray for powers equal to your tasks!  Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle.  But you shall be a miracle.  Every day you shall wonder at yourself, at the richness of life which has come in you by the grace of God…”

– Phillip Brooks (1835-1893), Twenty Sermons

Image from The Roman Catholic Church of St. Vincent de Paul in Albany, New York

Going to Hell

I recently participated in a Bible study class written by Beth Moore, called “Believing God.” I had read the book over the summer, and wanted to enter a weekday study with other seekers. Sunday church is not something that Gregg wants to attend, so I thought it would be a good idea for me to go during the week for worship, prayer and study with my sisters in Christ.
The class was offered by a local church, and open to the public.

This church is about as far to the right as any church I’ve entered, and I am way to the left of their theology (as stated on their website). However, I felt that, if we are all sisters in the faith, we could come together in the love of God and His Word, and find fellowship there.

It is simply amazing to me that there are so many, vastly different belief systems and doctrines under the one umbrella called Christianity. It was an eye-opening experience to take this class in this environment; we heard the same message week by week, yet we interpreted it completely differently. Though some of the ladies were very kind, it was clear to me that I did not fit into their mould, and never would.

I eventually found that the class was depressing me. Not Beth Moore’s teaching, which I loved, but the host church’s interpretation and presentation of the Biblical themes. Please do not misunderstand: I am thankful that I was welcome to join this class, and I am thankful to the church and its members for providing it. I just did not feel comfortable with their view of God, man, creation and our mission and purpose for existing.

This is not to suggest that I am “right” and they are “wrong.” These are my sisters in Christ, and they are living their belief system with integrity – an admirable thing. I just didn’t see the JOY, FREEDOM – and most importantly, the unconditional LOVE – of God in it. The further into the class we went, the more I missed those essential elements, and the darker it seemed.

I’ve been wondering about the concept of hell lately, probably because of the time I spent in this church, listening to their views.

Those of us who feel we’ve already seen hell, or lived there, seem to have no need to create or believe in another, later-destination version of it. Those who have experienced hell seem to want to bring heaven to earth as much as possible, with love, kindness, ministry, compassion, forgiveness, healing and tenderness. Those who speak and express the most concern about hell (as a place one might go after death) make me wonder if they really live in daily fear of it – and wonder if they’ve ever truly suffered here in this life, or are simply braced against it.

In my opinion, if you’ve already been there, hell is no longer an intellectual construct, a doctrine or a place to be sent after death, but a reality of this broken world that cries out for redeeming, here and now. It is illness, decay, depression, death, the suffering of mankind…what could be more hellish than those?

I wonder if we aren’t actually called – each one of us – to “go to hell” here in this life, and to come out of it with a heart transformed. That seems to be one way of looking at the Paschal pattern. To be frank, it’s one of the only ways that I can make sense of the past six years of my life.

I love God deeply, but experience has made me a bit wary of what He allows, as the price is so very high – it’s everything! (Yes, I am mid-life, flawed, and still not totally surrendered to Him.) Yet what other option and relationship do we have? “Lord, to whom shall we go?” He is the One – the Way, the Truth, the Life, the great source of Love – our Creator.

I truly desire to serve Him and participate in His work of love in this world; it’s the only life worth living anymore. I prefer to see it as bringing a bit of His kingdom – heaven – into the present time and place, rather than fearing a possible hell in the future.

What do you think about heaven and hell? Are they here and now, in the hereafter, neither, or both?

Living with the Questions

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What do you do with a statement like the following, when your hopes have not materialized, your loved one has died, your partner has left, you have been swindled, or your prayers have not been answered as you had prayed they would?

“I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall be ever in my mouth.

Let my soul glory in the LORD;
the lowly will hear me and be glad.
The LORD has eyes for the just,
and ears for their cry.
The LORD confronts the evildoers,
to destroy remembrance of them from the earth.
When the just cry out, the LORD hears them,
and from all their distress he rescues them.
The LORD is close to the brokenhearted;
and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.
Many are the troubles of the just one,
but out of them all the LORD delivers him;
he watches over all his bones;
not one of them shall be broken.”  Ps 34:2-3, 16-17, 18-19, 20-21

 

There are so many points to take up in that Psalm! “From all their distress He rescues them.” That didn’t happen the way I interpreted it – I thought that RESCUE meant extrication from the crisis, healing for Katie, cancer defeated, life restored. You know, like a rescue in a lifeboat – you don’t go down with the ship, you get off the ship and it goes down without you. You are taken to land and you pick up the rest of your life – you may have lost your luggage, but not your loved one, not things you thought you couldn’t live without.

Well, that is not what happened; Katie died, and we were left to go on without her. There was plenty of distress, inside and all around. So how can I accept a piece of writing such as that Psalm? What can it possibly mean? What value can it have for me?

Immediately following Katie’s death, it would have created tension and angst in me, but five years later, I know that it is true. He “is close to the brokenhearted; and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.” He is close, when I call on Him. He has saved me; though my spirit has been crushed, it is being renewed through His grace. The writer of the 2nd letter to the Corinthians says it better than I can:

2 Corinthians 4:7-12 New International Version (NIV):  But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”

What a collection of paradoxes! But does paradox mean they aren’t true? I think not – I think that it may take paradox to speak to mysteries that are larger than our human minds can grasp. How can we speak of such divine activity except in similes, metaphors and parables? This is where Richard Rohr’s writings help me navigate the uncharted waters:

“I don’t think the important thing is to be certain about answers nearly as much as being serious about the questions.

“When we hold spiritual questions, we meet and reckon with our contradictions, with our own dilemmas; and we invariably arrive at a turning point where we either evade God or meet God. Mere answers close down the necessary struggle too quickly, too glibly, and too easily.

“When we hang on the horns of dilemmas with Christ—between perfect consistency and necessary contradictions—we find ourself in the unique place I call “liminal space.” Reality has a cruciform shape to it then—and we are taught best at the intersection of order and disorder, where God alone can make sense out of the situation and we must surrender. All real transformation of persons takes place when we’re inside of such liminal space—with plenty of questions that are open to God and grace and growth.”  – Richard Rohr, adapted from Holding the Tension: The Power of Paradox (CD, DVD, MP3)

Whatever your questions are, your unresolved grief, crisis, or catastrophe, I pray that you will hold onto the hope that you are not abandoned – because you are indeed beloved. Time itself doesn’t heal, but being patient and looking for the light, day by day – sometimes moment by moment – will yield evidence of goodness, which leads to gratitude. Gratitude sheds light on reasons to hope, and the light gradually becomes brighter.

As I listen and watch for God’s movement, it is apparent that reality does have “a cruciform shape” – that the cross is the pattern of our life here on earth. There is suffering inherent in the frailty of this existence. It isn’t personal, but the loving interaction between God and His creation (which does not always look like RESCUE) is indeed personal. God is for us, and we are made for God (if you can’t make peace with the word “God” just now, you could try substituting the word “Love”).  As it says in 1 John 4 (J.B. Phillips’ translation),

“God is love, and the man whose life is lived in love does, in fact, live in God, and God does, in fact, live in him. So our love for him grows more and more…”

The experience of catastrophe is an opportunity to go deeper into that Love, if we are willing to take the risk of surrender. We can also choose to turn away, because God does not force us. Trusting after a catastrophe is not easy; in my experience, it is not neat and tidy, it is not a straight line forward, and it is not painless. It is not even welcome – I would prefer to have Katie back, and would much prefer not to know what I know now – but that is not an option open to me.

I first truly saw the cruciform reality of my life in the place where I had to let Katie go, and begin to come to terms with God in that intersection, with the facts  of her passing (which I dislike intensely) standing all around me. It is a work in progress, to be sure. There are days when I wonder whether this place, this earth with all of its brokenness, is some form of hell; there are days when it seems like heaven. I have no answers, but I am learning to live with the questions.