Saturday, March 28, 2015

Darkness is God's Best Gift to You

In her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor has a chapter about the "dark night of the soul", a term made famous by John of the Cross, a sixteenth century monk who wrote the book by that title during the 11 months that he spent in a monastery prison.

Taylor writes in this chapter about how averse we are to uncertainty and how all of our carefully crafted creeds and doctrines over the centuries have attempted to make us sure about who God is. But John of the Cross says that "one of the central functions of the dark night is to convince those who grasp after things that God cannot be grasped."

She goes on to write the following about John of the Cross: "...he says that darkness is God's best gift to you, intended for your liberation. It is about freeing you from your ideas about God, your fears about God, your attachment to the benefits you have been promised for believing in God, your devotion to spiritual practices that are supposed to make you feel closer to God, your dedication to doing and believing all the right things about God, your positive and negative evaluations of yourself as a believer in God, your tactics for manipulating God, and your sure cures for doubting God.

"All of these are substitutes for God, John says. They all get in God's way...God puts out our lights to keep us safe, John says, because we are never in more danger of stumbling than when we think we know where we are going. When we can no longer see the path we are on, when we can no longer read the maps we have brought with us or sense anything in the dark that might tell us where we are, then and only then are we vulnerable to God's protection..."

Taylor ends the chapter by saying that this kind of faith "will not offer me much to hold on to. It will not give me a safe place to settle. Practicing it will require me to celebrate the sacraments of defeat and loss...I think I can live inside this cloudy evening of the soul for a while longer, where even my sense of God's absence can be a token of God's presence if I let it..."

Saturday, March 21, 2015

God is Thinking About You Right Now as You Read This

J.I. Packer writes the following:

“What matters supremely is not, in the last analysis, the fact that I know God, but the larger fact which underlies it — the fact that He knows me. I am graven on the palms of His hands. I am never out of His mind. All my knowledge of Him depends on His sustained initiative in knowing me. I know Him, because He first knew me, and continues to know me. He knows me as a friend, one who loves me, and there is no moment when His eye is off me, or His attention distracted from me, and no moment therefore, when His care falters.

“This is momentous knowledge. There is unspeakable comfort — the sort of comfort that energizes — in knowing that God is constantly taking knowledge of me in love, and watching over me for my good. There is tremendous relief in knowing that His love to me is utterly realistic, based...on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery now can disillusion him about me, in the way I am so often disillusioned about myself, and quench his determination to bless me. There is, certainly , great cause for humility in the thought that He sees all the twisted things about me that my fellow-men do not see, and that He sees more corruption in me than that which I see in myself.

Posted by admin December - 5 - 2012 7 Comments“There is, however, equally great incentive to worship and love God in the thought that, for some unfathomable reason, He wants me as His friend, and desires to be my friend, and has given His Son to die for me in order to realize this purpose.”

For this truth to have practical impact on our lives, it's important to actually embrace it, accept it and practice it; so my suggestion is to pause a few moments during your day (doing this regularly) to listen for the Father's affirmation of you and to agree with Him. One way of doing this is to take these words of J.I. Packer and turn them into a personal statement by God to you, saying something like this: "(Your name), what matters supremely is not the fact that you know Me but that I know you. You are engraved on the palms of My hands, and I never stop thinking about you; I'm thinking about you right now. You know Me because I knew you first and continue to know you. I know everything about you, the good, the bad and the ugly, and I still want you as My friend; I want this so much that I went to death to win you for Myself..., etc."

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Best Investment and the Return on Investment

This week I thought I'd share a simple story from my life that bears out the return on investment that we get with God.

by tiger / Monday, 13 May 2013 / Published in Investments , Lifestyle
A couple of years ago on Thanksgiving I wrote a very short and simple affirming statement on the back of a business card and gave it to a dear lady who was having dinner with our family that day. I had taken a few minutes to genuinely think about her and the value of her personhood and shared the thought that came to my mind for her.

She was so struck by those simple few words that ever since then, she remembers me with great affection and has a heart to do anything for me if she can.

Think of it! I invested a few minutes of time and care; the return on that has been a friendship, the value of which can't be measured. The best investments you'll make are investments in people, just as Jesus did.

We don't always find out the return on our investments in humans, but knowing how utterly generous God is, we can be sure the return is balanced in our favor. I know you readers have many such stories as well; it's encouraging to pause and remember some of these stories from time to time.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Peripheral Vision - Tunnel Vision

Some time ago I shared thoughts about opening more of the windows of my soul in order to receive greater light about God (Opening the Window Blinds to Let in More Light).

Along the same lines, I will share a thought about the importance of peripheral vision in our growing understanding of God and of all of life. I read the following from an article about 2 Kansas State University research psychologists: "We found that your peripheral vision is important for taking in the gist of a scene and that you can remove the central portion of an image, where your visual acuity is best, and still do just fine at identifying the scene..." (Adam Larson)

Tunnel VisionIt's not unusual for us humans to have tunnel vision as it relates to our particular worldview, including those of us who follow Jesus; in other words, we focus on only one paradigm or way of viewing Him. In order get the whole scene, it's important that we have and practice "peripheral vision" or the ability to see beyond a single point of focus. This requires venturing into the worlds of other people who see things differently and daring to ask questions about our own point of view. This takes courage since often our sense of security is based on thinking that what 'my tribe' believes is THE truth.

When you lose peripheral vision in the physical eye, not only do you miss out on the wider beauty of the scene but there's danger involved since you can't detect movement out of the corner of your eye. Walking and driving, among other things, are dangerous activities for someone without peripheral vision.

And so it is in God; we may think we're protecting ourselves and others by confining ourselves to our favored theologies and ideas, but we may be in more danger by not receiving wisdom and understanding of God from the wider community of faith and even from those who may not share our beliefs about God but who have learned things we can gain by. This doesn't mean we give up our focused vision (that which we see through the tunnel) nor that we adhere to everything others teach; it means we add to the picture all the colors and variety of the larger scene.

lake_and_mountain_scenery.jpgA couple of ways to start developing peripheral vision are: first, simply practice putting yourself in the shoes of whoever you tend to react in disagreement with. This takes effort and concentration but produces empathy and a larger understanding of humans even if you may not agree with the person. Another way is to begin to read the materials of others who look at God from different angles.

Here are a few names of many good and real followers of Jesus that I recommend for help in this matter of getting peripheral vision; most of them have blogs where you can find a lot of material:
Richard Beck Experimental Theology
Rachel Held Evans Rachel Held Evans Blog
Brian McLaren Brian's Blog
Peter Enns Rethinking Biblical Christianity
Derek Flood  The Rebel God
Kathy Escobar  Love.Mercy.Peace   

As I have ventured into other ways of seeing God with the help of people who are from other traditions and worldviews, I'm finding the landscape and scenery to be more beautiful and exciting than when I looked with tunnel vision, and I'm thankful.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Pain's Other Name and the Gifts She Brings with Her

I will conclude this small series about the unwanted guest named Pain (part 1, part 2, part 3) by sharing a few of the unexpected gifts that have come along with Pain when she is hosted well. Like the child Much Afraid of Hinds Feet in High Places, we need a lot of help to scale the mountain that takes us to the kingdom where Love rules; her strong helpers were Sorrow and Suffering. The delightful surprise later on in the story is that it turned out that Sorrow and Suffering's real names were Peace and Joy!

I like to say that my visitor, Pain, has another name that I'm discovering, and that is Grace. An outstanding feature of Grace is that she is fully focused on the present, on today. She has all that I need for today, but when I start to focus my attention on tomorrow and fret about how things might be then, she feels neglected and steps aside, making room for Fear to step up and intimidate me.

Grace is about living today as fully as possible, and one of the beautiful things about her is that she has many good gifts that are helping me make the most of each day, one day at a time. Here are a few:
  • Dependence - although undesired at times, the gift of Dependence is deepening community for me. I need the friends and family who kindly tend to my needs in a variety of ways, whereas before I could do most of it for myself.
  • Expansion - this gift is widening my community. In my case, the many and regular trips to physical therapy and to the YMCA pool for exercise have given me a whole new and different set of friends and acquaintances that I treasure now, people such as Alyssa, Abe, Kayla, Natalie, Sadiq, Willie, Herb, Jessica, etc., who I would never have met without Pain's presence in my life.
  • Empathy-Solidarity - this has been another big gift which has opened my eyes in much greater ways to see and identify with others who suffer. One experience that all humans have in common is a visit from Pain. The gift of Empathy-Solidarity is enabling me to move past the tendency to categorize people and instead see a person to comfort and identify with; in turn, I find myself being comforted and strengthened.
  • Enlargement - a lot like Empathy, this gift is making my heart more spacious, which is a lifelong prayer of mine. I desire to have a heart like God's all-encompassing, inclusive heart that embraces all people no matter their race or gender or status or religion, and this gift of Grace is helping.
Jesus Died for MeThese are a few of Grace's gifts. There are more but this will suffice. I can't help but think of the One who because of His intimate acquaintance with pain and full solidarity with all humans, was given gifts of grace to give to humans. May His voluntary experience of pain and solidarity with you make your visit from Pain, not only bearable, but filled with gifts of grace. To Jesus be thanks and praise!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Sorting Out Who's Who of the Unwanted Guests

Following up on two previous posts about Pain (An Uninvited, Unwanted House Guest and Other Guests that Sneak in the Door with Pain), I'll share thoughts about sorting through all these unwanted guests in order to benefit from Pain's visit. It turns out that Pain is a beneficial visitor if received well and put to good use. She can be a great helper in the journey to mature self-giving love. The problem is that there are many and sundry other guests that slip in with her, and these visitors will destroy love if not handled well.

I'm not going to attempt to present anything comprehensive because our lives and situations are unique and very complicated. So this is simply a couple of things I've learned that may help as we each struggle to find what most helps in our own unique situation.

There are two really big guests that we should not have anything to do with from the start. First is the insidious guest named Perfectionism (sometimes called Religion). Anyone who has Pain as a visitor will need time to process her undesired visit in order to discover her value, and this process can take time. Perfectionism is quick to speak up and demand a correct attitude and behavior, thereby aborting the necessary process. Perfectionism is squeaky clean, very controlled and controlling. A couple of his cohorts are Guilt and Shame who do a lot of taunting when the person doesn't measure up to the demands of Perfectionism.

Beware of Perfectionism! There will be a period of time in which the host will likely need to entertain Self-Pity and Anger and Discouragement and others of the guests who have slipped in the door. Part of the host's way of finding his/her true humanity is having to sort through these guests by experiencing some of them firsthand. In time he will discover for himself the negative effect that they can have if entertained too long.

The other big visitor to avoid at all costs is Isolationism. He convinces the host to lock the door so that no other humans can get in. Some of the lies he whispers in order to get us to lock ourselves in are: "You can handle this on your own..." or "No one should see how you're really feeling so put on a good face" or "Everyone has their own problems and they don't want to hear about yours...", and on and on. In order for Pain to be a positive influence in our life, it's important that select others be involved and walk with us. They help by empathizing and by providing a perspective from outside ourselves which is needed in order to handle the many visitors that come and go as a result of Pain's visit.

Perfectionism and Isolationism - keep them away, and you may find that you will have discernment as to how to deal with the other undesirable guests.

Next I want to share a little about the gifts that have come with Pain's visit...

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Other Guests that Sneak in the Door with Pain

Last week I shared about An Uninvited, Unwanted House Guest. I'm discovering that Pain, if put to proper use, turns out to be a good helper on the way to the Kingdom where love rules. However, close on her heels are other visitors who sneak in the door right behind her. These are toxic guests, some of whom have appealing personalities. They are many and sundry; I'm going to talk about two of them who have been most deadly for me.

They are Fear and Discouragement. Fear has been the most outspoken of these toxic guests. Because Pain always disables a person in one way or another, Fear is prompt and boisterous about what is going to happen as a result of the disablement. Fear speaks with a confident and assertive manner. He plays on the victim's ignorance about what's happening but he can also play on having too much information about what's happening. He knows how to use both ignorance and information for his purposes. His intent is to paralyze his victim or to get the person to act from a state of panic.

Word cloud of focus groups of Tea Party conservatives by Democracy ...
One reason Fear is so effective is that his reasoning seems so logical. And because he is boisterous, he drowns out the quiet, often silent, voices of Love and Joy, Peace and Patience, Kindness and Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self-control; it takes great effort and concentration to pick up on those quieter voices while Fear is yelling.

Close on the heels of Fear is Discouragement; he actually reaches into the soul of the victim and removes whatever courage was there, leaving the victim with no strength to do anything except to do what Fear dictates. Left to run his course and develop fully, Discouragement will grow into Despair, a state of mind which leaves the person without motivation to continue.

There are other subtle visitors lurking around, such as Religion (who accuses the person of not doing enough pious practices to convince God) and Self-Pity (who enjoys telling the victim that his/her situation is worse than anyone else's) and others; but for the sake of time, I'll leave it and let you, the reader, name your toxic visitors that have managed to sneak in with Pain.

Part of the way to make the most of Pain's visit is to learn to separate her from the toxic visitors that hover around her seeking to nullify the benefits of her visit. Next I will share thoughts about ways to sort out who's who of all these unwanted guests.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

An Uninvited, Unwanted House Guest

Awhile back I wrote a post about Much Afraid's companions, Sorrow and Suffering..., her strong helpers on her way to the Kingdom of Love.

Today along the same theme, I want to share about an uninvited and unwanted guest that has come to visit me. This guest's name is Pain - physical pain in my case, but she can come dressed in many different outfits. I'm struggling to learn how to host this guest who has moved in to live with me in spite of many and long-term efforts to remove her; most days she stays relatively quiet murmuring in a back room but there are days when she comes rushing into the front room, making a fuss and messing up my plans and hopes for the day.

Pain-ManagementBeing a normal human being who doesn't want Pain hanging out with me, I've done what I know to do about her through medical channels and through prayer and physical therapy, etc. All of this helps keep her in the back room for part of the time anyway, but none of my efforts have succeeded in expelling her from my home altogether and so I live with her for now.

To tell the truth, I haven't been a very good host. I was not expecting her when she showed up and I certainly didn't expect her to hang around so long, and I have cried and complained about her presence. But I've noticed something happening to my heart since she moved in, an enlarging of my heart. I find myself less judgmental of others and more willing to give people the benefit of the doubt when I see or hear of situations that I would have quickly judged as "wrong" in the past. My heart is soft and tender towards others' suffering and the desperation to find relief; I'm more patient. I love God more as I think about how he became human and allowed himself to feel the suffering that we feel as humans.

I'm beginning to conclude that Pain, like Much Afraid's companions, has come to help me in my journey to the Kingdom where God's love rules. And lately I'm becoming aware that while Pain herself is a good helper, others who sneak in the door with her are not very helpful.

Next I will share a few thoughts about these others who are easily confused with Pain but who are toxic companions...

Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Much Safer Subject to Think About

Some years ago I had a pivotal experience in my growth in understanding what God is like. While I knew the love of God in my life before this, the revelation of His love for me in this particular moment hit me unlike ever before and it set me on a path that I've been on ever since.

I had gotten sick just before leaving on a flight for Mexico City, and I got worse in the following days after arriving there. One night the pain in my body reached a point where I wasn't sure if I'd make it through the night. As I lay in bed hardly able to move at all and feeling like I could die, everything became clear and black and white to me; I sensed the Lord asking me, "Nita, what is the one thing you are most sure about?" Without hesitating, I answered, "...that I love You, Lord."

I sensed His kind response to me: "That's good but there is something greater, and that is that I love you!" In that moment the eyes of my heart were opened to the reality that what is most trustworthy and sure is the unstoppable, unrelenting, unfailing, never-ending love of God.

C.S. Lewis says, "On the whole, God’s love for us is a much safer subject to think about than our love for Him." The apostle John says that we love Him because He loved us first. Our love for Him may be real and sincere but it is His unfailing and unconditional love for us upon which we must rest and build our lives or else we are left with the burden of religion, ever working and striving to be deserving of love.

The love of God for humans is best understood in the cross of His Son, Jesus. In the sacrificial offering of Himself on our behalf, God in Christ has made clear that He is for us at whatever cost to Himself!

Because God's love for us sinners is more secure ground to stand on than our love for Him, we can only find our hearts anchored in peace as we contemplate His love rather than ours.

In our weak condition, we humans are severely bent towards contemplating (giving our concentration to) just about everything else but His love, so it is the work of the Spirit in our lives with our cooperation that empowers us to look at Him. The following are simple suggestions about ways to cooperate with Him in this practice of thinking about God's love.

First, ask the Spirit of Jesus to strengthen your heart to say 'yes' to His love so that the proneness toward not believing His goodness and love is corrected with each 'yes.' The most difficult time to receive His love is when you have failed, but it's also the most important time to freely receive His affection for you.

Next study the cross by simply taking time to read and/or listen to the stories about Jesus' death and resurrection and the way He lived His earthly life with weak, failing humans. Picture yourself and your fears and failures in Him as He died. Ask the Lord to help you understand why He suffered and died so that you get a glimpse of your value to Him (Rom.5:8 "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.").

And finally, practice thinking about His love throughout your day; ask the Spirit to help you see the daily little comments or incidents through the lens of the cross. Develop the ability to see the love and affection of the Father coming at you constantly, whether your experiences are positive or negative, knowing that He is with you in all of it.

As we think/contemplate on this "safer subject" and drink deeply of that well, the overflow of His love will spill out onto Him and others.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Love Enables Us to Overlook a Multitiude of Sins

Some time ago when troubled by a particular situation, I was asking the Lord for understanding of why I was troubled. As I waited, the word "religion" came to mind. I remembered something that I've observed in the New Testament stories about Jesus. Whenever He would heal someone or there would be partying over His presence among the sinners, the religious people were unhappy. They couldn't look past the details of the law's requirements in order to celebrate the bigger and more important issues of forgiveness and joy and healing that Jesus' presence always brought to those who would receive Him.

I had a fresh glimpse into an aspect of religion: it majors on minors and is unable to overlook what it defines as 'lawless'. In his book, Repenting of Religion, Greg Boyd says that in religion, rules trump everything else.

In our proneness towards finding life from judging what's "right" and "wrong" (both in our own lives and those of others), we get easily sidetracked from loving and accepting others who are experiencing Jesus by critiquing whether a person's behavior is "right" or "wrong". Meanwhile Jesus, in His love and affection for the sinner, is able to overlook the smaller issues and celebrate the bigger issue of healing and freedom with the one He has touched. Love empowers us to overlook a multitude of sins.

In the particular situation referred to at the start of this post, there had been a breakthrough in the person's life, and the issue over which I was troubled was inconsequential in comparison. I was in danger of missing the Lord's joy over the person involved because of my concern over details of the "law". Because He opened my understanding, I was able to celebrate with Him and with the person...I'm grateful!