That hopeful feeling you experience when someone tells you that God is better than you’ve been taught is the Holy Spirit moving. I know a lot of churches tell you to ignore it. To settle for a God who isn’t really good enough. But listen when your heart leaps with hope, joy or peace. That’s the Spirit in you.
I always wondered about faith. Evangelicals say that you have to choose to have it. Calvinists say that you are predestined to either have it or not. It’s a free gift that you cannot earn. But you have to nurture and hang onto it. Catholics and Orthodox Christians practice it with rituals. So many contradictory ideas.
What I have learned is that faith is the little voice that pops up when you are discouraged or even despairing and points you back to God. It tells you something true. sometimes what is true is not what you want to hear. But it’s true and you can choose to embrace it and continue walking by faith or you can reject it and try to find your own way forward. When times are hard, you have to really listen for it. You have to really hold onto what you hear. Because soon enough something will come and wash that little piece of comfort away.
Why do I say that these words and their amazing power to sustain us are faith? Scriptures describe Jesus as the author and perfector of our faith. Jesus is the Word made flesh. In the beginning there was the word and the word was God and the word was with God. Listen and you will hear words pointing you back to God.
A couple of months ago, I read in a devotional: “who told you that winter will never end and spring will never come again?” And regularly when I have been ready to consign myself to a life of permanent misery, those words: “who told you that winter will never end and spring will never come again?” would drift into my mind. And I had a choice. I could believe these words pointing me back towards God or would I continue embracing the darkness. The darkness seems so reasonable and safe. It’s real. I can think of 100 reasons to just let go of what I have put my faith in until now and give myself up to misery and call it my fate. But every time I am quiet, every time I cannot hold onto being miserable anymore, the words of faith keep coming back.
For years I heard them, read them, sang them, prayed them, studied them – these words that are truth pointing me back to truth. And now, they come back to me. They are songs running through my head when I wake up in the morning. They are words I have planted in my children repeated in their own voices for their own reasons. They are the words that come to the surface every time I pause my recital of the litany of reasons I just cannot and will not continue. And consistently they point me back to God when hitchhiking to Vegas starts to seem like my only hope for survival.
This is how faith works: what you allow in, will come back to you when you need it. It’s not magic; it’s a free gift we all have thanks to these amazing brains we have been given. Our brains will take the smallest good thing we give it and when we most need it, spit it back out at us. I cannot tell you how often when I have been quiet and just listened, something so tiny, so seemingly insignificant will come to mind and that’s just the little boost I need for the moment.
This is God teaching me to see and be nourished by even the tiniest things and the smallest drops of water so that I can survive in a desert place. This is Jesus authoring the words which point me in the direction I need to go on the path that leads to God. Faith is a tiny mustard seed sprouting and pointing towards the sun, however dim and distant it may be. Go that way. Towards the son. There’s love there. S o you hope that God is as good as he says he is and hold onto the light for as long as you can, letting it strengthen you to endure the darkness from the next wave threatening to rip this little bit of comfort away. And somehow, it’s always enough.
*First published 12/2011
Earlier this year, I did a series of posts on why God doesn’t answer prayers. My reason for writing the posts was to push back against the common church narrative which says that if you just have enough faith, God will answer your prayers. I think this is such a problematic teaching as it basically teaches us that if our lives are hard and God is not answering our prayers, it is because our faith is inadequate. We didn’t believe hard or well enough to be rewarded with answered prayers. Which just isn’t true and encourages us to engage in the sort of magical thinking that keeps fairies alive. I suspect that this teaching results in very few answered prayers and a whole lot of burnt out, discouraged Christians.
The other day, I read a wonderful post on just this topic titled “Why Your Prayer Will not Be Answered” which pointed something out which I wanted to pass on to y’all. It was written by John Igbinovia. (Yes that John Igbinovia, also known as XTsamurai, also known as the Nigerian musician I wrote about yesterday. I wasn’t kidding when I said that he was an exceptional person.) At any rate, in it John explains a few things about what faith is and what faith is not:
Faith is NOT the same as belief. . . If GOD has not given insight about a situation to you, there is NOTHING to faith.
All you have is passionate ardent belief that is your HOPE – and it is fine to act with the hopes of getting what you want and telling God, your Father, what your desires are. . . Faith is acting based on a KNOWING of God’s intention about something. Basically, there is a plan about a person or situation that God is bringing about and somehow, you have been able to hear or “hear”, as in know SOMEHOW on the inside, what God intends to DO. Praying with that understanding simply aligns with what God plans to DO already
“Faith cometh by hearing the word of God”. If you have not heard, what are you “faithing’’?
Mmmmm . . . Doesn’t that explain so much? We have our hopes and desires and even bible verses which can be read to say that God will give us what we hope for and desire. Then when God does not answer our prayers of hope, we feel betrayed and confused. But it’s not our prayers of hope that God answers, it’s our prayers of faith. And faith comes from the promises we’ve been given, not from our own desires for what we want: Continue reading
If you are a Christian who takes the bible seriously, there will often come a point where you feel hamstrung by the bible. You may be inclined to, say, allow women into ministry or accept gay marriage or get a tattoo. But there are those bible verses which clearly speak against them. So, out of obedience to God, you accept that God works in mysterious ways, his ways are always good and some things are just beyond us.
In response to your faithfulness, other people get mad at you and call you sexist or homophobic or legalistic or whatever. And depending on how well you know Jesus, you either humbly take it in stride or you fight back. (You have to know Jesus really, really well to be capable of taking it all in stride, btw.) After a while you can end up feeling like you’re standing on the razor’s edge between being faithful and being a loving, decent person.
But Jesus said that the truth would set us free and standing on a razor’s edge doesn’t leave much room for freedom, does it? Somehow, simply being faithful to scripture has left you standing on one spot, unable to move, exposed to the world’s wrath and struggling against your own weaknesses. It doesn’t feel much like freedom.
The problem is a problem which God has been dealing with since time immemorial. The problem is with us and lies at the very heart of our relationship with God, self and other.
You see, God loves humanity. He’s on our side. We, however, struggle to love ourselves and each other. And the only way we can comprehend God’s love for humanity is if it is foreign and strange. If God loves humanity, he must not love the same way that we love, because there’s no way God can look at us with all our sin and failure and be happy with us. So we’re not too surprised when God tells us to do things which don’t make sense; we’re really not capable of understanding God’s love, after all.
Great, you say. That may well be true, but what does that have to do with the uncomfortable position Christians often find themselves in when following the bible? Well, let I explain. Continue reading
We come to you today as a family of the broken, the humbled, the weak and the victorious. We have walked down dark paths and through dark places. We have been wounded, we have been lost and we have been foolish. Yet no matter how hopeless or empty our spirit’s dwelling places have been, Easter morning is always there speaking victory to us.
Where we have been overwhelmed by sin, the empty grave tells us of victory over sins that have wounded us and sins we have wounded others with. Where we have been terrified by insecurity, want and uncertainty the empty grave speaks of victory that is always secure and a future that is always certain and abundant in every good thing. Where we have been brought low by despair and hopelessness, the empty grave shines through to assure us that however low life can bring us, that is as high as God will raise us.
Today we gather in our broken, humble, weak and victorious families to bask in the risen light of the world. We ask that you allow the Spirit of Christ to permeate our being and nourish our souls through the season of growth and change which lies ahead.
And when we again find ourselves in those hopeless and empty places of life, we will thank you and praise you nonetheless because you are not the God of death and sorrow and despair. You are the God of the empty grave. Our victory has been won, our future has been made secure. No matter the cross we carry or the darkness of the hell we journey through, that empty grave continues to testify to victory. Today we rejoice that our God is love and peace and joy and hope always and everywhere. Bless us, sustain us and restore us in Jesus the Christ who reigns in glory until the age of the ages.
And all God’s people say – Amen and Amen!
It’s OK to say to God, “I don’t know how to do what you’re asking me to do. I don’t know how to be loving or kind or patient or forgiving. I don’t know how to want to do any of those things!”
Christians who can’t admit this inability to perform the basic requirements of Christianity are like toddlers who won’t admit they need help carrying the milk into the house. And the results can be just as messy.
What if I told you that I held the secret to meditating like Jesus did? And that I have been practicing it with amazing results for 15 years? And I can teach you the secret to meditating like Jesus did. Would you pay me $29.95 for access to an online book explaining the secret of this great mystery? Pay to attend a seminar to learn under my expert guidance? How about if I threw in a money back guarentee – use the technique for 90 days and if you are not completely satisfied, I’ll refund your money (upon receipt of documented evidence of practicing this meditation technique for 90 days, of course).
Yeah, well, if you want to send me money, you are always welcome to – there’s a donation button on the right side of the page on my site. But don’t worry – I’m just going to tell you what I know. Making a book, seminar or marketing plan out of it sounds like way too much work. Maybe one day when I’m feeling less busy/lazy, I’ll work up the ambition to build a multi-million dollar enterprise sharing my expertise as a spiritual
First, a quick confession; I don’t actually know what I’m talking about. I have learned to pray and meditate almost entirely by instinct and/or following the lead of the Holy Spirit. I’ve never read a book or had any training or gone on a retreat to learn to meditate properly. I’ve probably read a couple of magazine articles or blog posts over the years, but that’s about it. My only actual training in prayer was memorizing prayers for Catholic catecism classes when I was a kid. So what I share is my own idiosyncratic understanding which may or may not meet the standards of Meditation, Inc.
So, first allow me to explain my own understanding of how to meditate, which probably isn’t too much different than anyone else’s. Then I’ll explain the part about meditating like Jesus. (Which may or may not actually be how Jesus meditated, but we’ll get to that in a minute.)
Because I was Catholic when I started learning to meditate, I used a candle. Catholics really like candles, you know. I would simply look at the flame of a burning candle and try to focus on nothing but the black wick at the center of the flame. Of course, this is almost impossible to do right off the bat. Your brain keeps wandering off and before you know it, you’re trying to figure out why Justin Donnelly, the boy whose children you plan on having, should he ever notice your existance, has a British accent even though he’s been attending school with you in the midwestern United States since second grade. Once I realized that my mind was wandering, I’d just let it go and refocus on the flame. Over and over and over and over.
I won’t go through the whole process, which I’m sure has been documented in excruciating detail elsewhere, but eventually the brain chatters itself out. It’s replaced by silence, for just a few seconds at first. But eventually, for extended periods of time you can silence your brain and just focus on your breathing or a flame or a word. This can take time – like years. My sister once attended a week long, silent meditation retreat in Thailand and was able to do it in 5 days. I’m sure she could give you a reference if you need one.
Being able to meditate like this is a great skill to have. And it is a skill which requires regular practice. But for my purposes, being able to sit with a blank mind without thinking wasn’t really the point. Yes, there are benefits to meditating in this fashion, like reducing stress, increasing mindfulness, etc. But this is my own idiosyncratic version, so for me, being able to sit with a silent mind wasn’t an end to itself.
Rather, the bible says repeatedly that we should meditate on God’s word and ways. For me, being able to get my mind blank and quiet provided a good, clean starting place for me to do this. I could introduce a bit of scripture or an idea into my meditation time and rather than having a brain that wandered off or engaged in free-association from the starting point, I could concentrate fully on what I was meditating on. The thoughts which came up were purposeful rather than random. Often I could see connections or gain a deeper understanding while engaging in this sort of meditation.
So, that’s all well and fine, but I started by positing that I might know the secret to meditating like Jesus did. And I might even have been practicing it for many years. Which might be true. You see, many years ago, I read an article, written by a Jewish person, which claimed that the ancient Hebrew style of meditation was to take two ideas which were seemingly in conflict with each other and meditate on them. The ancient Hebrew thinkers, they said, would hold these two seemingly opposing ideas together in their mind until the connections between them revealed themselves. In the end, not just the connections, but the interdependance of thse two seemingly opposing ideas would become clear and then the meditator would be able to see the reality of the situation and why God had made it so.
It’s been many years since I read this and honestly, I’ve never been able to find this explanation for how the ancient Hebrews meditated anywhere else. So maybe the ancient Hebrews really did meditate this way and maybe they didn’t. But when I read that, it occurred to me that, if this were true, then this would be how Jesus had meditated. Plus, it seemed like a good approach to try and I did.
After many years of engaging in this sort of meditation, I am inclined to think that this may well have been how Jesus meditated on God, scripture and theology. If you look at his teachings, you can see that he was the master of the third way. That he was able to find a way to be faithful to scripture without ever sacrificing the primacy of the command to love God, neighbor and self. In my experience, meditating in this way – by taking two things which appear to be in conflict and holding them side-by-side – is an excellent way to find this third way. Especially, if you choose Love as your north star – the thing that everything must be measured by – this sort of meditation does allow you to see connections, recognize what’s extraneous or an unwarrented assumption and eventually, how what you once though was in conflict fits together.
I suppose that I really could write a book or put together a seminar or retreat explaining the ins and outs of how this works. But this is a blog post, so you’re getting the cheapy, free version. ;) However, if you are intrigued and want to give it a try, I’ll just leave you with a few tips.
First, examples of subjects which this style of meditation can be useful for:
- Bible verses which appear to contradict
- The science of creation vs the creation stories in Genesis
- Christian customs or teachings which are in conflict with human nature or culture (ie women’s roles, homosexuality, wealth)
- Theodicy – why we live in a world where there’s suffering if God is good
When you have a subject you are meditating on, these can be useful questions to ask yourself:
- What if this were true?
- What if I let go of this assumption?
- Why do I think this must be true/false?
- Am I making connections between things that aren’t really connected?
- Is there a different way of understanding this word or concept?
And finally, if you do adopt this method of meditation, know that it’s not a quick fix. On occasion, I puzzle something out quickly, But there are subjects I’ve been meditating on, off and on, for years. Usually, you gain greater understanding without necessarily resolving the whole issue. So it’s not a panacea.
As for whether this is actually a good way to figure out what is true or just a nice way to make your own arguments, I’ll just share this. Over the years it has been incredibly common for people to ask me, “have you been reading so-and-so? Because what you’re saying sounds an awful lot like what he writes about in such-and-such.” The answer, nearly 100% of the time is no, I haven’t read and unless they are a church father, I probably haven’t even heard of the person they are asking about. My book budget is non-existent and I don’t have the sort of education where one would read or learn about various theologians. Nearly always, what I’m sharing which bears such a strong resemblance to what someone else says comes out of this habit of meditating.
Because we each bear God’s image, I believe that we each carrying within us the answers to everything. It’s just a matter of uncovering them and separating the wheat from the chaff and what is particular to me from what is universal. So, maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I can’t help but think that the frequency that I am told that what I am saying is much the same as what some church mother or father or some theologian says is a pretty good sign that this way of meditating has been quite productive for me. I think it’s a bit like how scientific discoveries or inventions tend to pop up in multiple places with multiple people all at once – a sign that something solid has been hit on. Or the way evolution tends to produce the same traits repeatedly in different places and settings – a sign that something useful has been produced. The fact that I’m often reaching conclusions that others have seems to be a good indicator that meditating like Jesus (presumably) did works.
Anyhow, if I ever decide to become a
charletanguru and sell my super secret, revolutionary method for meditating like our Lord and Savior, y’all will be the first to know. In the meantime, give it a go yourself!
Related: Just A Housewife In Wisconsin
Once upon a time, in the deep recesses of time on this planet, there was some slime. Or maybe it was bacteria. Slimey bacteria? I don’t really know. I wasn’t there and I’m not actually a scientist. But there was something alive. It was in water, consumed energy and could reproduce itself.
One day, a bit of this slime got left in a puddle on the beach and survived. Then little by little, over the course of more time than you or I can imagine, it changed. It left the water and adapted to dry land and became a plant. It could take the light of the sun and use it to grow itself. The plant loved the sun. At every chance, it would adapt to grow higher and higher, ever closer to the sun it needed, loved and desired. When many eons had passed, what had once been slime left on the beach, had given way to trees so tall they seemed to scrape the sky. And yet, no matter how much of the sun they took in or how high they grew, the trees could never reach the sun. There would always be a space between the trees and the object of their desire.
While the slime that got left on the beach was morphing into mighty trees, another bit of slime was far out at sea. Over the eons, it adapted and morphed until it became a fish. At first the fish kept close to the surface, eating what grew in the sun. But as time went on, the sun became bothersome, the food more plentiful down below. And the fish adapted bit by bit to delving deeper and deeper into the sea. Like the trees, the fish was seeking life, but instead of reaching for the light, the darkness pulled it deeper and deeper in its quest.
The light became faint and the fish grew accustomed to living in a twilight world. But still something kept drawing it deeper. At the same time the trees were striving to meet the sun, the fish had all but lost its eyes in the darkness. It could hardly fathom the world it had known so many generations before when it had swum where the sun shone. The fish came to think that the darkness was all there was and that it was endless.
But a funny thing happened. One generation, the fish began to glow a bit. And in what seemed like the blink of the eye in the scheme of things, the fish didn’t just glow, Its light could blink and flash and dazzle in the dark depths. The fish had found life and become light there in the inky blackness.
The slime that became the tree was doomed to forever seek, but never reach the light it loved so dearly. It took dwelling in complete darkness for the slime which became the fish to discover that it carried light within itself.
And so it is with man. We can seek after the light of God with all our might, but we will never own it that way. It is only when we allow God to lead us into the darkness that we discover the light of God within our very being.
“Moses’ vision of God began with light; afterwards God spoke to him in a cloud. But when Moses climbed higher and became more perfected, he saw God in the darkness.” ~ Gregory of Nyssa
I think courage is a terribly underappreciated virtue. There’s a tendency to see courage as something a soldier or a superhero needs to face grave danger, while failing to realize how much courage everyday life requires. You can’t grow as a person or keep a living faith life without ample amounts of courage.
The Greek word for courage is tharseo. Jesus uses it four times. Three times it is when he tells someone he is healing, “take courage”. Healing doesn’t seem at first glance to be a situation which requires courage. Who could be afraid of being healed?
And yet, healing does require courage. It requires having the courage to consider that things might be better than they are. It requires learning to live from health where previously you had survived in misery. It means facing the world in a way which is new, unknown and different. Healing means you will not be the same person after you are healed that you were when you were sick. It means upsetting a lot of apple carts.
Strong’s Greek Dictionary says that tharseo literally means to “radiate warm-hearted confidence”. What does someone trapped in sickness, death and blindness know about being warm hearted and confident, much less radiating it? Jesus was asking the people he healed to do something they had no real experience doing before – radiate warm hearted confidence – be courageous.
Today we may or may not need physical healing, but all of humanity needs spiritual healing. We’ve all been made sick by our wounds, our sins and our fear. Jesus said he came to bind up the brokenhearted, comfort the mourning, set the prisoner free. He is as intent on healing our spirits, just as he healed people physically 2000 years ago.
And he still says, “take courage” to those he would heal. Because it takes courage to look at our wounds, our sins and our fear. It takes courage to be honest with ourselves, each other and God. It takes courage to let go of the life of suffering we are so accustomed to. It takes courage to embrace a new way of being.
So many people are spending their lives fleeing from what they fear will undo them. They are fleeing from failure, from shame, from disappointment, sometimes from reality itself. They cover themselves with accomplishments, money, relationships, distractions in their attempts to avoid facing what they need to be healed of. People who are fleeing from what they need to heal from will lie, cheat, steal, harden their hearts, hurt those closest to them. Anything to avoid looking into the abyss of fear, shame and pain they carry within.
And Jesus says, “take courage.” Healing takes courage. It takes courage to be honest about our failures, our wounds, our sin and fears. It takes courage to give up the tools that kept them at bay. It takes great courage to let go of what we have known and how we have survived up until now. Being healed is not for the faint of heart.
Is there something you are running away from? Something you have lacked the courage to face? Some wound, some failure in your past, some secret you carry and hide? Take courage, friend.
“These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” ~ Jesus, John 16:33
I pray today to you, Papa God who loves us, that you would make us men and women of courage and strength.
I pray that your perfect love would cast out our every fear.
I pray that we would move courageously into the healing you offer us.
I pray that you would grant us courage as free men and women, radiating warm-hearted confidence so that we can face, with you and the grace you offer, every monster, every secret, every wound, every lie and every harmful thing which has kept us in sickness and bondage.
I pray that we would know in our heart of hearts that we have been utterly released from any condemnation and shame. That no matter how frightening the sin or suffering we carry, that we would have full confidence that with your love and grace, it is already over come for us.
I pray that you would grant us the courage we need to step out of darkness and sin, sickness and blindness, death and fear and into the full light of your love.
May we move forward this day and always with hearts full of courage as we enter into the full healing which is your hearts desire for us.
Amen and amen.