This is a fallow time. It is a time to remember and a time to look forward. So, as I review this past year, I find myself focusing upon my increasing awareness of a nettlesome God, the ways that these blogs are the core of my prayer life and finally the immense amount of gratitude I feel. A few words about each.
A NETTLESOME GOD
Over a hundred years ago, G.K. Chesterton wrote: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” I think I know what he meant.
The Christian path claims that the way of peace and reconciliation comes through vulnerability. That is the Jesus story. That is the story that saves. But trusting that story requires that we dedicate ourselves to it. We are called to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, mind, and strength. It means acknowledging our fundamental dependency. Unfortunately, that preaches a whole lot easier than it is lived.
Dependency is almost a dirty word in a self-sufficient world. Whether it is a young child impatient to be a grown up or a nation intent upon building walls, we do not like feeling unprotected. We like to imagine there is a way to make ourselves safe. Aging, however, if nothing else, has disabused me of that fantasy. No amount of self-discipline and focus can protect us from the decline of our bodies. Safety and security have to come from another source.
Interpersonally, no amount of ‘good living’ can protect us from being misunderstood or worse, falsely accused. Nor are we protected from devastating illness, loss and hardship. All of these things happen whether we are ready or not. The dilemma holds nationally as well. Bombing our enemies into oblivion, building walls and creating immigration registries can not ultimately protect. The secular way of power and control can only work for a short while. But the ultimate outcome is sleepless vigilance and the chronic fear of retaliation. I don’t think the historical pattern is too hard to see. We know what doesn’t work but the alternative is difficult—if not impossible.
When we were in New Zealand, we watched the sheep dogs move a large flock of sheep from one pasture to another. Though the move was certainly in their best interest (the previous pasture was depleted and the new one had plenty of fresh grass), the sheep were frightened by the dogs and frequently broke away from the flock– and the ‘lost’ sheep would ram the fences trying to rejoin the flock. Some of them would literally break their necks in the attempt.
I identify with those frightened sheep. And this is where God has been nettlesome for me. I can use the impossibility of the Christian life as an abdication. Why reach for an unobtainable goal? Why struggle with the homeless when the poor will always be with us. Why struggle with doing the right thing? Especially in our polarized, thin-skinned world, civility is a rare commodity. It is easy to be overwhelmed.
It certainly seems that the vulnerability that Jesus teaches is impractical in our violent world. The loftiness of the ideal is intimidating. But God has insisted there is a better way. God has insisted I listen. I know all too well that my way fails. I just don’t quite trust the direction he is pushing me. He nips at heels. He even seeks me out when I am at risk of breaking my own neck. But the experience has not been the warm pastoral Jesus; it has been a nettlesome herding.
The world is a mess. But I can move in the direction of love and reconciliation. I can choose to listen more carefully. I can choose kindness. I can give up some of my personal and political certainties. I can even give up some of my economic security. I can literally be herded into greener pastures. Maybe, just maybe, the Christian path is worth trying. And maybe, just maybe, that is the path that leads to life.
CONVERSATIONS WITH GOD
Prayer has often been problematic for me. As a child, I was speaking to a vigilant accountant and as an adult, I often felt like I was speaking to a void. In both cases, my preconceived notions about God and about prayer made it impossible to actually pray. As is often the case, when I get caught up in how things ‘ought to be’, I can miss what is actually happening.
As most of you know now, I need to find the ordinary in order to see the holy. It took me awhile to realize that prayer does not have to be mystical, magical or even particularly pious. In the most ordinary of ways, all relationships are built upon shared time and conversation.
Conversations provide constant course corrections to our assumptions about others. No matter how open we might seek to be, we make hundreds of assumptions when we first meet people. To illustrate with the extremes, most of us are not curious about neo-nazis or jihadists. Their rhetoric, their anger and in many cases, the harm they cause are so prominent that it is nearly impossible to relate to the person. We do not want to learn about their dissatisfactions, their individual human predicaments and, God forbid, the legitimacy of complaints. Bring it down a notch and we are talking about our political assumptions about each other. Look at the feeds on your Facebook pages. And even less dramatic, but probably far more relevant, in our own church, we make all kinds of assumptions based upon appearance, perceived piety, age, weight etc. Some assumptions are positive and some are negative but they remain assumptions until we actually have conversations. And until we have conversations, we really don’t know who we are talking to.
I believe the same process applies to our conversations with God. I have done this long enough that I should not be surprised, but each week the odd language and impossible images of the bible become a conversation with God. As we looked at each of the prophecies in our advent series, each sounded idealistic and each described a world that seemed alien to my experience. Wonderfully familiar but not very practical in real life. Yet, by the time we were done, I could almost hear the living word reminding me I can choose whether I will live in fear or in hope. I was challenged to live in the present, to do what I can and finally to trust that God’s way is possible.
Our shared time in Faith in Real Life has become the core of my prayer life. Each week is a new conversation. Just as my ordinary relationships deepen and grow as I learn to listen and be curious, so too my experience with God. Finding out what people mean is a much harder process than using their words to prove they are wrong. It does require time. It does require effort. It is sometimes nettlesome, inconsistent, and often times inconvenient. But that is true in every relationship I know that includes love.
I am grateful for each person who shares this journey with me. It takes effort to show up each week, it takes commitment to be willing to be lost each week and it takes faith to wait for God. I look forward to more of the same. My personal life and my life with God has been enriched by you.